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Implications for Design: Addressing the Challenges of Problem-Based Historical Inquiry

The results of this research have assisted us in refining our conceptions regarding the design of activities and support structures to address the challenges of problem-based historical inquiry, and suggested upper limits for what we may reasonably expect to accomplish with scaffolding support. In addition, we have attempted to test these activities in authentic classroom contexts. A few existing field studies have examined how we may support learners in small, well-defined reasoning tasks. Our line of research expands those inquiries to address the more complex challenge of interpreting data in a realistic, ill-structured setting in order to make reasoned decisions about social problems.

While these results provide some support to previous studies espousing the benefits of scaffolded multimedia learning environments to support problem-based inquiry (e.g., Choi & Hannafin, 1995; Jacobsen, Maouiri, Mishra, & Kolar, 1996; Land & Zembal-Saul, 2003; Masterman & Rogers, 2002), we do not wish to promote technology as a panacea for the challenges teachers and students face when engaging in disciplined inquiry. In fact, data from this study demonstrate that there are still numerous barriers for both teachers and students during problem-based historical inquiry activities.

For example, after completion of the unit described in this study, the teachers were still disappointed with the quality and depth of student presentations addressing the central problem of the unit. Both teachers believed that additional situation-specific, or “soft scaffolding” (Saye & Brush, 2002) by the teacher was necessary for students to more deeply engage in the problem and address the multiple potential solutions to the problem. As one teacher stated:

“…I’m not sure they really saw the distinct difference that they needed to see between the very different ways of achieving civil rights…when they were doing their presentations, they didn’t do a very good job overall of taking media and placing it in the context of their arguments, what their goals were, what their arguments for the strategy or what they’re recommendation was against it. Some of the groups did not do that very well. They didn’t support what they were doing with evidence.”

The other teacher concurred, stating: “They understood the little pieces, but putting those pieces into a historical context and understanding the context in an intelligible way that was the hurdle I don’t think I helped them over, not as a group.”

These difficulties may be related to the design of the overall DP unit, and students’ abilities to acquire deep, broad views of the Civil Rights knowledge base through the unit activities. One hypothesis is that this with this particular unit, the problem was too expansive for students to achieve mastery in the time allotted to the unit. Both of the teachers expressed surprise at the length of time many students needed to complete unit activities, and concluded that they felt they may have “rushed” the students in order to complete the unit within the number of classes they had allocated. These data suggest that multimedia resources such as those available in DP might be used more effectively if initial problems explored by students are smaller, more bounded, and thus more manageable within the limited time a teacher may have available to any particular topic.

However, even though the teacher believed that students could have used data more effectively and developed more sophisticated arguments to support their solutions to the unit problem, he still adamantly supported the instructional strategy used:

“The class as a whole I think they got a lot out of it. They may not have reached the lofty goals I had set in front of them before I taught the unit, but some of them were just tangential things like this kid that asked about democracy, that was a legitimate question she had and I think that in and of itself is a positive thing, that they were asking good questions. I think they know more about the Civil Rights Movement and have more historical empathy for it, and they know how that affected their lives…I think what they knew before the unit and what they knew after the unit is tremendously different. They know a lot more.”

We hypothesize that some support structures embedded within the DP environment may facilitate students’ abilities to more effectively interpret historical events. In previous iterations of the unit (e.g., Saye & Brush, 1999), students many times ignored documents designed to facilitate their overall understanding of historical events (such as summarizing essays) and immediately examined the primary sources available in the database. This led to a one-sided view of an event based on the limited resources encountered by the students. However, analysis of data supports the hypothesis that the hyperlinked interactive essays facilitated students’ conceptualization of the overall problem landscape. By using the contextual links embedded within the interactive essays to navigate to relevant primary sources, students had a context with which to relate primary information to the overall event being studied. As one student stated: “…if you have [a link] in the essay, you have it in context with what it’s talking about, so you know exactly what you’re getting, or exactly what you’re looking for if you have a paragraph on, you know, the violent outcomes of one of these situations and you want to go click to find a link for that you know exactly…what you’re getting…”.

In addition, the interactive essays may have also assisted students in more readily examining multiple representations and interpretations of historical events. During the post-unit interview, one student discussed the usefulness of the variety of viewpoints available by following the links embedded within the interactive essays:

S: “…just to see, different people’s viewpoints on one subject, I mean, you have, probably twelve different viewpoints, you know, these links, on one subject, so you could get, if, um, you know, a segregationists point of view, uh, you know, from different people, which is interesting, which is always good when you’re doing a project, like we did, where we have to, um, for slave, the audience in one case or another, um, it’s really helpful to have different viewpoints to look at and to choose from so you can get kind of an overview of the opposing sides and what they thought, so I like that. I thought that made it a lot easier to make your own opinion, from looking at others opinions and a good fact that they had with their cases.”
R: “Is that different in the way that you normally encounter historical accounts and studying history? Do you normally get different points of view like that?”
S: “Not, well, in the text, usually not, I mean, let’s face it, I guess maybe U.S., or history texts can be a little bit biased and can be not so truthful to different points of view. So, I’d have to say now that you don’t really get as much of that with a text or with a single source than you would with something like this software where you have more than one point of view.”

There is also some evidence that student activities integrated into the DP unit may facilitate more disciplined inquiry. The culminating presentations, for example, provided the classroom teachers with opportunities to allow students to grapple with competing interpretations of historical events. During these presentations, teachers could promote dialogue among students in order to facilitate deeper understanding of controversial issues, multiple interpretations of historical events, and to force students to weigh evidence in order to determine the most plausible interpretations of those issues. In the following excerpt from a culminating presentation, a group representing the SCLC was discussing the Albany movement and the effectiveness of the SCLC’s strategies. The teacher challenged the group’s interpretation of those strategies, and when group members had difficulty generating different potential solutions to the problem posed to them, a student from the audience provided an alternative interpretation for the class to consider:

T: “Why would a white police officer bail out Dr. King?”
S1: “I don’t know why the whites would…because he liked blacks and he wanted Dr. King to keep protesting ‘cause he believes in what he’s saying?”
T: “That’s a possibility, [S2] what do you think?”
S2: “He probably felt that what the whites were doing to the blacks was wrong.”
T: “You think this white police officer had a conscience. He said, ‘You know what, Dr. King is a good man, he’s doing the right thing trying to get voting rights for people, trying to get civil rights, he doesn’t belong in jail, I’m going to have him out so he can do more good…but Dr. King himself wanted to stay in jail, so if he wanted to help Dr. King and his movement it would make sense that someone who liked Dr. King would do what Dr. King wanted…so why, why would someone want him out of jail?…How about anybody in the audience, does anyone have a thought on that?”
S3: “Because he wanted, I guess like, Martin Luther King wanted to prove a point, I guess, if he didn’t like Martin Luther King he’d bail him out just so he couldn’t prove his point.”
T: “Say that again, I don’t think everyone heard it.”
S3: “I said that I think he’d bail Martin Luther King out so that Martin Luther King couldn’t prove his point. Martin Luther King wanted to stay in jail to prove the point that he would do whatever it takes to get civil rights and he gone ahead and got him out so he couldn’t prove his point…”
T: I think that’s a possibility, we have two different ends of the perspective to think of…”
Here, the teacher used the question and answer session of the group presentation to critically examine an historical event and weigh competing (and equally plausible) interpretations of an occurrence. In this case, the SCLC group asserted that Martin Luther King was bailed out of jail in Albany by a sympathetic white police officer because “…what the whites were doing to the blacks was wrong.” The format of the culminating presentations allowed the teacher to guide the students in thinking of different interpretations of the event based on the information provided in the DP database. This open dialogue allowed students to re-examine the historical analysis presented by the group and come up with a “rival” interpretation. Interactions such as these may provide students with opportunities to weigh competing interpretations of historical events and draw conclusions based on the evidence available, as opposed to opinion and conjecture.

Data supported the assertion that providing students with scaffolding as they developed their culminating presentations assisted the conceptualization of their positions and the integration of relevant sources to support the organizations they represented in their culminating presentations. When asked if he found the storyboard scaffolds helpful, one student responded: “Yes they did [help us]. They really did and without those, we really didn’t know what to do, in the beginning…”. Another student explained why the storyboarding assisted with making a better presentation: “…you figure out what you wanted to say, and then when you got further along you could weed out what you didn’t need or maybe add something that you [did need]…”. When asked the same question, another student stated, “Yeah, you could organize yourself and get yourself planned prior to it instead of just jumping into the presentation and doing, you don’t know what you want to do.” The teachers agreed that the storyboard scaffold assisted students with developing and defending the strategies promoted by their representative organizations. As one teacher stated, “…they did a good job, it was, you know, the…scaffold for them to fill out was thorough enough where they could tell us arguments for or against. Yeah, they can say arguments for and against and this is how we, this is what we were trying to accomplish, this is how we got there…”.

Finally, data supported the notion that students’ interactions with the DP unit may have provided them with a new perspective on the usefulness of understanding historical events as a means for making decisions as members of a democratic society. Students expressed their beliefs that history can play an important role in their current and future decision-making:

“…people lived it, so history is something that’s gonna go on…forever, so, you know, it’s interesting, and just to know things people have done in the past that affected how we live today, …is interesting. …you know, history repeats itself, so…I guess, we can learn from the past mistakes…”

We might hypothesize that the realism and increased empathy for historical actors provided in the DP environment caused students to see more relevance for how the past relates to their own lives. Once again, however, history educators take issue with the notion that “history repeats itself.” Yet citizens and policy makers do commonly “draw lessons” from the past (Khong, 1992; Levstik & Barton, 2001). One of our continued challenges with students is help them see the uniqueness of historical events and distinguish how events were similar and different in seeking to use the past to inform the present. As the following student quote suggests, more realistic encounters with struggles in the past may provide students with a greater appreciation of how hard democracy is to attain, expand, and keep:

“…the civil rights is like one of the best movements that took place in the United States and to me, I think it relates to how we look at us folks today. We sit close to each other, we talk, laugh, play jokes and all that good stuff, but back in the past you couldn’t do that.”


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