Learning Higher-Order Thinking and Problem-Solving in an ICT-Assisted PBL Environment

Dave Moursund

Mission for this 2 or 3 Hour Workshop

  • To improve the education of your students.
  • To improve the professional preparation, satisfaction, and careers of educators participating in the workshop.
  • To explore ideas of using ICT-Assisted PBL to help improve student's higher-order knowledge and skills.
  • To introduce you to the Websites:



Intented Audience and Some Goals

This workshop is suitable for teachers and school administrators at all levels. It assumes an introductory level of knowledge in the use of computers, includig how to use the Web.

All people are both learners and teachers. They help themselves to learn, and they help others to learn

  • The primary presentation goal is to help each individual participant make progress in learning to make effective use of ICT-Assisted Project-Based Learning in their teaching and in their students' learning.
  • Secondary goals include participants and the facilitator having an enjoyable time, and everybody learning some things that may be only vaguely related to the primary goal.
  • The presentation content is guided by a number of key "ICT in Education philosophical ideas" that Dave Moursund feels are particularly important and that are woven into the workshop content.
  • The presentation content is also guided by two important learning theories: Constructivism and Situated Learning, and backed up with some ideas on Developmental Theory (Piaget and others) and on lower-order versus higher-order knowledge and skills (Bloom and others).

Activity: We begin with the participants providing some of their thoughts and experiences in Project-Based Learning and with ICT in PBL To the extent possible (which depends on the size of the audience), the intent is to have this workshop be highly interactive. We encourage questions and comments.


Topic 1: Some General Background Information

  1. Over the past 30 years, a substantial "Science of Teaching and Learning" (SoTL) body of knowledge has been developed by researchers and practitioners in the field of Cognitive Science.
    1. Many of these ideas are applicable to the teaching and learning of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and all other disciplines by students and teachers at all levels.
    2. In addition, many are applicable to making increased effective use of ICT as an aid to teaching and learning.
    3. An excellent reference: Bransford, J.D.; A. L. Brown; & R.R. Cocking: editors (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. It is available online (free) at: http://books.nap.edu/html/howpeople1/ch1.html.

  2. Areas in which substantial SoTL progress has occurred include:
    1. Learning theory, such as adding a variety of Cognitive Learning theories to Skinner's Behavioral Learning Theory. Constructivism and Situated Learning are both particularly relevant to Project-Based Learning.
    2. Transfer of learning, such as moving from a "Near Transfer, Far Transfer" theory to the more "Low Road/High Road theory of transfer, and other.
    3. Brain science. We now have a variety of instruments that allow us to study what is going on inside the brain during certain types of teaching, learning, and problem solving activities. Our increased understanding of such brain activities, as well as the plasticity of the brain, is contributing to significant improvements in addressing some teaching/learning problems.

  3. Within every discipline, one can think of people moving up a scale from being an absolute novice to being a world class expert. Our formal education systems are designed to help students move up the expertise scale in the various disciplines covered in the curriculum.
    1. Within each discipline there are a variety of mental and physical tools that are integral components of the discipline. Increasing expertise within the discipline involves gaining increased knowledge about the tools and skills in using the tools.
    2. We have steadily increasing knowledge about transfer of learning between disciplines. Such transfer of learning can help a person more rapidly move up the expertise scale when studying a discipline the person has not previously studied.
    3. There are a number of "basic skills" that cut across many different disciplines. If basic skills such as the three Rs are appropriately taught and learned, they add expertise to the learner in many different disciplines. The same holds true for ICT.
    4. Here is an example of an expertise scale for teacher knowledge and skills in ICT in education. Similar expertise scales can be developed for students and for teachers in any curriculum area.


      The Address given above is for a Website that discusses this scale and contains five self-assessment instruments for use by preservice and inservice teachers. (Self-assessment is one of the important topics being emphasized in this workshop.)

  4. The concepts of higher-order skills and lower-order skills is closely related to the Expertise Scale. SoTL stresses the desirability of teaching for understanding, and it points out the failures of education based on rote memory (inert knowledge and skills that do not transfer to new settings and tend to disappear quite rapidly over time).
    1. Metacognition, reflective practice, and self assessment are tools that all students can learn and that contribute significantly to increasing higher-order skills.
    2. Problem solving is an important aspect of every discipline. Many aspects of problem solving transfer from one discipline to another. For example, the strategy of breaking a big problem into smaller, more manageable components is such a strategy. ICT enters into this because computers can quickly and accurately solve many of the types of "smaller problems" that are building blocks for solving more complex problems.
    3. In this document, Critical Thinking and Problem Solving includes:

      1. Do critical, wise, higher-order thinking.
      2. Pose and solve challenging problems.
      3. Propose and accomplish tasks.
      4. Pose and answer questions.
      5. Make wise decisions.
      6. Analyze complex issues and make informed decisions.
      7. Synthesize information in order to arrive at reasoned conclusions.
      8. Evaluate the logic, validity, and relevance of data.
      9. Use knowledge and understanding in order to generate and explore new topics, intellectual areas, problems, and challenges that you encounter.
      10. Learn to learn and to develop and understand your potentials as a learner.

  5. Most "real world" problems are interdisciplinary. This suggests the value of teaching problem solving in an interdisciplinary manner and providing students with interdisciplinary aids to problem solving. This is also linked with the need to teach for transfer when teaching discipline-specific topics, such as math. While learning math and ICT can be important goals in their own right, one of the reasons for an emphasis on math and ICT in the curriculum is so that students can learn to use these intellectual tools throughout all disciplines and problem areas that they encounter.

  6. The roles of ICT in problem solving is now an important discipline in its own right. If an ICT system can solve or significantly help in solving a type of problem that is currently addressed in our schools, what should students learn about "traditional" methods for dealing with this type of problem, and what should they learn about use of ICT in dealing with this type of problem?
  1. This basic question and the diagram suggest that our educational systems should place significant emphasis on people and ICT systems learning to work together in a manner that leads to performance above what either people alone, or ICT systems alone, can accomplish.
  2. If schools decide to seriously address the question, then they are faced by the rapid pace of change of ICT capabilities. Our educational systems were not designed to deal with such a rapid pace of change in areas that are specifically relevant to curriculum content, instruction processes, assessment, and a wide variety of other aspects of students' and teachers' lives and careers.

Activity: Share thoughts on what our education system should be doing in terms of the ideas represented in the above diagram.


Topic 2: Overview of and Future of ICT in Education

We will skip quickly over this topic, as we don't have enough time for it in this 2-3hour workshop. In a six-hour PBL workshop, about an hour is spent on possible futures of education and of ICT in education. In very brief summary, the "future" will continue to be one of very rapid change in ICT, in education, and in ICT in education.

Activity: What are some of the problems in education being created by the rapid pace of change in ICT?


Topic 3: Definition of and Overview of ICT-Assisted PBL

  • Project-Based Learning is an individual or group activity that goes on over a period of time, resulting in a product, presentation, or performance.
  • Typically the individuals or the groups help to define the activities they will do, and the activities are not all the same. Within a team, various members will work on different aspects of the project.
  • PBL typically has milestones and other aspects of formative evaluation as the project proceeds.
  • PBL shares much in common with Process Writing.

PBL Lesson Planning Table

Goals: Students will learn:


1. The subject matter content of the project, with a special emphasis on higher-order knowledge & skills.

2. ICT as integral part of the subject matter content area of your specific course, with a special emphasis on higher-order knowledge and skills.

3. Some general aspects of ICT, not specific just to your course and/or the project content discipline. Example: Using a digital camera.

4. To budget resources (including time) in doing a project, and to self-assess one's progress in doing a project.

5. To work as a team member doing a project.

6. To be a project proposer, a problem solver, and a "creative, higher-order" thinker, working in a learner-centered environment.

7. To transfer their learning over time, distance, and environments.

8. To learn to to learn and to help others learn all of the above.

9. (Other, please specify.)

10. (Other, please specify.)

Total Points



Topic 4: Seven Steps in Planning an ICT-Assisted PBL Lesson


1. Project content. Develop a working title and a mission statement for the project. Develop a brief summary of the content area. Some examples of mission statements include:
  • to preserve our town's wetlands;
  • to make our lake safe for swimming;
  • to capture and preserve the history of our community;
  • to improve the quality of life of people in our community; and
  • to understand underlying causes of revolutionary and/or civil wars.

The summary of content includes answers to the two important questions:

    1. How does project content fit into the "big picture" of the overall subject being studied or course of instruction? For example, if the project is being done in a history class, how does it fit in with the goals of the history unit or course? How does it fit in with students increasing their expertise as historians?
    2. Is the overall mission clear, and are the projects that the students are going to do clear contributors to the overall mission? Innumerable individual, team, and whole class projects might be designed to contribute to accomplishing a mission.

    2. Project goals. Briefly analyze the project in terms of how it relates to:

    1. General goals of education. Which specific goals of education are being focused on as students do the work of this project?
    2. Specific goals within the content area the project is being done in. For example, if the project is being done as part of a science curriculum, then it should have specific science learning goals and objectives. Quite likely these should be tied to school district and state goals and objectives within the subject area.
    3. General goals for ICT in education. Which specific goals of ICT in education are being focused on as students do the work of this project?
    4. Specific goals and objectives within ICT.

    3. Summarize the prerequisite knowledge and skills that you will assume students have. Do all of your students meet these prerequisites? (How do you know this? Think also about the developmental level of your students within the disciplines to be studied.

4. Teams. Answer questions such as:
  1. Will each student do an individual project, or will there be multi-student teams? If there are teams, how will the teams be created? Will the teams include people from outside of the class such as other students (perhaps even from other countries), parents, or mentors?
  2. (Assuming that there are teams.) What role will you play in specifying team leaders and the roles of each person on a team? For example, will you select teams so that they are balanced in strength and have diversity? Will you do ability grouping or just the opposite--work to have each team have balanced abilities?
  3. What are your expectations in terms of cooperative learning--students learning together and from each other?
  4. To what extend will individuals or teams be able to define their own projects, within the general framework of the topic being addressed in the PBL lesson?

5. Timeline. This should include:

  1. Timeline for the whole project, including minutes or class periods per day and number of days/weeks/months to be devoted to the project.
  2. Checkpoint dates. What are the major milestones in accomplishing the project, and what are the dates by which these milestones are to be reached? What will individual students and/or teams be expected to present, show, or turn in as evidence of having reached a milestone?

6. Resources and materials.

  1. What ICT resources will the students and teams need? Are their constraints on the availability of these resources? (For example, perhaps students will need to use a digital video camera, and there is only one digital video camera in the school. What happens if other classes also need to use this camera, or if it is broken sometime during the project?)
  2. What information resources do the students need to access? Will you have specific requirements on the number or nature of different information resources the students must use?
  3. Will students be allowed to or encouraged to use people as information resources? If yes, how will this be facilitated, monitored, and referenced or attributed?
  4. To what extent will you use this PBL activity as a vehicle for teaching general ideas of information retrieval and discipline-specific ideas of information retrieval?

7. Assessment. How will students be assessed? How will you deal with individual assessment if you are having students work in teams? What do you want students to learn about self and peer assessment?

Steps 1-7 are carried out in a cyclic fashion. The process of working on a step will often suggest possible changes to the thinking you have done on other steps.


PBL Lesson Planning Table

Learning Goal: Students learn …

Detailed Learning Objectives

Timeline and Mile-stones

Assessing the Learning Objectives

1. the subject matter content of the project.




2. ICT as integral part of subject matter content.




3. some general aspects of ICT, not specific just to the course or content area being studied.




4. to budget resources and to self assess.




5. to work as a team member




6. to be a project proposer, a problem solver, and a "higher-order" thinker.




7. to transfer their learning over time, distance, and environments.




8. to learn and help others learn all of the above




9. other important knowledge and skills (please specify)





Topic 5: Timeline and Milestones

Students need to be provided with a timeline and a number of milestones. They need to learn to take responsibility for themselves in following the timeline and meeting the milestones. We will continue work on the PBL Lesson Table.


It is often useful to develop a Task/Timeline Chart. The following figure illustrates a project to be carried out over a period of five days. The project consists of five tasks that are to be done sequentially. Thus, Task 1 is to be done on Day 1, Task 2 on Day 2, and so on.

The next figure shows a project that is broken into four major tasks to be done sequentially, but some tasks take more time than others.


The next example shows a project in which some of the tasks can be overlapped. Notice the column that contains the estimate of the total time for each task. Also, "slippage" has been listed in the Task column, and one day is provided for it. The total project is scheduled to be completed in seven days.


Topic 6: Assessment and Evaluation

In assessment. one gathers data and information. In evaluation, one analyzes the assessment data and information, and makes "evaluative pronouncements."

In PBL, it is common to make use of rubrics or scoring guides. We will discuss:

  • self assessment,
  • peer assessment,
  • assessment by instructor, and
  • assessment by others.

Activity: Discuss assessment versus evaluation. Discuss formative, summative, and long-term residual impact evaluation.

Here are six levels of a general-purpose rubric for assessing student use of ICT tools. It provides some rather general detail for the student and the teacher. However, it lacks the detail that a student needs in order to self-assess or to assess the work of peers.

  1. Level 1--Emergent Technology User
    • Selected technology tools to assist in creating the desired product that were inappropriate for the task or student is not able to operate tool.
    • Technology was used but not to benefit the creation of a quality product.
    • Technology tools was tried by the student, but the required product could not be produced.
    • Was unable to resolve most technological obstacles relating to the project.
    • Ethical and professional behavior was not shown or was inappropriately shown through lack of citations, copyright adherence, and ethics.

  2. Level 2--Limited Technology User
    • Selected lesser effective tools from what is available to create the desired product.
    • Technology was used to address the tasks but few of the capabilities of the technologies were used to create the product.
    • Technology tools are used and set up appropriately, but only with major outside assistance.
    • Was able to solve only elementary technological obstacles.
    • Ethical and professional behavior was occasionally shown through appropriate citations, copyright adherence, and ethics.

  3. Level 3--Developing Technology User
    • Selected appropriate tools from what was available to create the desired product, but only with outside assistance.
    • Technologies were used but assistance was needed for the basic capabilities of the technology to create product.
    • Technology tools were set up and used appropriately but required some outside assistance.
    • Was able to solve most basic obstacles associated with the project.
    • Ethical and professional behavior was generally shown through appropriate citations, copyright adherence, and ethics.

  4. Level 4--Capable Technology User
    • Selected adequate tools from what was available and appropriate for creating the desired product.
    • Technology was used in an appropriate way and applied the basic capabilities of the technology to create the product.
    • Technology tools were set up correctly and used appropriately with minor assistance.
    • Was able to solve some of the technology related problems associated with the project.
    • Ethical and professional behavior was shown through appropriate citations, copyright adherence, and ethics.

  5. Level 5--Strong Technology User
    • Selected quality tools from what was available that was appropriate to create quality a product.
    • Technology was used in appropriate ways and applied many of the features to create a quality product.
    • Technology tools were set up correctly and used appropriately without assistance following established guidelines.
    • Solved most technology related problems associated with the project.
    • Ethical and professional behavior was shown through appropriate citations in proper form, copyright adherence, and ethics.

  6. Level 6--Exceptional Technology User
    • Selected the most appropriate tools from what was available, to create high quality products.
    • Technology was used in an innovative way to create higher quality product than assignment anticipated.
    • Technology tools were not only set up correctly and used appropriately but often suggestions are provided for improvement in the procedures.
    • Solved all technology related problems associated with the project.
    • Ethical and professional behavior was shown through appropriate citations in proper form, copyright adherence, and ethics.

Topic 7: Final Questions and Discussion

  • Student-centered, ICT-Assisted PBL is a powerful aid to student learning. It is quite useful in creating a learning environment that fits the developmental levels and current expertise levels of a wide variety of students and includes a major focus on moving students up the developmental and expertise scales.
  • If used extensively in a course, it changes the role of the instructor from a "sage on the stage" to a "guide on the side."
  • A teacher can learn to do ICT-Based PBL in a "learn by doing" mode. It can be an incremental process, with the teacher learning along side his/her students.