M.A. Paper - Thesis

Home Up Earth's Creation Story Weaving the Future Web Still Weaving the Web Bast the Beast Blue Fire Forming Time to Go Though I'm Gone Ethics An Enigma Emotions & Body Work Gender Identification M.A. Paper - Thesis

This I share to demonstrate that I also work and research in the mundane world.

Here is the Thesis I co-wrote for my Master of Arts in Educational Curriculum and Instruction for CSU, Sacramento

Based upon the theories of Project Based Learning, as a Web Quest type of high school student project study, designed to research the viability of the theory and techniques of both Project Based Learn and Web Quest delivery systems.

Feel free to contact me if you want to step beyond metaphysics and learn more about our actual project.



Action Research Project  - M. A. Thesis

Based upon a Collaborative M.A. Thesis Project conducted jointly by :

Laverne Denyer and Wendy Peacock
Web Quest: Personal Mission Project

Achieving Balance in Educational Technology:

Using Web Quest to Balance Direct Instruction and Problem-Based Learning in Today’s Classroom

Introduction Behaviorism Implications of Behaviorism 
on Educational Practices 
Cognitive Theory of Information-Processing
Implications of Information-Processing on 
Educational Practices
Constructivism  Implications of Constructivism on Educational Practices Problem-Based Learning (PBL)
Implications of PBL
Educational Practices
Conclusion References  Action Research 
Classroom Project

Project Collaborators
   Laverne Denyer, Marysvill High School           Wendy Peacock, Rio Linda High School
ldenyer@netzero.net                                                         wendypeacock@grant.k12.ca.us

Review of Relevant Literature

“…what we know and believe about human learning will determine how we use
                          instructional technologies…”  Tiene, 2000

In the search to help students become active learners who find relevance in their education, the action researchers have a good grounding in learning theory. This review is an exercise in backward mapping. Years of collective experience as teachers and learners formed the authors’ perception that constructivism fosters effective educational practices. However, the need to understand the academic bases for such beliefs is necessary. At first glance, educators can be stereotyped into two categories: traditionalists who believe that direct instruction through teacher delivery is the best method for imparting knowledge and those who are constructivists who believe that knowledge can’t be taught but must be constructed by the learner through educational experiences, discovery, collaboration, and problem solving.

In the maze of literature written about education, the investigation narrowed to three sequential theories: behaviorism, cognitive theory of information processing, and constructivism, that appear to have the greatest influence on modern educational practices. Since the overriding purpose of this review of literature is to prepare its authors for the action research project, the scope of investigation into learning theories is not meant to be all encompassing. In each of the theoretical areas, the authors investigate leading theorists who make important contributions to their particular branch of learning theory. Although the list of contributors to educational theory is vast and the scope of this review cannot include them all, those of the theorists included and quoted for supporting evidence are Skinner, Ausubel, Gagne, Piaget, Dewey, Vygotsky, and Thornburg.

Following the Introduction, the structure of this paper progresses with a description of Behaviorism, Cognitive information processing, Constructivism, and Problem-based Learning.  Following each theory is a section called Implications of “Theory X” on Educational Practices. These sections interpret the impact of each particular theory on education and how one theory builds on or dovetails with another. The Conclusion discusses how the Web Quest is an appropriate PBL model as evidenced through support from the review of relevant literature.

Behaviorism, which hit its height of popularity in the 1950’s, focuses on observable behavior. Behaviorism has its roots in the works of Ivan Pavlov who is famous for showing how a dog can be conditioned to salivate at the prompting of an arbitrary stimulus (Tiene, 2000). How might Pavlov’s theories translate to human behavior and from there into educational behaviors? If a dog can be conditioned or trained to produce a particular response to stimuli, then why not humans?  B. F. Skinner is one of the most influential behaviorists to influence American education. Working on Pavlov’s foundation, Skinner “concentrated on cause-and-effect relationships that could be established by observation (Roblyer, 2000).” Like his fellow behaviorists, “Skinner focused only on external, directly observable indicators of human learning (Roblyer, 2000).” He developed what he called the “conditioned operant, three elements of the learning experience: discriminative stimulus, the response, and the reinforcing stimulus, the building blocks of everything that we do (Tiene, 2000).”  Skinner identified three types of situations that can shape behavior: “positive reinforcement (praise, good grades, etc.), negative reinforcement (avoiding a consequence results in the desired behavior), and punishment (undesirable consequence) (Roblyer, 2000).”  Thus, with the appropriate positive or negative reinforcement, behavior is shaped into the desired response. Skinner’s theories influence many of the behavioral and classroom management practices that many K 12 institutions use even today.

Probably most influential in Skinner’s work is his belief that “even such high level capabilities as critical thinking and creativity could be taught in this way [operant conditioning]; it was simply a matter of establishing chains of behavior through principles of reinforcement (Roblyer, 2000).” These “chains of behavior” lead to the principle of programmed instruction that Skinner and other behaviorists felt was “the most efficient means available for learning skills (Roblyer, 2000).” Programmed instruction means carefully sequencing and developing the instruction itself and is based on three principles: 1) instructions are broken down into extremely small steps or building blocks, 2) people learn best by making active responses to each step, and 3) behavior is learned (and recurs) when it is reinforced (Tiene, 2000).  Thus, programmed instruction teaches a complex skill that “consists of a long series of small steps in which the learner reads some small bit of information, answers a question about it, and gets reinforced for a correct answer . . . (Tiene, 2000).”

Robert Mager, another behaviorist and protégé of Skinner’s, stated “we need to be very clear about our goals if we are to reach them, and we cannot assess how much someone has learned without defining in observable terms what learning we are seeking (Tiene, 2000).”  Mager also suggested that educators should, “specify the goals of instruction in terms of behavioral objectives, which usually consist of three parts: the behavior to be learned, the conditions under which the behavior is to be demonstrated, and the criteria by which to judge the amount of learning (Tiene, 2000).”  Mager’s ideas paved the way for programmed instruction in educational practices. Programmed instruction coupled with cognitive information processing ideas developed into the direct instruction practices that are still prevalent in most classrooms today.

Implications of Behaviorism on Educational Practices
One of Behaviorism’s most lasting legacies to education is its influence on classroom management. “Skinner and others viewed the teacher’s job as modifying the behavior of students… (Roblyer, 2000).” Experience informs us that educators frequently use a system of rewards and punishments as reinforcements for desired classroom behavior. If Johnny performs this desired behavior then he is rewarded. If Johnny commits this undesired behavior then he is rewarded with this negative consequence. Often steps of intervention are designed to redirect undesired behavior rather than to instill positive behaviors.

The weakness for educational practice exposed here is that the classroom becomes focused on teacher-centered behavior management rather than on student-centered learning. It reveals an attitude of the teacher in control and the students needing to be controlled. The teacher is responsible for filling the students’ mind with facts and information. What comes to mind is the image of the perfect traditional classroom setting with desks lined up in rows, the teacher at the head of the class, and the students sitting silently and orderly. With so much energy focused on control, both physically and mentally, little energy or thought is left for focusing on engaging students in concepts and activities that motivate them to learn independently. Student initiative, motivation, and responsibility don’t fit into this picture. No wonder student’s find little relevance to his or her education.

 Another legacy of Behaviorism establishes the foundation for programmed instruction and heavily influences the advent of direct instruction. Direct instruction is highly structured and relies on programmed instruction “which is characterized by three key principles: breaking instruction into extremely small steps, making active responses at each step, and behavior is learned (and recurs) when it is reinforced (Tiene, 2000).“ One clear effect of Behaviorism on educational practice is the “emphasis on writing objectives (learning objectives, behavioral objectives, performance objectives) for all lessons (Tiene, 2000).”   It has been the experience of the action researchers that many schools and districts that require teachers to submit lesson plans insist that these objectives be included. One can look at Madeline Hunter’s lesson plan format, still taught in many teacher preparation programs, and see the influence of Behaviorism.

Behaviorism, and subsequently programmed instruction, has also impacted the development of Computer-Assisted Instruction (CAI) (Roblyer, 2000). Programs like Accelerated Reader and Accelerated Math are examples of CAI found in classrooms. CAI relies heavily on the programmed instruction model with its step-by-step instruction, immediate response, and regular reinforcement.  The problem with most any early remediation software programs is that they are very linear (Tiene, 2000) and require repetitious practice until the program determines that the student has gained mastery. Unfortunately, with many CAI programs if teacher intervention is not immediate, students often repeat the same faulty practice without understanding why their results are incorrect. Therefore CAI, even for skill and drill type activities, without teacher-student or small group interaction loses its effectiveness.

While behaviorist theories encourage developing structure in classroom practices and lesson planning, one of behaviorism’s main drawbacks is that it concentrates on only observable behaviors. Many educational theorists find this approach “too limiting” and feel that it places too much emphasis on lower-order skills such as memorization. It is very difficult to teach higher thinking skills such as synthesis, analysis, and evaluation based on behaviorist principles.  By the 1970s, critics felt that “behaviorism was unable to effectively address a critical issue: How do people think (Tiene, 2000)?”  Since thinking cannot be directly observed, educational theorists need to investigate ways in which people gain knowledge. Behaviorism does not address the “cognitive aspects such as memory, problem solving, hypothesizing, and more could not be the sum total of behaviors engaged in (Tiene, 2000).” Theorists need something more flexible and expansive than behaviorism.

Cognitive Theory of Information-Processing
Cognitive theorists believe there is a need “to address central cognitive processes like memory, attention, and logical reasoning. Thus, cognitive psychology was born out of the need to understand more about human thought process (Tiene, 2000).” Information-processing theorists were the first to hypothesize how humans learn and remember. The human information-processing model asserts the basic idea that people process information through a series of different systems: the sensory system, the short-term memory, and the long-term memory. Our sensory systems, like sight, hearing, and so on take in stimuli from the environment. Next an attention and control system helps determine which information is processed and acted upon (Roblyer, 2000). The sensory register is very short, only a few seconds. If the learner does not pay attention to the sensory information it is lost. Therefore, attention getting becomes very important and has a significant impact on teaching practices (Roblyer, 2000).

Sensory information is “channeled through a limited-capacity system called working (or short-term) memory (Tiene, 2000).”  “It is where we do most of our conscious thinking, but it seems not to be very large, and it takes time and effort to successfully transfer information from working memory to long-term memory (Tiene, 2000).” If information entering the short-term memory is not acted on (rehearsal, meaningful learning, organizing, elaborating, imagery), then it too is lost (Roblyer, 2000). However, information acted upon (processed or practiced) is transferred to long-term memory where we hold most of what we know (Roblyer, 2000, Tiene, 2000). Cognitive researchers hypothesize that information is stored in long-term memory as three types of “memory: episodic (memory of events), semantic (memory of meaning), and eidetic (memory of visual images) (Tiene, 2000).”  Information-process theorists also believe that in order for information transference to be successful, new information must be linked in some way to prior knowledge that already exists in the long-term memory (Roblyer, 2000).  It becomes important then to design instruction to accommodate students’ connection to prior experience and knowledge.

Ausubel, Gagne and other researchers understood the importance of these connections.   They used behavioral and information-processing theories to expand direct instruction models. Gagne, who prefers a bottom-up approach to learning, believes lesson design should ensure “students learn lower-order skills first and build upon them (Roblyer, 2000).” Much like Skinner before him, Gagne sees learning as a hierarchy of skills. He feels that “lower-level skills provide a necessary foundation (building-blocks) for higher-level skills (Roblyer, 2000).”  Ausubel, who prefers a top-down approach, advocates the use of advanced organizers as a way to provide learners with a frame of reference on “which to hang new information (Roblyer, 2000).” These ideas are the beginnings of implementation of formalized stages in the learning process.

Although their approaches are from different perspectives, Ausubel, Gagne and other cognitive psychologists believe that prerequisite skills are necessary for further learning and build on behaviorist principles to further develop their theories. Cognitive theorist Benjamin Bloom uses “Skinnerian principle to develop methods that became known as mastery learning (Roblyer, 2000).”  Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is well known among educators, classifies cognitive skill into a hierarchical schematic. Bloom’s theory of learning hierarchy establishes “ascending levels of thinking: Knowledge [reciting information], Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation (Tiene, 2000).” Educators often use Bloom’s Taxonomy in lesson planning as a linear and sequential approach to achieving learning objectives.

Robert Gagne manifests his version of learning hierarchies in his Nine Events of   Learning. In ascending order, those hierarchies are gaining attention, informing the learner of the objective, stimulation recall of prerequisite learning, presenting new material, providing learning guidance, eliciting performance, providing feedback about correctness, assessing performance, and enhancing retention and recall (Roblyer, 2000). While developing a hierarchy of skills, it is easy to see that the behaviorist-training model heavily influences the sequence Gagne created. Behaviorists and cognitivists shared the belief that learning is sequential and linear; furthermore, “… directed instruction is grounded primarily in behaviorist learning theory and the information-processing branch of the cognitive learning theories (Roblyer, 2000).”

Implications of Information-Processing on Educational Practices
 “The information-processing model implies certain things about how we should teach people of all ages.” Additionally, “the goal is to get information and skills entered and consolidated into long-term memory in such a way that the learners can retrieve it when they need it (Tiene, 2000).” Thus, cognitive theory has significant impact on teaching practices. Educators, whether advocates of direct instruction or constructivism, must pay special attention to developing activities that gain attention and aid the transfer of data from short-term memory to long-term memory. Gagne, who built on both behavioral and information-processing theories to form his own learning theory, believes that gaining attention of students is the first and most essential condition of his set of Nine Events of Learning (Roblyer, 2000). Teachers must balance their lesson design to find that effective medium between too much and too little attention getting. If a lesson provides too little attention getting, students will not focus on the delivered content. However, too much attention getting will distract students from the content. Teachers have an extremely short time period to engage students in the lesson so there is a need to capture student attention as quickly as possible in order to move information to the working or short-term memory.

“It appears that most of us can hold only about seven discrete items in short-term memory at any one time (Tiene, 2000).” Given this, it is necessary for educators to plan lesson content carefully, being sure that critical material is present and extraneous material is limited. However, “cognitive science points out that people must actively process the information and practice the skill in order to learn (Teine, 2000).” Learning does not occur simply through passive receiving and storing of information. As information-processing theorists point out, interaction with the information transmitted to the short-term memory must be acted on or it is lost (Roblyer, 2000). Strategies must be used that facilitate the interaction and transfer of information into knowledge. Linking to prior knowledge becomes critical as a strategy to gaining new knowledge through information transference. Lesson designs need to include activities (and processing time) that enhance information transfer to long-term memory such as applying new skills or centering around the episodic, semantic, or eidetic memory to help give students context to new information. This way students can “link new information and skills to what they already know, put them in context, develop their own perspective about it and decide how meaningful this material is to them (Tiene, 2000).”

Piaget, Bloom, and Gagne adapt many programmed instruction ideas from behaviorists in their theories. Behaviorists “stress the importance of practice in training people to develop certain skills; cognitive psychologists emphasize the need to perform skills in real contexts and to learn strategies, not simply to be trained to engage in specific behaviors (Tiene, 30).”  Critics find direct instruction not only limiting in its scope (breaking topics into small discrete skills taught in isolation), but they also contend that such instruction makes it more difficult for students to engage in problem-solving activities that apply critical thinking skills. In addition, direct instruction emphasizes teacher delivery of information and rarely incorporates collaborative learning. This passive acquisition of information does not involve students in their learning and does not facilitate transfer to long term memory. The researchers observe that many students find this approach to content boring and of little relevance. This becomes particularly important to educators in respect to meeting student needs in the 21st century and adapting to those needs.

Cognitive theory paves the way for constructivism. Cognitive theorists are concerned with understanding how humans think. Constructivists seek to understand how to apply thinking and learning to gain new understanding. Gaining new knowledge is not the passive process to information intake but the active process of connecting prior knowledge to new information in order to construct new knowledge.

Constructivism is an evolving theory with many contributors. “The term constructivism refers to the emphasis on students ‘constructing’ their own sense of the world, their own perspectives on critical issues, their own professionalism in a field, and their own identities as learners (Tiene, 2000).” Both behaviorism and cognitive science stress the structure and sequences of learning as well as the role of the teacher in education (Tiene, 2000).  Constructivism, on the other hand, emphasizes the “learner’s initiative in the learning process through self-discovery, individuality, and independent thinking (Tiene, 2000).” Constructivists see learners as developing and growing over time through interactions with their environments. Constructivists, particularly Dewey, see children as learners not as blank slates “passively waiting to receive knowledge (Roblyer, 2000).”  They see learners as “active inquirers who are shaped by their environment while simultaneously shaping their environment (Dewey, 1916).”

Constructivists hold that all learning is social (Dewey, 1916). Authentic learning cannot be separated from the learner’s background [culture and family belief system], experiences, and attitudes (Roblyer, 2000). Like Dewey, Vygotsky believes that learning occurs in a social context and “knowledge is acquired through social interaction, becomes individual knowledge and individual knowledge grows and becomes more complex (Roblyer, 2000).” Students learn in accordance to their own potential, building knowledge through collaboration and social activities.

Gardner blends these ideas with his own perspective on learning and he builds upon the social aspect of constructivism. He looks to what the learner brings to the learning experience and “attempts to define the role intelligence plays in learning (Roblyer, 2000).” Key to Gardner’s theory is the belief that “intelligence is culture-dependent, intelligent behavior is likely to take different forms in children from different ethnic backgrounds (Roblyer, 2000).” Gardner’s theory includes eight different intelligences: 1) linguistic, the use of language effectively, 2) musical, the understanding and use of musical structure and composition; 3) logical-mathematical, the recognition patterns and logical reasoning; 4) spatial, perceptions of the world in visual terms; 5) bodily-kinesthetic, use and manipulation of body skills; 6) intrapersonal, awareness of one’s own motives and heightened metacognitive abilities; 7) interpersonal; awareness of motivation in others’ behavior; 8) naturalist; discrimination among living things (Tiene, 2000). Gardner’s ideas on the eight intelligences anticipate how students best process information into learning and influence how important educational environments are to learning.

For constructivists environment is also essential to learning and is twofold. On one hand there is the learner’s social environment mentioned above, and on the other hand there is the physical learning environment that is designed to include atmosphere and artifacts that stimulate imagination and inquiry (Dewey, 1916, Thornburg, 2000, Tiene, 2000). Dewey and others held that it is through this interaction with their environment that learners work to construct new knowledge. Learning experiences are enhanced in rich environments that encourage exploration and inquiry.

The importance of social and physical environment dovetails into another major principle of constructivism - that of shared intelligence. Children “learn by interaction with others, testing ideas, and modifying those ideas as necessary (Teine, 2000).” Distributed learning, collaborative learning for sharing knowledge, is a primary attribute of constructivism. Through collaboration learners develop a “learning community” based on shared interest, “add to one another’s knowledge, challenge one another’s ideas, and work together to find solutions to their inquiry (Teine, 2000).” Through interaction and collaboration with others, learners work at constructing and reconstructing their knowledge by making connections to prior knowledge and adapting (or self-correct) new information to refine their knowledge.

Jean Piaget studies children’s cognitive development. He identifies a series of stages through which children progress as learners. Those stages include: sensorimotor phase (birth to 2 years) in which the child establishes a sense of self; preoperational phase (3-7 years) in which the child uses simplistic and erroneous cues for determination of meaning; concrete operation phase (7-11 years) at which children develop more sophisticated concepts; and the formal thinking phase (11 years and on) where the learner develops abstract thinking (Tiene, 2000). Key to Piaget’s theories is the belief that children are innately active and motivated learners. As a child progresses from one developmental stage to the next, s/he attempts to assimilate new information into his/her schema (world view) of understanding or changes that schema to fit the new information (Roblyer, 2000). Vygotsky developed the learning principal called the zone of proximal development (ZoPD). The zone of proximal development means “that at any given time, children are primed to learn and develop in certain ways, if appropriately assisted by an adult (Tiene, 2000).”

According to constructivists learners will not learn outside their current ZoPD. Students must challenge and master new content to move outside one range and into another as they construct new knowledge. Thus while students do advance from one ZoPD to another, they will always be learning and always in a zone of proximal development. Vygotsky believed that teachers must “provide good instruction by finding out where each child is in his or her development and build upon the child’s experience (Roblyer, 2000).” This principle is what Vygotsky refers to as scaffolding.

As the connotation of the word suggests, scaffolding provides an external supporting frame while a structure (knowledge) is built. With scaffolding, the teacher facilitates the “novice learner while developing understanding of a new concept then gradually removes supports as the learners constructs their own knowledge (Tiene, 2000).”  As students, novices in their exposure to the concept, become more experienced and capable of performing the task, the teacher’s support is lessened and the students take more responsibility for their performance. Scaffolding characteristics include clear directions [how to meet expectations], clarified purpose [continuous sorting and sifting of information to match problem/question], clarified process [pathway to information], clarified expectations [standards and rubrics], identified sources, focused inquiry, and momentum toward insight and understanding (McKensie, 1999). The intense support and guidance at the beginning gives students confidence as they progress and become more independent learners.

Constructivism is also grounded in the principle that learning is situational; that is, learning occurs when “learners solve problems, perform tasks, and learn new material in a context that makes sense to them (Roblyer).” Learning does not occur effectively when the content is delivered in isolation of context. One of the major criticisms of direct instruction is that it is isolated into single subject courses and fragmented information bits. Constructivism encourages a more interdisciplinary approach in which the learners connect to integrated knowledge based in the long-term memory. This contributes to the relevance of content. Clearly, constructivism has the “potential to foster a radically different approach to teaching as well as exciting new uses for technology in the classroom” (Teine, 2000).

Implications of Constructivism on Educational Practices
In his work Democracy and Education, Dewey states,

To learn from experience is to make a backward and forward connection between what we do to things and what we enjoy or suffer from things in consequence. Under such conditions, doing becomes a trying; an experiment with the world to find out what it is like; the undergoing becomes instruction—discovery of the connection of things (1916).
Constructivists strive to help educators understand how to facilitate learners make connections in learning. They go beyond information processing to look at how information can be transferred from sensory to short-term to long-term memory. They believe that while information can be imparted to the learner, it cannot become new learning until the learner makes it his or her own. Try as hard as they may, teachers cannot make students learn; learners must initiate learning in order to gain knowledge.

Cognitive science aims at helping educators understand how the mind processes information for learning. Cognitivists and Behaviorists show how structure in presenting information can aid learners in attaining mastery of new information and concepts. But, it is the constructivists who show the educator how to facilitate learners in making connections between past learning and present learning. “The teacher’s role shifts from that of an authority who provides information to one of a facilitator, who asks questions, suggests, resources, encourages exportation, and learns alongside the student (Teine, 2000).” This is supported by the current concept of the teacher moving from “sage-on-the-stage” to “guide-on-the-side.”

Many of our educational practices are based on the antiquated needs of an industrial society. Many educators now believe that the world is changing too quickly to define education in terms of specific information or skills; they believe education should focus on more general capabilities such as “’learning to learn’ skills that will help future citizens cope with inevitable technological change (Roblyer, 2000).” “When students in the class of 2015 graduate, many of them will take jobs that did not exist when they entered school and will use technologies not yet invented (Roblyer, 2000).” Popular belief estimates that 80% of the jobs our students will perform have not even been developed. The question becomes then, how do educators prepare their students for changing requirements of a workforce when no one really knows what tools they will need?

The tools of a communication-based society are far different than those of an industrial society. A large part of the dilemma facing educators in this communication-based society is how to educate students so that they become skilled workers in a workplace that is changing at such a fast pace. During the industrial age, workplace skills were fairly consistent over long durations. However, with the advent of technology and the information age, workplace skills have changed drastically. Now with the communication age, workplace skills and technologies are changing more rapidly than anyone could have imagined 20 or 30 years ago. The task of education is to develop learners who can adapt to a future that cannot be predicted.

In its paper, e-Learning: putting a world-class education at the fingertips of all children, the United States Department of Education set information literacy as a primary skill for the future and as a priority for education.  The USDE outlines the new “21st -century literacy” as “information problem-solving skills, such as how to define tasks, identify information seeking strategies, locate and access information, determine information’s relevance, organize and communicate the results of the information problem-solving effort and valuate the effectiveness and efficiency of the solution (USDE, 2000).” Reports and studies of the last decade (Nation at Risk, 1983; America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages, 1990) point to “high numbers of students entering the labor force without the requisite academic and work-related skills needed to succeed in an increasingly competitive workforce (WestEd, 1997).”

Industry has led the push for reforms that equip students with the adaptable, higher level skills needed for a "high performance," decentralized workplace where workers take on greater responsibility, collaborate effectively, and become more involved in decision-making processes. In recent years, several national reports such as the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, 1990, underscore industry's demand for employees with competencies in these areas (WestEd, 1997). The question for educators then becomes: how do we best prepare students for the workforce in light of such a rapidly changing tools and necessary skills?

The solution is that educational practices must move learning beyond isolated skill sets into higher order critical thinking skills. In short, we must to teach our students how to think. This brings to mind an old cliché: Give a hungry man a fish and he’ll be hungry the next day. Teach a man how to fish and he’ll never be hungry again. To put the old cliché into context, it might be rephrased as: Teach a student a skill and he or she can use it toward a specific task. Teach a student how to think and he or she can address any task.

 Constructivism emphasizes facilitating thinking rather than memorization of collected data. Direct instruction methods alone can no longer meet the needs of students propelled into the new global society and economy.  “Clearly, 21st century
educators will have to deal with issues that their predecessors could not even have imagined and must have skills and knowledge not previously recognized (Roblyer, 2000).”

Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

“How do we provide sufficient structure to keep students productive without confining them to strait jackets that destroy initiative, motivation, and resourcefulness?”      - Jamie McKenzie, 1999
Project-based learning is a “model for classroom activity that shifts away from the classroom practices of short isolated, teacher-centered lessons and instead emphasizes learning activities that are long-term, interdisciplinary, student-centered, and integrated with real world issues and practices…(USDE, 2000).”  Problem-based learning is synonymous with project-based and inquiry-based learning. Its defining characteristics are that students focus on investigating and engaging in problem-solving activities that focus around central concepts and principles of a particular or inter-related discipline (Tiene, 2000).  The key to PBL is “to develop meaningful problems to solve that require learners to acquire the underlying knowledge (Tiene, 2000).” Meaningful tasks are designed to encourage and support student autonomy and real-world outcomes.  PBL is a more engaging, thought provoking, and interdisciplinary approach to learning that encourages students to participate in a community of inquiry and to struggle with an ambiguous, complex and unpredictable questioning environment.

In PBL the problem for inquiry is the first component the students encounter. Essential to the principles of PBL is that the problems are “presented in a realistic context (Tiene, 2000)” and that students work on the problem at his/her appropriate abilities (ZoPD). Although constructivism requires no prior preparation or study, “ the problems are structured in such a way that learners must identify what they need to know in order to solve the problem (Tiene, 2000).” Students join in collaborative groups to share what they know (distributed knowledge) and identify research questions.

In contrast to more traditional approaches of learning, students involved in PBL participate in tasks that are multi-faceted, challenging, complex, and extended to projects over longer periods of time.  Students are encouraged to do their own problem-solving and critical inquiry.  They are put in charge of their own time and task management as individuals and as group members. They are responsible for evaluating their work throughout the project and are accountable for determining ways of demonstrating their own competence. Reflection time is essential to the process and “ensures that students integrate their new knowledge and skills (Teine, 2000).” PBL stimulates students to participate in developing and stretching their own real-world competencies. This is an authentic learning approach that is compelling and engaging.

Implications of Project-Based Learning on Educational Practices
There are many positive aspects of PBL for educational practices. Since it is student-centered PBL content is compelling and personally relevant for students.  PBL allows time for more focused and in depth investigation and processing of information in the area of interest to the student.  It also allows for a greater diversity in learning modalities and greater transfer and retention of information (Thomas, 1998). Students are put in charge of their own learning experience. Thus the content becomes more meaningful and applicable to real world situations.  As opposed to the isolated approach of direct instruction, PBL provides a more holistic approach to curricular delivery.

Problem-based learning encourages collaborative, self-directed learning.  The learning is more internalized and transferable to other areas of the learners’ lives.  It often provides a situation where students are called upon to explain or defend their position. This is a shared experience closer to the work environment they will face outside of the school setting.
 Students are also encouraged and empowered to use and expand their technological skills.  They must use their research skills, write their findings and use graphic arts tools to display their work.  Students are able to see tangible and productive products for their efforts.  Going beyond the paper and pencil worksheets and tests, students are able to produce a final product that demonstrates their efforts and growth.  The seamless integration of technological skills is most effective through this learning environment.  It encourages “just-in-time learning” and mastery.

In addition, the outcomes are more productive and personal.  PBL activities help imbed lifelong learning skills into the students’ skill sets. It promotes “higher-order cognitive skills and problem-solving strategies (Thomas, 1998).”  Through a meta-cognitive approach students develop initiative, persistence and autonomy.  Students learn to plan, carry out, monitor and evaluate their own work.

An interesting aspect of PBL is the way it can change the relationship between teachers and students.  It moves the teacher from lecturer and director of instruction to a resource provider and participant in the overall learning activities. The teacher does not have to always be the expert but can be an advisor and even colleague in the quest for knowledge and understanding. Students are asked to work collaboratively and individually as they carry out self-directed learning activities rather than rote instructions.  They are asked to communicate, show affect, produce and take responsibility rather than listen, behave and speak only when spoken to.  They become independent learners and producers. They learn time and task management skills. Through encouragement and guidance from their teacher, students are put in charge of their own learning experience. This allows them to engage in “sustained, autonomous, lifelong learning” with deeper mastery of complex ideas and processes (Thomas, 1998).

The assessment process is based on performance and gains over time rather than in direct comparisons with other students.  Students are required to demonstrate through projects their own learning rather than to reproduce data.  It moves beyond tests to tangible accomplishments.  The teaching strategies focus more on the process than the actual outcome.
 However a single learning model is not the answer to all educational practice needs. If used as the only educational modality PBL could consume so much time on a limited number of concepts that big chunks of important curricular material would be sacrificed.  Traditional direct instruction techniques help students cover more material in a shorter period of time.  This allows them to address more of the curriculum standards and “cover a relatively large amount of information (facts, concepts, events, issues) in just a few weeks (Thomas, 1998).”  The inclusion of traditional tests and worksheets provides direct and measurable feedback to teachers, students and parents. All of this can be viewed as a positive aspect of this methodology.  Unfortunately, although the inclusion of curriculum standards can be well addressed by direct instruction, it can be too focused on specific skill-sets and neglect others.

At the same time, through direct instruction students may not be internalizing the materials and may not be grasping full concepts.  With less time for cognitive processing of information it can often be simple memorization for the test with little or no lasting effect on student comprehension. Without an opportunity to apply learning, students often fail to capture and make it their own or to make cognitive leaps to apply the knowledge beyond the immediate situation.

PBL moves the focus of the curriculum away from content coverage and building-block skills in isolated chunks, and moves beyond facts to an understanding of concepts and principles. PBL encourages a deeper understanding of the concepts and principles and the development of complex problem-solving skills. The scope and sequence of the learning process is less fixed and is based more on student interest and learning styles.  It moves students into broad interdisciplinary inquiry rather than a narrow, discipline-based focus that proceeds in carefully controlled blocks of learning that evolve into larger units of complex problems and issues.  The PBL approach is believed to be a much more stimulating and engaging approach to authentic learning. Thus including PBL activities that “encourage active inquiry” (Thompson, 1998) and stimulate students to process and incorporate life-long learning skills is an important educational practice.

It is worth revisiting McKensie’s question, “How do we provide sufficient structure to keep students productive without confining them to strait jackets that destroy initiative, motivation, and resourcefulness (1999)?” In response, project-based learning offers a solution to his question. The United States Department of Education defines PBL as a teaching methodology that “shifts away form the classroom practices of short isolated, teacher-centered lessons and instead emphasizes learning activities that are long-term, interdisciplinary, student-centered, and integrated with real word issues and practices…(USDE, 2000).”  The USDE paper, e-Learning: Putting a world–class education at the fingertips of all children, also states that PBL “…is one way in which technology can support teachers in helping students to engage in learning (USDE, 2000).”

 Based on the original research concerns, the authors of this paper came to these conclusions concerning the benefits of direct instruction and Problem-based learning:
1. Direct instruction is a sound educational practice that helps impart essential information for foundational concepts and skill development.
2. PBL is an educational practice that encourages students to think creatively, analytically, and critically.
3. PBL facilitates learners’ independence from the traditional educational institution to encourage authentic, lifelong learners.
4. PBL advances students’ preparation for the workforce through its social and collaborative techniques.
It is through a balance between the direct instruction and the constructivist educational environments that teachers can develop the most productive learning environment for their students. There are many ways to teachers to achieve such balance; however the goal of this research paper is to discover the most effective curriculum strategy for fostering such balance. The conclusion of this paper looks at the Web Quest as an educational strategy that develops a balance between these two practices.

It is essential to consider the pros and cons of both project-based learning and direct instruction models when developing curriculum units.  Each has benefits as well as shortcomings.  Neither approach is the panacea for all learning environments.  The wisest approach is to balance the integration of a workable number of productive project-base learning activities with more traditional teaching strategies. The Web Quest is the PBL model this action research project found to be the most effective in its approach to student inquiry because of its balance between direct instruction and constructivism.

First, a description of the Web Quest (WQ), a PBL strategy, is appropriate. A Web Quest is a web-based strategy for curricular delivery characterized by the following elements:
1) An introduction that sets the stage and provides some background information.
2) A task that is doable and interesting.
3) A set of information sources, materials, and links needed to complete the task.
4) A process that is broken out into clearly described steps.
5) Guidance on how to sort, sift, and organize the information and evaluate progress and product.
6) A conclusion that provides closure to the web quest and reflects learning. (Dodge, 1995)
Web Quests are extremely flexible in their design, adapting to undertaking either short-term or long-term inquiries for single or interdisciplinary content that is centered mostly on collaborative but occasionally individual settings  (Yoder, 1999).

A Web Quest designed lesson or unit requires students to use information literacy skills in pursuit of answers to inquiry.
The 21ST Century Workforce Commission concluded that nothing less that the future of America’s 21st century economy depends directly how broadly and deeply Americans reach a new level of literacy that includes not only strong basic academic skills but also thinking, reasoning and teamwork skills, as well as proficiency in using technology (USDE, 2000).
 In its paper, e-Learning: Putting a world–class education at the fingertips of all children, the USDE defines necessary information literacy skills as: task definition, information seeking strategies, information location and access, and the use, synthesis, and evaluation of that information (USDE, 2000). Information literacy is an important concern for educators in an information-based society.  A Web Quest is “one way in which technology can support teachers in helping student to engage in learning (USDE, 2000).”

 As stated above, the Web Quest is good blend between direct instruction and constructivism. The task, process and evaluation components of the Web Quest satisfy the need for direct instruction.  They are clearly defined by behaviorists and cognitive scientists as essential prerequisites to learning.  The structure progresses from small and familiar tasks to those that are new and more complex (Yoder, 2000).  The Web Quest’s open and flexible structure also stratifies the need for student inquiry and social learning. John Dewey wrote, “Not only is social life identical with communication, but all communication (and hence all genuine social life) is educative (1916).” This social aspect of learning is evidenced in the collaborative nature of the Web Quest. Within their inquiry groups, students tap into prior knowledge and share it with other group members. There is greater “buy-in” as students work toward common interests and group results. Since students choose their own approach to a topic, they find their educational experience more relevant.

 The Web Quest also includes scaffolding techniques that bridge both practices.  The scaffolding approach of early intensive support then dissipates a students gain skill and confidence encourages the learners’ independence. The scaffolding support that is integrated into the Web Quest makes it a natural fit for both direct instruction and PBL.

 The Web Quest process also deals with the efficacy issue. Constructivists also view scaffolding as important to the learning process. “…Scaffolding requires continuous sorting and sifting as part of a “puzzling” process – the combining of new information with previous understanding to construct new ones (McKenzie, 1999).”  Reconstructing the jigsaw puzzle, as it were, the support and guidance built into the quest help students access difficult material. Pre-selected investigative resources from the Internet along with supplemental materials help sift through the myriad of information available. Once literacy and technology skills are taught, accessibility to content is equal for all students. Because of its flexible and open design, the Web Quest accommodates for students’ ZoPD (zone of proximal development), thus allowing students with differing learning styles to access content at multiple levels.

 “Some educators assert that today’s television-oriented students are increasingly likely to demand more motivational qualities in their instruction than students in previous generations (Roblyer, 2000).”  Television, video and computer-generated games continually impact the social interaction of our students. The legacy of social learning stressed by many educational theorists (Thornburg’s campfires and Dewey’s social learning) has undergone significant changes for our new generation of students. Educational practices must adapt to those changes. The traditional “stand and deliver” model of the “sage on the stage” no longer captures students’ attention: many are active learners who demand personalized and relevant learning experiences.
 Through the investigation the relevant literature, the Web Quest emerged as an extremely effective curriculum delivery strategy, especially when combined and balanced with traditional methods.  Using technology as the delivery tool, the Web Quest provides the engagement, flexibility, and motivation that 21st-century students crave. Using the PBL Web Quest model, educational practices can now meet the students “where they live,” rather than where educators used to live.


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Laverne E. Denyer        ldenyer@netzero.net     01/31/2012

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