Problem Based Learning: The Apprentice?

Those that know me will know that I am a fan of Problem-Based Learning, usually referred to as PBL.
Ireland’s version of “The Apprentice” is being aired on TV3 and watched by many including our household. The idea is that contestants are fighting it out to get a big job as apprentice to Bill Cullen (Ireland’s best known, self-made entrepreneur).
For each episode the contestants are asked to complete authentic tasks usually with a sales or design element.
We get to see them work in groups, select a project manager, set goals, solve problems and think and act creatively. As television it’s quite absorbing and informative and there is plenty of learning taking place, for the contestants and vicariously, for the the viewers.
When I first watched these sequences I was impressed to see a good instructional approach transferred to television.
However, all this is let down by the final sequences of each programme. These scenes take place in the boardroom where groups are asked to report on the process.
Bill is naturally a good teacher and in fairness, he tries to balance his negative criticism with supportive comments.
But the show’s structure calls for an inevitable reduction by one contestant (you’re fired!) each week. This leads to verbal abuse, recriminations and outright humiliation for some of the participants.
All this makes great television but the message is too savage for genuine learning and personal development.
Most importantly, Bill looks for “the creative spark” in the actions and thinking of the contestants.
Genuine creative thinking arises when we relax our learned inhibitions – creativity requires a safe and secure foundation (see Bowlby, for example).
Faced with the prospect of ridicule on national television few people are going to genuinely take a risk and truly express novel thinking.
We need innovation in the workplace – to nurture innovation we need to provide ‘safe spaces’ for exploration – we also need to encourage learning from failure as well as from success.

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