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Running Head: Constructivist Practices

Constructivist Practices Using Questions and PBL

Quentin Flokstra
ETEC 530 Section 65A
The University of British Columbia
Dr. Diane Janes
March 13, 2015

Constructivist Practices

Facilitating Projects Using Questions and PBL

As a high school humanities teacher, I have facilitated many projects with my
students. Well-designed projects allow students to construct their own knowledge.
Moreover, these projects should require students to learn and utilize effective research
skills and to create meaningful artifacts. Within my own teaching practice, as I have been
exposed to the tenets, and benefits, of constructivism, I have sought to integrate the
principles of constructivism within the process of facilitating projects. I have improved
the research process by utilizing the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) designed by
Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana (2011) while I continue to work on integrating more of
the features of Project Based Learning (PBL), particularly with having students create
meaningful artifacts.
The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) & Constructivism
There are two essential components to PBL: First, there is a question that serves
to organize and drive activities and, secondly, that those activities result in a series of
artifacts which lead to a final authentic product which answers the original question
(Blumenfeld et al., 1991). Many times, it is the teacher that provides guiding questions or
a problem and the students direct the activities, but as Blumenfeld et al. (1991) point out,
students can also create the questions themselves. However, there seems to be an
omission within educational circles of teaching students how to ask a range of questions
(Rothstein & Santana, 2011).
One of the central tenets of constructivism is that education is student centered,
students have to construct knowledge themselves (Dougiamas, 1998, p.4). A key
component of this is to have students learn to ask their own questions, as this will

Constructivist Practices

facilitate their active role within the classroom. This cannot be overlooked nor
overstated. As Schwartz (2012) points out, Coming up with the right question involves
vigorously thinking through the problem, investigating it from various angles, turning
closed questions into open-ended ones, and prioritizing which are the most important to
get at the heart of the matter. Indeed, having students learn effective means of asking
questions has been an enriching process within my social studies classes. The QFT
process utilizes constructivist elements in its approach. The QFT protocol has six core

A question focus, which serves as the starting point for student questions.
A process for students to produce questions using four simple rules.
An exercise for students to work on closed- and open-ended questions.
Student selection of priority questions.
A plan for how to use the priority questions.
A reflection activity for students
(Rothstein & Santana, 2011, p.16)

While the onus is on myself to come up with the question focus (QFocus), the bulk of the
work is left with the students. It is critical that the QFocus is not a question. It needs to
be brief, simply stated, and encourage new ways of thinking (Rothstein & Santana, 2011,
p.29-30). One way that I do this is to be provocative with the QFocus by using words
such as must or always. This will then cause a reaction in students. Other times I
have students figure out the criteria for evaluating a particular issue. Overall, the point is
to have a specific statement which promotes lines of questioning. Once I create a
QFocus, I simply need to facilitate the questioning process. This veers from the
traditional route within many projects wherein I would provide a series of critical
questions for students grapple with.

Constructivist Practices

Having the students create their own questions exposes their existing knowledge
and preconceived notions about the topic or focus. Moreover, as SO (2002) points out, it
is important for students to test their own ideas and questions, and, if necessary, to adjust
those notions. By having students ask, then answer, their own questions, they are clearly
in the process of constructing their own knowledge and thus they take ownership and I, as
the teacher, move more clearly into the role of a facilitator (Driscoll, 2005).
Moreover, Driver and Oldham (as cited by Matthews, 1994) suggest some
constructivist-inspired teaching methods which are also effective links to the QFT
protocol. When students generate their own questions, they are immediately invested in
the overall project which gives them the opportunity to develop their own motivation for
learning about a topic. Secondly, restructuring of those ideas in which conflicts about
meanings come into play when different students see new ways of interacting with the
focus (Matthews, 1994).
One of the key components, as mentioned in the second step of the QFT protocol,
are the rules for asking questions. Rothstein and Santana (2011, p.19) set out four key
rules that they suggest for asking questions:

Ask as many questions as you can.

Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any of the questions.
Write down every question as it is stated.
Change any statements into questions.

This allows each member of the group to generate their own questions which then can
encourage their peers to ask different questions. This social negotiation is an integral part
of their learning and a key component of constructivism according to Driscoll (2005).
I have used this process several times when introducing new projects and I have
found it to be quite valuable. Once students are reminded of basic questioning words,

Constructivist Practices

they are more than capable of coming up with a range of high-quality questions. The
next steps which take them to prioritizing their question is also a valuable learning
Using constructivist principles, it is critical for me to allow my students to
prioritize the questions themselves. It can be tempting to help them along but it is
important for them to learn which questions can be better used than others. I have even
found (Flokstra, 2015) that using students struggles with their own questions to be a
valuable learning experience. When students find that their questions are lacking after
they have done a bit of research, I then have them go through the questioning process
again with the new knowledge that they have gained from their research (Flokstra, 2015).
Knowledge building is ongoing and can be re-visited mid-project. Indeed, knowledge is
actively constructed by the learner (Dougiamas, 1998, p.5).
Overall, I have found that when students create their own questions, they quickly
take ownership of their learning and become more aware of the knowledge construction
process, which are two key aspects that Driscoll (2005) highlights as being essential for a
constructivist-learning environment. I echo the sentiments of Schwartz (2012) who
posits that if students are engaged in deciding which questions to answer, they will also
be invested in discovering those answers. I can attest that my students have become more
adept at the research process when they have created and prioritized their own research
questions. The challenge is to then take those questions and generate meaningful artifacts.
Challenges of Implementing PBL
As I noted earlier, I have seen substantial improvements with the research process
among my students but this has not translated in the same way for their projects.

Constructivist Practices

Although learning and improving the questioning process is a critical improvement, the
priority questions need to jump-start further learning (Rothstein & Santana, 2011, p.103).
For me, I have used them as the basis for the students projects. However, these projects
are still lacking in some ways.
PBLs essential feature is authentic, meaningful projects. According to Amy
Mayer (n.d.), many of my class projects are just that: projects. Although, I have many
aspects of PBL within my classroom, there are a few key components that I still need to
work on to bring my classes more in line with the core tenets of PBL.
As Blumenfeld et al. (1991) note, it is critical for students to be responsible, and
to have the freedom, to generate their own artifacts. Many times, once my students have
begun answering their own question, I have left it up to them to decide what their artifact
will be. What I have found is that they will default to traditional models of sharing
information such as creating posters, Power Point presentations, and so on. These are
methods that they are comfortable with and have down in most of their prior classes. I
seem to be facing the same challenges that Blumenfeld et al. (1991) noted in that PBL
may have wide spread appeal but not wide spread adoption. Moreover, even though it
has been around for a while, it is still an innovative process that requires significant
curricular support. Thus, I face some challenges in that I seem to be missing some
administrative and curricular support as well as students not being exposed to PBL
throughout their education.
Another great barrier is having my classes generate solutions to real world
scenarios or to have them in real life experiences. Most of my classes cover historical
material and thus the authenticity aspect can be challenging to create. However, as

Constructivist Practices

Blumenfeld et al. (1991) point out, technology is playing an increasingly important role
as a significant resource. There are more online resources available then ever before to
help facilitate this process. It is clear to me that my projects require more authenticity,
more value, and the creation of artifacts that are less school-like and are more
representative of the problems solutions (Blumenfeld et al, 1991, p.372, 376).
This will require more research and time on my part. A brief perusal of online
resources has led me to identify several high quality sources to help with my own journey
in PBL such as the Buck Institute for Education ( and Edutopia (
Moreover, the school network that I belong too is also supporting a weeklong PBL
residency program with the goal of having teachers learn the principles of PBL and have
ready-to-use units by the end of the program (PBL Residency, 2015). There are
opportunities available, perhaps more than ever before, and the onus is on me to seize
those opportunities.
Overall, I believe that I am moving in the right direction in having more
constructivist elements present within the projects that I am doing within the courses that
I teach. As Rothstein and Santana (2011) point out, by using the QFT protocols, I am
encouraging critical thinking skills. Firstly, I am providing the ability for students to use
both divergent and convergent thinking. Moreover, students also learn metacognitive
skills as they are forced to think about their own processes of thinking and learning.
These are foundational aspects for implementing constructivist elements within my
classes. By utilizing more online resources that are currently available for PBL, I believe
that I will improve upon the projects that I am currently conducting in my classes. I, too,

Constructivist Practices

will build upon my own knowledge and construct my own meaning with implementing
improved educational practices. Indeed, constructivism is a life-long process for all

Blumenfeld, P. C., Soloway, E., Marx, R. W., Krajcik, J. S., Guzdial, M., & Palincsar, A.
(1991). Motivating project-based learning: Sustaining the doing, supporting the
learning. Educational Psychologist, 26(3/4), 369-398. Retrieved from EBSCO
database. (Accession No. 6370955)

Constructivist Practices

Dougiamas, M. (1998, November). A journey into constructivism. Retrieved March 5,

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Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Constructivism. In Psychology of learning for instruction (pp.
384-407). Toronto, ON: Pearson.
Flokstra, Q. C. (2015, January 13). Not just the starting point: Student research and the
QFT. Retrieved March 11, 2015, from The Right Question Institute website:
Matthews, M. R. (1994). Constructivism and science education. In Science teaching: The
role of history and philosophy of science. Retrieved from
Mayer, A. (n.d.). What's the difference between "doing project" and project-based
learning? Retrieved March 11, 2015, from Fried Technology website:!stuff/c243p
PBL Residency. (2015). PBL residency. Retrieved March 12, 2015, from
Rothstein, D., & Santana, L. (2011). Make just one change: Teach students to ask their
own questions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Schwartz, K. (2012, October 26). For students, why the question is more important than
the answer. Retrieved March 9, 2015, from Mind Shift website:

Constructivist Practices

SO, W. W.-M. (2002). Constructivist teaching in primary science. Asia-Pacific Forum on

Science Learning and Teaching,, 3(1). Retrieved from