Make the Connection: TAKS, Technology and Problem-based Learning

Make the Connection: TAKS, Technology and Problem-based Learning
Copyright 2003 Miguel Guhlin

Several years ago, I embarked on a pilgrimage. Rather than voyage to a far away city or place, I sought out the best constructivist approach for integrating technology into the curriculum. My quest led me to try out telecomputing based activity structures, activity formats such as webquests and subject samplers, information problem-solving approaches, all with an awareness of how technology can transform teaching, learning and leadership. As an education specialist for an Education Service Center, I could be the architect of professional development that transformed the way teachers met new and innovative approaches. More importantly, it was my responsibility to find the “right approach” and bring it back to the 52 districts I served.

The more approaches I encountered and shared, the stronger my awareness grew that they were all connected. I sought out a way to harmonize these approaches, eventually developing a sophisticated concept map showing the relationship between these different approaches and strategies, and the role technology played in each. I called this approach “Writing Technology into the Curriculum” ( Over time, I came to recognize that the Holy Grail of constructivist approaches is problem-based learning.

Problem-based learning (PBL) uses real-life problems modeled after a contemporary or historical case to engage students as they pursue specified learning outcomes that are in line with academic standards or course objectives (Stepien & Pyke, 1997). Students work through the problem as a stakeholder. The teacher acts as a guide or advisor as students explore the issues involved, formulate questions, conduct research, and consider possible solutions to the problems.

According to Stepien and Pyke (1997), a problem-based learning situation must meet several criteria. The situation must provide an effective way of engaging students with experiences that scaffold higher order thinking. The situation should also accomplish curriculum objectives and include age-appropriate topics. Further, the learning situation should take the form of an ill-structured problem to foster inquiry at a level that is cognitively engaging but not frustrating. Lastly, the situation should make efficient use of instructional time allotted to the unit. You can find out more about problem-based learning online at

Prior to learning about problem-based learning several years ago, I worked with the latest technologies and learned how to introduce them to the adult learners that attended. As time went by, however, I realized that the latest and greatest tools were insufficient. What was missing was a constructivist approach that made technology transparent and necessary, not secondary. In my search for the perfect approach, I had the opportunnity to study project-based learning. Typically, I began to research this approach. In my studies, I “discovered” problem-based learning. At first, I could not distinguish between the two and, worse, which I preferred.

I did not truly understand the difference between project-based learning and problem-based learning until I attended an ASCD conference held in San Antonio, Texas. There, I had the opportunity to listen to William Stepien who outlined problem-based learning, and modelled it. Eureka! By the mid-morning break, I could barely keep my seat. I had to walk outside, call my colleague at ESC-20 and let him know what he was missing. I had found the approach I’d been looking for--PROBLEM-BASED LEARNING.

PBL could be the vehicle for achieving “true” technology integration. But, as I’ve come to understand, many teachers do not know what “true” technology integration looks like. It’s definition is a well-kept secret. Even though it is in plain sight, we do not know what it looks like. I learned that on introducing principals to the LOTI as a framework for observing technology implementation in the classroom.

Principals thought that any use of technology was commendable, which made for interesting discussion when you consider that target technology use can be a lot less expensive than Level 1 (e.g. integrated learning systems like SuccessMaker, Plato products, curriculum management systems) and Level 2 (e.g. distance learning centers used at the knowledge and application levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy). At the STaR Chart’s target technology level, or LOTI Level 4, technology is used as a tool to identify and solve real life authentic problems.

In various online forums, I have shared my realization that “technology integration” efforts have failed. I began to understand the futility of trying to catch the technology train years ago. Technology was changing too rapidly for anyone--including educators--to keep up. Those technology integration efforts were characterized by using the latest and greatest technologies (e.g. the latest push might be seen as the handheld craze). These technology innovations forced us all to learn the latest and greatest tools, then share them for use in the classroom before authentic uses were discovered. It does not mean that these technologies won’t find a place in the classroom, but that they were pushed out to the masses before their appropriate use was identified.

In “No Child Left Behind,” we see an emphasis on technology literacy. But, what does “technology literacy” mean? How do we define it? As the train slows down again because of funding issues, it is time to look back at all the technologies we tried and discarded (refer to sidebar 1), to begin to use them strategically and systemically.

To do so means to re-evaluate what true technology integration is, and perhaps, to choose to abandon a phrase that means so much it only describes our failure to keep up with the technology train. Technology integration has meant for so long, “technology acquisition and experimentation” at the 2nd Level of Technology Implementation (LOTI). The 2nd Level is characterized by: Greater emphasis on technology rather than critical content.

Technology integration, technology literacy, information literacy all boil down to the same common denominator--do students and teachers know how to use technology appropriately, at the point of need in anticipation, or in response, to a real life, authentic problem?

And, that is where the challenge lies--not in the appropriate use of the technology, but in the "real life, authenticity" of the problems that may be lacking in some of our schools today. Approaches such as project-based learning, the more rigorous problem-based learning upon which higher-order thinking activities may flow from demand a shift in teaching approach. Now that technology is ubiquitous, it's not “technology acquisition, experimentation” that needs to take place, but that we must "uncover" the appropriate uses of technology in a problem-based curriculum.

At the TCEA 2003 State Conference’s Professional Development Academy, 71 educators were introduced to Problem-based Learning ( At the end of the two days, I was surprised at how many educators remained. Perhaps, they believed us when we stated that problem-based learning prepares students for the TAKS. I found myself responding again to teachers in the Professional Development Academy, “You have to trust the process. Once engaged by a real life problem, students will ask the questions needed to solve the problem.”

Though the Professional Development Academy organizers and I constantly stated that problem-based learning approach would prepare students for the TAKS, I wanted to verify this with the “curriculum experts” at TEA. While I felt comfortable asserting PBL use in all other content areas, especially after reviewing the resources online at TEA for TAKS, I wanted confirmation from the math expert at the Texas Education Agency (TEA).

You have to understand that math is not my strong point. I was one of those students who always asked, “What’s the purpose of learning the quadratic formula? I’ll never use this again.” The explanations my teachers gave me over the years took too long. I felt like an old-fashioned superintendent must feel when trying to understand the benefits of a network bandwidth upgrade and its connection to voice over IP--”So what? Is this really important?”

“Teaching lessons that require students to relate to problems and contexts that they will encounter in ‘real-life’, says Paula Gustafson, “motivates them to learn more rigorous mathematics content.” What a powerful statement this is. TAKS focuses us, not on breath, but depth.

Ms. Gustafson goes on to say:
“The agency is encouraging districts to teach students throughout the year using complex lessons that require
students to think at high cognitive levels. The inclusion of these lessons, rather than using a "test-prep" resource will increase TAKS scores. The difficulty with TAKS-prep is the alignment of the sample items to the items developed for the real exam. Many teachers are beginning to embrace this type of lesson structure and have been pleased with previous TAAS results.”

Tom Snyder wrote long ago about an experience he had as a vendor of his computer-based simulations. In presenting to a large group of teachers, he shared that a teacher in the audience raised her hand and asked, “Do you have to be a good teacher to do this in your classroom?” Despite the counseling of the company representative sponsoring his product, Tom Snyder listened to his conscience, and said, “Yes, it requires a very good teacher.”

In my quest for the right approach, I realized that instructional technology had to be about the constructivist approach employed, rather than the technology. Problem-based learning is the apex of constructivist approaches and is definitely appropriate in preparing students for the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). The role of the technologist is to accomplish what Ms. Gustafson writes next, “Technology use within these lessons should be seamless. Proficiency with the technology will make a vast difference in the TAKS results received at the district level, and remember we have the mandate for technology in our TEKS from grades K-12.”

Too many workbooks, not enough real life applications left me with a bad taste in my mouth regarding math. Even as an adult, I sat through inferential statistics feeling like a dummy, since I did not know how to apply any of what I had learned to the case study approach our professor used. Let me phrase that differently: I didn’t learn how to do math in relation to problems and real life contexts. This caused me difficulty in college when I was called upon to solve higher-level math using a case study approach (an approach similar to problem-based learning).

As we move into TAKS, I’m delighted by the opportunity we now have as educators. TAKS may finally give us constructivists the opportunity to shine...and being a firm believer in the idea that professional development for teachers impacts student achievement, I invite you to use problem-based learning in your classroom.

Excerpt from Merryfield, Merry M.; Becker, Henry J. (Winter,1998). Running to catch a moving train: Schools and information technologies, Theory into Practice , ISBN#0040-5841 Vol. 37No.1

1982: It’s the language that comes with your computer (using BASIC).
1986: Use networked systems that individualize instruction and focus on increasing test scores.
1988: Word processing-using computers as tools like adults do.
1990: Integrate the computers with the existing curriculum through the use of history databases, science simulations and probes
1992: Change the curriculum--students learn best by creating products for an audience
1994: Use email to allow students to be part of the real world.
1996: Use computers to publish student work to a world-wide audience via the WWW

Phone conversation and email author had with Paula Gustafson, TEA Math Director, on 02/13/2003

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