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Define that for me

Sharon Grimes, Library Director for the Baltimore County Public Schools, sent a long critique of the new AASL Standards for the 21st Century Learner to LM_Net recently. She makes some good points and has forced me to do a couple things.
First, I'm taking some time to really study and try to internalize these new AASL standards as well as the new ISTE NETS standards, trying to figure out how the sets are aligned and how they differ. More on that in a later blog entry, but for now, let me just say that a one-to-one comparison is proving to be challenging. (And you all know how it hurts my head when forced to think too hard.)

The other thing that Sharon's e-mail made me realize is just how sloppy I am with terminology in my own area of "expertise." She writes:

Another factor that might serve to marginalize the importance of our profession in the eyes of others is the move, clearly evident in Standards 1 and 2, from problem-based to inquiry-based learning.  The implications and potential outcomes of this shift are many and varied:

  • One important distinction between problem-based and inquiry-based learning is that inquiry-based learning explores questions in much more depth for a greater period of time, possibly an entire semester.  Given the time constraints imposed by the test-driven environment created by NCLB, are we ignoring reality?
  • Inquiry-based learning may or may not result in a product that can be evaluated which has clear implications for assessment.  In an era of data-driven decision-making, the lack of clearly quantifiable data marginalizes what we do in the eyes of administrators and other decision makers.
  • Many of the information seeking process models in wide-spread use, like Big6, are problem, not inquiry-based.  As a result, new models will need to be created and/or existing models modified to include inquiry-based learning.  The question then is who will do this and when will the model(s) be available?
  • The distinction between inquiry and problem-based learning is not clarified in the standards, nor is the level of inquiry-based learning (clarification/verification; structured inquiry; guided inquiry; or open inquiry) the standards hope to inspire.
  • NETS -S is clearly problem-based so the alignment that existed with ISTE's standards is now tenuous at best.  NETS-S is also clearly aligned with the requirements of NCLB and national curriculum standards.  The alignment between AASL's new standards and NCLB, national curriculum standards, and NETS-S is only evident at the skill indicator level, not at the standard level.

Why not a more realistic statement that it is not an either/or; both inquiry-based and problem-based can form the basis of valid information-seeking process models?

Hmmmm, I do believe I've been using inquiry-based and problem-based somewhat synonymously. My bad. And as I think about it, there are quite a few related terms that I am not sure how specifically I could define, who the authority for the definition might be, and how they are all related in a Venn diagram-ish fashion. Here are some:

  • Problem-based
  • Project-based
  • Constructivist learning
  • Authentic learning
  • Inquiry-based
  • Information literacy 
  • Information literacy process
  • Information fluency
  • Research
  • Information problem-solving

You can probably add a few related terms yourself.

In asking Sharon a source of definitions and information about this, she kindly sent a list of resources:

Chris Harris suggested John Barell's Developing More Curious Minds as a resource as well.

OK, readers, what are the distinctions and just how important are they when talking about these models or philosophies of learnin' kids good? 

From Alice Yucht: Sharon's essay is now posted on the AASL Blog, where comments are welcome (and archived).


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Reader Comments (6)


I have to admit I use many of those terms synonymously as I'm sure many teachers and librarians do also.

I feel the most important thing in any standards is to write ones that are "sticky" rather than get too bogged down in terminology at hand. I would say just keep the practicing, in the field, librarian in mind. What would speak to them? and guide them?

This is an aside regarding inquiry based research, but as a librarian, I'm quite in favor of inquiry based research and do feel like it has a place in the curriculum, and I don't think one type of research rules out another type. I hear the distinction being made, but I think these can co-exist and aren't unrealistic.

Every district and school's approach to NCLB is quite different, and I don't think testing rules out good techniques--in fact, I would posit that a long inquiry based project is actually easier to do because you can do it over time when there is time, and both in and outside of school.

Thanks for asking!

January 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCarolyn Foote

I want people that know what to do when they don't know what to do.

140 characters or less, baby!

January 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Pederson

Hi Doug,
It's quite a dilemma - if you spend too much time defining terms, you slowly lose your audience until all that's left are people who care more about defining terms than actually doing the work. Very few people start with a fully defined, research validated definition of any kind of pedagogy, and then carefully build their own personal teaching style or a curriculum based on that definition. It's just not realistic to do so. Human nature? Efficiency or laziness? Practicality? I don't know.

So unless you are writing an academic paper, I wouldn't get too down on yourself about using terms like this loosely, people are hearing them through their own filters anyway. You could spend the rest of your life being careful about mixing up inquiry-based vs. project-based, but would that make your communication with teachers and librarians clearer or more complicated?

I think providing examples of student work is the best way to communicate these things anyway.

January 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSylvia Martinez

FWIW, Sharon's essay is now posted on the AASL Blog, where comments are welcome (and archived).

January 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAlice Yucht

Thanks, Alice. I added a link in the main posting.


January 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

I love this post! I agree that terms are often used/overused without a common understanding of what they mean. I was recently working on a project with many other people who all are leaders in the use of educational technology. We were creating professional development modules. There was a disagreement about the meaning of problem-based learning and project-based learning.

January 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPam Shoemaker

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