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Constructivism as a cultural system in an integrated curriculum program using Problem Based Learning Hortensia Jimnez Daz Crdoba, Ver. Presented as a poster in the PBL2004 International Conference Cancn, Mxico June 13-19, 2004

Constructivism & PBL Abstract The purpose of this paper is to identify if teachers and students from an undergraduate program designed under a constructivist model, using curriculum integration and PBL, perceive the created environment as a cultural system, according to Windschitl (1999). The research work was completed with open questionnaires and direct observations that were used to collect information about the process that is going on in this program. The data obtained was analyzed using the seven essential values of PBL proposed by Keng-Neo, Yih Chyn and Heng Chye (2001) that were related to Windschitls elements of a cultural system. The findings show that even when the program has most of the elements proposed by the authors mentioned above, the teachers do not have a deep

knowledge about constructivism and its philosophical principles, and they consider PBL just as an alternative way of teaching. A deeper analysis is required to establish which of the factors involved in creating a cultural system are present in this kind of programs and how do these factors contribute to that.

Constructivism & PBL

Constructivism as a cultural system in an integrated curriculum program using Problem Based Learning According to Windschitl (1999b), constructivism is based in the belief that when a person learns, he is creating, interpreting and reorganizing knowledge individually, giving a personal meaning to knowledge (Coll, et al., 1999). This pedagogical approach can be conceived not as a didactic toolbox or an alternative to traditional teaching, but as a group of interrelated social activities that conform a cultural system in the classroom (Windschitl, 1999a), that is conformed by a series of beliefs, norms and practices that have effects on the relationship among students and with teachers, and can be observed in a constructivist classroom in three dimensions: a) students and teachers; b) content and context; and c) planning and evaluation. Some specific elements of each dimension are shown in Table 1. Coll et al. (1999) state that when a school is managed under a constructivist conception, it must provide its students with different cultural aspects that will contribute to their integral development, as the ability to keep personal balance, belonging to a social group and interpersonal relationships, among others. Creating an environment with such characteristics will foster meaningful learning, that is, construction of an own and personal meaning for a knowledge object that exists objectively (p. 16). To accomplish the proposed above, Windschitl (1999b) suggests to use experiences such as Problem Based Learning (PBL), inquiry-related activities, dialogues among students and with their teachers, in order to achieve a better understanding, access to multiple information sources and the creation of opportunities for students to show what they have learned in different ways.

Constructivism & PBL This bears a series of changes in the teachers and students role. This kind of environments usually shows an apparent lack of group control, since the interaction of students seems to be noisy and without order, and this can be seen as a threat for some teachers. There should be changes also in the logistics as well as in the curriculum design, schedules and class periods, and the possibility of integrating curriculum in blocks, and all this requires teachers to work collaboratively (Windschitl, 1999b).

Regarding PBL, defined by Torp and Sage (1998) as . (p. 14), that are known also as scenarios, its use in the classroom allows to create the intellectual opportunities mentioned by Windschitl (1999a), from which students get interested in exploring the topics to be studied and in researching about them, and this represents one of the main elements of the cultural system proposed by this author. But here it is important to say that using PBL is just a part of what needs to be done in order to implement a constructivist approach, and the methodology by itself does not guarantee that this will be achieved (Airasian, 1997). In other hand, Keng-Neo, Yih Chyn and Heng Chye (2001) define seven essential values of PBL that are implicated in class development as well as in scenario design, and that could be identified with some of the elements of the constructivist cultural system proposed by Windschitl (1999a), as shown in Table 2. These PBL values were used as the parameters of the data analysis in this paper.

Constructivism & PBL Work hypothesis Using a constructivist technique in an integrated curriculum environment

promotes the generation of some of the beliefs and practices that characterize a cultural system, even when teachers and students do not perceive it that way, nor understand the theoretical basis of constructivism. Context of the study This research was done during the January-May 2003 semester with 20 students that have been submitted to the continuous use of PBL during the first four semesters of their undergraduate courses, under an integrated curriculum scheme in two cycles (the first one started the program in August 2000 and finished it in May 2002, and the second cycle begun in August 2001 and were in their last semester by the time of the study), and with the teachers of the program. Within this scheme the following elements presented by Windschitl (1999a & b) as related with the cultural system of a constructivist classroom are identified: 1. Confronting students with scenarios as challenges to foster the need of doing research. 2. Changes in the teacher role, who becomes a guide and facilitator of the learning process, intervening only when necessary, without interfering. 3. Working in small groups. 4. A curricular design in interdisciplinary blocks, managed in 2-to-4 hours sessions. 5. Evaluation of products and processes as learning outcomes.

Constructivism & PBL It is important to mention that both students and teachers participating in this

program have other classes outside the integrated blocks, so all of them have elements to compare this scheme with the traditional one. Methodology Information was collected to identify perceptions and behaviors from the students and teachers that could be used to prove the proposed hypothesis, in order to reflect if using PBL in an integrated curriculum context generates the beliefs and practices that, according to Windschitl (1999a), integrate the cultural system of a constructivist classroom. Two kinds of instruments were used: a) open-ended questionnaires to obtain free and profound answers from teachers and students (Best, 1974), and b) selective observations to identify behaviors that allow to validate the hypothesis (Rodrguez, Gil & Garca, 1999). There were two questionnaires sent to teachers by e-mail, getting back eight responses from the first group (teachers who participated in this program since its creation) and four responses from the teachers that were working with the group at the moment of the study. There was a questionnaire for students, applied personally to the 13 students of the second cycle and sent by e-mail to the 7 students from the first cycle. In this case, all of them responded to it. Three observations were carried out with the second cycle group during the January-May 2003 semester, using field notes to register what was observed. The first one corresponded to the beginning of a PBL activity, the second observation was made

Constructivism & PBL

in the closing session of the same activity and the last one was done in the final projects presentation session. Responses from each of the three questionnaires were grouped and classified, as well as the field notes, to identify those related with each of the PBL values defined by Keng-Neo, Yih Chyn and Heng Chye (2001), as it is shown in Table 3. Results Regarding each of the seven PBL values related with the elements of a constructivist cultural system, there were identified the following findings: 1. Constructivism: only one of the 12 surveyed teachers knows what this pedagogic approach means, all of the others saying that they have heard about it, but do not know what it is. 2. Meta-cognitivism: this is an important issue in a constructivist approach, but it is not evident to be present in this program. Even when teachers and students are conscious of the changes in their roles, they do not consider the fact of being aware of the mental process that is being carried out by students when working with PBL. 3. Authenticity: both students and teachers are acquainted with the real-world approach achieved by the first ones using the scenarios, developing skills as solving problems in a disciplinary integration context. 4. Integrated Knowledge Base: the program structure, since its conception and design has always seek for this integration, what implied the collaborative work of teachers in order to choose activities where the different subjects could be integrated, and this fact is very clear both for teachers and students.

Constructivism & PBL 5. Student-centered learning: there are several evidences that support this aspect, from the roles of teachers and students in the PBL activities, the way in which students get involved in the individual research process and the group discussions, to the final projects presentations in front of a group of teachers, with an audience conformed by the students parents and relatives, where they

had to present and defend their projects. It is important to mention that one of the changes perceived by the first cycle students regarding their role is being now more critical and looking at problems from a holistic perspective, from its definition to its solution. 6. Learning in small groups: the program nature supports this aspect, as there were 7 students in the first cycle and 13 in the second one. Even though, the teacher role in the design and management of activities is also important. 7. Tutor as facilitator and activator: this aspect is very clear for students and teachers, as they express it in the questionnaires responses and as it was observed. The teachers, in their tutor role, intervened only when necessary, and just to guide students even in activities other than PBL. There was also a closer relationship between students and teachers than the ones they had in other classes. Another aspect that is not part of the seven values, but it is important to be noted, is the way power and authority were managed. Despite students perceived that these have been shared between them and the teachers, the latter reveal that it is not that way, because they, the teachers are who make the important decisions.

Constructivism & PBL Both in the questionnaires responses and the observations, it is evident that the degree of teachers acquaintance with the changes regarding the way of working in a constructivist environment compared with those in a traditional class is directly related with the time they have been participating in the program. With students it is different, as they have been immersed in this way of working during four semesters, even being in the same classroom all the time, what has generated a sense of belonging among them. Discussion and Analysis As it can be observed in the findings, this integrated curriculum program using PBL has many of the characteristics of a constructivist cultural system stated by Windschitl (1999 a & b), showing also the elements proposed by Keng-Neo, Yih Chyn

and Heng Chye (2001) as PBL essential values. However, the fact that teachers do not have an adequate knowledge of the characteristics, philosophical and theoretical basis of this educational approach makes it difficult for them to consider their activities as a very particular system of beliefs and practices different from what they use in other classes, and they still consider these practices just as an alternative to teach, or as an educational toolbox just to vary the stimuli and avoid boring students. Students situation is very different. They have been immersed in this environment during four semesters, at least four hours a day, and even when they do not either know the theory behind constructivism, they do see this way of working further than just new techniques, and are aware of their development of skills that the students from the traditional program do not have when they finish the fourth semester of the undergraduate program.

Constructivism & PBL It can be questioned here if it is really the use of PBL what is fostering these


changes in both teachers and students behaviors, and could generate the perception of being working within a cultural system, or if what is causing these modifications is the management of an interdisciplinary environment where PBL is just one of the tools used to implement it. Further research is needed to confirm if groups using PBL as the main methodology, but working isolated from other courses show the same effects regarding the elements of a cultural system. Conclusions Even when this study shows findings that are similar to what was proposed by Windschitl (1999 a & b), it is necessary to carry out a deeper analysis of all the factors involved in the creation of a cultural system, from course design to its implementation and evaluation, with the aim of establishing clearly which of the present elements in a program as the one studied here are the ones that contribute to that. It is also needed to compare the different contexts where PBL is being used as the main methodology, in order to determine to which extent is PBL by itself what creates a culture in the classroom and to which degree are all the other elements that surround PBL what have a greater influence in generating the mentioned cultural system.

Constructivism & PBL References Airasian, P. (1997). Constructivist cautions. Phi Delta Kappan, 78 (6), 444-449 Best, J.W. (1974). Cmo investigar en educacin (9a. ed.). Madrid: Morata Coll, C., Martn, E., Mauri, T., Miras, M., Onrubia, I., Sol, I. et al. (1999). El constructivismo en el aula (9a. ed.). Barcelona: Gra Keng-Neo, L.W., Yih Chyn, M.A.K. & Heng Chye, M.S. (2001). Crafting Effective


Problems for Problem-Based Learning. In Little, P. Y Kandlbinder, P. (Eds.), The Power of Problem Based Learning: Refereed Proceedings of the 3 rd Asia Pacific Conference on PBL (pp. 157-168). Newcastle, Australia: PROBLARC Rodrguez, G., Gil J. & Garca E. (1999). Metodologa de la investigacin cualitativa. (2a. ed.). Mlaga: Aljibe. Torp L. & Sage S., (1998). Problems as Posibilities, Problem Based Learning for K-12 Education. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Windschitl, M. (1999, April). A Vision Educators Can Put Into Practice: Portraying the Constructivist Classroom as a Cultural System. School Science and Mathematics, 99 (4), 189-196. Windschitl, M. (1999, June). The challenges of sustaining a constructivist classroom culture. Phi Delta Kappan, 80 (10) 751-755

Constructivism & PBL Author's Note Hortensia Jimnez Daz, Educational Consultant, Crdoba, Ver., Mxico. Correspondence concerning this paper should be addressed to Hortensia Jimnez Daz, Emiliano Zapata # 18, Col. Alberto Rosales, Fortn de las Flores, Ver. C.P. 94470, Mxico. E-mail:


Constructivism & PBL Table 1 Beliefs, norms and values of a constructivist cultural system Dimension Students and teachers Beliefs, norms and values Teacher knows the theoretical basis of constructivism. Teacher is a guide, creator-of-opportunities. Learning depends on teacher-student interaction. Teacher uses students ideas to plan activities. Content and context Solving complex and authentic problems supports intellectual activity generating a perturbation of the mind. Contents are integrated. There is a process of thinking about thinking. Students collect evidences and generate interpretations. The work is carried out in small groups. Subjects are integrated in blocks within an interdisciplinary curriculum. There is a negotiation between students and teachers to define activities. Planning and evaluation Both activities are shared responsibilities. Products and processes are evaluated. Students present and defend their projects publicly. Students keep a portfolio during the course.


Constructivism & PBL Table 2 PBL Values and its corresponding elements of a cultural system Values Constructivism Meta-cognitivism Elements Teacher knows the theoretical basis of constructivism. There is a process of thinking about thinking.


Solving complex and authentic problems supports intellectual Authenticity activity generating a perturbation of the mind. Subjects are integrated in blocks within an interdisciplinary Integrated Knowledge curriculum. Base Contents are integrated Student-centered Learning Learning in small The work is carried out in small groups. groups Teacher is a guide, creator-of-opportunities. Tutor as facilitator and activator Teacher uses students ideas to plan activities. There is a negotiation between students and teachers to define activities. Students collect evidences and generate interpretations. Students present and defend their projects publicly.

Constructivism & PBL Table 3 PBL Values and its perceived presence in the studied groups Values Constructivism Meta-cognitivism Authenticity Integrated Knowledge Base Student-centered Learning Learning in small groups Tutor as facilitator and activator Teachers Students 1st cycle Students 2nd cycle




Note. = Absent; = Present; DNA = Does Not Apply.