Trust The Children

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Late Night Reading

I am reading, tonight, yet another journal article for one of my graduate classes. I do a fair amount of this kind of reading. I don't understand everything I read the first time, but usually on the second pass, I begin to catch more of the meaning. Overall, I am getting better at it after a year working on a Masters Degree than at the beginning.

This article is about Problem Based Learning. But as I read, I feel I am reading a story about the model home schooling environment contrasted with the traditional public school approach. While not all public classrooms operate in a "teacher-tell" manner, many still do. Teachers sadly, end up often teaching as they were taught, if not in every respect, at least in most fundamental ways. I felt to share two excerpts to demonstrate what I mean...

Excerpt One

The goals and beliefs that teachers hold help frame the strategies that they implement. Schoenfeld (1998), through detailed analyses of expert and novice teachers, examined how teachers’ knowledge, goals, and beliefs lead them to implement action plans. In his study, the novice teacher used a teacher-centered approach, (1) asking known-answer questions, (2) listening to students’ responses, and then (3) evaluating the responses. For example, when teaching a lesson on exponents, this teacher (1a) asked for the answer to a problem, (2a) the student responded correctly that he subtracted, and the teacher (3a) answered “OK,” an evaluation of the response. The teacher asked the student what he subtracted and then elaborated on the student’s correct response. All this proceeded according to the teacher’s plan. This teacher believed that the students’ responses provided springboards for teacher explanations. When students’ responses diverged (as in the student didn't have the correct answer), [the teacher's] limited pedagogical content knowledge prevented him from adapting his plan. Later, on a more difficult problem, students’ responses were not what the teacher expected, and the teacher had to generate an alternative example. TThe students did not understand the connection between the new example and the original problem, and they did not produce an answer that the teacher could use to build an explanation as in the earlier example. he teacher did not have an understanding of how incorrect student responses could be a window into their understanding and how these understandings could be used to focus discussions.

Excerpt Two

In contrast, Schoenfeld (1998) found very different results in the analyses of expert teachers (Jim Minstrell and Deborah Ball). Minstrell viewed learning as a sense-making activity and used questioning in productive ways. The lesson studied focused on issues of measurement in everyday contexts. Rather than being driven by a topic from the text, as with the novice teacher, the lesson was driven by problem-centered discussions. The teacher used questioning to guide student thinking. In particular, he used a technique called the reflective toss. (otherwise known as rephrasing) In the reflective toss, the teacher takes the meaning of a student statement and throws responsibility for elaboration back to the student. (ie. "Can you share your thoughts using other words?) He used these statements to help students clarify meaning, consider a variety of views, and monitor their own thinking. For example, as students were discussing how one might decide what number might be a best value from a list of measurements, a student noted that one number in a list was repeated several times. Minstrell asked the student for clarification (using the rephrasing technique) and if there were any other repeated numbers. Another student proposed what was essentially a formula for a weighted average. This was unexpected. As Minstrell asked the students for further explanation, they developed a formula for calculating the weighted average. Ball’s classroom was more student-centered; her goal was to develop a particular type of intellectual community in which the pursuit of mathematical ideas was highly valued. She juggled competing goals as the students and teachers co-constructed the agenda. She started her elementary mathematics class by asking students for comments on the previous days’ lessons. They then discussed issues related to their understanding.

What are the characteristics of a model PBL, or home schooling teacher? (Substitute PBL Teacher or PBL Facilitator with Homeschooling parent)

The PBL method requires students to become responsible for their own learning. The PBL teacher is a facilitator of student learning, and his/her interventions diminish as students progressively take on responsibility for their own learning processes. This method is characteristically carried out in small, facilitated groups and takes advantage of the social aspect of learning through discussion, problem solving, and study with peers (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). The facilitator guides students in the learning process, pushing them to think deeply, and models the kinds of questions that students need to be asking themselves, thus forming a cognitive apprenticeship (Collins et al., 1989). As a cognitive apprenticeship, PBL situates learning in complex problems (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). Facilitators make key aspects of expertise visible through questions that scaffold student learning through modeling, coaching, and eventually fading back some of their support. In PBL the facilitator is an expert learner, able to model good strategies for learning and thinking, rather than providing expertise in specific content. This role is critical, as the facilitator must continually monitor the discussion, selecting and implementing appropriate strategies as needed. As students become more experienced with PBL, facilitators can fade their scaffolding until finally the learners adopt much of their questioning role. Student learning occurs as students collaboratively engage in constructive processing. (A subtle sales pitch for larger families ;-).

(The article is entitled "Goals and Strategies of a Problem-based Learning Facilitator, by
Cindy E. Hmelo-Silver and Howard S. Barrows,

The article begins with a simple example of a gradeschool classroom and moves to a medical school, where Problem Based Learning is used in much the same way to prepare medical students over a two year period for their NBDE-1 exam.

My point is sharing this, is to reinforce how simple teaching and learning at home can be. As I have asked my children about their home schooling experience, it was the projects, and major work projects like adding on to the house, and remodeling, and building of go karts and hover crafts, that presented meaningful problems and validating solutions as they figured it out.

Maybe this isn't for everyone. I am so thankful it was for our kids and family though.


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