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Using Authentic Inquiry Projects, Technology, and Problem Solving to Teach Information-Age Skills in Middle Schools By Martha Rice Texas A & M University at Texarkana
INQUIRY PROJECTS, TECHNOLOGY, AND PROBLEM SOLVING Using Authentic Inquiry Projects, Technology, and Problem Solving to Teach Information-Age Skills in Middle Schools
Middle School Children and Technology Introduction Students in the information age are “digital natives” who live, work, and play online. It is unreasonable to ask them to be educated using tools and systems developed centuries ago. Students, especially those in middle school who are preparing for the rigors of high school, advanced education, and work in the global competitive economy, need to be able to use technology to learn in schools and to use that technology to solve ill-structured problems in all classes. Teachers should be mentors and facilitators who allow students to research and learn in order to hone problem solving skills, providing only scaffolding and feedback when necessary. Students should use online simulation, communication, and collaboration tools to become mini-experts in whatever they have decided to research in their quest to solve realworld authentic problems. Students should also present their findings clearly, developing and supporting professional arguments to defend their solutions. Digital Natives Children of the 21st century have never known a world without computers, cell phones, and video games. They are multi-taskers, texting while they do homework and download music and carry on instant messaging with friends (Spires, Lee, Turner & Johnson, 2008). They spend an estimated 72 hours per week engaged in some form of electronic interaction. They have constant multimedia babysitting, and have come to expect the same instant gratification in all aspects of their lives that they receive from their cell phones, computers, and
INQUIRY PROJECTS, TECHNOLOGY, AND PROBLEM SOLVING X-Boxes (Bauleke & Herrmann, 2010). Some children are living virtual lives in virtual worlds where they are able to pursue their own interests freely and to interact with others (Shaffer, Squire, Halverson & Gee, 2005). When students browse the Internet to look up information on topics that interest them, they are able to get instant definitions of words they want to know through hyperlinked texts (Kingsley & Boone 2008). Problems with using technology in education When students come to school, they are often shut off from their preferred form of information gathering: using technology. Because school administrators fear the worst, they err on the side of caution, and hold students to a standard of linear, teacher-led learning that belongs to past centuries. It is certainly true that students, given free access to Internets, iPods, cell phones, and other technologies will get into mischief that is not appropriate or educational. Students can become addicted to online gaming and inappropriately use chat rooms (Jing, Jingye & Qiu 2009). Cyberbullying and online dangers do exist. iPods and music can be distracting (Bauleke & Herman, 2010). Playing online games and random browsing adds no value educationally (Johnson, 2009). These bogeys have frightened educators away from taking advantage of the benefits of integrating technology into education, and as a result, students are not able to use technology in coordination with 21st century skills like problem solving to prepare themselves for higher education and the competitive global job market (Lee & Spires 2009). Additionally, arbitrary limits on technology use in effect disenfranchises poorer students who might not have technology at home (Hofer & Swan, 2008). Almost every student owns, in their cell phone, a more powerful computer than those that sent man to the moon, and yet most schools will not allow cell phones in school (Spires et al., 2008; Lee & Spires, 2009).
INQUIRY PROJECTS, TECHNOLOGY, AND PROBLEM SOLVING Effects of technology on learning Technology can cover a myriad of learning applications. Students can use technology to find explanations, bridge gaps between concepts and knowledge, organize and analyze data, collaborate in research and problem solving, and present findings professionally (Kingsley & Boone, 2008). Technology helps students learn more efficiently (Jing, Jingye & Qiu 2009) and remember more of what they learned. Technology can enhance students’ language and thinking skills and can engage students’ reflection and self-monitoring behaviors (Johnson, 2009). Students who use technology to solve problems are more engaged in learning (An & Reigeluth, 2008) and produce more professional products at the end of inquiry and problem solving tasks (Park & Ertmer, 2008). Problem Solving Using real-world problems Students in typical teacher-led classrooms are expected to solve well-structured problems in which there are clues based on concepts recently taught in class that lead to one correct answer. The overarching ideology behind using problem solving, however, especially in middle school settings, is to prepare students for higher specialized education and the 21st century world of work; therefore, teachers need to pose authentic, ill-structured problems with real world applications. Ill-structured problems are most beneficial in helping students develop problem solving skills because they are real-world problems like those professionals often face. Ill-structured problems have no set answer, and have many possible answers, some of which are more suitable or realistic than others. Ill-structured problems for students will usually require those students to conduct inquiry research on background concepts (An & Reigeluth, 2008).
INQUIRY PROJECTS, TECHNOLOGY, AND PROBLEM SOLVING When students work to solve ill-structured problems, they can choose their own research paths and solutions independent of teachers and other students (Hernández-Ramos & De La Paz 2009). Developing independence in working to solve problems can empower students’ decision making skills (Kingsley & Boone, 2008), can help students realize selfregulated learning behavior (Shaffer et al., 2005), and can help students realize the value of their own background knowledge. At its most effective, problem solving basically allows students to pursue what interests them most within a real-world situation (Belland, 2010), to solidify prior knowledge and to allow the student to learn new knowledge independent of the teacher (Hernández-Ramos & De La Paz 2009). Problem solving is also effective when students can use technology to research, collaborate, and prepare presentations (Spires et al., 2008). Authentic research Ill-structured problems are most beneficial when students take ownership of them, seeing that they can have ramifications into future careers (An & Reigeluth, 2008). Students are able to become “mini-experts” on their research topics as they conduct realistic research using technology, collaborating with experts online, and presenting their findings professionally to their peers (Harmer & Cates, 2007). Students using technology to research topics to investigate problems can use online applications like the National Science Foundation’s Webbased Inquiry Science Environment (WISE). WISE allows students to explore current theories of interest, to conduct research and organize notes online, and to conduct online science experiments guided by professional guidelines. Interactive sites like WISE help students to understand how scientists work and to begin to understand the patterns that professionals look for when tackling problems (Ching-Huei & Howard, 2010). As students get more involved in
INQUIRY PROJECTS, TECHNOLOGY, AND PROBLEM SOLVING realistic applications of real-world problems, they learn more about problem solving itself (Grant & Branch, 2005). Students using technology can also use online simulations to understand real-world problems and to assimilate classroom knowledge. Simulations help students to visualize problems and allow students to use multiple intelligences and learning styles in their real-world research (Ching-Huei & Howard, 2010). Simulations help students to live the subject, creating a sense of empathy and student ownership in the problem solving which encourages students to become self-directed learners (Shaffer et al., 2005). Student collaboration and communication Students work well on problem solving tasks in small groups in collaboration (not cooperation). Students learn best from teaching and interacting with one another, rather than listening to teachers lecture (Hernández-Ramos & De La Paz 2009). Students using technology to communicate findings and collaborate can work synchronously together during class or asynchronously at different class times or after school hours (An & Reigeluth, 2008). Teachers can work together across disciplines to present ill-structured problems and can actually model good group collaboration through interdisciplinary problem solving. This is especially effective when those teachers share students and can reinforce goals, vocabulary, and strategies (Hofer & Swan, 2008). As student communicate using technology, they can collect and analyze data together as they research, brainstorm and develop arguments for different solutions (Oravec, 2003), and reinforce each other’s ideas or encourage each other to change what they have misunderstood (An & Reigeluth, 2008). Getting peer feedback and evaluation is valuable and something that traditional education does not stress. Problem solving can help students learn to help each other, and ultimately become more self-directed learners (Grant & Branch, 2005). The culminating piece of a problem solving unit is the presentation of students’
INQUIRY PROJECTS, TECHNOLOGY, AND PROBLEM SOLVING findings, which should be done as professionally as possible. Using technology for collaboration and ongoing feedback helps students to formulate culminating arguments and to support those arguments with quality evidence from their research (Belland, 2010). The teacher’s role in Problem Solving Situations Teacher as facilitator and mentor The teacher has a facilitator and mentor role while his or her students are working on real-world problem solving. The students have the freedom and responsibility to teach themselves as they research. Teachers must know the subject they are teaching and know how to get students started on the technology they will be using. When technology problems occur, teachers will need to be able to fix problems or get somebody to fix them. Teachers also need to keep students on-task and model desirable outcomes as the process continues (Hofer & Swan, 2008). Teachers can use technology to communicate with students, providing feedback throughout the project and sharing quality links for them to use to research (Kingsley & Boone, 2008). Teachers will also need to ensure that students have the skills, technology and resources they need (Park & Ertmer, 2008; Cook & Weiland, 2010). Students need to know that they are in charge of their learning during problem solving, from choosing what to research, what to use to learn, and how to present findings. Scaffolding The most important role of the teacher while students are researching problems, however, is providing scaffolding for students to use to succeed. Scaffolding, like clues in a mystery, can help students find direction as they research. Teachers can provide soft scaffolding, human interventions, and hard scaffolding, any written documentation provided for students. Teachers can themselves be soft scaffolding as they walk around and give direct help
INQUIRY PROJECTS, TECHNOLOGY, AND PROBLEM SOLVING to students as they work, or they can prompt other students to help each other (Xun, ChingHuei & Davis, 2005). Teachers can provide paper or electronic handouts of graphic organizers, rubrics, or examples as students work (Belland, 2010). Teachers can use questioning strategies to prompt students who are off track or confused to think critically as they research. Students and teachers can answer questions together during class, or at different times using discussion boards (An & Reigeluth, 2008). Special problem solving applications for core classes In English Language Arts classes, students can use problem solving techniques and technology to create original products like digital storytelling projects that show mastery (Banister & Fischer, 2010). Teachers can also use technology and scaffolding to help struggling readers improve their reading and problem solving skills (Marino, 2009). Reading skills figure into problem solving in science because students in science need to be reading realworld text using technology rather than struggling with textbooks; students must be able to read and understand difficult science writing in order to do authentic research (Fang & Wei, 2010). Real world problem solving works very well in science classes where teachers can pose questions that empower students to “save the world,” something that middle school students are especially interesting in doing (Harmer & Cates, 2007). Cook and Weiland (2010) describe an ideal real-world problem posed in a science class. Teachers asked students to find answers to waste management problems. Teachers started students off discussing their prior knowledge about the problem and thinking about what they would like to learn about as they started research. Students proceeded to journal every day as they learned more, to conduct surveys of their peers about the problem, and to conclude by presenting and defending solutions. Illdefined problems can be used heuristically in math to improve students’ problem solving skills
INQUIRY PROJECTS, TECHNOLOGY, AND PROBLEM SOLVING when students use evidence from problems to defend their solutions (Koichu, Berman & Moore, 2007). Kingsley & Boone (2008) describe social studies teachers having students research real world history situations to explore causes and effects. Students used graphic organizers as they researched, creating timelines, maps, illustrations, and finding and analyzing primary documents that had to do with the historical event. The student groups culminated their research by creating multimedia documentary websites that would teach other students about the event. Students could create videos, songs, and interactive text for their projects. In addition to helping students think critically about history facts, the research and projects also helped students realize that history and civics are important for them to think about in the information age. Conclusion Students enjoy challenges and are weary of time-wasting, old-fashioned worksheets and textbooks. These students use technology, enjoy technology, and are more effective when using technology because it is their native media. Teachers can increase students’ problemsolving skills and prepare them more thoroughly to be workers in the information age by posing real-world ill-structured problem solving tasks, especially in the middle school years. Teachers need to be mentors and facilitators, making sure that students have the tools and resources they need to be successful and independent learners. All courses can implement their own styles of problem solving tasks, and using technology, teachers can have their students work together on different aspects of a common interdisciplinary problem solving task. The goal is to prepare students for the future, not remain stuck in the past.
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