Problem-oriented pedagogy and the purposes of public higher education: a genealogical investigation

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Problem-oriented pedagogies seemingly hold great potentials for addressing pertinent existential issues in the world, while also training students in so-called ‘21st century skills’ such as problem-solving, collaboration and critical thinking (Warren 2019, Acton 2019). Governments around the globe have shown great interest in problem-oriented and interdisciplinary pedagogies as these often ‘student-centred’ approaches are seen as an answer to the need to educate an increasing and diversifying student body for an unpredictable future job market. This attention unfolds in a higher education field dominated by economic discourses calling for ‘efficient learning’, ‘excellent research’ and ‘quality education’ (Masschelein and Simons 2018, Shore and Wright 2019). While such aspirations may be easy to get behind, they rarely relate to any values other than empty, self-referential adjectives of being ‘good’, ‘efficient’, ‘student-centred’ (Biesta 2011). The problem is that such self-evident statements close down discussions of what makes out ‘good education’, that is, engaging in difficult, but central questions such as: What is education for? What values are desirable to pursue? When such questions are not posed, much educational practice following seemingly ‘neutral’, sometimes ‘evidence-based’, aims of being ‘good and efficient’, risk ending up adhering to unintentional, non-reflected and consequently, un-educative aims and purposes (Biesta 2010).

This inquiry takes as its object of study a certain example of problem-based pedagogy - ‘Problem-oriented project learning’ (PPL) –, which is employed at Roskilde University, Denmark. This particular educational approach was born around anti-elitist discourses in the 1970’s and has a history of engaging with ‘society’ evident in both student projects and the research undertaken at the university – both inquiring into ‘societally relevant problems’ (Andersen and Heilesen 2014). In other words, it would seem that the very pedagogy of PPL is ‘public’ by nature. In this study I offer an investigation into what these words mean: what does it mean that PPL is ‘societally relevant’, that it is ‘public’? And what notions of ‘higher education’ are marginalised along the way? A special interest is taken in action research-approaches that have had a strong hold on the knowledge-approaches at Roskilde University. The analysis offered is a text-based Foucault-inspired genealogy (Foucault 1977), a ‘history of the present’, studying discursive struggles in the pedagogical literature on PPL.


Andersen, A. S., & Heilesen, S. B. (Eds.). (2014). The Roskilde Model - Problem-Oriented Learning and Project Work. Springer.

Acton, R. (2019). Mapping the evaluation of problem-oriented pedagogies in higher education: A systematic literature review. Education Sciences, 9(4).

Biesta, G. (2010). Good education in an age of measurement: Ethics, politics, democracy (2016th ed.). Routledge.

Biesta, G. (2011). How Useful Should the University Be? On the Rise of the Global University and the Crisis in Higher Education. Qui Parle, 20(1), 35–47. Retrieved from

Foucault, M. (1977). Nietzsche , Genealogy , History. In D. F. Bouchard (Ed.), Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Masschelein, J., & Simons, M. (2018). The University as Pedagogical Form: Public Study, Responsibility, Mondialisation. In Past, Present, and Future Possibilities for Philosophy and History of Education: Finding Space and Time for Research (pp. 1–149).

Warren, S. (2019). Re‐thinking the “problem” in inquiry‐based pedagogies through exemplarity and world‐oriented. Education Sciences, 9(4).

Shore, C., & Wright, S. (2019). INTRODUCTION: Privatizing the Public University: Key Trends, Countertrends and Alternatives. In S. Wright & C. Shore (Eds.), Death of the Public University?: Uncertain Futures for Higher Education in the Knowledge Economy (pp. 1–6). Berghahn Books.

StatusUdgivet - 2022
Begivenhed2nd Doctoral Conference on Public Education and Pedagogy - Maynooth University, Maynooth, Irland
Varighed: 23 maj 202227 maj 2022
Konferencens nummer: 2


Konference2nd Doctoral Conference on Public Education and Pedagogy
LokationMaynooth University

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