Improving peer editing

One challenge in writing a textbook on technology integration is knowing when to stop including things. You do not want to drift into areas covered in other courses (e.g., Methods) or to extend your comments beyond your areas of expertise. Of course, you also want to include enough information that what you do write leaves learners with enough guidance that they feel they can act on the information provided.

One of our core recommendations has long been a modification of writing across the curriculum or writing to learn we have labelled authoring to learn. We extend the area of writing to learn in to include approaches that involve multimedia authoring. We contend such recommendations are concrete, efficient, and thoroughly researched as a strategy that lends itself to various implementations of project based learning.

In our most recent edition, we explore the role online tools such as Google docs offer in developing writing skills and applying writing to learn strategies. A key component of effective instruction in either area is the revision process – writing is an iterative process that moves toward a higher quality product and a deeper level of understanding when revision is emphasized. A reality associated with such benefits is the time intensive nature of supporting revision. Ideally (although some might question the use of this superlative), teacher review and guidance would offer the best approach. However, heavy use of writing to learn tasks would also place what might be unrealistic demands on teacher time. Peer editing may offer the solution. In addition to the advantage of a division of labor, peer editing should offer a way to develop editing skills. Improvement in editing skill not only would benefit peers, but would also the writing skills of the “editor”. 

Our content on this topic already reviewed the challenges of developing skilled peer editors and provided references both supporting this approach and identifying issues that can occur when peer editors are “turned loose” without preparation and training. Our suggestions for how to support editors offered general guidelines, but did not provide specific examples. This is the issue of straying into the area of methods courses and limitations in our own personal experiences we mentioned earlier.

I have finally located a resource that offers the kind of concrete suggestions to explain the general guidelines we provided. This is a lesson from the ReadWriteThink site. The PowerPoint that can be downloaded gives very specific suggestions for what young editors should do in reacting to the work of their peers.

The gold standard

One more PBL post!!

The Buck Institute just generated a post requesting a search for the PBL gold standard. While promoting PBL activities, the post argues that many such activities are not effective. I like the way they describe the issue:

Do we really need to see another classroom stocked with sugar-cube pyramids or Styrofoam solar systems?

Perhaps what you get when you look at all classroom activities labelled by someone as PBL are the kind of results I point to in my last two posts. There are certainly “activities” that have led to the concern for the importance of “minds on, not just hands on” implying that there are too many busy-work activities. Also, as I described in my recent posts, there are papers identifying cognitive and affective conditions that PBL activities should address (Belland, et al., 2013; Hung, 2011). While it would be impractical to evaluate all activities in this fashion, there are examples of activities that have been studied using careful research techniques (e.g., Wirkala & Kuhn, 2011). If the Buck Institute wants a place to begin, I would propose using such examples.

I get the feeling of deja vu as I follow the new arguments for and against PBL. I was at one time very interested in the WebQuest model. I found it concrete and theoretically sound and it seemed to generate a good deal of interest. What seemed to happen (IMHO) is that many did not understand many of the original expectations for a quality WebQuest. The glut of examples available online left it to the “consumer” to determine whether the activity was a fun way to spend class time and/or a meaningful learning activity. I remember Bernie Dodge attempting to create a curated site (I think users had to pay a small fee to use) that would offer examples, invite feedback, and encourage enhancements. I might now describe it as an “Angie’s List”. Interest just seemed to fade.

This issue also reminds me of Merlot. In fact, I wondered whether Merlot still exists (it does). I remember the interest in Merlot at my University when it first became available. It was promoted as a way to find quality “learning objects” for your classroom. I found that I was the 8th faculty member from my institution to sign up in 2006. I did not find many of the resources of value, but I did find some things I used. I really cannot explain why I stopped looking, but my reaction may have been common. The service seems to generate little buzz of late.

I agree with Buck that we need some high quality examples and we probably need these examples from a variety of disciplines/levels. It seems possible to me that the general advantage of direct instruction may occur because many motivated educators who understand something are simply better at explaining what they understand than they are at creating environments and activities that both motivate and educate students. Asking deep questions and creating authentic problem scenarios are not easy tasks.

Perhaps the design of “problems/projects” should be left to those with the time and skill to generate resources that meet high standards. We certainly do not expect educators to create all of the other educational resources they use in their classrooms.


Belland, B. R., Kim, C., & Hannafin, M. J. (2013). A Framework for Designing Scaffolds That Improve Motivation and Cognition. Educational Psychologist, 48(4), 243-270.

Hung, Woei (2011). “Theory to reality: A few issues in implementing problem-based learning”. Educational Technology Research and Development 59 (4): 529.

Wirkala. C. & Kuhn, D. (2011). Problem-Based Learning in K–12 Education: Is it Effective and How Does it Achieve its Effects?, American Educational Research Journal, 48, 1157–1186

Allowing teachers to think critically about PBL

This is a follow-up to my last post and a reaction to an Edutopia annotated bibliography of PBL research .

I am aware of the calls for educational reform and the proposals that problem-based or project-based activities are a way to address this need for reform. Depending on the sources you follow, you may get the idea that educational leaders and educators are resistant to new and more productive approaches that  help students learn if PBL methods are not implemented immediately. I am guessing that those who continue to rely on more traditional methods are aware of the advocacy for what have sometimes been described as “learner-centered”, “inquiry-based” or “discovery” methods and wonder about their own behavior as a consequence.

In reaction to this information environment, I have considered what my role should be. I with my wife have a textbook used in the preparation of future teachers and in the further development of teachers returning for graduate work. Here is my thinking on my role. My job is to identify key issues in the field and offer the best information available related to these issues. I do believe a textbook should be more than a “how to do it” manual. The information that should be made available when a situation is complex may often involve describing controversies and the evidence supporting the different sides of a given difference of opinion.

I believe my job is to encourage reflection on practice alternatives. You cannot encourage critical thinking if you knowingly leave out credible alternative positions. A partial description leaves the decision maker in the dark. To do so would be akin to propaganda. The goal of a textbook when valid controversies exist is not to sell one side of the issue but to help the learner come to a reasoned understanding.

My issue with PBL is that reviews of the research completed by some of the most established educational researchers (some examples appear at the end of this post) have found direct instruction to be a more productive method. These conclusions are based on what the researchers regard as quality studies. It should be noted that a summary of the research does not imply that a given method is always found to be superior. What I find objectionable about the Edutopia  bibliography is that there is no hint that this is an area of disagreement. None of the research summaries I mention are included.

There are examples of quality research that demonstrate the potential of PBL (see references for Kuhn appearing below) and there are detailed analyses of the implementation and affective issues that must be considered for PBL methods to be effective (Belland, et al., 2013; Hung, 2011). To borrow the title of a book on a completely unrelated topic “it is complicated” (apologizes to d boyd) and to imply otherwise is simply misleading.

Belland, B. R., Kim, C., & Hannafin, M. J. (2013). A Framework for Designing Scaffolds That Improve Motivation and Cognition. Educational Psychologist, 48(4), 243-270.

Capon, N., & Kuhn, D. (2004). What’s so good about problem-based learning? Cognition and Instruction, 22(1), 61–79.

Hung, Woei (2011). “Theory to reality: A few issues in implementing problem-based learning”. Educational Technology Research and Development 59 (4): 529.

Kirschner, P.A.; Sweller, J.; Clark, R.E. (2006). “Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching”. Educational Psychologist 41 (2): 75–86.

Lesgold, A (2001). “The nature and methods of learning by doing”. American Psychologist 56 (11): 964–971.

Mayer, R. (2004). “Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery? The case for guided methods of instruction.”. American Psychologist 59: 14–19.

Wirkala. C. & Kuhn, D. (2011). Problem-Based Learning in K–12 Education: Is it Effective and How Does it Achieve its Effects?, American Educational Research Journal, 48, 1157–1186

PBL Challenge

It seems we point to the findings of science selectively. Most folks I know profess amazement that some ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change or evolution. They are concerned when the “scientific perspective” is not the basis for what students experience if these topics are considered.

Why then is the assumption that our best evidence should not guide practice applied when selecting learning activities? You will have to trust me on this (unless someone really wants to review my reference list), but direct instruction consistently results in better academic performance than project based learning, problem based learning, discovery learning, etc. How do PBL advocates rationalize this reality? I seriously want to know because I find the PBL philosophy appealing as well. I just personally struggle with ignoring what research findings suggest.

I try arguing with myself seeking answers. I know many of the proposals. Direct instruction works when the dependent variable is simple, factual knowledge. Direct instruction turns learners off because it is boring. Direct instruction results in learning that fails when it comes to application or flexibility. However, whatever the counter argument, the position is only an hypothesis unless tested. Show me the data (or the money if you prefer). I am waiting to be convinced.

I am aware of what I consider successful PBL research. Success is possible. Here is what I think until shown otherwise. I am guessing that successful PBL takes far more skill to implement with classroom groups than direct instruction. Most PBL attempts probably do not meet an acceptable standard.  I know this sounds harsh, but what is the goal here? In general, I think many students are simply lost or overwhelmed when self directed. I do not think a substantial proportion of students are any more motivated by many PBL tasks. The outcome data simply do not support the argument that common implementations of PBL are as productive as more traditional methods.

So, at this point in my career, I do no longer have the opportunity to conduct research studies. I do have great interest in this topic and continue to search the journals for interesting studies. Learning experiences should not be promoted by talk or novelty.

STEM, STEAM and Beyond

The origins for this post came from my annoyance with the STEAM argument. I can understand the concern of those who are interested in art and music and that these areas are underfunded and even dropped from the curriculum. However, it sometimes seems that we focus more on what makes a legal acronym than what skills are most useful in the long run. How do arguments for the importance of courses that emphasize the understanding of human behavior (psychology, sociology, economics, history) enter the conversation when the letters representing these areas do not seem to extend STEM – e.g., SSSTEM or STEAMSS do not seem to work.

I, like anyone, examine issues through the lens of personal experience. I was originally educated as a “STEM type” and make (now made) my living as an academic psychologist. It is informative to consider how most assume the two areas ended up connected. When I discuss my background most jump to the conclusion that my work must have emphasized brain function. It seems assumed that the science, if there is any, in psychology must involve the study of the brain. This was not the connection. I became a psychologist because I was interested in science education. The undergraduate degree in biology would have taught me little about the brain and as I now understand the curriculum of both programs there is a greater consideration of brain function in psychology. Anyway, this was not my interest. I was interested in the relationship between learning activities and learning and the analysis of this connection was what I was found in the study of human cognition.

It is interesting to consider the likely relationship between vocational activities and academic preparation. The notion that STEM skills are necessary in the 21st century certainly makes some sense, but I think shows flaws when pressed. For examples, consider the value placed on the vague concepts of problem solving and critical thinking. Where in the STEM areas are such skills acquired? I would argue that Calculus offers far less value than would a course in Statistics. I would also argue that the research methodologies emphasized (in combination with statistics) in psychology and sociology offer far more for understanding real world problems that the research methods of biology or chemistry. The methods of science applied in the chemistry laboratory assumes simple relationships. One of the core problems in understanding human issues is the reliance on anecdotal examples of behavior without consideration of sampling bias and other methodological flaws not considered in “STEM” research.

We seem to be drifting toward a technical school model of education, but seem to understand that skills change quickly a traditional vocational education will not have long term value. What we resort to is a focus on math and science because these areas seem the basis for productivity advantages. What seems missing is an analysis of the diversity of skills that go into keeping the entire enterprise going. Few will make contributions based in math and science. Other areas end up being more universally important.

Grabe & Grabe Revision

We switched our textbook from a commercial publisher to Amazon a couple of years ago. The reasons were complex, but we have greater control over our new self-imposed model. One of the opportunities was to control what went in the book (we wanted to call it a Primer) and what resources we provided online. A book on tech applications, after all, should make some use of technology. A second desire was that we could write continuously instead of in the few months before the next edition was to be sent to press.

There are certainly challenges in Kindle publishing. The formatting is tricky and never seems to work out as intended. The revision has also been challenging to push out to those who already purchased the earlier version. The Amazon model supposedly allows updates to be pushed out to those who already made a purchase decision. It certainly sounds like this in the instructions. However, I have purchased a copy and to get the “automatic upgrade” I had to contact Amazon. The company was helpful, but the process should be easier.


The goal was to push out the revision so those instructors who were using the book in their classes would know that newer content was available for their students. Not having the book reps go door to door and promote a book is the one downside of self publishing. Convenience for the instructor is helpful. On the other hand, a sales force adds greatly to the cost students pay.

Grabe and Grabe revision is available through the Amazon store.



Serious Hobbies

Educators sometimes look to experiences outside of the classroom in order to identify ways in which classrooms might be improved. Such was the case with games. In studying games, these researchers were attempting to understand what about games seemed to encourage the passion and learning that seemed to be associated with complex games. Some go so far as to believe that skills can be learned from existing games (not necessarily designed to teach traditional subject matter) that are relevant to  academic skills. You hear the phrase “serious games” used quite frequently in reference to this area of research.

Why games? If I were to apply this same logic, I would study hobbies. I know this is already being done with citizen scientists. I have a retired professor friend who studied amateur astronomers on NSF funding so I know that mine is not an original idea.

I think the serious hobby thing needs a promoter. The first thing I would do would be to make the activity sound more exciting and relevant. I think a more descriptive title would be helpful – serious hobbies. I think serious hobbies could give us a better way to expand our educational perspective than serious games.

I have been attending a rendezvous for several years just because I find the people so interesting. I would have assumed that these folks were history teachers and this vocation encouraged the “live in the woods in less than ideal conditions in the summer experience” as an avocation. From talking to some of the folks this seems not to be the case. Some are retired. Others seem to just find the quest for the “authentic” experience challenging. So you have the blacksmith hobbyist, the baking hobbyist, the black powder marksman hobbyist, etc.

One thought that always occurs to me. How do these folks convince their spouses and children that this is a cool thing to do. Live in these tents without mosquito netting and wear authentic period clothes.