Master's Project: Self-directed learning in the science classroom

Well...to be precise, it's titled "Implementation of a technology-rich self-directed learning environment in a ninth grade Integrated Science classroom." Catchy, I know.

To be honest, this is a bit old. I thought I had posted this a long time ago, but recently realized I never had despite always meaning to do so. I implemented this project in the spring of 2010 and officially submitted my project in June of the same year. It won me a "Scholar of Excellence" award, so it must be at least somewhat decent. 😉

The Goods

Though the full paper may not be of interest to you, let me recommend the Lit Review. I went through many, many papers on constructivist environments and instructional technology's impact on student learning. It'd make me very happy if anybody found this even remotely useful.

I've decided to release it under a Creative Commons Attribution license, so have at it. Here's the full paper in variety of formats for any of your consumption needs:

  • Implementation of a technology-rich self-directed learning environment in a ninth grade Integrated Science classroom

Description

Simply put, students worked in teams of four to five and shared a team blog. Students investigated any topic that interested them around the general theme of climate change. Students were tasked with researching the topic and sharing their learning and questions on their blog. There were no due dates (other than the end of the school year), though students were all required to write a certain number of posts and comments on their classmates' posts (for more details, check out the Project Design section of the paper). For a bit on the rationale, here's an excerpt from the Introduction and Rationale:

The purpose of the educational system in the United States has been described in many different ways depending on the viewpoint of the individual doing the describing. Creating individuals able to become positive members of society, providing skills for the future workforce, or preparing individuals for an uncertain future have all been cited by various people and organizations as the purpose of schooling- each relying on their own value set and particular social and political biases. While there is no doubt that these various beliefs about the purpose of the American educational system have been true, and may continue to be true in various times and places, it is this author's belief that one of the more important goals of the educational system is to create life-long learners who will be able to actively and knowledgeably engage in whatever ideas and issues may cross their paths. As specific information and skill-sets are quickly changing due to the rapid increases in knowledge and improvements in technology the importance of teaching students specific content information decreases while the importance of teaching students how to locate, evaluate, and interact with knowledge increases. As what it means to be productive members of society or effective members of the workforce changes, the ability for individuals to understand how to learn new knowledge when they need it is more valuable than simply falling back on information learned through formal schooling.

If schools are to become a place where students learn how to interact with, challenge, and develop new knowledge, then the traditional classroom structure- that of the teacher as the primary source of knowledge and assessment- needs to change as well. Students should be given a chance to work out the solutions to problems that do not have predefined answers. In doing so, students lose their status as passive recipients of information and instead become active creators of knowledge. A method of implementing this might be built on the problem-based learning (PBL) model that has been used for many years in many content areas with various age levels. The incarnation of PBL envisioned here provides students with real-world problems to solve that do not already have easy or "neat" answers, gives students the freedom to explore down side canyons as part of the problem solving process, allows time for students to share their ideas and work with others, and provides support and time for students to document and reflect on their learning and problem solving process.

Let me know what you think or if you found anything useful for your own purposes.

Designing a student-centered classroom

Part of my Master's project involves creating a project/problem based learning (PBL) environment for my 9th grade science classroom. I'm getting to the point where I need to start nailing down some specifics, so I'm going to lay down what I'm thinking here (publish-then-filter, right?). Your comments and critiques are welcome.

I've seen several example PBL units that gave students one specific question to solve. They may have been good prompts, but the problem I have with this method of PBL is that it seems overly prescriptive. It doesn't give students much room to follow their own interests. I'd prefer to leave things much more open to student choice. Currently, I think I'd like to give students a general topic to frame their investigations (climate change or evolution of the universe, for example) and allow them to follow their interests to specific areas of study/research that they find interesting.

Goal:

Create at minimum a unit where students choose their own topic of research and follow their passion in determining it's continued direction. I want students to be able to follow their interests and passion wherever it leads them (with some limitations). Students will be expected to document their learning and do some sort of public exhibition at the end of the process.

Challenges:

  • Overcoming student expectations of school and science. In my experience, students expect to be told exactly what to study and how to study it. When given some choice they're often uncomfortable and unsure of how to proceed (I know that's how I reacted). Also, science is generally perceived as being a bunch of information and facts that they need to learn. Science is more about what we don't know than what we do know. I'd like students to ask questions that haven't been answered and try to figure out the answer.
  • Choosing a research topic. In theory, I'd like to simply say, "Research an area of climate change (for example) that you find interesting. Ready? GO!" I doubt this would work for several reasons. First, if students don't have any real background knowledge about climate change then they may not be familiar enough with it to be able to pick something that interests them. I'm torn on how much information I should cover before starting the student-directed phase. Second, students are unfamiliar with being able to control their learning in school. I'd expect a lot of uncertainty and frustration from students if I left things so open. At the same time, I struggle with giving students example research questions since they often just choose an example to follow instead of following something that they find intriguing.
  • The state standards (see recent posts). In all likelihood we're not going to cover as many content standards using this format. Depending on what topics the students choose they might not cover many content standards at all. I'm OK with this. My administration may not be. I found some research to support my position1, but that may not mean much to those who hold the power.
  • Fostering reflection/collaboration. I want students to be as focused (if not more focused) on the process they're going through as they are on their end product. I'd like them to reflect daily on what things they're having success with, what things they're struggling with, and what methods they're using. I also want students to be aware of what all the other students in the class are doing. Creating an environment where "collaboration through the air2" is possible- where students can freely leave their projects and go help other students who are struggling- is very important to my vision of how the classroom should run. Since this is (sadly) such a foreign idea for many students, I'm debating whether or not there needs to be some at least semi-formal structure to encourage it.
  • Documenting the learning. I want this to be a major focus of this project. I'd like students to have some artifact- digital or otherwise- that allows them to look back and see what they were thinking and doing with their topic throughout the entirety of the project. I'd like some analogue to the Reggio Emilio approach to documentation- but I'm not sure exactly how that plays out in a high school environment. At this point, I think giving students the option of how they choose to document their learning is okay. I'll give several examples of formats they could use (pictures, videos, written documents, audio notes), and several methods of organizing their documentation (blogs, wikis, etc.).

What do you think?

I feel like I've got a pretty good mental vision of what I want to happen with this project, yet I still have a lot of work to nail down the specifics and make it sound all scholarly. To date I've been reading lots of research and have a lot more research left to read. However, I'd love hear your thoughts on the challenges I've laid out above.

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  1. Students engaged in PBL gained less knowledge than students taught in traditional styles, but the PBL students remembered more knowledge several months later. They were also shown to have better problem-solving skills, be more open minded, and perform better on tests. See p. 567 of: Fallik, O., Eylon, B., & Rosenfeld, S. (2008). Motivating teachers to enact free-choice project-based learning in science and technology (PBLSAT): Effects of a professional development model. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 19, 565-591.  (back)
  2. I believe Gary Stager used this phrase, or maybe it was Peter Reynolds of FableVision?  (back)