Teacher Scaffolding in Project Based Learning

Literature Review

What are the connections between teacher scaffolding and positive student achievement outcomes in project-based learning in primary school?



This literature review seeks to find connections between teacher-scaffolding and student outcomes in student-centred learning practices in primary school.  The main learning investigated is Project-Based Learning (PBL) although there is mention of Inquiry Learning (IL) as it is very similar to PBL.  Unlike discovery learning or purely experiential learning, both PBL and IL involve strong scaffolding. This review intends to look at the connections between this scaffolding and student outcomes.

The scope of the review is the primary years although some of the literature covered refers to middle years, up to year 10, and this provides a wider context. There is very little research available in the New Zealand context.  The findings of research in other countries such as Australia, USA and UK are also relevant to New Zealand.  The New Zealand education system is arguably less constrained than these countries and we do not have the same level of mandatory standardised testing up to year 10.  In theory this gives New Zealand educators more scope to implement student-centred learning systems and so the practices and results of other contexts should be of relevance in New Zealand.    Some further readings around project-based learning and the role of teacher scaffolding in student-centred learning provide further context to the study.

Project Based Learning (PBL) grew from the democratic education philosophy of John Dewey and has developed further in the past 25 years (Bauer, 2006). PBL is “a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully described products and tasks,” (Buck Institute for Education, 2008 quoted in Coffey, 2008, p.1).   PBL is similar to inquiry learning but has a greater emphasis on a final artifact.  It is “a constructivist method for teaching and learning that, at the end of the learning process, manifests itself in a product of some sort,” (Bauer, 2006).  

PBL and inquiry learning are both forms of student-centred learning as opposed to curriculum-centred learning (Brough, 2012). Anecdotally, many educators and most non-educators view student-centred learning as lacking structure, direction and direct teaching.  This is also reflected in debate in the literature.  There is a school of thought that groups discovery learning with problem-based, inquiry and experiential learning under the banner of minimally-guided learning (Kirscher, Sweller, & Clark, 2006).  Their argument is based on an understanding of the limited cognitive load capacity of the working memory thus arguing that teachers need to directly provide information and modeled solutions.  They argue complex cognitive processes of inquiry with the metacognitive structures of cooperation and processing that accompany it are too much for the working memory to cope with.  This argument mistakenly groups PBL and IL with unguided discovery learning.  “In both (PBL and IL), students are cognitively engaged in sense making, developing evidence-based explanations, and communicating their ideas.  The teacher plays a key role in facilitating the learning process and may provide content knowledge on a just-in-time basis,” (Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, & Chinn, 2007, p.100).    Thus the question is not whether or not PBL/IL is guided and whether there is explicit teaching, the question here is what sort of guidance is the most effective.

A kaupapa Maori worldview is reflected in the revised New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007).  The Maori worldview is “characterized by an abiding concern for the quality of human relationships (and)….the need to balance individual learning and achievement against responsibilities for the well-being and achievement of the group,” Within such a worldview, education is understood as, “Holistic, collective, experiential and dependent upon a free exchange of teaching and learning roles,” (Macfarlane, Glynn, Wiariki, Penetito, & Bateman, 2008, p.102).  “The concepts of whanau (extended family) and whakawhanungatanga (building family-like relationships) are central and critical because they underpin Maori understandings of human development and learning (p. 107).  This worldview is honoured in collaborative student-centred learning systems.

Some of the key factors of PBL fit very closely within kaupapa Maori. As a student-centred curriculum, PBL aims to teach skills and knowledge as they are needed rather than within curriculum areas.  This steps away from the Western mindset of compartmentalized knowledge towards the Maori way of knowing which involves direct experience in the natural world, (Barnhardt and Kawagley, 2005, in Macfarlane et al., 2008, p.107).  The New Zealand Curriculum focus on competencies is a holistic focus and competencies are judged through practice in a real context not in separate academic areas. 

Macfarlane et al, also point out that school itself is an authentic experience and not just a preparation for life beyond school (2008, p.108) and that for school to be culturally relevant it needs to be a place that promotes belonging, relationship and rangatiratanga (taking responsibility for one’s own learning).  All these things are in line with a student-centred curriculum practicing project-based or inquiry learning. 

PBL happens within a constructivist classroom and a constructivist classroom is a culturally relevant classroom which allows students to have a part in co-constructing learning where the individual is respected for who they are and what they bring, connected to a caring and relational community (Bishop et al, 2011 in Macfarlane et al., 2008).




A lot of the research around PBL has been conducted in the medical field with undergraduate students.  A metasynthesis comparing the outcomes for undergraduate medical students comparing PBL and traditional classrooms showed that PBL students had improved outcomes in terms of long term retention, skill development and satisfaction.  On the other hand, traditional methods favoured short-term outcomes and standardised tests (Strobel & van Barneveld, 2009).  One of the conclusions of this study was that more information is needed in other contexts such as K-12 education and researchers, “Should refocus on studying the differences in effectiveness of support structures to find optimal scaffolding, coaching and modeling strategies for successful facilitation of PBL” (p. 550).

Specific Studies for Review
The following five studies all discuss or study teacher scaffolding in PBL.  They all claim increased positive outcomes with most of these outcomes transferring into standards-based or formal assessments.

Implementing the democratic principles and practices of student-centred curriculum integration in primary schools (Brough, 2012)

This New Zealand-based study focuses on the primary years.  It involves the participatory action research of three teachers over an extended period of nine months.

Curriculum integration is “a generic term encompassing numerous perspectives and models,” (Brough, 2012, p. 346).  Brough traces it back to late nineteenth century America where there were two distinct varieties of education – subject-centred and student-centred.  Student-centred curriculum integration places students at the centre of learning.  Although most New Zealand primary teachers would consider their teaching to be student-centred, in a recent “stocktake” teachers’ main understanding was a subject-centred model (Brough, 2012).  The traditional NZ “theme” study is an example of learning experiences which appear to be student-centred but are actually centred around a curriculum area.  One of the skills of the student-centred teacher is to plan for authentic inquiry and manipulate “just in time” teaching so that the curriculum demands are met.

The questions asked of the three teachers in the study are relevant to the overall question of this review as the teachers are asking what they can do to give the children more control whilst maintaining quality learning and by implication this study is inquiring into what successful scaffolding would look like.

The key scaffolding included skillful questioning, collaboration, explicit metacognitive skill teaching and using the teachable moment.  It was acknowledged that this is a significant challenge.  Also that teachers think they are already doing it and do not realize they are not until they go further into student-centred learning.   As the teachers in the study moved into more student-centred learning, the study showed heightened levels of student engagement, the ability to apply learning to new contexts, improved oral language, enhanced problem-solving skills and the ability to make informed decisions.


Doing With Understanding:  Lessons from research on Problem and Project-Based Learning (Barron et al., 1998)

This study, based on US 5th and 6thg graders, identified four design principles which support PBL:

·      Defining learning-appropriate goals that lead to deep understanding
·      Providing scaffolds such as “embedded teaching,” “teaching tools,” “contrasting cases” and beginning with problem-based learning activities before initiating projects.
·      Ensuring multiple opportunities for formative self-assessment and revision
·      Developing social structures that promote participation and a sense of agency (Barron et al, 1998, p.271).

Two controlled experiments with fifth and sixth grade students showed that using a problem-based inquiry prior to the project helped them to engage more effectively with the project.  “A relatively circumscribed problem can support the initial development of vocabulary and concepts, and video-based problems, in particular, can present role models of students carrying out complicated work,” (Barron et al., 1998, p.277).  This particular scaffold was unique to this study.

Of the 62 sixth grade students, those exposed to problem-solving in the initial stages engaged with more mathematising in the final project of creating a fun fair item.  This is an important goal as students need to be able to use “formal knowledge in an authentic and complex setting,” (Barron et al., 1998, p.279).  There were similar results for 5th graders measuring river pollution.  In this case, the outcome was an increased understanding of interdependencies. 

Another scaffold, specifically drawn out in this study was using contrasting cases. This created an opportunity for students to analyse differences, for example, looking in a catalogue to choose an appropriate scientific instrument.

The results of the study saw the scaffolded students showing significant increases in accomplishment in the quality of the playhouse they designed (the artifact), on standards-based geometry tests and transferring the learning to design a new task.  All of these are sought-after learning outcomes. 

Project-Based Learning for the 21st Century: Skills for the Future (Bell, 2010)

Bell points out that PBL is not a supplementary activity which supports learning, but the basis of the curriculum.  Students engaging in PBL have been shown to achieve higher than students in traditional learning environments on standardised tests.  In a British study conducted over three years, three times the amount of students achieved the highest possible grade over other schools.  Of particular note was superior performance in questions with applied and conceptual problems, (Boaler, 1999, in Bell, 2010, p.40).   In the US, two elementary schools engaged in PBL raised their average student achievement from well below to average and a third school raised from well below to well above. 

The scaffolds mentioned in this study are: project organisers, project planning scaffolding and an authentic target audience.

This article states that accountability to peers and not wanting to let their friends down would ensure equal student contribution to the project (p.40).  Also that differentiation provides intrinsic motivation.  The experience of the writer indicates this is not sufficient.    A belief that somehow the natural environment creates the conditions for robust learning is somewhat hopeful.  Bell writes, “Students are conscientious because they must complete their project in the allotted time.”  In reality, students are often poorly committed to task completion and have a rush at the last minute to produce a “finished” but inferior product.  The article also assumes that through social learning, students will naturally help students gain twenty-first century skills.   Creating the conditions for learning is not enough to make the learning occur.  The complex cognitive and collaborative skills required for PBL have to be explicitly taught.  The article does talk about teaching active listening skills, and scaffolding for success to “assist them in making cognitive growth just beyond their reach,” (p.41), but the implication is that the rest may be “caught” rather than “taught.”    

Motivating Project-Based Learning: Sustaining the Doing, Supporting the Learning  (Blumenfeld et al., 1991)

Blumenfeld et al say it is insufficient just to provide opportunities as students will not always invest the necessary effort.  The 1960’s discovery learning did not last because there was insufficient understanding of the complex nature of student motivation, and knowledge required to engage in cognitively difficult work.  Newer approaches are more cognitive and this article talks about the master/apprentice model.  “Teachers should scaffold instruction by breaking down tasks; use modeling, promoting, and coaching to teach strategies for thinking and problem solving; and gradually release responsibility to the learner,” (p. ).

Cognitive scaffolding and engagement is crucial for PBL.  It is easy to be side-tracked as projects may have high interest value but interest can be valued over cognitive engagement.  Similarly, choice and control are crucial but in themselves don’t necessary engage the curriculum.    Motivation is gained through choice and personal interest but projects on their own may not be sufficient to sustain motivation.  Teachers need to provide information, scaffold instruction, encourage metacognitive process and give feedback in order to sustain motivation.  The cognitive sophistication of groupwork is a necessary skill but is not always sufficient.  Thus scaffolding must include direct instruction in cognitive tool proficiency and metacognitive skills.  In the same way, technology may be a scaffold through providing access to information, active representations and multimedia presentations but cognitive engagement with technology also needs to be scaffolded.


Project-Based Learning (Krajcik & Blumenfeld, 2006)

This article also covers the types of scaffolds required to sustain PBL.  Similar to the previous articles, it describes the learning environment as needing:
·      A driving question
·      Inquiry into question
·      Collaborative community
·      Scaffolds
·      Tangible products to address the driving question.

Krajcik and Blumenfeld include computer software as a cognitive tool which can allow learners to visual and manipulate complex data and expand the range of questions that can be asked.  They don’t describe how the teacher might scaffold the use of software.    Like Barron et al (1998), they endorse a preliminary learning experience to set the scene for the project.  In this case they talk about “anchoring experiences.”  These are common experiences which the students engage with in order to set the context for the learning.

Similarities in scaffolding

All the articles discussed are constructivist and all have a strong insistence on a good driving question which needs to be “feasible, worthwhile, contextualised, meaningful and ethical,” acknowledging that it is very difficult for students to develop good questions (Krajcik & Blumenfeld, 2006, p.321).  The question itself is a scaffold but it needs to be well crafted and when there’s a weakness it can be because it is a question from the point of view of the teacher and not the student (Blumenfeld et al., 1991).  Without the structure of a good question, the students can get caught up in the doing and miss the reflection.  For example in a rocket launching project, sixth grade students did not learn much more than the making of the rocket due to the lack of a driving question that would cause reflection and focused inquiry.  It was found that building in a question on specifications prompted more considered thinking responses (Barron et al., 1998).

Teachers can model good questioning, especially in the early years of primary school where they can model open-ended questions, “I wonder” questions or use a thinking out loud technique.  When they do this student thinking and contributions raise.  In the New Zealand study, skillful questioning “avoided providing answers, conducted agenda-free discussions, genuinely listened and, wherever feasible, acted on students’ ideas,” (Beane, 1997, Fraser, 2000 cited in Brough, 2012, p.356).

So a crucial part of teacher scaffolding is teaching how to question and supporting the students to develop a strong question.  A substantial question opens the way for “just in time” learning, curriculum coverage and specific teaching of the required collaborative and meta-cognitive skills (Brough, 2012)

Collaboration between students and a sense of wider community are an important part of PBL and in this aspect particularly aligned with kaupapa Maori.  Collaboration needs to be specifically scaffolded, for instance through establishing norms of individual accountability (Johnson, Johnson, Holubec, & Roy, 1984; Slavin, 1983 cited in Barron et al., 1998).   A collaborative classroom is an authentic and real structure in itself, and it then builds bridges between the classroom with the community beyond and with an authentic audience (Barron et al., 1998; Bell, 2010; Krajcik & Blumenfeld, 2006; Blumenfeld et al., 1991).

Vital to PBL is the creation of an artefact.  It is this aspect that distinguishes it to some degree from inquiry learning.  “Students’ freedom to generate artifacts is critical, because it is through this process of generation that students construct their knowledge – the doing and the learning are inextricable,” (Blumenfeld et al., 1991, p.372).

Differences in Scaffolding
All of the articles except for Bell (2010) are specific in aspects of required teacher scaffolding.  Although Bell does mention some specific scaffolding there is an implication that creating the conditions is enough and that students will naturally collaborate, do their best and produce thoughtful results simply if the environment enables it.  This is where this learning can fall down. 

Some of the writers are specific about what teachers could actually do to scaffold the process.  They can provide preliminary problem-based learning (Barron et al., 1998), or structure collaborative groups for individual accountability (Bell, 2010), or use an “anchoring experience” to set the scene (Krajcik & Blumenfeld, 2006).  Even though New Zealand teachers tend to think of themselves as child-centred, Brough discovered that they tend to plan and teach in a curriculum-centred way.  Brough also discussed how challenging student-centred learning is for teachers to deliver and how the teachers in his study although engaging in individual participatory action research, also benefited from targeted professional development and a professional learning group.

Gaps for Further Research

There is room for more research in the use of this sort of learning in New Zealand.  When Heather Aked of Wellington East Girl’s College investigated PBL for her sabbatical she looked in Australia, USA and UK (Aked, 2016).  The participatory action research model or teaching as inquiry model would be a good start for teachers to build up reflective sharing on what works in student-centred learning such as PBL or IL. 

Specifically it would be good to see aspects of teacher scaffolding isolated and controlled to further investigate the effect on achievement, particularly scaffolds which support the cognitive processes.  As it is acknowledged this type of teaching is challenging and we do not have blueprints, it would be good to see some specific pathways of good practice to support novice PBL teachers.

Conclusions
Primary and middle school examples of scaffolding connected with successful outcomes have been investigated.  These are within an international context as there was insufficient New Zealand-based research.  The five studies selected all have strong similarities in terms of the absolute necessity of a strong driving question, authentic collaboration, the need for specific teacher scaffolding of cognitive processes and the essential final artefact which makes the learning purposeful.   There is more need for research on the effect of different types of scaffolding, particularly scaffolding for the complex cognitive processes involved in PBL.






REFERENCES
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