Two interactions with members of MSP2 a couple of weeks ago (I know, not good Web 2.0 response time!) prompted me to go looking in NMSA's resources. Both interactions were with MSP2 members: Carla Watts
, a teacher in Illinois, and Bernardo Leon De La Barra
, lecturer in engineering at University of Tasmania. Carla posted a question to the Math Group
asking for advice about how to manage a wide range of abilities in her math class. Bernardo commented that Australia, like the U.S. and other countries, is challenged with a shrinking number of students entering the STEM fields.
Curious about whether there were any recent NMSA publications that touched on this, I checked out RMLE Onlne
(Research in Middle Level Education) and found the article, "Inclusion and Problem-Based Learning: Roles of Students in a Mixed...
The article is a case study documenting the interactions among three mixed-ability students in a 7th grade science class. Much of the article presents and analyzes the observed interactions among the three students.
The article describes problem-base learning (PBL) as a methodology where students collaborate to solve "ill-structured problems"--problems with no clear solution. This is not to suggest that PBL is "ill-structured," though. In fact, there are some guidelines and processes necessary for PBL to work as an effective instructional tool (e.g., students collaboratively decide what they know, don't know, need to know; they individually research content; they collectively decide on a solution).
According to the writers of this article, research on PBL has tended to be done with gifted students, special needs students, or average students--but no one has looked at mixed ability groups using PBL. These writers/researchers decided to do a case study of PBL with a mixed ability group of 2 average ability students and 1 special needs student.
So...jump to the conclusion: PBL works and fits the characteristics of effective middle school curriculum
: Curriculum is "relevant, challenging, integrative, and exploratory." (Actually, curriculum for ANY student group, regardless of age, should be "relevant, challenge, integrative, and exploratory"!) PBL helps all students develop metacognitive skills, social skills, and deeper content knowledge. PBL encourages deeper engagement and motivation for both the able student and the student who is being mainstreamed. And of course, engagement and motivation lead to deeper learning. Engagement and motivation also have a positive impact on classroom behavior (If I enjoy what I'm doing, I stay involved in positive ways). And, the more positive experiences, engagement, learning that students have with content, the more likely they are to consider career possibilities related to that content.
The writers admit that they've only done a limited focused study--one case study on one small group. But the findings should be encouraging to any teacher who wants to try PBL to address the issues of different abilities, motivation, and expectations about STEM careers.RMLE article on PBL.pdf