Explicit Instruction, Problem Solving, The Middle Way and other 21st Century Skills

I have spent the year trying to make inroads into Project-Based Learning and I have decided that it doesn’t fit my needs or context. On top of this, it seems to have dubious efficacy for A-E outcomes and learning by inquiry has a low effect size (0.35). It probably is very good for developing a Growth Mindset and other ‘soft skills’, such as collaboration and social and personal skills, but these are not measured by any standards in any syllabus that I use. So, for next year, I am going to focus on ‘The Middle Way’.

Why Explicit Instruction?

Explicit Instruction is my Pedagogical Framework and common language of instruction. It is important that I maintain this learning culture and support my colleagues by being consistent in my practices.

Hattie’s Effect Size 2016 Update reiterates the significant effect of Direct Instruction and adds collective teacher efficacy as making a big difference.

Why Problem Solving?

Teaching problem solving has a higher effect size than Direct Instruction. In the Technologies learning area, we use the Problem-based learning framework. [Digital Solutions 2019 v1.0 General Senior Syllabus – QCAA]

Why 21st Century Skills

This should be a known factor by now, but some recent articles are:

The New Basics – Foundation for Young Australians

The Commonwealth Bank jobs and skills of the future report.

Australian Curriculum General Capabilities

Read also: Digital Solutions 2019 v1.0 General Senior Syllabus – QCAA

What is the Middle Way

A balance needs to be struck between:

  1. Explicit Instruction and learning by Inquiry
  2. Teacher directed and Student directed
  3. Projects and Project-Based Learning (PBL)

The balance between Explicit Instruction and learning by Inquiry

The majority of research backs the effectiveness of Explicit Instruction; particularly for A-E data. Inquiry-based teaching has an effect size of 0.35 (below 0.4 significance), compared with 0.6 for Direct Instruction.

However, being able to inquire is an important 21st century skill. As part of their place in our contemporary world, students need to be able to define what they need to know and plan a search to find the answer; locate data and information; and select and evaluate the answer. Another important 21st Century behaviour or quality is for students to be self-managing and self-directed.

The Middle Way strikes a balance between the two by modelling and guiding students through the inquiry process. With the gradual release of responsibility, the goal is always to impart these skills so that students can apply them independently.

The balance between Teacher directed and Student directed

It is clear that Teacher led instruction is more effective than purely Student led learning. However, in the Technologies learning area, the problems that we want students to tackle are often complex and don’t benefit from teacher imposed constraints. To account for this, we will head the advice in Digital Solutions 2019 v1.0 General Senior Syllabus – QCAA:

In technologies:

– problem-based learning is an active process of knowledge construction that uses open-ended problems as a stimulus for student learning

– problems that support problem-based learning should challenge and motivate students to engage their interest

– provide opportunities for students to examine the problem from multiple perspectives or disciplines

– provide multiple possible solutions and solution paths

– require students to comprehend and use a breadth and depth of knowledge during problem-solving

– recognise students’ prior knowledge

– recognise students’ stage of cognitive development

– provide opportunities to allow all students to explore innovative open-ended solutions

– relate to the real world

– the learning environment is organised to represent the complex nature of the problems students are required to solve, e.g. the learning area values collaboration using teamwork and brainstorming, as these are strategies used during real-world problem-solving

– the teacher is responsible for scaffolding student learning and cognition during problem- solving as a coach, guide or facilitator to maintain the independence and self-directedness of student learning

– self-directed learning does not mean students are self-taught; instead, teachers balance their participation so that students maintain responsibility for learning, e.g. students make decisions about the knowledge and skills they require to effectively solve a problem, supported by the teacher’s questioning and cueing strategies

– the perception of student self-direction in the learning process is fundamental to problem- based learning.

Problems

Central to problem-based learning is the provision or identification of suitably challenging, subject-specific, context-relevant, real-world problems. Student engagement with these problems facilitates student learning of Digital Solutions subject matter. Problems suitable for Digital Solutions:

– are identified as any human need, want or opportunity that requires a new or re-imagined digital solution

– are identified by teachers, clients and/or students in situations related to unit-specific and subject-relevant technologies elements, components, principles and processes

– promote purposeful analytical activities undertaken in response to an identified real-world related problem that requires a digital solution

– are resolved using the problem-solving process.

The balance between Projects and Project-Based Learning (PBL)

The big difference between “Doing Projects” and PBL is the process. Amy Mayer has compared the two:

[What’s the Difference Between “Doing Projects” and Project Based Learning ?Image attribution flickr user josekevo; The Difference Between Projects And Project-Based Learning; © Amy Mayer, @friEdTechnologyThe Original WOW! Academy,www.friEdTechnology.com]

The main factor that separates the two is rigorous assessment. PBL is excellent for fostering 21st Century and “soft skills”, but these are not ultimately measured and have no standards in syllabus documents. Every year at ABW everyone agrees that they see anecdotal (students are actively engaged in activity) evidence of good learning outcomes; and these are mainly “soft skills”. But when you drill down, the learning is not linked or assessed against any curriculum standards.

The main pillar of PBL is student led inquiry and this has been shown to have a low effect size. In my own attempts at PBL, I ended up scaffolding the process for rigorous assessment so much that it became much closer to Teacher led Explicit Instruction. PBL may be very effective if it is overlayed on a learning culture with a growth mindset, student agency and self-management and students have well developed social and emotional skills.

The middle way strikes a balance between the two and marshals explicit teacher guidance throughout the problem solving cycle, with constant formative assessment, coupled with the gradual release of responsibility for summative assessment. 21st Century and future skills and behaviours are still embedded throughout but they are explicitly modelled and taught. Students need spaced practice and the gradual release of responsibility to formatively master these skills before being released on their own and summatively assessed. Likewise, with the problem solving cycle. Students will need to go through several iterations before they can work independently.

The balance between Explicit Instruction and Blended learning

Blended learning works well when there is a high level of students agency and self-management, coupled with a Growth Mindset. However, if you are not quite there yet, try Not Quite Blended learning.

In the technologies area, there are many online self-paced courses; that even have learning management built in. There are others that have a series of video tutorials to follow and you can easily create a schedule for students to follow. To increase the effectiveness of student learning with these, it is a good idea to leverage both Pair Programming and the Gradual Release of Responsibility within Explicit Instruction. To do this, start off modelling (I do) the process of watching an instructional video or interactive presentation, pausing and reproducing the instructions within the application or development environment. In pair programming, this would be one screen for the instructions and one for the development environment. Then students can follow (We Do) until you are confident that they can keep going independently (You Do). You may need to keep going with this process from lesson to lesson with the below proficiency students, while the above proficiency students may go off ahead; effectively differentiating and personalising learning.

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