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Problem-Based Historical Inquiry – Page

The Effects of Multimedia-Supported Problem-Based Historical Inquiry on Student Engagement, Empathy, and Assumptions about History

Thomas Brush

Indiana University

John Saye

Auburn University


Please address correspondences to:
Dr. Thomas Brush

Associate Professor, IST

Indiana University School of Education

201 N. Rose Ave.

Bloomington, IN 47405

Phone: (812) 856-8458

This paper extends a continuing line of inquiry investigating how multimedia resources might be joined with other support structures to effectively implement problem-based histrocial inquiry (PBHI) activities for students in secondary social studies classrooms. Two history teachers with experience in PBHI implemented a technology-supported civil rights unit in their classrooms. Analysis of culminating student presentations determined that students developed competent positions reflecting understanding of and engagement with the central unit problem. Student interview and observational data suggested that students believed that their experiences with the multimedia environment provided a more authentic context for encountering historical content, provoked a more empathetic view of historical dilemmas, and encouraged meaningful encounters with historical issues that promoted retention and engagement.

The Effects of Multimedia-Supported Problem-Based Historical Inquiry on Student Engagement, Empathy, and Assumptions about History


Over the past several years, researchers have posited that the investigation of authentic, complex problems is an effective method to deeply engage learners with a variety of content and develop better decision-makers and problem-solvers (Jonassen, 1997, 1999). Problem-based learning activities provide learners with opportunities to move beyond the memorization of discrete facts in order to critically examine complex problems. In problem-based learning activities, learners interact with a wide variety of resources, develop strategies for utilizing those resources to address authentic, content-specific problems, and present and negotiate solutions to those problems in a collaborative manner (Hannafin, Hill, & Land, 1997). There are numerous examples of successful implementations of problem-based learning in a variety of content areas, including mathematics (CTGV, 1992, 1993), science (Linn, Shear, Bell, & Slotta, 1999; Loh, Reiser, Radinsky, Edelson, Gomez, & Marshall, 2001; Pedersen & Liu, 2003), and literature (Jacobsen & Spiro, 1994). In social studies and history classrooms, however, problem-based curriculum reform has not been widely accepted and adopted by teachers (Saye & Brush, 2004; Zukas, 2000) despite the fact that social educators have advocated that social studies and history instruction move away from the goal of mere retention of historical information towards “…understand[ing] history as a problem-solving activity…” (Dundis & Fehn, 1999, p. 273).

Effective Problem-Based Inquiry in the Social Studies Classroom

Although developing the ability to reason critically about complex problems is important in any content domain, social problems require a different kind of reasoning than well-structured problems of logic (Perkins, Allen, & Hafner, 1983). Social problems are ill-structured, multilogical, and controversial. To develop persuasive and reasonable potential solutions to historical problems, learners must be able to critically examine conflicting perspectives and logics and weigh the plausibility of various problem solutions. This requires learners to remain engaged in the problem for an extensive period of time, and to weigh competing perspectives, or critically examine various points of view regarding the historical problem (Parker, Mueller, & Wendling, 1989; Saye & Brush, 1999).

Engagement with the problem. In order to solve complex historical problems, learners must be able to apply previously learned knowledge in unique and novel ways. However, learners must first genuinely engage the problem to develop the rich, divergent knowledge base necessary for critical reasoning about social issues (Newmann, 1991). Researchers have found that novice problem-solvers (such as those found in high school history classes) tend to focus only on the two-dimensional surface features of an issue. Experts incorporate an abstract third dimension, broader conceptual structures that help them organize and analyze data in order to reason through a problem (Spiro, Collins, & Thota, 2003; Spiro & Jehng, 1990). Many times, novice learners tend to examine social problems superficially, and fail to put in the time and effort necessary to understand the depth and complexity of an issue (VanSickle & Hoge, 1991; Wineburg, 1991). Students tend to perceive history as an authoritative narrative rather than as claims about the past to be evaluated (Holt, 1990). In addition, teachers have often been unsuccessful in motivating students to persist with exploration of the topic to develop deep knowledge (Newmann, 1991; Onosko, 1991; Rossi, 1995). Because they do not find history relevant or engaging, students resist the sustained study of a topic.

Weighing competing perspectives. To fully understand complex social problems, learners must also be able to account for and understand competing perspectives regarding an historical topic. Newmann (1991) identified a series of competencies necessary for higher-order critical reasoning in social studies. One of the most critical competencies is empathy, an ability to view the world from the perspective of another. Learners must be able to engage in critical discourse aimed at clarifying understanding about an issue and apply evaluative criteria to develop defensible decisions about a social problem. Many of these competencies must be used in concert by the learner to engage in persuasive reasoning: taking an informed stand that provides an elaborated, convincing defense for a position (Newmann, 1990). However, persuasive reasoning is not enough to achieve the critical reasoning required for effective problem-solving. Competence regarding civic issues demands active empathy as well as persuasiveness. One must be able to reason dialectically; that is, recognize and genuinely entertain a set of beliefs and values which are not one’s own (Parker et. al, 1989).

A formidable task in any setting, critical reasoning about the past is even more demanding. Achieving empathy for the figures of historical dilemmas requires an individual to entertain the perspectives of those who are distant from the reasoner in time or cultural space (Barton & Levstik, 2004). It requires not only a disposition to do so, but a substantial amount of historical knowledge to be able to understand the context in which the historical figure lived (Ashby & Lee, 1987; Yeager & Foster, 2001).

Multimedia Learning Environments to Support Problem-Based Inquiry

Theorists have claimed that more authentic learning experiences may produce greater student engagement with content (Choi & Hannafin, 1995; Newmann, Wehlange, & Lamborn, 1992). Some researchers have suggested that rich, authentic contexts that can be facilitated by multimedia learning environments encourage students to become engaged with the content, explore more deeply, and develop more complex views of issues (Dwyer, 1994; CTGV, 1992, Kinzie & Sullivan, 1989; Pedersen & Liu, 2003). In addition, tools and resources available in multimedia learning environments may be used to help scaffold more disciplined inquiry into ill-structured problems (Hannafin, Land, & Oliver, 1999; Jacobsen, Maouiri, Mishra, & Kolar, 1996; Land & Zembal-Saul, 2003; Masterman & Rogers, 2002). Research investigating the use of hypermedia scaffolding to support students' historical problem-solving suggests that such support may improve conceptual representations of knowledge and analytical rigor (Hynd, Hubbard, Holschuh, Reinking, & Jacobsen, 2000; Perfetti, Britt, Van Dyke, & Gabrys, 1999; Spoehr and Spoehr, 1994).

Findings from the initial studies in our present line of inquiry support such claims. When compared to peers who encountered the topic in a more traditional expository classroom setting, students who studied the civil rights movement using a problem-based multimedia-enhanced learning environment demonstrated greater engagement with the content and more empathetic understandings of historical dilemmas (Brush & Saye, 2000; Saye & Brush, 2002, 1999). We hypothesized that multimedia-supported environments may promote the prerequisites of effective historical problem-solving: greater engagement with content and empathy for alternate perspectives. Also, our initial research has suggested that conceptual and strategic scaffolds embedded within a multimedia learning environment may assist students with analyzing historical data and synthesizing the data in order to develop more persuasive arguments regarding specific historical points of view (Brush & Saye, 2001; Saye & Brush, 2002).

Purpose of Study

This study extends our previous research (e.g., Brush & Saye, 2000; Saye & Brush, 2002; Saye & Brush, 1999) in order to discover whether multimedia resources and scaffolding might be joined with other support structures to support student engagement and historical empathy during a problem-based activity in social studies. We seek to: (1) determine if multimedia-supported learning environments may help encourage greater learner engagement with an historical problem, (2) determine if multimedia-supported learning environments facilitate learners’ acquisition of historical empathy and recognition of competing perspectives regarding an historical problem, and (3) explore how structured inquiry activities and support structures embedded within multimedia learning environments may impact students’ epistemic assumptions about history.
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