Playing the armchair critic – Problem Based Learning

Imagine for a moment that you are watching a figure skating pair competing in the Olympics. They are so graceful. They make wearing two metal sticks on feet and dancing on a patch of ice look natural. The man throws the woman into the air, sending her spinning like a top. She lands on one foot, skating backwards with one leg extended. The two skaters embrace and spin until the music fades to nothing. Applause.

Then another pair begins to compete, but these two encounter difficulties. Both of them wobble on their first synchronous jump. They are frequently out of sync with the music. Then, the girl falls, gets up, and races after her partner. Watching them is not only embarrassing, it’s painful!

Even those who know nothing about skating can clearly see the mistakes in their performance. The un-tutored may not know the names of or even see the more subtle errors, but will still get a sense that things are not right. The stiff arms and off-kilter movements just don’t look natural.

What does figure skating have to do with learning?

A piece of work, whether it’s a performance or a book, has a certain natural balance to it. When that balance is not there, the absence is recognized. In addition, many of us love to play the armchair critic, and why shouldn’t we? In school, we were taught to recognize the good from the bad. Our good schoolwork received gold stars, our bad work received red X’s (and they hurt). Because of this, some of us even developed a revengeful glee at finding fault in the world around us.

This ability to discern good from bad becomes a critical skill we use for the rest of our lives. It becomes … well, natural. Some of us even confuse complaining as a form of conversation.

In training, we can use this human tendency to spot the good from the bad to our advantage. In fact, in problem-based learning (PBL), we use this principle to teach.

In training based on this principle, adult learners are presented with a problem. In workplace training, they are shown work done by a fictional fellow employee. The presentation can take the form of a video, scenario, case study, or samples of work. In reviewing the work, learners are asked to use their critical faculties to spot the errors. By doing so, they learn not only how something is wrong, but why.

PBL was original developed for medical schools. It is found to have many benefits.

  • Benefits of Problem Based Learning for learners:
  • There is no context-setting: the learner is thrown right into a task.
  • The training is more engaging than traditional, linear training.
  • It encourages greater understanding.
  • Learners test higher in learned abilities.
  • It develops critical thinking and lifelong learning skills.


  • Benefits of Problem Based Learning for businesses:
  • It focuses the learning more clearly on tasks than on topics.
  • It increases learner retention.
  • It demonstrates that the organization values true learning.
  • Although training development time is increased, staff seat time in the training can be reduced.

In this training, the model of presenting concepts first and details later is turned on its head. Learners are presented with the problem and asked to solve it. Then, when they see the answers, they are given the conceptual reasons for correct versus incorrect answers. Because the learners have established a stake in knowing the answers by solving the problem, they are more likely to be engaged in the explanations.

The challenge of Problem Based Learning.

We find that Clients get very enthusiastic about this training model, at first. When it comes to writing a scenario where an employee is doing something wrong, they get nervous. “We don’t want to give the impression that our employees would ever do anything wrong.” they say.

Luckily, in this information economy, many tasks have gray areas that require judgment. Some decisions are good, others better. Based on this, we encourage our Clients to work with us to develop scenarios based on these gray areas.

This results in training where employees are challenged to discern between what was done well and where improvement is needed. In this way, PBL is a form of action-based learning because learners become actively involved in thinking through difficult situations they may face on the job.

This kind of training works very well with material requiring judgment, background knowledge, and critical thinking skills. However, it does require more up-front thinking time on the part of the Subject Matter Expert. The rewards, however, run deep.

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