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Editor’s Note: There have been numerous articles on the value of utilizing constructivism in computer-mediated classes. Yet, the research literature has had a glaring weakness in advocating the constructivism philosophy that has not been adequately examined in online classes. Donna Russell’s investigation offers a compelling narrative of the difficulties of translating educational theory into the online instructor’s teaching practices.

Paradigm Shift: A Case Study of Innovation
in an Educational Setting

Donna L. Russell


This paper describes an ethnographic case study of the implementation of an innovation cluster which included the development of an authentic problem-based unit using online technology in a fourth grade classroom in a suburban Midwestern U.S. city. This case study analysis is part of a larger study of an online collaborative program that included four teachers in the design and implementation of a collaboratively implemented problem based unit. The study participants were four eMINTS teachers who implemented an online authentic problem-solving unit, Improving Interstate 70, simultaneously in 4th and 5th grades in four different school districts, including urban, rural, suburban and a small city districts, throughout Missouri during the 2001-2002 school year. This paper is concerned with the development of the unit by a suburban fourth grade teacher we call Linda (a pseudonym). The researchers used Activity Theory to systemically analyze the teacher’s effort to innovate by reviewing the contextual issues, the collaborative professional development processes and the teacher’s concepts of constructivist learning processes as progressive issues that arose during the implementation of the innovation cluster.  As a result the researcher was able to define the responses of the teacher that affected the effectiveness of her implementation of an innovation cluster into her classroom.

Research Context

The eMINTS program is a statewide effort to upgrade Missouri's classrooms in the 21st century by combining cutting-edge technology with first-class teaching. EMINT establishes demonstration classrooms in Missouri's public schools to illustrate the use of technology in classroom instruction. School districts, selected by Missouri's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to participate in the program, choose classrooms - typically third- or fourth-grade, which are transformed into models of integrated inquiry-based instruction. The study focused on four eMINTS teachers designing and implementing the authentic problem-based unit titled “Improving Interstate 70”. They implemented the unit during a six-week period in April and May of 2002. The study focused on four eMINTS teachers who worked with students in 4th and 5th grades in different schools in Missouri. These four teachers were originally part of a cohort of 45 teachers who were invited to participate in a pilot project at MOREnet (Missouri Research and Education Network) that involved learning about a new online tool, Shadow NetWorkspace™ (SNS) developed by the University of Missouri-Columbia College of Education.

The teacher that is the focus of this paper teaches 4th grade in one of 13 elementary schools in a suburban community (population in 2000, 112,803) with an enrollment of 610 students. The 48 certified staff serves students in grade PreK-6. Linda, who has taught 4th grade for 10 years, works with 22 students, all of Caucasian ethnicity including 12 boys and 10 girls. As a part of her participation in the eMINTS program for three years, Linda has 12 Pentium3 LCD computers, one teacher workstation, a Smartboard, a scanner, a color printer, and a digital camera.

The Innovation Cluster

Rogers (1995) suggests that some innovations, usually technology innovations, are better viewed as a cluster, in which the innovations within the cluster share a complementary relationship. An innovation cluster in this study is defined as the implementation of more than one innovative tool in order to develop change. The two innovations implemented by the teachers included 1) Shadow NetWorkspace™ (SNS), and 2) a unit design framework, “Improving Interstate 70”, based on constructivist learning principles developed through authentic problem-based units. Given Roger's definition of an innovation cluster, it seems reasonable to consider SNS and the unit design as an interconnected innovation cluster since elements of the unit design framework and elements of SNS can be seen as interrelated and interdependent based on their purposeful implementation in Linda’s classroom to develop advanced problem-solving abilities in her students.

Shadow NetWorkspace™

The teachers in this study used SNS to collaborately design and implement the unit. Their students also collaborated online throughout the unit and interacted with experts in related domains using SNS. SNS (Laffey, Musser, & Espinosa, 2000), designed and produced by the Center for Technology Innovations in Education (CITE) at the University of Missouri at Columbia, is a web-based work environment designed and developed specifically for use in K-12 schools to support schools and learning. Shadow was developed at CTIE with support provided by the SBC Foundation, the Missouri Research and Education Network (MOREnet), the University of Missouri System, and the U.S. Department of Education. The operating system for SNS is Red Hat Linux. Since SNS is distributed with an open source license, it is free to all schools. MOREnet served the middleware tool from its server to the schools of the participating teachers.

Design Framework:  Improving Interstate 70

The instructional design template was provided to all the teachers and was a structure for the unit but allowed for flexibility in how the teacher conceptualizes the unit as a relationship between her theories of learning and preparation of the unit and clarification of purposes for the instructional process in her classroom. Drawing upon literature in problem solving, specifically design (Jonassen, 2000), the unit engaged students in authentic problem-solving processes. In order to develop advanced problem-solving abilities, students must be actively involved in practices directly related to the problems of a particular domain rather than passively reading about, hearing about, or merely thinking about those practices as something outside of school (Barab & Duffy, 2000; Lave & Wenger, 1991). Prior to the design of the unit, the researchers consulted with project engineers and environmental specialists at the Missouri Department of Transportation in order to conceptualize how experts in the field tackle an ill-structured design problem such as redesigning Interstate 70.  As the teacher or more knowledgeable person (i.e., expert in the field) created a supporting structure that can initiate and sustain students’ interest, the students become involved. Scaffolding, which occurs through modeling, structuring activity, or coaching (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989), provided clarity and created momentum for the students to gradually gain control of the task and take over more of the responsibility (Wertsch, 1998; Bruner, 1984). Consequently, each phase of the unit builds on students’ prior knowledge and/or knowledge constructed from the previous phase.

First, in Phase 1, students worked in groups of two or three students to gather and analyze information about the importance of the Interstate 70 problem to their community. Each small group of students will present their perspective to the other groups in the class, while the teachers facilitates students negotiating multiple perspectives and shared understanding (Resnick et al., 1991). In Phase 2, students formed cross-classroom workgroups based on the areas of expertise they identify as important to solving the Interstate 70 problem. After the four participating classrooms determine the number of areas of expertise to investigate, the teachers divided her students (based on their interest) into the determined number of expert groups. Then, the students, working with students from the other classrooms in the same expert group, will collaborative using network technologies to develop conceptual understanding of the expert area and determine the importance of that expert area to solving the Interstate 70 problem.

In Phase 3, students create collaborative solution groups within their classrooms that consist of students from all of the areas of expertise. The students, who took on various roles in the knowledge building process in Phase 2, will now work with others in a jigsaw format (Aronson et al., 1978) to develop group understanding of each area and of the interdependence of expert areas.


The data collection process uses interpretive research practices to capture the dynamics and complexity of the work activity of the teachers. The research was a collaborative effort between the author and Dr. Arthur Schneiderheinze. We were able to develop a concept of the teachers’ responses and beliefs at several data points throughout the study and also able to describe their responses to different types of professional development processes. Using cultural historical Activity Theory (AT) as the framework for analysis, the researchers created structured coding categories based on the AT model and the concept of mediation (Wertsch, 1986) and integrated theoretical constructs from related fields (e.g., professional development, innovation, collaboration) into operationalized groupings of interactions in the local and collaborative work activity of the teachers (Engeström, 1987).

There was an audio-taped semi-structured interview with all the participating teachers prior to the beginning of collaborative professional development. The purpose of this interview was to articulate several AT aspects of the activity, specifically goals/motive and context (rules, community, and division of labor); and to understand the teachers’ philosophy of learning and teaching including identifying their previous experiences in instructional design. The format of the interview was informal; however, the pre-structured questions and probes insured that all aspects of the AT model were identified at this data point. (Fraenkel & Wallen, 1996). Some of the questions included:

  1. What do you hope students take away from participating in this unit? [goals/motive]         

  2. Describe a unit that you have done that helped your students develop higher-level thinking skills.

  3. Who or what do you believe supports you in the design of instructional units? [community]

  4. What benefits have you seen in the use of technology in the classroom? [mediation, goals/motive]

  5. How will successfully designing and implementing this unit affect your goals as a teacher? [object]

Prior to initiating the four teachers participated  in four 1 hour chatroom conferences in SNS designed for them to share plans for each of the phases, revisit their shared vision for the instructional unit in terms of those plans, and negotiate aspects of the unit that require a coordinated effort. During the last scheduled chat, the teachers themselves decided to continue chatting weekly and developed a schedule for these dialogs. Subsequently they had four more chats occurring throughout Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the unit.

After the unit we either audio taped a semi-structured interview or the teachers completed an online questionnaire. This interview and questionnaire were designed to be the same as the pre-unit interview. The purpose of this last interview was to develop several aspects of Activity Theory, specifically goals/motive and context (rules, community, and division of labor); and to understand the teachers’ philosophy of education and experiences in the instructional design process and to compare these final responses to the initial responses in order to define changes in the teachers’ concepts about the constructivist unit. The questions and probes insured that all aspects of AT received attention (Fraenkel & Wallen, 1996; LeCompote & Preissle, 1993; Maykut & Morehouse, 1994). Sample questions, which were based on the model for using activity theory as a framework for understanding components of constructivist learning environments suggested by Jonassen & Rohrer-Murphy (1999) and are asked of all teachers to increase comparability of responses, included:

  • What did you hope students would take away from participating in this unit? [goals/motive]

  • Who or what do you think affected how you were able to implement the “Improving Interstate 70” unit? [community]

  • What benefits or costs have you seen as a result of the implementation of this unit in the use of technology in the classroom? [mediation, goals/motive]

  • What aspects of this project do you anticipate using in the future? [object]

  • What types of professional development would be beneficial to you in helping you design and implement similar units in the future? [mediation]

  • What limitations do you foresee that you would need to consider if you were to implement this unit or a similar unit next year? [rules, community, division of labor]

  • In terms of instructional design, would you consider yourself innovative? [subject]

Using Activity Theory as a methodological framework for data analysis each case study provides a detailed description of the teacher’s work activity settings using the nodes of AT in order to identify relationships in the data. Conflicts in these relationships, as described by each teacher that occur during implementation of the unit will be identified as contradictions. The responses of the teacher to these contradictions are further identified as a turning point. A turning point is a change in the implementation of the object by the teacher as a result of her response to a conflict between the factors identified in the AT model. A turning point response to a contradiction will further be identified as resolved, the teacher was able to maintain or expand her object by working out the tensions in the system, or unresolved, the teacher did not work out the tensions and the object was narrowed. These turning points will be identified in each teacher’s case study analysis and displayed at the conclusion of the analysis.

The theoretical model for the design of this study also emphasizes this understanding of the importance of contextualizing the research process in real-time classroom responses of the teachers to contradictions in their work activity based upon the perceptions of the teachers. This contextual emphasis, reflected in the use of AT as a framework for analysis, is a response to the social nature of human learning, (Wertsch, 1985), and incorporates an emphasis on ecological validity and practical relevance (Anderson and Anderson, 2000). This is a non reductionist process as it requires the consideration of the mediated nature of the participant-object relationship. Additionally the identification of response to contradictions is essential in order to understand human development without dualism and subjectivism (Roth & Tobin, 2002).Therefore, a systemic analysis has two potential benefits, it can aid the researcher in developing an understanding of the activity from the perspective of the agent, and it can potentially create a functional understanding that will correlate to similar contexts. 

Figure 1:  AT Model of Teacher's Work Activity

In order to identify change in the development of the object for each teacher we used the concept of transformation of object. The object of the work activity for each of the four teachers is the implementation of the unit based on the development of constructivist-based learning principles she described as motive for engaging in the activity. Transformation will be identified as a change in the object such as widening, narrowing, switching and disintegrating (Kärkkäinen, 1999). Widening of the object means that the expansion of the object such as completing more of the unit than anticipated. Narrowing of the object means the contraction of the object such as doing less of the unit than anticipated. Switching of the object means a shifting of the object in response to tensions in the system. Disintegration of object indicates the teacher’s response to the work activity setting is fragmented in response to the object such as she may fail to implement the unit or use the technology.

Progressive Issues

During the course of data collection and response, we identified three progressive issues that were factors in the teacher’s responses to the development of her object.

1) Beliefs about Learning

The philosophical beliefs of the teachers participating in this study is considered motive in relationship to their work activity system. These concepts were identified through pre and post interviews and questionnaires. Motive, in this study, is compared to the concept of outcome and understood through the voice of the teacher’s. The teacher’s work activity model considers her motive and the potential outcome. The outcome is the potential result of the work activity and realized by the transformation of the object of the activity. Motive is an overarching goal for implementing the reform unit. This concept can be compared to a goal as something noteworthy that one hopes to achieve. The object has inner dynamics that are manifested in activity and affect the desired outcome. The object is therefore changing during the activity. According to Engeström (1987) expansive learning means the expansion of the object and the motive of the activity including differences in the aim of the activity, what is produced by the activity and why it is produced. Changes in the teacher’s beliefs about the purpose for implementation, motive, are used in this study to categorize transformation of the object in regard to outcome and to identify expansive learning responses of the teachers.

2) Collective Activity

Objects and motives of activity are collective. The object of activity is twofold in that is both something given or something projected or anticipated (Leont’ev, 1977). In activity theory, collaborative learning in a group can be analyzed as object formation. Not all collaborative learning is expansive however, since collaborative learning processes contain contradictory and multi-voiced elements qualitatively narrowing the cycle potentially leading to reduction in the activity (Engeström, 1987). We analyzed the collaborative dialogs for dialogic turning points in the individual teacher’s dialogs in order to identify turning points in the collaborative professional development and whether the turning points led widening or narrowing of the object.

3) Context Issues

In the AT Model contextual issues are those aspects of community, division of labor or rules that impact the teacher during implementation. These are the aspects of the local context that can potentially be a source of tensions in the system that lead to contradictions that are either resolved or unresolved. Through the identification of contradictions and the teachers’ responses to those contradictions, turning points, in their individual work activity system, I was able to identify widening, narrowing or disintegration in the teacher’s object formation as a result of each teacher’s local environment. If the teacher is unable to resolve the local contradictions that arise during implementation of the unit the result can be a narrowing of the object. This may be demonstrated as a scheduling contradiction, such as departmentalization rules in her building, that the teacher is unable to reconcile with her goals for the unit.

Case Study: Linda

Linda teaches fourth grade in a suburban school. She has taught for 14 years, the last 10 years at this school. Linda, who has taught 4th grade for 10 years, works with 22 students, all Caucasian ethnicity, 12 boys and 10 girls. Linda has participated in the eMINTS program for 3 years. This means she has received approximately 200 hours of training in inquiry learning methods and the use of technology. When she volunteered to participate in the Pioneer’s Project she received an additional 18 hours of training over 3 days on the tools in Shadow Net Work Space (SNS).

Before the unit began Linda met with the researchers and discussed her goals for this pilot project. During this pre-unit interview she said that she had done similar units before and was very comfortable with the process of inquiry. She expressed excitement about doing the unit and working with the two researchers. She also expressed an interest in teaching other teachers about SNS after the unit was over. She had presented her participation in the Pioneers Project to the Board of Education in her district. She described herself as working in a highly collaborative and supportive local work environment. She was not familiar with SNS but she was willing to use it during the unit. “I am very intrigued with this Shadow Net work Space (SNS). I have gotten over the fear factor because it was kind of a new unknown adventure and when I see an opportunity is available to do something new and exciting in this program with the kids I take it.”

However, when Linda described her previous inquiry units during the pre-unit interview she described units that were either teacher-driven research projects or Web Quest projects. These types of inquiry units did not engage students in authentic complex problem solving and open-ended inquiry processes as designed in the I-70 framework used in the pilot. During the pre-unit interview she was presented with the unit framework and she looked over it briefly. She felt it would be meaningful for the kids. She wanted her students to be able to identify and solve complex problems and she wanted her students to understand that many perspectives were necessary to understand and solve a complex problem. These learning goals were identified as her motive for implementation.

Linda developed several exciting instructional activities that she shared with the participating teachers during the online chats. One project included creating a puzzle that she posted on the front board. It represented all three phases as pieces to a puzzle. As the students moved through the unit they put together the puzzle. At the end of Phase 1 her students created a concept webbing using Inspiration. This activity was suggested by the engineering teacher at the high school. However during Phase 2 Linda’s schedule was ahead of others and she was unsure how to develop her Phase 2 student activities. She decided to have her students study some of the case studies posted on the web site.  Linda felt that the reading level and the content were difficult for her students and she ultimately moved into Phase 3 without scheduling chats with the other students. During Phase 3 her students presented their solutions to the MODOT personnel. They created a variety of presentation modes including PowerPoint slides, posters and web pages to demonstrate their solutions to the problem of I-70 in Missouri. However, she finished the unit within her own classroom.

Progressive Issue #1: How does the teachers’ participation in collaborative professional development influence the implementation of a constructivist-based learning environment?

Linda participated in all 8 chat rooms prior to and during the unit. She initially responded very positively to these synchronous dialogs with the other teachers and the researchers. She was willing to ask productive questions and give examples of her work. Her examples of instructional processes were productive and useful to the collaborative process during the first 6 chats. She aided the professional development process of the other teachers by becoming a source of ideas and encouragement.

Below is a dialog from Chat Number 6 which occurred during Phase 1 of the unit.

Janice:   I would love to see the questions your kids asked their family members.

Linda:    It really helped them look at the local picture, which has been hard because they want to fix the problem right now!! :-) By looking at the data they could see the relationship between some of their concerns (like.... too much traffic flow) and actual data that had been gathered. One of the charts we looked at was population and one was traffic flow. Several kids quickly noticed the relationship between how many people live here and the increased problem with traffic flow.

Below is a chart showing her task role change in the collaboration process. She initially developed a positive role response during the chats with the other teachers. She spent much of her time online information giving, clarifying the process, and information or opinion seeking. She was a positive influence in the collaborative process aiding the group in developing their object. The numbers represent total number of task roles instances coded for Linda during all the chats. An instance in this study is a line of text.

Table 1


Below is an example of an interactive dilemma that occurred during chat # 4. This text was coded as a transformative event for the group, a dialogic turning point. The object, implementing the unit, was changed as the teachers worked out this important issue of how to decide on the number and descriptions of the areas of expertise. These groups had to be the same in Phase 2 so the students could create online groups that included students from each class. During Phase 2 it was very important that the collaboration process work for the teachers in order for the students to be able to work collaboratively online to create expert strategies as part of the solution process. Linda had earlier suggested each teacher load the description of two areas of expertise on the bulletin board as a possible solution to the problem.

Linda:      I can also list each expert area with a definition....or would that be inhibiting the inquiry process?

Carol:      NO! We need to rename these!!!!!!! Don't decide that yet, Linda.

Helen:      I think that is a good idea Linda.

Helen:      I think if we get a good description of the job we won't have to rename them

Janice:     All eight of the areas listed seem to be the key to an inquiry of i-70.

Linda:      I'm O.K.. with 8 as long as we have job descriptions. This is a great time to talk about careers and these titles are really what these people are called.

Janice:     I'm okay with them also.

As a result of this interchange, Linda, Janice and Helen all combined to establish the expert groups. Linda initiated a solution and defined it in the chat forum. Her task role in the collaborative dialogs was positive in regard to the completion of the task. She was supportive of the other teachers and presented solutions to their questions sometimes taking on the role of the unit developer in the implementation of the unit itself.

She did, however, begin to express anti-task responses during chats in Phase 2 beginning with Chat number 7. During this time her responses became less positive toward task completion responses. Below is an example of a dialog that occurred during Chat 7 which occurred during Phase 2. The question she posed to the researcher earlier in the chat dealt with the definitions of the experts and the process of the students asking questions that relate to these expert areas.

Researcher: We posted a list of "possible inquiry questions" on our Before the   Unit discussion board... in theory, we imagined each set of local experts focusing on only one question (in total, there would be 4 per expert group since there are four classes).

Carol:    I am concerned about the hard text most of those articles have. I barely understand the categories myself!! In fact, when I explained human environment, I was totally wrong according to what we read on Linda's site. My kids are in 7 groups, not all 8. I do not understand how the communicating with the experts will happen.

Linda:    I hate to sound so negative about the start of Phase 2, but there is nothing worse than the feeling I had today.....and that was I could not help my kids. I found myself getting grouchy (I know that's hard to believe :-) and it wasn't my kids fault... I just felt like I was winging it (and I told you I do not like that feeling)

Carol:    I totally agree!!!!!!!

Linda:    I don't feel like I have given them enough background about their expert area to come up with good questions. Even after discussing each job specifically and talking about what types of questions they might try to answer as an expert in their field.....many of my kids still said "I don't get what my job is?" This was after we discussed them as a class......

Linda expressed real frustration with the student activities in Phase 2. This frustration was expressed in the chats as anti-task roles. Her responses in the above text were coded as blocking which includes preventing team decision-making through non-support. Her inability to define the activities locally became a blocking point in her interactions with the other teachers. Below is a chart of text instances coded for Linda as anti-task behaviors including avoiding the task, blocking the task, dominating the dialog or recognition seeking. All of these dialogic instances occurred during Chat 7 when Linda was developing the expert areas in Phase 2. She did not implement the online dialogs between her students and the other classes. She responded by moving into Phase 3 without implementing the Phase 2 online activities. Blocking includes dialog that prevents decision-making. Dominating and recognition seeking include text instances that emphasize issues in her classroom but do not aid in the completion of the task. Avoiding are text instances when the discussion is not concerned with the task for the chat.  Linda eventually decided to end Phase 2 without using the online student groups to develop distributed expertise.

Table 2:
Anti-Task Roles

Progressive Issue #2: What factors in individual teachers’ school environments influence the implementation of a constructivist-based learning environment?

In response to contextual aspects she was supported in this unit by her principal and other eMINTS teachers in her building. She was allowed to not departmentalize during the unit so her students could complete the unit. She described a supportive environment for her innovation in her pre-unit interview but expressed hesitation in the structure of the learning environment:

Researcher: Have you talked with others in your building about your participation in the pilot?

Linda:    I can see the possibilities and the possibilities are so incredible even when we go beyond Missouri. Especially in science as far as you could go coast to coast and it left us wondering how to put all the pieces together and I am still not sure how to do that. After the project I hope to be able to talk very knowledgeably about it. I am not just there yet. I see all the possibilities and the wonderful things that could happen. I am just able to talk to other people how to make that happen. Even though I am excited I am not sure what the next step is.

She (the principal) lets us take on a leadership role in our building and allows us to share it with other teachers in our building. She has given us projectors and smart boards and allowed us to travel all over the place so that the teachers can try it out. Last year we focused on equipment training. But this year she is really into the inquiry aspect and she is opening the year out with a discussion on inquiry and project-based learning. I don't know but talking with others in the program if you don't have that it makes it difficult to believe it wholeheartedly and share it with others. We are very fortunate to have that commitment to share.

A tension arose in her local context concerning the departmentalization. She was scheduled to do lessons with another fourth grade teacher. She was able to work this contradiction out by talking with the teacher in her building and she continued the unit with her students in her classroom. She did not have any unresolved local context issues throughout the unit.

Progressive Issue #3: How do teachers’ beliefs about learning and technology influence the implementation of a constructivist-based learning environment?

In order to understand the teachers beliefs about learning we coded the learning goals for students as motive. Using Bereiter’s Scheme of Knowledge (2001), we developed a hierarchical coding structure to demonstrate changes in the teacher’s beliefs about the potential learning resulting from implementing the innovation cluster.  When the teacher described her learning goals for their students throughout the implementation of this unit, we coded these text instances at some level of this scale. During the pre-unit interview Linda was focused on the type of learning environment that involved students in solving complex problems collaboratively so they could understand others points of view. Demonstration of this type of knowledge is a level 5 on the coding scale because it shows an awareness of knowledge as functioning to aid in solving problems and communicating understanding to others. Linda wanted her students to be involved with the other students online in order to understand different points of view. When asked what her goals for the students would be in the unit she said, “Their understanding that solving the problem is not solving the problem here [is important] but taking into account everybody else’s is really important to me.” She re-voiced her goals for her students the unit in a post-unit online interview.

Linda:    The students looked at the I-70 from many angles, local as well as statewide. They learned a lot about how MoDot attacks problems and works together to solve them. They also learned the importance of looking at what others have done to solve similar problems. They did this by studying case studies from various places. The project was set up in phases that flowed very well. Each phase provided the students with opportunities to help them understand the problem at various levels.

Linda expressed very definite learning goals for her students through the implementation of the unit design template and the technology of SNS. She understood the nature of problem-solving and its benefit for the students. However, her in-class instructional responses to the implementation were coded at lower levels than the learning goals she described in the pre and post unit interviews. The activities she implemented during the unit required the students only to present what they know or describe why they know it. These activities were coded as Level 2 on Bereiter’s Scheme of Knowledge.

Linda:    (Chat 2- Phase 1 activity) I thought as an activity to look at the facts we find and for the kids to show what they've learned we could create graphic organizers in Inspiration.

Linda:    (email to researcher- Phase 1 activity) Wow what a first day we had!! We started out doing a KWL about what we knew about I-70. Then we watched the trailer looked at maps to see where I -70 is and what states it encompasses. We when watched the trailer and the kids started coming up with some really good comments and questions. We then read 5 different articles I had copied out of the Independence Examiner (the Star now makes you pay for this service: -(  )about I-70 and the kids had to try and come up with a list of positive and negative affects the interstate has on our city. When we discussed their lists they came up with some really good ideas about how much other people who actually drive would maybe know. Some kids really got into this!! I was excited. I kind of let them navigate what direction we would go next.....which I think is a bit of inquiry :-)!! So far I feel like we have a good start with gathering information, using facts and statistics, we have presented information in small groups and through the DB, we talk everyday about managing our teams, and some kids are doing a great job with problem solving.

She initially understood the importance of the online collaboration process offered by the SNS tools especially during Phase 2 when all the classes were scheduled to chat concerning the problem. However when she reached Phase 2 she did not implement these interactions that could lead to the types of learning responses that she described as her motive for initiation. Below is text from Chat 7 which occurred during Phase 2 where Linda expresses her inability to define the classroom dynamics for herself and her students:

Linda:    Many of my kids felt frustrated today as I did it. We were trying to learn more about their specific jobs, but couldn't find resources that could help them. We looked at the case studies and tried to figure out what their roles may have been in those situations, but it was really hard. We did do the survey today, also. I posted the questions with the job descriptions on the web page and that's what I had my kids use as a guide as we researched their jobs. Some of them did great with this, but many of my kids are feeling frustrated. We had such a good experience with Phase I. I’m just not sure how to help them with this part.

In her post unit interview she defined her learning goals for her students “I wanted the students to not only learn about the problems I-70 has, but the many ways we rely on it. Also, I wanted the students to realize how real experts attack a problem of this magnitude and how much research and collaboration it takes in order to come up with valid ideas.” The problem-solving process during Phase 2 required the students to understand the overall goals of experts in the eight expert areas related to the solution. The students had to define their areas and then present a strategy for a possible solution. Phase 2 included collaboration with the other online classes in the process of defining their strategies for a solution. In Phase 2 all the groups were comprised of two students in each class with their group work done online using the group work tools available in SNS. These communications were designed into the unit to facilitate the students’ understanding of multiple perspectives and the identification of expert knowledge needed in order to solve the authentic problem. Without these online collaborations, students can only develop problem solutions from their own local perspective.

Linda’s previous inquiry training at eMINTS emphasized how to build Web Quest inquiry activities that are teacher-directed. Linda had previously done  KWL’s, which include defining what you Know, what you Want to know and what you Learned, as an inquiry project. This type of inquiry is teacher-directed and fundamentally dissimilar to the type of authentic problem-solving responses defined for the students in Phase 2. The activities in Phase 1 of the unit dealt with Linda defining the problem under study in her own classroom. When Linda moved beyond her previous experience in teacher-driven activities into Phase 2, she felt a level of discomfort with the student activities. Her level of dissonance was too high for her to facilitate the learning activities that can develop these types of learning responses in students and the professional development processes available to her, online chatrooms, were unable to help her resolve this contradiction between her beliefs about learning, motive, and her object, the actual implementation process.


In the process of implementing the unit, Linda overall narrowed the object relative to her motive. Three turning points developed during the implementation process. She was able to overcome one of them, between local rules and her subject goals, but she was unable to overcome the other two contradictions, between SNS and her object, and the unit framework and her goals, subject. Table 3 is a chart of her responses.

Table 3.
Turning Points in Linda’s Object Reformulation

Turning Point

Work Activity System Contradiction

Indicator Of
Turning Point



mediating tools (SNS) vs. object

chatroom conference #8; discussing the implication of inconsistent accessibility of the SNS chatroom among the four classrooms

narrowed; ended Phase 2 without her students interacting with students from other classrooms in the SNS chatroom or discussion board


rules (departmentalization) vs. subject

phone conference; disturbance cluster (dilemma); discussing
the impact of departmentalization

widened (temporal); worked with principal and teachers to not departmentalize


mediating tools (unit design framework) vs. subject

chatroom conference #7; disturbance cluster (dilemma); questioning the accessibility of resources for students and functionality of forming expert areas

narrowed; lowered expectations for student outcomes to align more closely with her beliefs of teaching and learning

In the chart above we identified turning point number #1 as a tension between the mediational tool, SNS, specifically the accessibility of the chat room and her object, the implementation of the unit. During Phase 2 she found that the server was down in one of the other classes when she needed it for the chats scheduled in Phase 2. She discussed the possibility of using the discussion board as a forum for this dialog with the other teacher. She did not schedule this interaction. Instead she moved her students into Phase 3 without any online dialog with the other classes. She was unable to overcome this aspect of the unit implementation to develop other sources of communication to facilitate this communication process and the type of knowledge response she intended for her students.

Identified as Turning Point number 2, she was able to resolve a contradiction between rules, her scheduling in the building, and, subject, her goals for the unit. She communicated her learning goals for her students and the need for her to keep her students to the principal and the other teachers. She was able to overcome this local contradiction by talking and working collaboratively with the teachers and administrators in her building in order to change the departmentalized rules in her building and keep her students in her classroom.

Identified as Turning Point number 3, she had a contradiction between the subject, her own goals and beliefs about the unit, and the mediation of the unit design template, Phase 2 activities specifically. She was uncomfortable with the more open-ended inquiry wherein she did not control the aspects of content and the dissemination process. Her emails and chats expressed her feeling of “being out of control.” She identified the potential learning responses resulting from implementation of the unit template but she was unable to resolve the tension resulting from the actual classroom responses that occurred during this phase of the unit meant to develop these learning responses in her students and her own previous experiences and training. She did not use the collaborative professional development to resolve this contradiction. She voiced her frustration in her contacts with the teachers and the researcher during the chats as anti-task responses.

Her inability to resolve these two contradictions, one identified as a mediational contradiction in SNS and the other in the mediation of the I-70 unit, led to her narrowing her object and implementing the unit with lowered levels of learning responses and student response activities than those she expressed in her pre unit interview. She was unable to resolve the contradictions that occurred during the implementation process that dealt with the in-class learning behaviors necessary to implement an authentic problem-solving unit such as open-ended chat dialogs, group work online, lack of predefined questioning processes and the control of resources online. She did not use the online professional development collaboration to resolve contradictions.

Figure 2 is a graphical representation of Linda’s AT work activity. The solid broken lines represent contradictions that were unresolved. The dashed broken lines represent resolved contradictions. She did not have tensions in her local context that she could not resolve. Her local aspects of AT, community, division of labor and rules, were supportive of her decision to implement the reform unit. However, both of the mediational tools, SNS and the unit design template, led to contradictions during the implementation. She did not resolve the contradiction between her goals for the students and the actual practice of implementing an authentic problem-based unit.  She did not develop the advanced online communication processes that were possible using SNS during the implementation. As a result, her students did not participate in the type of problem-solving behaviors she discussed in the pre-unit interview. In the post-unit interview she said she would not implement a problem-based unit again because “it does not include enough MAP content knowledge.”


"Improving Interstate 70" unit design framework,
emerging technologies, teacher talk in professional development conferences




Implementation of the unit




development of problem-solving skills,
 including multiple perspectives           


Map testing schedule, schedule of end-of-year activities, social studies departmentalization


(1) principal,
(2) other teachers in her grade level, (3) high-school teacher and his students,
(4) other participating teachers in the collaboration,
(5) Researchers/designers


(3) sharing expertise working with the students during phases 2 and 3.

(5) providing professional development related to innovative cluster

Figure 2: AT Model of Linda's Work Activity


Collaborative Professional Development

Linda did not overcome contradictions through collaborative professional development. As the unit became more complex in Phase 2 and she was initiating learning activities that she had not previously experienced, her dialog became less productive as coded for task roles during the chats. The collaborative forums, online chats, were not productive for her as the level of innovation increased and her corresponding level of comfort decreased. Her role online involved the dispensing of information not in the shared goal of developing the collaborative unit. 

Online collaboration processes can be more productive if the teacher identifies shared goals for the online dialogs to increase productive task responses. If these shared goals are defined as tasks for the collaboration then the teachers can use the forum more productively to meet their goals. The teacher working to implement this unit perhaps could have benefited from a more individualized forum such as a journal or mentoring process that would allow her to address her own levels of discomfort with reform without group review. The online forum also had the constraint of lessening the building of personal relationships prior to and during the implementation of the unit. Professional development models for teachers implementing reform should also consider how often the teacher needs or requests contact. As the level of innovation increases, the teacher may need a positive sustained professional development program which includes mentorship opportunities and the opportunity to share collaborative goals with others.

Local Context

Linda was able to overcome several other contradictions-working out scheduling issues in her building and technology problems in her classroom- without changing her goals. It appears that her community was favorable to the reform processes and the new tools implemented during this unit. She was able to communicate effectively with all important people in her school environment to resolve tensions in her local system.  An implication from these statements and conclusions is teachers should anticipate the people and support systems needed to implement reform and then develop a communication process with these people within their local community. When implementing reform, the anticipation of problems and the development of the communication channels needed to solve these problems, is an important aspect of successfully meeting the goals of the implementation process.

Beliefs about Learning

Linda had very defined learning goals for her unit as a result of implementing the two innovations. She did not achieve her original goals because of two mediational contradictions, one related to her concepts about the complexity of the unit itself and the other related to the relationship between the technology and her goals and beliefs about learning. When a teacher implements a reform-based unit, she should identify her learning goals for her students. This proactive process should be built into the professional development model as reflection. Addressing these issues in the form of ongoing questioning built into the professional development model can aid teachers in identifying learning activities that meet their goals. These teachers need a form of professional development that models the activities that lead to types of learning that they want as outcome. They should also identify those factors in the innovations themselves and their local environments that help or hinder them in meeting their outcome and anticipate overcoming these issues in order to provide these learning environments to their students.


Teachers who are designing and implementing constructivist-based learning environments need a reflective proactive form of communication as part of their professional development in order to “clarify concepts, ideas, and alternative courses of action” (Korthagen, 1993, p. 318). Teachers who design and implement CBLEs must be ready to adapt their instruction to meet the demands of a "complex and multifaceted endeavor" (Blumenfeld, Soloway, Marx, Krajcik, Guzdial, & Palincsar, 1991, p.390). However, Sternberg and Caruso (1985) defined teacher knowledge controlling much of teacher responses in the classroom as tacit knowledge, or unreflective knowledge. Previous studies (Clark & Yinger, 1979; Halkes & Olson, 1984) showed that automatic or the mechanical performance of acts constitutes a large amount of teacher behaviors. Elbaz (1991) showed that teachers' knowledge is non-linear, holistic, imbued with personal meaning and largely tacit. Clark found that teachers' actions seem to be governed by rules and routines, with decision-making in a studied, deliberate sense taking a minor role in their interactive thinking. Studies have shown the importance of the identifying the pedagogical and philosophical basis for teachers’ responses to the classroom.

Korthagen defined a teacher education model that he called the realistic approach. He suggested that much of teacher behavior is based on previously acquired concepts that he said formed a “gestalt” theory of how teachers respond. He described a gestalt as a “complex interplay between social, cultural, psychological, and physical factors that are linked to concrete situations.”(Korthagen, 1999, p. 9). However, he also described the difficulty of changing a gestalt, as in the implication of new teaching procedures. Identification of the gestalt theories, the interplay of episteme and phronesis that result in behaviors in the classroom is a major aspect of implementing a reform-based professional development program.

The impact of reflection in teacher professional development has been studied previously (Elbaz, 1991; Schon, 1987; Clark & Yinger, 1979; Halkes & Olson, 1984). These studies have shown how creating a professional development program that helps teachers identify tacit knowledge and the types of knowledge and understandings that aid them in developing new pedagogical and philosophical concepts in order to implement reform. Korthagen suggests working reflection through the process of identification of holistic gestalt structures in order to change schema and create a new theory of education The challenge and support gained through social interaction is important in helping teachers clarify what they believe and in gaining the courage to pursuer their beliefs” (Zeichner & Liston, 1996, p. 76).

Teachers implementing reform in the classroom take on an extremely complex and difficult task. Especially when implementing two innovations, a new curricular structure and a new technology each interwoven with the other, the teacher needs to be aware of both her philosophical motives for the implementation of the innovation, episteme, and her practical instructional experiences, phronesis, and how either could potentially impact the development of her goals and ultimately the successful integration of innovation in an educational settings.

Online Professional Development for Innovative Educators

An online collaboration forum among innovative educators needs to be designed to meet their specific professional development needs.  The implementation of an innovation means a change in some fundamental aspect of a teacher’s practice whether it is her beliefs about learning, the contextual support systems in her school or the types and qualities of the collaborative professional development. In order to develop collaborative support systems the innovative educator needs to be supported online with programs of interactions between teachers working on similar innovations and also mentors who have developed similar or more advanced innovations.  This dialog should include both synchronous and asynchronous dialogs that are structured around the proactive anticipation of in situ stressors that can occur at differing stages of implementation. Anticipatory problem identification and problem-solving in her local context is an important approach for the innovative educator.  The online professional development program can aid in the development of these responses by presenting case studies or exemplars for the teachers to consider and dialog about prior to, and throughout, the implementation. Throughout the implementation, ongoing reflection on the teacher’s learning goals for the implementation of the innovation is important for the successful development of reform.  This process can be augmented online through collaborative dialogs that are structured around new theories and ideas about learning but also needs to be supported through private online interactions such as emails and journaling online so educators can voice concerns in a timely and more intimate manner. Teachers developing innovation need an online professional development program that supports their efforts to implement change.  The paradigm shift that needs to occur for educators to be successful innovators requires a supportive professional development program that aids them as they attempt to make educational systems more responsive to the needs of a rapidly changing technologically-based society.



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About the Author

Donna Russell has a BA in elementary education, a master's degree in Curriculum and Instruction and a doctoral degree in Educational Psychology with an emphasis on Cognition and Technology. She has 14 years experience teaching and implementing research in varied K-12 educational settings.

Dr. Russell is an Assistant Professor in the Curriculum and Instructional Leadership department at the University of Missouri- Kansas City.  She has designed and is implementing a new master’s degree in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis on learning technologies at the university.  Her research areas include the systemic qualitative analysis of technology integration in diverse urban settings, innovation in educational settings and online learning environments.

She may be reached via email at:


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