What tools support a socio-constructivist approach to Project-based Learning?

Assumptions

Traditional Classroom
Old Traditional Classroom

We believe in kids.  That’s why we are in this ‘business’ of education in the first place.  Yet, much of what we must face relegates us, and the students, to roles and responsibilities that are in discord with this belief.  Further to that, I believe that most of us would agree that people, including kids, naturally want to learn.

Students can ‘take charge of their learning’.  They have the ability to define driving questions within the context of curricular needs, to set their goals, to generate and implement strategies to achieve those goals, and to reflect on the efficacy of their efforts.  They understand intuitively that this can be accomplished best within a social context and with the tools at hand.

This era of information and communications technologies (ICT) is particularly conducive to a shift towards more natural models of learning and away from the factory model of education that grew out of the industrial era.   Powerful tools exist for accessing and manipulating information and also for supporting rich communications among people.

I have spent most of my career supporting project-based learning (PBL) because I believe in kids.  I trust in their power of self-regulation.  I have no doubt in their ability to work together for the betterment of themselves and others.  I also believe in teachers.  People enter this profession for noble reasons. We want to make a difference — to educate all children to the best of their abilities.  We want students to become lifelong learners and teachers understand that to achieve this they must encourage and support the development of self-regulatory skills — the rudimentary origins of which children had when they arrived in school!

Out of Line
Out of Line

Locus of Control

For years I have been frustrated with the school system’s inadvertent theft of a student’s locus of control.  Before a child enters school, they are full of questions and make much sense out of the rich complexity of authentic situations.  Once a child enters kindergarten, the educational system begins to set the learning agenda.   Children are segregated into age groups.  The curriculum is defined — segmented and sequenced.  The activities are organized. The learning is controlled and measured.  As the years go on — and students acquire their new roles — their curiosity, passion and motivation to learn measurably decreases.

Neil Postman astutely suggested that,

“Children enter school as question marks and leave as periods.”

Project Based Learning

Kite Building

I believe that teachers prefer project-based learning models but in these times of standards and testing they

often withdraw to more didactic approaches.However, I am not so naïve as to think that the use of a PBL approach is enough to cause a radical change in education.  But I recognize that such approaches to education are consonant with our deeper beliefs.  I am also confident that when schools systems adopt these philosophies and tools — and use them well — the evidence of higher student achievement will be overwhelmingly convincing.

I believe that we cannot raise standards appropriately until we adopt these methodologies.

ICT Affordances

And so, then the question is, what information technologies support these methodologies? We need to provide environments which:

  • encourage and support student-generated questioning
  • allow students to make their thinking explicit – both to themselves and to others
  • scaffold student learning
  • provide for multiple representations of knowledge
  • facilitate conversation among students

Many of these can be handled by different applications available to us.  Tools that ‘catch and allow for the organization of ideas’ are particularly useful for brainstorming and/or making sense of that which we already know.  Inspiration, Smart Ideas, and the outliner of most word processors can fulfill this function.  Word processors are also useful as diaries or journals – but likely serve best for a ‘personal’ form of those.   It has often been said that we are no longer in the ‘information age’ but rather have entered the ‘communication age’ or ‘creative age’.  There is a proliferation of environments in which people may hold discussions.  Many of these are web-based in the form of blogs, wikis, Twitter, Skype or Facebook. However, few of these are specifically focused on education (with the exception of Knowledge Forum.) They are, therefore, not designed to incorporate multiple features as mentioned above – mainly because they are often used in ‘social’ ways, not for ‘cognitive’ gain.   Not a bad thing – necessary, as it’s said, but not sufficient.

Journal Writing

Cognitive Scaffolding – How Do We Support and Encourage Thoughtful Journal Entries and Comment/Discussion

Ah yes, herein lies the greatest problem.

I designed software a few years ago called Journal Zone to try to meet these needs.  It was a good first attempt – but didn’t do well commercially.  BUT, this is not about selling that product. It’s not available any more anyway. It is about the feature set that embraces a socioconstructivist philosophy and is designed specifically for students to become better learners.

Tools to support and encourage novice learners to think deeply about what they should think about or write about aren’t, for the most part, currently available. It is really up to the culture of the classroom to support deep thinking.  It should anyway of course.  <g>

Madeleine's Blog
A Scaffolded Posting

But, to have some of these affordances built into the tools would be useful.

I have made attempts at this – yes, with Journal Zone in the past – but more recently, with blogs, wikis and Diigo. It’s a hack, and not quite as integrated as I would like.  But if anyone wants to build something with me, please let me know.

I’ll describe the concepts more fully here.  Please read The Construction Zone section if you would like a more robust theoretical basis of ‘expert/novice learning behaviour’, Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), ‘dynamic scaffolding’, and mindfulness.

I would like to see an online journaling environment that supports reflective learning within a social context.   It could integrate three common practices of exemplary teaching – journal writing, collaboration, and cognitive scaffolding.  Students would think more deeply, not only about the task at hand, but also about their own thinking and learning processes.

A Collaborative Classroom

It would be a place where students could write and illustrate their thoughts, plans and ideas over a period of time.  Sometimes journals would be ongoing – as a diary might be.  At other times journals might be kept during specific projects  – to track plans, thoughts, notes, questions, strategies, solutions and so on. The journal entries would be reviewed and commented upon by group members or project partners.

Because the environment would encourage and support social sharing and discussion of these thoughts, it would be an ideal place for students to work together to make sense of curricular or conceptual problems.  The distinctive tools (perhaps sentence prompts) would scaffold individual and group learning by helping students in planning, reflecting and commenting effectively on the work of others.

Imagine a student, Sarah, is beginning her investigations into her topic of ‘natural disasters’.  Normally, this occurs as an independent activity.  However, in this case, Sarah is part of a group of students – each of whom has his/her own topic of investigation.  Each student has a responsibility, not just for her own investigation, but also for the projects of the others in the group.  (Indeed, each student may have a sub-part of a topic, but not necessarily.)  In practical terms, this means that each student works on her own project, but also regularly comments on the progress of the others in her group.  As Sarah documents her plans and thoughts, others read them and give substantive feedback in an effort to ‘bump up’ the standard of work.

My research indicated that ‘prompts’ were initially essential to get novice learners to behave more like expert learners – to develop the metacognitive strategies of, for example, generating a number of solution strategies before embarking on one or, breaking a complex project into mind-size parts.  Prompts can also assist in elevating the conversation from a social one to a more substantive one.  For example, instead of a student merely saying, “I like your idea”, the student might say, “Have you considered…that we studied that hurricane all last month.  How has that affected the farming?”  The benefits to the recipient of the advice are obvious.

But the students who give the advice also benefit in several ways:

  • they intimately learn the subject content of the other students
  • they ‘see’ the learning processes of the others (how they ‘think’ – question, plan, solve problems)
  • they learn how to be part of a team – an important lifelong learning skill
Driving Questions are Essential

The first task for each student may be to work towards a ‘driving’ question for the investigation.  This may take several journal pages and much discussion with peers to develop a question that meets the criteria.  A ‘driving’ question (modified from Krajcik) is defined as one that:

  • integral to the curriculum under study
  • worthwhile
  • complex enough to be broken down into smaller questions
  • link concepts/principles across disciplines
  • feasible
  • contextualized
  • anchored in the lives of learners
  • meaningful
  • ill-structured
  • engage students in a state of ‘flow’

In fact, the teacher – perhaps in conjunction with the students – may have developed rubrics for a ‘driving’ question.  This could be posted in a Teacher’s journal and referred to during these discussions.

Once Sarah has defined her question, she would need to develop her plans for investigation.  Again, she does this by ‘thinking aloud’ in her journal and by reading and reacting to the comments of her peers.  Over the course of the project, therefore, Sarah and her peers have regular, reflective conversations about every stage of their work.

It is in this way that students feel empowered over their own learning.   They set the agenda.  They identify and work through the planning, the development of strategies, the accomplishment of their goals.  They will be better prepared to meet the challenges of educational standards and of a life of learning within a social context.

Request of You

If you are interested in the processes I used in scaffolding students to think more deeply and to collaborate more substantively in these environments, I would be thrilled to have the discussion.  It is my plan to write more about:

  • the differences between novice and expert learners
  • dynamic scaffolding
  • effective collaboration

Please, share your thoughts.

Resources

Knowledge Forum – ‘an electronic group workspace designed to support the process of knowledge building.’

The Construction Zone – a theoretical overview of: expertise – the differences between expert and novice learners; the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD); ‘dynamic scaffolding’; and, mindfulness.

Diigo – a social bookmarking tool that allows for annotation of web pages

Project Based Learning: