PBL and Computer-Based Learning for Improved Motivation: Responding to Christensen, Horn and Johnson

Michael Horn, Clayton Christensen, and Curtis Johnson return with a new edition of Disrupting Class, and a new whitepaper on a topic of concern to all of us, Student Motivation.   I reviewed favorably and discussed Disrupting Class about two years; I think it is an important book to inform our thinking about where K-12 learning is headed, even if it is perhaps overblown and inflated in spots (and even if we don't entirely like where it says schooling is headed).

That book really influenced me in my recent enthusiasm for “reverse instruction:” if students increasingly can get the content knowledge delivery online, we have to think harder about how to use our classrooms in a way which offer more value than the lectures they can now get elsewhere.

This new white paper takes us further in asking us to address this same question: in an age of powerfully stimulating and engaging electronic networks, and online learning, what does school do for for kids?

Instead of asking the question the normal way–  what should we provide students to offer them what we think they most need– this paper argues we need to turn it around and ask of our students: what are they hiring us for?

“Teachers and parents 'offer education' but many students are not buying what is being offered.”

(The authors confront this question not to be nice to kids, but to promote more learning:  they explain that kids who are getting what they need will drop out and learn less; on the positive side, kids who are getting what they seek from school work harder and learn more: “if children are motivated to learn and if we enable each one to learn effectively, we will have an educational system with a great performance record.”)

Without any apology, the authors borrow from corporate marketing strategy to address student educational motivation and, from that point of view, how schools can better “win” students as committed customers.   This blogger has long expressed the philosophy that we need to take the student point of view seriously and honor the students' perceived experience of schooling, so I appreciate and respect this.  (I only wish that in my practice of school leadership I were accomplishing the effective implementation of this philosophy more fully).  From Christensen and Horn:

Most of the home runs of marketing history occurred when people senses the fundamental job that customers were trying to do– and then found a way to help more people do it more effectively, conveniently, and affordably.

A job is the fundamental problem a customer needs to resolve in a given situation.

One of the reasons why the jobs-to-be-done concept is proving to be powerful in directing successful innovation within so many companies is that it gets directly at the cause of action.

We believe that a core reason so many students languish unmotivated in school, or don't come to class at all, is that education isn't a job they are trying to do. Education is something they might choose to do to hire the job– but it isn't the job.

Here then, having established reasonably effectively that we can address student motivation by taking seriously the student's viewpoint of school's purpose really is, they then offer their hypothesis of what that viewpoint is.

The two core jobs that most students try to do every day: They want to feel successful and make progress, and they want to have fun with their friends.

I am a bit disappointed here: I wholeheartedly agree with their hypothesis of what the “job” of school is that kids hire it for, but in an academic paper and argument like this, it is offered on pretty thin grounds of evidence.    Because I agree with it, I am not so bothered by it, but I wish for the sake of my own advocacy for this agenda that these authors with their resources established it more thoroughly.

In the footnotes, they tell us that the latter– seeing their friends– is “accepted wisdom among educators.”  I agree that I hear it often, and I know I have said it often– I believe it– but I wish there more evidence.   As for the former– feel successful and make progress– there is offered only a brief disclaimer that they are not thinking here of “self esteem” programming, and then they offer a lengthy quote from Willingham on the pleasure that solving problems brings.

Our authors next suggest that schools perform miserably, compared to alternatives, at fulfilling this “job” for students.  (No evidence is provided to defend this assertion, but I agree with them we can and should do better).  Extracurricular programs like sports and theater productions do do well at this, they write,  but they are outside of the mainstream of the school-day, and and exams, which offer feedback, provide that feedback, and sense of success and progress, too infrequently for all, and too rarely for many who are less than successful on them.

Instead of viewing their task as enabling their students to do the job that they're trying t

o do, educators operate as if the delivery of education is their objective.   The activities in schools generally are not integrated in ways to help students be successful every day.

Now the most important stuff: what are the proposed solutions of this paper's authors? “What might correct integration, that helps students feel successful every day, look like?

Two, and only two, answers are offered.  Advance warning:  I like them each independently, and I agree that the first of the two they propose does meet the criteria established.   Oddly, the second of the two remedies, the one given more attention in this article and more aligned with the broader argument of Disrupting Class as a whole, only seems, to this reader, to meet the needs of one of the two criteria– a gap that is not acknolwedged or addressed.

So, the first- PBL:

Some schools, like the Big Picture Schools [and New Tech Network & High Tech High] follow a “project-based” learning strategy, in which students are organized into teams and then undertake meaningful projects that require them to master the reading, writing, math, science, and social science skills that the school wants them to learn.  This integrates the delivery of curriculum with experiences that enable students to feel successful and have fun with their friends every day.

No educator will ever pretend that awesome PBL is easy to pull off, but this blogger is a consistent advocate for the aspiration: effective PBL achieves so much of what we are aiming for in education, and I think these authors are right– when effective, it does fulfill the “job” students are seeking to hire school for.   It is no coincidence that some of the school programs most effective at combating drop-outs are those like NTN, HTH, and BPS which are implementing often awesome PBL.    I had the pleasure only yesterday of watching a team of my students at St. Gregory launching projectiles from a school-made, ten foot tall, trebuchet, and after each launch, adjusting it for improved performance.  They were with their friends, learning by doing, and had a tangible sense of accomplishment.

The second, on-line learning:

we take an assertive position in Disrupting Class on the wisdom of using computer-based learning as the mechanism for achieving student-centric learning [because] by the very nature of the software, achievement can be integrated with the delivery of content in ways that help students feel successful while they learn, every day.  Often this comes in the form of reviews of examinations that are built into the software, which require students to demonstrate mastery before they can be move on to the next body of material.  Feedback can be delivered frequently in bite-sized pieces, as necessary, to help each student feel successful.

There is mounting evidence that students' learning is maximized when content is delivered “just above” their current capabilities-not too much of a stretch, and not too easy.   Customization to the “just above” level for each student is much easier to achieve in software than in the current monolithic delivery of most schools.

I agree with everything stated here;  I do wish there were more of a nod, in the body or in the notes, to the important work of people like James Paul GeeMarc Prensky, and Chris Dede, all of whom have written brilliantly and in some cases provided good research evidence for exactly these ideas.

But as above, it is strange to me that there is no discussion whatsoever  about the fundamental problem that computer-based learning does not provide students the chance to socialize with friends– one of the two core purposes of the job students are hiring school for!  This is not to say I think there is no way at all in which students can socialize while on computers: I watch my son play online with his friends for hours, and it is highly social.   But even this point is not made, and while this socializing may be “enough” for some teens, it is not, I humbly suggest, for the majority.

I am also sorry that the authors, (whom I respect and appreciate) didn't push harder in this admittedly, and in fairness, tentative and preliminary discussion of the topic, to think how educators can and perhaps already are working to reconcile and implement these two techniques into their classrooms every day, and in doing so, addressing and even solving the problem of the second approach.

Reverse instruction, as being practiced by educators and bloggers Jonathan Bergmann, Aaron Sams, Karl FischJohn Sowash, and does this: it asks students to learn online at home, learning from online lectures or working through online learning programs with immediate feedback for senses of progress and growth that students seek for fulfillment, and then also has them come into classrooms every day to apply that at-home learning to challenging problem based projects they tackle in groups socially.

So to readers:

do you agree that these two things–  have fun with friends, and have a feeling of success and growth– are what kids “hire” school for?

and if so, what would you suggest to Christensen and Horn that schools do differently, or better, to better provide these things to kids, such that they are more motivated, work hard, and ultimately learn more?

I look forward to your responses.

[cross-posted at my blog, 21k12blog.net]

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2 Comments

  1. Below is the comment/response to this same post on my home blog-site, 21k12, by article co-author Michael B. Horn. I thank Michael for responding!
    ———

    Thanks for your thorough post and review of our new chapter. You raise some good points — and we are doing continuing research on the Jobs that not only students have in their lives, but also teachers, parents, administrators, etc. This is a very high level overview of this to launch us into pursuing this topic far more, and so your points are good ones. We have some preliminary research that does support the basic assertions in the chapter, however.

    Regarding the work of Prensky, Gee, et al — we talk about them in Chapter 9 of the book, and have enhanced this part of the book somewhat in the new edition. It’s hard to cover everything of course, but their work continues to be exciting and of great interest, no doubt about it.

    Regarding online learning and the social question — a good point. In many cases of course, online learning is deeply social. In others it is less so — and depending on the student and the circumstance (subject, etc.) depends on how much that social element within the actual learning is important (or more accurately, how it should be shaped). My colleague Katherine Mackey recently blogged about this, and I have blogged about this question a few times as well at http://www.innosightinstitute.org and more recently on the Huffington Post. Also, given that the majority of the growth of online learning is in blended/hybrid environments and will continue to be so, schools should be able to incorporate the “have fun with friends” job in their overall offerings as students still attend bricks-and-mortar environments with their fellow peers. Our vignettes throughout the book make it clear we see that as continuing.
    — Michael B. Horn

    November 7, 2010

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