Teachers as Coaches of Cognitive Processes in Problem–based Learning

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Teachers as Coaches of Cognitive Processes in Problem–based Learning

Boon-Tiong Ho

Problem–based Learning

Problem–based learning (PBL) is both a curriculum development tool and an instructional strategy (Savery & Duffy, 1998). PBL simultaneously develops problem-solving strategies, knowledge bases in multiple disciplines, and various skills by placing the learner in the active role of problem solver confronted with an ill-structured problem that mirrors real-world situations. In a PBL unit, the ill-structured problem is presented first and thereafter serves as the organizing center and context for learning. The problem is considered ill-structured in nature because of the following characteristics:

  • The problem contains a “messy” situation (as in real life, where there are usually many problems embedded in each situation).
  • Its nature changes with the addition of new information.
  • It is not solved easily or formulaically.
  • Neither is it resolved by a “right” answer.

“The starting point for learning is always the problem” (Boud, 1985, 14). A problem is considered a stimulus for which a learner does not have a ready response; it is also one that students are apt to face as future professionals (Bridges, 1992). Therefore, in PBL classrooms, learners assume the role of problem solvers, while teachers assume the role of coaches. In the teaching and learning process, information is shared but knowledge is personally constructed by the learners. Thinking is fully articulated and held to strict benchmarks. Appropriate and authentic assessment accompanies the entire learning process in the PBL approach.

Teachers as Coaches of Cognitive Processes

As an instructional strategy, PBL offers ample opportunities for learners to be engaged in various cognitive processes, such as defining a problem, gathering information, analyzing data, building and testing hypotheses, generating solutions, and evaluating their outcomes. This is largely due to the manner in which the ill-structured problem is crafted. Such ill-structured problems demand that learners activate both creative and critical thinking skills when solving them. Hence, the learners suspend the guessing game of “What's the right answer that the teacher wants?”; instead, they become more motivated and more engaged in learning since they now know and feel that they are empowered to impact on the outcome of their own investigation. Their learning experiences become meaningful, especially when they are involved in solving problems that they regard as significant. The relevance of the context for the learners offers an obvious answer to their usual questions of “Why do we need to learn this information?” and “What does schoolwork have to do with anything in the real world?”

In this sense, PBL is vastly different in its pedagogical approach to that of the traditional chalk-and-talk style of didactic teaching. At the same time, one would expect differences to also exist in other dimensions of teaching and learning, such as the roles of teachers and learners, learning outcomes, and assessment. For example, the usual paper-and-pencil mode of assessment is not appropriate in the PBL approach as PBL tends to assess learning in ways that demonstrate understanding and not mere acquisition of knowledge. In the PBL approach, since learners' prior knowledge is activated and opportunities are provided for them to elaborate and apply knowledge in contexts similar to the learning contexts, the learning outcomes often exceed expectations. Learners not only retain what they learn but they can appropriately use the knowledge they have learned:

The advantage of such an approach is that students become much more aware of how the knowledge they are acquiring can be put to use. Adopting a problem solving mentality, even when it is marginally appropriate, reinforces the notion that the knowledge is useful for achieving particular goals. Students are not being asked to store information away; they see how it works in certain situations which increase the accessibility (Prawat, 1989, 18).

Last but not least, the role of teachers adopting the PBL approach also changes. Instead of being the “sage on the stage,” they now become the “guide by the side.” They function more as mentors taking on the coaching role. Coaching is a process of goal setting, modeling, guiding, facilitating, monitoring, and providing feedback to learners in order to support their active and self-directed thinking and learning. This change of role may not be obvious to teachers. Even if it is apparent, we must not assume that teachers can take on the coaching role easily. Coaching is an intense and complex process, and teachers do require training and experience, coupled with reflections, to excel in it. The role of teachers in enhancing motivation and fostering cognitive engagement as part of the coaching process includes these functions (Blumenfeld et al., 1998, 116):

  • Create opportunities for learning by providing access to information.
  • Support learning by scaffolding instruction and modeling and guiding students to make tasks more manageable.
  • Encourage students to use learning and metacognitive processes.
  • Assess progress, diagnose problems, provide feedback, and evaluate results.
  • Create an environment conducive to constructive inquiry.
  • Manage the classroom to ensure that work is accomplished in an orderly and efficient fashion.

Over the last two decades, many studies have been conducted to determine how teachers can best fulfill these varied roles (Brophy, 1989; Bryant & Timmins, 2000; Gallagher, Stepien, Sher, & Workman, 1995; Ho, 1999;Ho & Toh, 2001; Rosenshine & Stevens, 1986; Tan, 2000). Although research and theory have provided answers to many important questions related to the use of PBL in classroom teaching, teachers must understand the key features of the approach and be trained and equipped in order to successfully implement it. PBL is “likely to pose difficulties for teachers too. They may need help with content, with new instructional forms, and with implementation and management of projects” (Blumenfeld et al., 1998, 131). However, the critical role teachers play as coaches of cognitive processes in the successful implementation of a PBL unit cannot be overlooked:

Project-based learning requires considerable knowledge, effort, persistence, and self-regulation on the part of students; they need to devise plans, gather information, evaluate both findings and their approach, and generate and revise artifacts. Such requirements are not easily met. Teachers will play a critical role in helping students in the process, and shaping opportunities for learning, guiding students' thinking, and helping them construct new understandings (p. 131).

McConnell (2000), who is professor of sport and head of the School of Sport at UNITEC Institute of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand, and author of the best-selling book Inside the All Blacks, commented on coaches and coaching: “Coaches are leaders” (p. 11), “Coaching does not always go smoothly” (p. 13), and “To be a successful coach, you must be a successful teacher” (p. 139). Though his comments were made with reference to sports, I believe they are equally applicable to and descriptive of the coaching process in education: Teachers are indeed leaders (see elaboration by Ho, 2001, and Ho & Toh, 2002), and they do need to modify their lesson plans to suit particular teaching contexts. There will be interruptions and surprises in class that teachers have to learn to manage or solve. In fact, I would say that “to be a successful teacher, you must be a successful coach.”

The coaching role of teachers in conducting a PBL unit has been likened to that of a sports coach. As coaches, teachers assume a supporting sideline role. They must know when to offer help as it is needed and to provide guidance in building and testing strategies. The learners are the key players in the game. Teachers as coaches merely support the players. The key considerations are knowing and deciding when to let the players play and when and how to intervene. In PBL, teachers coach a variety of tasks, ranging from communication (how learners receive, share, and make sense of what they read, write, speak, and hear) to information gathering (from the library, the Internet, and experimentation) and autonomous learning habits (self-initiative and self-direction). All coaching and learning in PBL are done in the context of the problematic situation and of the disciplines in which the problem applies.

Costa and Garmston (1994) introduced another metaphor for coaching. They envisioned it as a conveyance, something like a stagecoach. From their notion,

to coach means to convey a valued colleague from where he or she is to where he or she wants to be. Skillful cognitive coaches apply specific strategies to enhance another person's perceptions, decisions, and intellectual functions. Changing these inner thought processes is prerequisite to improving overt behaviors that, in turn, enhance student learning (p. 2).

Two aspects of this definition support the salient features of the PBL approach. Firstly, the mention of the valued colleague places the learner in center stage of the PBL approach instead of focusing on a set of propositional statements as knowledge in a discipline to be imposed upon the learner. In its truest sense, the PBL approach is learner-centric and constructivist in nature. In fact, the first step in designing any PBL unit is to know the students. Only their interests and needs will drive their learning through PBL.

Secondly, the emphasis on changing inner thought processes as a prerequisite to improving overt behaviors is testimony to what most teachers, and learners alike, experience when they first encounter PBL. In the early stages, teachers tend to be uncomfortable with coaching PBL, feeling “a lack of control” over the direction and development of the lesson. Often learners also find that they “do not learn much.” However, once they are able to make the mindset shift to concentrate on the learner and the PBL process, then they begin to recognize the associated benefits. Indeed, the roles of coaching and coaches are so essential that “few educational innovations achieve their full impact without a coaching component” (Costa & Garmston, 1994, 7).

The Three Levels of Coaching

It has been observed in teacher development workshops that, while coaching has to be the most pervasive activity in PBL, it is also the least familiar and least automatic to teachers. Many teachers simply do not have enough evaluated experience in coaching PBL. Kitchener (1983) described three levels of coaching: cognition, metacognition, and epistemic cognition.

In coaching cognition, we are not concerned with teaching any particular type of thinking. Instead, the emphasis and practice are on fostering “thoughtfulness” (Newmann, 1990) through the use of interpretation, analysis, application, and manipulation of information in order to address a “messy” problem, a mental challenge of sort that cannot be addressed through routine application of previously learned information. Here, cognition involves the application of higher-order thinking. Beyer (1997) suggested that, to provide compelling opportunities for higher-order thinking in the classroom, teachers need to do the following:

  • Frame learning with thoughtful questions.
  • Provoke puzzlement or dissonance.
  • Engage students in knowledge-producing activities.
  • Structure learning around knowledge-producing strategies.

Asking thoughtful questions is part of coaching cognition. “A thoughtful question is clearly not a question that can be answered simply by recall or with a single word or phrase” (Beyer, 1997, 32). It is also one to which there is no preferred or “right” answer. What it does is to stimulate thinking beyond the mere recall of facts. “Answering a thoughtful question necessitates finding and reorganizing information and data as well as evaluating the data and the questions derived from or based on them” (p. 32). Specifically, Wiggins (1987) listed several criteria that characterize a thoughtful question (p. 12):

  • It deals with the most controversial and important topics or issues of a discipline or subject.
  • It has no obvious, single, prescribed correct answer.
  • It requires analysis, evaluation, and/or synthesis, as well as other types of complex thinking.
  • It allows personalized responses because there is no one correct way to go about developing an adequate response.
  • It requires the production or construction of new knowledge—knowledge presumably unknown to the students prior to receiving the question.
  • It advances students toward a deeper understanding of the subject on which they focus.

The following are examples of questions useful for coaching cognition:

Challenging questions

  • Are you sure? Have you considered … ?
  • Do you have enough facts to suggest … ? How reliable is … ? How valid is … ? How reasonable is … ?
  • Does anyone believe/know this to be true? If what Daniel and Mary say is true, do you still believe … ?

Probing questions

  • Tell me more. Can you say more about that?
  • What about … ? Who else? What if …?
  • How so? Why?
  • What do you mean? What does this mean for the problem?

Cognitive questions

  • What is your hypothesis, hunch, your best guess about this?
  • What is going on here? What seems important?
  • Where does this fit in? What does this information tell you?

Metacognition, as described by Costa (2001, 82), is a mental processing that

involves knowing what we know and what we don't know. It is our ability to devise a plan for producing whatever information is needed, to be conscious of our own steps and strategies during the act of problem solving, and to reflect on and evaluate the productiveness of our thinking…. Probably the major components of metacognition are developing a plan of action, keeping that plan in mind over a period of time, and then evaluating the plan upon its completion. Mapping out a strategy before embarking on a course of action helps us consciously track the steps in the sequence of planned behaviors for the duration of the activity.

Therefore, coaching at the level of metacognition involves monitoring the progress of the cognitive processes that learners are engaged in. Teachers might consider using the following questions to help them coach PBL at the level of metacognition:

Challenging questions

  • Are you sure? Have you considered … (process or strategy)?
  • How reliable is … (process or strategy)? How valid is … (process or strategy)?
  • Do you really know or … ?

Monitoring questions

  • How are things progressing? What still needs to be done? What else still needs attention?
  • What, if anything, in your goals and strategies needs to change? What has been helpful to you so far? Have you reached your goal?
  • What conclusions have you drawn? What solutions are emerging? Where do you see inconsistencies, gaps, ambiguities, or failures?

Metacognitive questions

  • Where can we start? How do we proceed? What is your strategy?
  • Why is this (process or strategy) important?
  • How could we go about this? Who will do this?
  • How can we learn more about this?

At the next level, coaching for epistemic cognition, we are more concerned about the recognition and application of the limits of knowledge, the certainty of knowing, and the criteria of knowing. The following are examples of questions to coach learners at this level:

Probing questions

  • What makes you say that?
  • If …, then … ?
  • Can you say more about that?

Epistemic cognitive questions

  • How do you know?
  • What can we know? To what degree of certainty?
  • Why do we need to know more? What is at stake here?

All of these questions serve as exemplary verbal cues for teachers to engage learners at these different levels of coaching. It has been widely acknowledged that the single most important teaching act is asking questions. Asking good, thoughtful questions is never as easy and straightforward as the questioning techniques themselves. Questioning techniques such as wait-time I and wait-time II, using nonverbal cues (eye contact, proximity, gestures), and intonation, which fall in the domain of skills, can be enhanced through practicing. Asking thoughtful questions, however, is a different matter. While it is possible and encouraged for teachers to prepare their questions before asking them, subsequent follow-through questions will depend on learners' responses to the first question asked. Often teachers would have to phrase their follow-through questions on the spot, and this requires skill and evaluated experience. An easy-to-remember guiding principle is this:

  • Pause: listen attentively and emphatically to the learner.
  • Paraphrase: summarize, rephrase, translate, or give an example.
  • Probe: seek clarification whenever necessary.

Try using all these three levels of cognitive questioning, but they must be appropriate to the specific coaching events. Begin by questioning less and listening more to establish learners' ownership and empowerment of the entire PBL process.

Principles of Effective Coaching

Like the law of gravity acting on an object, a principle holds true under all situations regardless of the context. Therefore, principles are powerful laws or truths governing the behaviors and/or outcomes of the objects or events within which they operate. Similarly, in coaching PBL, there are certain principles that teachers should be cognizant of. These principles of effective coaching include both general and specific ones.

Specific coaching principles for a PBL unit include the following:

  • Plan a PBL unit that will engage students, meet curriculum requirements, and develop students' problem-solving skills.
  • Prepare students for their role as active problem solvers and self-directed learners.
  • Interest learners in the ill-structured problem.
  • Coach building of hypothesis, reasoning, and construction of meaning.
  • Coach problem definition.
  • Coach information gathering and sharing.
  • Encourage generation of solutions.
  • Coach “fit” of solutions to the problem.
  • Develop and implement authentic assessment of student learning.
  • Debrief the process.

More general coaching principles include these:

  • Avoid “yes” or “no” questions and questions that require one-word answers.
  • Avoid excessive restating.
  • Resist the temptation to correct immediately or to interrupt.
  • Diagnose learners' needs and engagement through careful observation.
  • Encourage participation of all students.
  • Encourage justification of ideas.
  • Extend learners' thinking using thoughtful questions.
  • Embed appropriate instruction and mentoring in the PBL unit.
  • Facilitate goal setting and strategy building, while encouraging openness, patience, enthusiasm, initiative-taking, in confronting ill-structured, ambiguous, and incomplete problems.
  • Maintain appropriate levels of challenge throughout the PBL unit.
  • Monitor reasoning, communication, and interpersonal relationships, and provide appropriate and reasonably immediate feedback.
  • In teaching collaboration, ask who does what, when, and why, and consider the implications of doing this the same way or differently from day to day.

While both lists may seem overwhelmingly long, it is through constant practice with feedback and reflection that these principles become embedded in us. The key to becoming an effective teacher-coach lies in our willingness and ability to reflect and learn from our experiences. Not everyone learns from experience; there are people who do not learn, so that even when they go through similar experiences a second or third time they behave very much in the same way as before. We often assume that we learn from our experience and that experience is the best teacher. This is an inaccurate conception. The truth is that only evaluated experience is the best teacher. Merely going through an experience does not guarantee that we learn from it, although an experience might be the starting point of our learning. “Our day-to-day experiences as we confront challenges, incidents, and problems in our lives are rich sources of learning…if accompanied by reflection on action” (Butler, 2001, 1). Hence, teachers need to engage in reflective practice in order to become effective in coaching cognitive processes.

In coaching overt behaviors, teachers should be mindful that these behaviors are “the products and artifacts of inner thought processes and intellectual functions. To change the overt behaviors of instruction requires the alteration and rearrangement of the inner and invisible cognitive behaviors of instruction” (Costa & Garmston, 1994, 16). Teacher-coaches will have to adopt the role of mediators. As mediators, trust-building becomes an essential component of the coaching process. Therefore, besides the principles of effective coaching, teachers will also have to match learners' nonverbal cues in attempting to build rapport and trust in the longer term. Nonverbal cues to be matched include posture, gesture, inflection, pitch, volume, rate of speech, language choice, and even breathing.

Teachers' Experiences as Coaches

A group of 15 secondary school teachers participated over a four-month period (April to July 1999) in a project involving the use of PBL in classroom teaching. These teachers formed three heterogeneous groups from three different schools with teaching experiences ranging from 3 to 20 years and in various disciplines, such as English language, Chinese language, science (physics and chemistry), mathematics, and history. Together they formed a rich and diverse working group for developing an interdisciplinary problem for a PBL unit. The project was undertaken as part of a larger framework of the Teachers' Network known as the Learning Circle. The Learning Circle, a primary activity of the Teachers' Network, involves “teachers who want to better understand educational issues and concerns of common interest, or teachers who are keen to further develop an idea or teaching strategy” (Ministry of Education, 1998, 2).

The feedback from the participants was very positive. Generally, the teachers felt that their involvement in this project had been an enriching learning experience. In fact, one teacher noted that students' learning transcended the learning of content knowledge and skills; it was learning to learn that had impacted the students:

In terms of, maybe, not just content, it will be more of the nontangible [sic] things. Questioning, be able to question concepts, establish ideas, developing interest for science, and to play a more active role in learning. Not just sitting back and receiving. So these are the values which I think are useful (interview transcript 8, July 22, 1999).

These benefits came about because teachers had changed their role and adopted a more facilitative teaching style. However, commenting on the need for a more facilitative style, a beginning teacher with only one year of teaching experience described her own fear of this changed role:

The teacher also needs a change. I won't be able to cope with it if you suddenly dump me in this kind of situation. I don't know what is within my control and what is not within my control. I really don't know (interview transcript 2, July 7, 1999).

Similar findings from other studies (Doyle, 1977; Rich, 1993) reveal that this change does not happen easily. In fact, teachers feel threatened when using new models of pedagogy because of a feeling of incompetence and being out of control. As a result, they would often revert to more familiar strategies, such as the didactic style of the traditional teacher talk, that they are already comfortable with. “When faced with insecurity in the complex environment of the classroom, teachers tend to revert to methods they know to be effective in rendering the situation manageable” (Baumfield & Oberski, 1998, 48).

On a separate occasion, because of the discomfort with this changed role and the accompanying lack of confidence in coaching, the same teacher actually expressed doubt that the PBL approach could enable students to achieve their desired learning outcomes:

So actually I'm…quite happy with what I'm seeing at the moment. So hopefully, on Thursday, when I give them the test, everything is OK. To me, a lot depends on the test results. At the end of the day when I mark the scripts, then we will see how [things go] (interview transcript 9, July 26, 1999).

Apart from the concern over students' performance in tests, this teacher was quite satisfied with the PBL experience. Ironically, this concern is exactly the central thrust of the PBL approach: that students be developed from being passive recipients of knowledge through to being active inquirers to becoming productive problem solvers (see Figure 1). This is the challenge in our education system in the knowledge-based economy. In this new era, along with rapid technological advances, changes are swift and inevitable. Indeed, the attitude of “why fix things when they ain't broken” can no longer be a justification for contending with the status quo. Teachers and students alike must be prepared for changes and indeed must change. In the next section, a framework is proposed with an example in physical science to look into how teachers can make this paradigm shift in mindset.

What's Next after Coaching? A Framework to Develop Learners as Active Inquirers

Conventionally, when a teacher sets a task requiring students to, say, calculate the specific heat capacity of a given solid, the learning objective is to be able to define what specific heat capacity of a solid is. The mindset of the teacher is to focus on the product, on academic rationalism, on getting the one correct answer (see Table 1).

When teachers begin to redesign the learning task and ask students “How do you find the specific heat capacity of a solid?”, the learning objective now becomes “to discover different methods” of determining the specific heat capacity of that solid. We begin to focus our minds on possibilities instead of being confined to the one correct answer. Next, instead of insisting that students learn about the specific heat capacity of a given solid, if teachers were to ask “What might you want to know about this solid?”, we change the learning objective again. We begin to encourage students to make observations, ask questions, form hypotheses, and test

them. In essence, we deepen their inquiry skills. The focus is then on the process.

Finally, as in most research work, there will be no given object, no prescribed method, and students have to learn to pose their own problems. In order to solve them, they will have to learn to become productive problem solvers. At this stage, the focus is on people as individual learners. When we reach this stage, we would have arrived at the pinnacle of learning through the PBL approach.

TABLE 1 Shift in question design, objective, and mindset
Find the specific heat capacity of a
solid: Amount of heat, Q = mc?
To define specific heat capacity of solidProduct
How do you find the specific heat
capacity of a solid?
To discover different methodsPossibilities
What might you want to know about
this solid?
To deepen inquiry skillsProcess
No given object. No given method.
Find your own problem.
To develop problem solversPeople


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