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Instructional Design - Anchored Instruction

students learning knowledge solve

Anchored instruction (AI) is an example of an approach to curriculum and instruction that provides opportunities for students to learn important content while attempting to understand and solve authentic problems that arise within particular disciplines. Other related approaches are case-based learning, which is used in law and business education, and problem-based learning, sometimes used in medical education. Another way of organizing instruction around problem solving is through project-based learning.

The Problem of Inert Knowledge

In 1929 the English philosopher Alfred Whitehead identified a major problem in schools, namely the problem of inert knowledge. Inert knowledge is knowledge than can be recalled when people are explicitly prompted to remember it, but is not spontaneously used to solve problems even though it is relevant. A major goal of AI is to create learning environments that overcome the inert knowledge problem.

Research suggests that the degree to which knowledge remains inert is strongly affected by the way the information was learned initially. One factor contributing to the problem of inert knowledge is that traditional instruction too often consists of learning isolated facts and procedures. As a consequence, students do not learn when or how to use what they have learned. The knowledge is not organized in memory with information on the conditions under which to apply it. In AI students are provided with opportunities to solve realistic problems–called anchors–that help them learn when and how to apply knowledge.

The Role of Prior Knowledge in Learning

Research indicates that learning is affected by the knowledge that people bring to the learning situation. Sometimes people's prior knowledge of a situation enables them to understand with little effort the meaning and significance of new information. More typically, especially in the case of young learners, prior knowledge of the situation is limited and the learner is unable to make sense of new information and has difficulty discriminating important from less important aspects of the information. When learners lack sufficient prior knowledge, information is treated as facts to be memorized. Anchored instruction was developed to compensate for learners' lack of experience and knowledge. Anchors consist of multimedia (e.g., video or audio with pictures) scenarios that are designed to improve learners' understanding of the problems to be solved.

Experience Being an Expert

Another major goal of AI is to help people learn the kinds of problems that experts in various areas encounter and to experience how experts identify, represent, and solve problems. The problems that experts encounter are more complex and open ended than the problems that students are asked to solve in school. Experts also assume greater autonomy than students in solving problems, including learning new skills and knowledge on an as-needed basis to solve problems. Anchors are designed to afford these kinds of experiences.

An Example of AI: The Adventures of Jasper Woodbury

Some of the original work on AI was conducted in the domain of middle school mathematics by the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt. These efforts culminated in a series called The Adventures of Jasper Woodbury. Jasper consists of twelve anchors (on videodisc or CD-ROM) that are designed for students in grades five and up. To promote transfer of learning, multiple related anchors are available to provide extra practice on core concepts and problem schemas. Three anchors relate to each of the following topics: statistics and business planning, trip planning, geometry, and algebra. Each anchor contains a short (about fifteen minutes) story on video, which ends in a complex challenge. The adventures are like good detective novels, where all the data necessary to solve the adventure (plus additional solution-irrelevant data) are embedded in the story.

In The Big Splash, one of the anchors related to statistics and business planning, the main character is a junior high school student named Chris. Chris's school is having a Fun Fair to raise money to buy a new camera for the school TV station. Chris wants to set up a dunking booth at the fair. Students would buy tickets for the opportunity to try to dunk their teachers in a pool of water. Chris needs to develop a business plan to get his dunking booth project approved by the school and to obtain a loan from the school principal. The plan must include an estimate of revenue and expenses for the dunking booth and must meet constraints set by the principal with respect to the maximum amount of the loan and the requisite profit. The video story shows Chris collecting information for his business plan.

Design principles. Jasper anchors were designed according to a set of principles. Each is video based. Research indicates that video helps students, especially poor readers, comprehend problems better. Video is also motivating to students. Anchor problems are presented in story form, instead of expository form. Stories are used because they are easy to remember.

Anchors are not simply traditional word problems on video–they are more representative of problems that an expert might solve. They are complex; more than one solution is possible and many steps (and hours) are required to solve them. Traditional story problems explicitly present the problem to be solved (there is usually only a single problem) and the relevant data. Anchors use a generative format. Each story ends with a challenge and students must generate the problems to be solved. For example, in The Big Splash many different business plans can be generated, based on the information presented. There are several options for filling the dunking booth with water and each option differs in terms of cost, risk, and the amount of time required. The challenge also involves some important statistical concepts. Chris conducts a survey to collect information on whether students at his school would be interested in dunking a teacher and how much they would pay to do so. Data from the survey can be used to extrapolate an estimate of revenue for the whole school.

All of the data needed to solve each challenge is contained in the story; students revisit the videos on an as-needed basis to look for and record data. Some of the Jasper anchors also contain ideas for how to solve parts of the challenge. These are called embedded teaching scenes. The embedded teaching scenes provide students with models for how to approach particular problems that may not be familiar to them.

Perspective on Pedagogy

Anchored instruction is consistent with a class of instructional theories known as constructivist theories. Constructivism rejects the idea that students learn by passively "soaking up" knowledge that is transmitted to them by teachers or others. Instead they assume students learn more if the teacher engages them in activities, such as defining problems, clarifying misunderstandings, generating solutions, and so forth, instead of lecturing or "telling" students how to solve problems.

Because of their complexity, anchors are effective for use in cooperative learning groups. Depending on the skill level of the class, teachers may structure the small-group work in different ways. If the class is quite skilled, the teacher may simply ask students to solve the challenge posed at the end of the video. For other classes, the teacher may ask groups to work and report on some part of the challenge or may focus the task even more by asking groups to brainstorm and report on ideas for how to solve a part of the challenge. An important aspect of AI pedagogy relates to how teachers mediate group problem solving. Because a goal of AI is for students to be as intellectually autonomous as possible in solving the anchors, it is important for teachers to interact with student in ways that do not usurp this autonomy.

Research on Anchored Instruction

One of the largest studies on AI involved a field implementation of four anchors from The Adventures of Jasper Woodbury. These anchors were used over the course of a school year by teachers in seventeen classes in seven states in the southeastern United States. In the majority of the classes, the Jasper instruction took the place of the students' regular mathematics instruction. Ten comparison classes that were matched on key demographic variables, including socioeconomic status, location, gender, minority representation, and mathematical achievement, were included in research. All students were administered a series of tests at the beginning and end of the school year. One test examined students' word-problem-solving skills. In spite of the fact that Jasper students had not received additional practice on written word problems, they performed significantly better than comparison students at the end of the school year. In this way, Jasper students were able to transfer the skills they had acquired in the context of solving Jasper problems to written word problems.

Students were also administered a series of tests designed to assess their abilities to define and formulate problems. They were given complex story problems in written form and were asked to identify goals that would need to be addressed to solve these problems. They were also shown mathematical formulations and were asked to identify the goal that each formula would satisfy. These aspects of problem solving are unique to the Jasper anchors and are not part of traditional problem-solving instruction. As expected, Jasper students performed better than comparison students on the posttest.

Finally, self-report measures of students' attitudes were collected. Jasper students showed more positive change relative to comparison students in five areas: they showed a reduction in mathematics anxiety, an increase in their beliefs about their ability to perform successfully in mathematics, greater interest in mathematics, greater interest in solving complex problems, and they thought mathematics was more useful in solving problems from everyday life.

The goal of anchored instruction is to help students learn information such that it can be remembered later on and flexibly applied to solve problems. Relevant research suggests that pedagogical approaches such as anchored instruction can enhance students' complex problem solving skills and positive attitudes towards learning.


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