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Editor’s Note
: This case study details one teacher’s efforts to implement a problem-based unit online. It uses Activity Theory and systems analysis to identify issues and turning points that affected her teaching-learning experience.  Activity Theory provides a visual model of contextual relationships, issues, and turning points as the teacher progresses from initial goals to final outcomes.

Transformation in an Urban School:
Using Systemic Analysis to Understand
an Innovative Urban Teacher’s Implementation
of an Online Problem-Based Unit

Donna L. Russell

 Keywords: systems analysis, innovation in education, Activity Theory, constructivist-based learning theories, problem-based learning, instructional design, online learning and development, higher-order thinking abilities


This paper describes a case study analysis of an urban 5th grade teacher’s efforts to implement an online problem-based learning environment. The research study used a systems analysis process to holistically identify and evaluate aspects of the learning environment that impacted the effectiveness of the implementation of the constructivist-based unit. The researchers used Activity Theory (Engestrom, 1987) to define apriori issues in the teacher’s work activity and identify those professional development processes and collaborations that impacted this teacher’s reform efforts. Additionally, invivo analysis identified three progressive issues that developed during the unit including 1) changes in the teacher’s beliefs about her urban students’ learning abilities and potential, 2) issues that emerged in the teacher’s local context that impacted her unit and 3) issues that arose in relation to the technology integration process itself. Finally the researchers evaluated the teacher’s responses to apriori and invivo issues in relation to her original goals for implementing the innovative technology-based unit. As a result of this systemic structuring of data response and analysis, the researchers define the theoretical and practical implications of the study for research of innovative classrooms and the design of professional development programs for innovative educators.


This paper describes an ethnographic analysis of an urban 5th grade teacher’s attempt to implement an authentic problem-based unit using an online workspace. The teacher volunteered to work with the two researchers who designed the study and the unit design template she used to develop the unit. The unit was implemented online collaboratively with three other teachers in different schools throughout the state of Missouri, U.S.A. This paper describes the interactions of the teacher in her local context, her collaborative professional development processes and the integration of the innovation cluster, defined as the two interrelated innovative tools (the online workspace and an instructional design template) that were used by the teacher to develop her innovative classroom.

Systems Analysis

This study used an analytical qualitative research design to study this innovation educational setting due to its inductive descriptive and exploratory nature. Bogdan and Biklen (1992) described qualitative methods as:

...an umbrella term to refer to several research strategies that share certain characteristics. The data collected have been termed, soft, that is, rich in description of people, places and conversations, and not easily handled by statistical procedures. Research questions are not framed by operationalizing variables; rather, they are formulated to investigate topics in all their complexity, in context (p. 2).

McClure and Lopata (1996) also emphasize a strong link between exploratory research and qualitative methods because ”qualitative techniques are especially appropriate for use in situations where the research problem and the research setting are not well understood...When it is not clear what questions should be asked or what should be measured, a qualitative approach will be more useful" (p. 11) Schoenfeld (1999) asserts “It should be stressed that [systemic analysis of points of leverage] does not represent a weak alternative to conducting controlled experiments, but a different option altogether. Sometimes the only way you can understand complexity is to study complex things. Part of the job, in that case, is figuring out what to look at and how to talk about it “(p. 13).

The researchers employed Activity Theory for data structuring to develop an understanding of a complex social system responding to change. The compelling purpose of systems-based research is to recognize the organizing relationships between entities in the system from which emerge the unique properties of the systems (Banathy, 1991). Activity systems are historically conditioned systems of interrelated contacts among individuals. Activity systems are complicated models of interactions within which equilibrium is the exception and the "tension, disturbances, and local innovations" are the norm and the catalyst for change over time (Salomon, 1993, p. 8). If an activity system is defined then patterns of responses can be identified and evaluated based on the agent’s reason for implementing innovation into his work activity.

This contextual emphasis, reflected in the use of Activity Theory (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 J., Reder, L. & Simon, H., 1997). This is a process that requires the consideration of the mediated nature of the participant-object relationship and the identification of responses to contradictions as 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 conceptual base of knowledge that will correlate to similar contexts.

The Activity Theory Model (shown as Figure 1 below) visually represents the potential of analyzing a multitude of contextual relations within a triangular structure of activity. The subject, located on the left of the model, represents the participant in the study. The object, located on the right side, represents the problem space, or the intention of the activity. The subject constructs the object, and the object gains motivating force that gives shape and direction to activity. The object includes anticipated and actual results of the activity. The subject interacts with the environment to realize the object. The top of the triangle defines the mediational aspects of the activity that can include actual and conceptual tools that change the nature of the interaction between subject and object. This mediational effect, especially important to define with the integration of advanced technologies, is defined as the insertion of a new tool that the subject is using to develop the object. In this case, the researchers clustered two innovative tools, the online workspace and the problem-based unit design template, as mediational tools. The bottom of the triangle includes local aspects of the action: rules, community, and division of labor. The rules are those situational conventions that impact the development of the object. The community includes those people or organizations that are impacting the progression of the object as seen from the perspective of the subjects. Division of labor refers to the horizontal division of tasks among members of the community that are necessary to realize the object. On the far right of the model is the outcome. This is the overarching intended consequence of the development of the object.

Figure 1: Activity Theory Model

The researchers identified these AT aspects in the teacher’s work activity through structured and unstructured interviews occurring pre, during and post unit, online chats, video of the classroom, the teacher’s online journaling and the collection of the teacher’s finished unit including student work. Motive was identified as her goals for her students’ learning and the purpose for implementing the unit. The outcome of this activity was the types and qualities of learning that resulted from a unit designed around constructivist-based learning principles. The object of this activity was defined as the implementation of the problem-based unit. The mediational tools were studied as an innovation cluster and included the online workspace and the unit design template the teacher used to implement the unit.

A premise for Activity Theory is that the insertion of tools in the work activity of the teacher in order to develop a new object will result in contradictions, problems that affect her ability to develop her object (Engestrom, 1987). Contradictions were identified as problems that the teacher stated as pre-existing (primary contradictions), developed in response to her collaborations with the other teachers implementing the unit collaboratively online (tertiary contradictions) or arising as result of some aspect of her local situation (secondary contradictions). The researchers then identified the teacher’s response to the contradictions as a turning point. Next, the researchers evaluated the turning point behavior as resolving or not resolving the contradiction based on her original goals. Finally the researchers evaluated the teacher’s development of the object (her ability to realize her outcome through the object) as either widening (increasing the object potential), narrowing (decreasing the ability of the teacher to reach her goal), or disintegrating the object (such as stopping the unit). As a result of this systemic data structuring and analysis the researchers are able to identify those interactions that were productive or less productive for this innovative educator. This allowed the researchers to develop implications for the professional development of innovative educators.

Constructivist-Based Learning

This study describes an effort to implement a constructivist-based learning environment. Constructivist learning theory serves as an epistemology of learning and understanding and suggests that knowledge and meaning are not fixed but instead constructed by the individual within the context of meaningful learning. The work of Dewey, Piaget, Bruner, and Vygotsky provide a historical framework for understanding the theoretical assumptions of constructivism and placing this theory of learning within a human action framework of sociocultural theory. These four assumptions include:

1.  knowledge and meaning are constructed, not dispensed, when students are engaged in meaningful activity;

2.  knowledge is anchored and indexed by the context in which the learning activity occurs and requires articulation, expression, or representation;

3.  meaning making, which is prompted by a problem, is an attempt to resolve questions, confusion, disagreement, or dissonance, in the mind of the knower

4.  meaning making and thinking are distributed throughout our tools, culture, and community and may also be socially constructed with others through activities such as conversation (Vygotsky, 1978; Honebein, P., Duffy, T. & Fishman, B. 1993;Jonassen, Peck, & Wilson, 1999).

Research in constructivist learning environments suggests that instructional design grounded in constructivist principles engage students in purposeful activity as the students attempt to tackle a complex problem, overcome an obstacle, or negotiate a contradiction in their thinking (von Glasersfeld, 1998). In addition, instructional units designed based on constructivist learning principles allow students to apply their knowledge more effectively under appropriate conditions (Collins, 1991). Instances of constructivist-based learning theories include situated theories of learning (Brown, Collins, & Druguid, 1989: Greeno, 1997; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Roschelle & Clancey, 1992; Roth & Bowen, 1995) and distributed cognition theory (Pea, 1993; Resnick, Levine, & Teasley, 1991; Salomon, 1993), which emphasize how the responses of the learner and the design of the learning environment affect the development of higher-order thinking abilities, such as problem-solving abilities in this study, in students.

In this problem-based unit, titled Improving I-70, there were four teachers located in four different cities across the state of Missouri. They presented their students with a complex problem—how to improve Interstate 70 which runs across the state of Missouri. Through the process of responding to this design problem, the students acquired knowledge and skills that enabled them to revise their theories, develop new theories, and compare their theories with other students through online discussions. The four schools represented an urban setting, a rural setting, a suburban setting and a small city setting. The problem-based unit design template was created by the two researchers who implemented the study and worked with the teachers as they implemented it. The template was designed in three phases. In Phase 1 the students define the problem space using the online workspace to design their responses within their local groups. In Phase 2 the students worked in online work groups with members from each of the four classrooms creating and revising their projects in the online workspace. In Phase 3 the students worked in their local context to create a strategy for solving the problem.

The innovation cluster used by the teacher in this study included two aspects: the problem-based unit design template described briefly above and an online workspace. The online workspace, Shadow Net Workspace, was used by students in the four classrooms to collaboratively study the problem making it possible for the students to respond to a state-wide problem from multiple perspectives. Shadow Net Workspace (SNS) is a set of middleware Linux-based internet tools which includes workgroup storage and dissemination capabilities, a chat room function, discussion boards, email, and review panel workgroups. The unit was designed to utilize these functions as the four classrooms developed their projects collaboratively online. The teachers also used SNS to communicate and share information with each other during the unit. The research study characterized these two innovations as an interrelated set of tools, an innovation cluster, mediating the work activity of the teachers.


The urban teacher, Janice (a psuedym) who is the focus of this paper volunteered to particpate in an innovative program called ePioneers. The four classrooms participating in this project were all part of the eMINTS program. eMINTS stands for enhancing Missouri's Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies. eMINTS is administered by MOREnet under contract from Missouri's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). MOREnet, Missouri's state education network, is part of the University of Missouri System. School districts, selected by Missouri's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to participate in the program, choose classrooms in the district that are transformed into models of inquiry-based instruction. eMINTS teachers have a lab classroom consisting of 15 computers, a SmartBoard and identical software. These four teachers, one teaching 4th grade in a suburban school, one teaching 4th grade in a rural school, one teaching 4th grade in a small city, and Janice, who was teaching 5th grade in an urban school, all volunteered to implement the I-70 unit collaboratively using SNS during the last quarter of the 2001-2002 school year. Their only professional development with each other during the unit was done online in SNS. All the teachers had the same eMINTS equipment, software and past training experiences.

Case Study Analysis


Janice taught 5th grade in one of three elementary schools in an urban community (population 19,188 in 2000). She has taught for 34 years, the last 10 years at this school. Last year, the school decided to adopt the eMINTS model by purchasing and placing additional computers in several other classrooms in the school. Janice, who had taught 5th grade for three years, worked with 17 students, all of African-American ethnicity. There were 7 boys and 10 girls in the class. As a part of her participation in the eMINTS program for the previous two years, Janice had 14 Pentium3 LCD computers, one teacher workstation, a Smartboard, a scanner, a color printer, and a digital camera. She has received two years of eMINTS training in inquiry learning methods and the use of the technology. When she volunteered to participate in the ePioneer’s Project she received additional training on the tools in Shadow NetWorkspace (SNS).


Before the unit began she met with the two researchers and discussed her goals for this pilot project. She was asked to participate in ePioneers by the technology support person in her district. She felt that “she could not say no” to this request. She felt pressure to participate in this pilot project because she was an eMINTS teacher and had received a lot of technology for her classroom. Janice did not discuss the ePioneers unit with her principal or the other teachers. She did ask permission to not departmentalize at the end of the school year in order to implement the unit and her principal agreed to the revised schedule.

In the pre-unit interview Janice was very concerned about state testing. She gives the Terra Nova Math test. Her district places an extreme interest in the testing including counting down the days until the test over the intercom each morning throughout the school year. She also believes that the district felt that eMINTS classrooms should have higher test scores which placed additional pressure on her departmentalized instruction of math. She wanted to complete all standardized testing before initiating the unit which in her district ended in mid-April. She stated in her pre-unit interview that she did not have a lot of experience teaching inquiry or working collaboratively with the other teachers in her building.

researcher: So, do the other teachers in your building ever talk to you about the professional development that you receive from eMINTS?

Janice:     Well, no, not really. I don't bring it up that much because I don't want them to feel... you know.. that I'm bragging or anything like that. Sometimes the other teachers might say something like, "Oh, you can't do this or you can do that because you're an eMINTS teacher". They are just teasing, but sometimes there's some truth in teasing. I really wouldn't want them to feel funny about anything like that.

researcher: Do you think there is something that would impede you from implementing the unit?

Janice:     I don't think there will be anything that would impede me.

researcher: You mentioned departmentalization before. That might have impeded you?

Janice:     Yeah, that might have, but I've taken care of that. And I spoke with the principal, and she's all for it. She would probably do anything to make it a success. I've already spoken to the kids about it, and they are all for it. They look forward to it. As far as my colleagues, I don't see that there would be any problems.

Also during this interview the researchers, who created the unit design template, gave Janice the unit design template for I-70 and explained the purpose of the problem-based unit. After the unit template was explained to her in detail, Janice expressed concerns about her students’ abilities to work with the information and the other classes. She described her students’ communication skills as “very low.” She was unsure that her students could make themselves understood by the other students in their online workspace. She was, however, interested in her students being able to work collaboratively with other students. She felt that her students needed exposure to different cultures and ideas. She was very unsure about her capabilities to implement the unit successfully and her students’ capabilities to respond at the anticipated level. However, despite these concerns, she was very open to discussing the ideas about constructivist-based learning theories that the researchers discussed in the pre-unit interview and ideas concerning the design and the implementation of the unit and the use of the online workspace. The researchers used the pre-unit interview to design an AT Model for Janice (see figure 2 below). All the apriori aspects (nodes) of the AT model were identified through the structured pre-unit interview.

Janice was able to participate in only two of the four 1-hour chats scheduled for the teachers prior to the initiation of the unit. There was a discussion board available to the teachers. The chat and discussion board were the only collaborative forums available to all four teachers as they implemented the unit. The chat tool never worked well at her school. It ran slowly or not on all the machines. When she participated in the chats with the other teachers, she was usually on the Internet at home.

Prior to the initiation of the unit she was encouraged to call or email the researchers if she had difficulties anytime during the process of implementing the unit. She requested and got a schedule from the local researcher for visits to her classroom in order to “make sure I am doing it right.” This researcher visited Janice’s classroom six times during the implementation of the unit. She was very open to this form of contact. Janice also called the researcher four times during the implementation of the unit. She was especially concerned during Phase 2 and called several times during that phase, at one point calling this researcher at 9 o’clock at night to talk. Janice developed a very positive relationship with both of the change agents, the two researchers/designers over the course of the study (Rogers, 1995). She asked our opinions repeatedly for advice on scheduling, instruction, assessment and technology. She worked very collaboratively with the teachers online as well.


Janice implemented all three phases of the unit. However, she was unable to use the chat tool reliably with her students. She was only able to get the chat running simultaneously on a few machines. The online groups in Phase 2 included 2 students from each class. This limited her students’ ability to develop Phase 2 of the unit when they would discuss their strategies with the other students in their groups throughout the state. Her students would have been able to dialog with the other classrooms through the discussion board and she discussed this possibility in the teachers’ chats but none of the teachers used the discussion board to help their students share their ideas online.

Throughout the unit Janice used her urban community’s resources very well. Her students worked with the Missouri Department of Transportation (MODoT) and other local experts. Janice was able to schedule an engineer from a local engineering firm to work with her students. He came into her classroom three times to work with her students. Her students developed strategies in their Phase 2 expert groups with his aid. He also helped them develop their final solutions to the problem. He came to their presentations and discussed the solutions with the students. His participation became an invaluable aid to Janice as she developed the authentic aspects of the unit. She describes the students’ responses to his interaction during the development of Phase 2 strategies and Phase 3 solutions:

Janice:     This guest speaker (the engineer) was different than the others. The kids were dependent upon him for clarification. He was able to supply them with information that they needed. They changed their PowerPoint's and refined the information. It had to be accurate. When they began the talking about their solutions with him some of their ideas were childlike. And when they made these suggestions I didn't know when to stop them. I let him listen to them and respond to each solution. He tried to let them come up with ideas and then he talked about some of the important issues.

The buy in for the students was totally different because they needed the information to vote pro or con on the solutions. They knew they had to create slides and use the information. It was very motivating for them. They had a stake in the unit. They were going to present the next day. They were presenting to an audience of real people, Dr.P. (the engineer) and you guys (the researchers) were going to videotape. They had an authentic audience. They were right there with the information. They were closer to it.

These students, despite her initial concerns about their low language abilities, finished all the learning activities described in the unit design template. They addressed the problem locally, how I-70 impacts their urban community, in Phase 1 by identifying the various impacts of the interstate to their community. In Phase 2, although their chats with the other students were limited, they were able to communicate online their Phase 1 understandings with the other students who lived in rural, suburban and small cities in the state. The urban students’ responses to this local problem became the driving issue in Phase 2 interactions. During a Phase 2 chat the researcher was working with a suburban student who was part of the online group discussing the economics of the I-70 problem. During this chat the suburban student suggested a toll-road as a solution to paying for repairing the interstate. The urban student she was chatting with responded with “We use the interstate to go to the store to get bread. We cannot pay a toll every time we go to the store. That solution will not work for us.” As a result the economics group decided to pay for the improvements through other means. During Phase 3 the urban students worked to develop a solution. They worked with the engineer and created a solution that met the criteria of all the online workgroups. They presented their solutions to an audience including the researcher and the engineer.

Their productive response was a catalyst for the teacher to revise her ideas about their learning potential. She described a rise in attendance, the development of their group work skills, the increase in the class’s positive attitudes and individual motivation. At one point following a whole class discussion on the problem, she cried as she described a student’s previous lack of interest and poor attendance prior to the unit and his current productive interactions during the unit. She stated that she “would never teach long division for six weeks again.”


During the post unit interview Janice said that the unit had met her initial goals, developing communication skills in her students and a sense of other cultures. The students were able to express their ideas in chat rooms, in their groups and with their guest experts. They were able to present these ideas to an audience during Phase 3. She also liked the structure of the template and understood the learning processes designed into the template. She discussed the possibility of using the template to design a new unit on Egyptian History as part of the sixth grade curriculum she would be teaching next year.

Janice came into the pilot project with the most hesitation of any of the teachers. She was unsure of her ability to implement the technology or the student activities in the unit design template. She felt, however, that she was expected to implement this pilot project because she was an eMINTS teacher with access to technology. Despite this feeling of pressure to innovate, she remained open to all forms of collaboration and dialog outside her local context. She described her feelings about participating in this innovative reform project.

Janice:     You both (the researchers) were approachable and not judgmental at all. I was very comfortable asking you both for advice and you were there when I needed help. I didn't ask to be involved in the pilot. My district asked me to do this and I felt like I didn't have a choice. Understand when the district technology person came to talk to me about this pilot she also asked me to be part of the Lawrence Kansas project. I told her no to Lawrence and I just didn't feel like I could tell her no twice. When she asked me I knew that Dr. S. (the superintendent of the district) knew about it and I say yes to everything. Because I didn't have a motivation, a buy-in, on the pilot I didn't really feel very comfortable with the unit.

When I was in C. (for ePioneers training) I didn't know how good this was going to be. I was not very excited about the whole thing. I thought it would be a good resource to have and I thought the professional development would be good to know. I was the tech person but I didn't feel like I know a lot about Shadow.

researcher: At what point did you feel that you changed your ideas about the benefits of the unit?

Janice:     eMINTS didn't talk to us about the I-70 project. We heard nothing about the units and the benefits for our kids. It was during that first interview (pre-unit) with you guys (the researchers) that I had to think about what this could mean to my students. There was a long time between that first training in C. and that interview. I had time to think about the unit. I didn't want to be in the unit. I didn't think my kids would be interested. But this unit turned out to be the right one for us. Dr. P (the engineer) was great with the students and it is a local problem so the kids were very interested. It was an authentic problem happening right outside their door. Your support was great. I was not elated at the beginning but it worked out great for me. Eventually I dealt with all the negative parts of all of it and I still found good in it.


The findings for this study are structured around three progressive issues that arose during invivo data structuring:

1) How does the individual teachers’ participation in collaborative professional development influence the implementation of a constructivist-based learning environment?

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

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

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

Janice used all the external professional development processes available to her to implement the unit. She was supported throughout the project by the collaborative dialogs with the other I-70 teachers and by staying in contact with the researchers. She used this support system to develop the unit and expand her expectations for her students. In the post-unit interview she was asked what her role was in the implementation process.

Janice:     I hate to use the word facilitator because what does that mean? I helped them find information and interpret it as best they could. I taught them how to skim the web sites until we found what we needed. The web sites were very long with one picture and they would read them word for word. I taught them to skim for the terms they needed and then that paragraph carefully. I guess I steered them or guided them. I tried to let them take the lead. I found the whole class discussion difficult. At the beginning of the unit they brainstormed for an hour and a half. I kept watching for them to fall away. Your support during that discussion helped. (the local researcher was present during this brainstorming activity)

researcher: What would you do differently if you did the unit again?

Janice:     I would do it the same. All the phases are necessary. The organization of it was excellent. You both (researchers) found resources for us to use. The MODoT site addressed some of their concerns. They emailed some of the MODoT people for help. Not all of them responded though. I thought I was getting excellent support from you (the researchers). You started the phone conference and then the chats.

researcher: Who supported you while you developed this unit?

Janice:     You. You were a tremendous support for me. I would have been a basket case without you. The chat and phone conference were helpful. The chats helped me. We also spoke on the phone. The social support was important knowing we could go there for help. All the things you guys created helped me out, the instructional design template and all the materials you gave us. I answered the questions at the end of each phase in the template. It helped me identify the things I had to do in each phases. It reminded me to set up guest speakers.

In the teachers’ Chat # 6 which occurred at the end of Phase 1, Janice undergoes reformulation of object as she addresses a contradiction between how she understood the tools and her ideas about the students’ responses to the activities:

Suburban Teacher: My kids were so excited this afternoon. After looking at I-70 statistics that apply to J. County (like traffic flow, amount of accidents, truck accidents, etc) they posted the data using excel graphs, then uploaded them into a folder we made for our class in the ImprovingI-70 Folder. They were so excited to get to see each other's. And I was so proud we figured out how to do it. :-)

Janice:     Stupid question--where did you find the stats? I like that activity. My kids love to use Excel. Mind if I borrow it?

Suburban Teacher: Yesterday we brainstormed interview questions and made questionnaires for them to take home and ask their parents. I set up a DB with the questions and then they had to pick 3 or 4 questions to post on the discussion board. Finally, they had to read a few and respond. It was great practice for them to see the DB in action and I think they learned a lot from each other's interview results.

Janice:     They learned a lot from that activity

Suburban Teacher: The data came from the I-70 study. I printed that whole mammoth document, scanned a few tables and shared them on the smart board. We discussed them and then I assigned different groups various topic to make their graphs. My kids really enjoyed it and I bet yours would too.

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

Suburban Teacher: 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.

researcher: What do you all think about what's happening in the class - and what we're assessing on the scoring guide...?

Suburban Teacher: 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.        

Janice:     I like the scoring guide you gave us because I think it addresses the areas the kids are working on right now in this phase—gathering info, using facts, presenting, working together, and then setting up the problem. Other things we do I'll assess differently like when we do the Excel graphing.

researcher: In essence, then, what are they doing with information (in this case, the statistics)?

Janice:     They will be analyzing and comparing to find relationships.

researcher: … and also supporting their ideas about why it's important to their community... so it could help you assess both areas

Janice:     Absolutely!! They will have to defend their positions using the data.

As a result of this dialog with the suburban teacher and a researcher, Janice identified several functional activities that she later used in her classroom. She also identified resources that she later used during the implementation of the unit. At this juncture, Janice resolved a contradiction in her subject beliefs and the tools, her lack of ability to implement the unit design template and use the technology, by integrating activities that encourage higher level responses from her students. She was able to resolve this contradiction between subject and tools and expand her object by using the collaboratively suggested learning activities.

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

The chat room tool never worked well in Janice’s school. She was unable to identify the source of the problem. It was assumed that the server in her school district was not working the chat room well. She did not pursue this issue within her district. Her eMINTS technology support personnel were unable to help with the setup of the server for SNS. She did not ask the UMC technology support people at SNS for aid. She did not establish other sources of online communication with the other students in the other classes. She discussed the possibility of using the discussion board tool but never established a schedule for response with the other teachers. This unresolved contradiction between tool, SNS’s functionality, and object, led to a narrowing turning point when she did not give her students consistent access to the other groups studying the I-70 problem in Missouri. As a result, they were less likely to experience problem-solving from multiple perspectives.

Janice had not worked collaboratively in her local school community. She did not discuss her work in the ePioneers project with other teachers in her building because she felt that this would cause resentment. Despite her initial contact with her principal, Janice did have a contradiction arise during the unit in her school community in regard to departmentalization. The science teacher continued to ask for her students to come to his class to do additional testing. She did not disagree with him or contact the principal in order to allow her students time in her classroom for the unit. In her post-unit interview she stated her ideas about the local climate for supporting her innovation.

researcher:  What about the other teachers in the building? How do they react to the new things you do?

Janice:     You better watch out what you say in the building. My close friends are happy for me. They admire what I do.

researcher:  What about the science teacher taking your kids during the unit? Could you have asked the principal if you could keep the kids?

Janice:     The science teacher is the golden boy in the building right now. I didn't ask her but I think she would have told me no.

researcher:  Did she talk to you about it?

Janice:     No. She is very open to new things. He came over and apologized to me about it. But I did not feel that I could say no to it. I thought the principal would support him.

She was unable to resolve this contradiction between rules and object by communicating her needs and goals in her local community. As a result she lost valuable instructional time with her students. This unresolved contradiction restricted her ability to implement the unit more fully and resulted in a narrowing of the object. She had two local unresolved contradictions. Both narrowed her object by reducing the time the students had to work in the unit and reducing the students’ access to their only collaborative tool, SNS.

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

Initially Janice wanted to implement the unit so her students would be more motivated because they would be able to communicate with the other classes and use the technology. However, she was unclear about the type of cognitive development that was possible for her students as a result of the unit. In the pre-unit interview she described her goals for her students:

Janice:     Basically I was interested in developing higher-level thinking skills in the kids, and having them be involved in an exciting project. It would give them a chance to use the technology, have a greater motivation to use the technology, and for the other benefits like the communication skills that they would have a greater desire to develop, collaborate with another class across the state. The possibilities of something like that are really exciting for them. Ummm. The creativity that this kind of project is going to demand. Umm.... the main thing would be a greater enthusiasm for learning. I can that it would be a good benefit of what's going to happen. Greater self-esteem because they have increased competence and greater confidence on the computer.

During the pre-unit interview and subsequent meetings prior to the implementation of the unit the researchers discussed the learning processes that this type of constructivist-based authentic problem-solving unit is meant to develop. During the post unit interview she described the change in her ideas about her students’ cognitive capabilities in a problem-based unit in comparison to the traditional instructional model she had used previously:

Janice:     When the three of us talked I could see how it could be great for my kids. I teach for the test and I have eliminated so much to stay on target for the test. This stuff is foreign to me. [the advanced problem-solving abilities] When you review you repeat and repeat and repeat. You have to do that to make sure they all have it. Language is a problem for my kids and I have to review over and over to prepare them for it. This unit meant I could try something new that I have wanted to do for awhile. With your support, and all the things you brought in I had a chance for my kids to do something really different.

Her students collaborated within their classroom and used their city resources. They were able to complete all three phases of the unit. They defined the problem and identified strategies for solutions. They presented their solutions to an audience including the local engineer. They developed advanced problem-solving skills, communication abilities, and interacted productively within their classroom groups, with their online groups and with their guest speakers and mentor. Janice developed her new concepts of learning for her students and she changed the activities during the unit to reflect these new understandings. She resolved her contradiction between her beliefs about her students’ potential and the rules she had for her instruction. Below in Table 1 is a chart of Janice’s object reformulation including the contradictions, the indicator of her turning point response and the object reformulation.

Table 1
Turning Points in Janice’s Object Reformulation

Turning Point

Work Activity System Contradiction

Indicator Of
Turning Point



mediating tools (SNS) vs. object

chat conference #8;
disturbance cluster (dilemma); discussing the possibility of using a discussion board to offset the inconsistent accessibility of the SNS chatroom server

decided not to use the chatrooms with her students


mediating tools
(unit design framework) vs. subject

chat conference #6;
disturbance cluster (innovation); discussing plans for implementing Phase 1 in the classroom

widened (in-depth);
decided to incorporate concepts about learning into her design of Phase 1 as shared by another teacher in the group


(implied expectations for teachers using technology) vs. subject

initial interview;
discussing the potential student learning outcomes with the researcher

widened (in-depth);
increased her expectations for student outcomes to align more closely with the potential learning outcomes of the unit design framework


rules (departmentalization) vs. object

follow-up interview;
discussing factors in her school environment that impeded her implementing the unit

revised her plans for implementing Phase 2 and 3 with less time during the day to meet the needs of another teacher in her grade level

Summary of Findings

The AT Model for Janice’s work activity is represented in Figure 2 below. The turning points (TP) are represented by broken lines; solid if the TP was unresolved, dashed if it was resolved by the teacher. Under each category (node) are the aspects of that node that the researchers identified in Janice’s work activity. The two resolved contradictions both radiate from the subject. Janice’s ability to use professional development processes to resolve issues in order to provide this involving learning experience for her students was the important change factor in this unit.

Janice did not perceive herself as working in a locally collaborative environment and she was unable to resolve secondary contradictions that arose from her local environment. She had contradictions in her local community between the rules, departmentalization schedule, and her implementation schedule that she was unable to resolve. There was a contradiction between SNS and her object because the chat room tool never worked correctly in her school. She was unable to get the local expertise needed to use the chat room successfully. Her inability to resolve local issues meant that she did not realize as completely her changed motive, to develop the advanced problem-solving abilities of her students. Teachers who implement reform need to address the need to communicate their new goals to their local community whose support is necessary when contradictions arise locally.

Figure 2: AT Model for Janice

: Four Turning Points are identified in the model:

2 Resolved (dashed line) – both identified as changes in subject beliefs
      1) Subject, beliefs about learning, and the Unit Template
      2) Subject, reasons for reform and the rules for teachers using technology

2 Unresolved (solid line) --
      3) SNS, chat room did not function, and the Object, implementation of the unit
      4) Rules, departmentalization, and the Object.

Janice widened the object overall from her stated pre-unit outcome of developing communication skills using the technology as a motivational factor to the new outcome/motive of developing advanced problem-solving abilities in her students. As a result of her openness to the external resources available to her, Janice’s learning goals for her students expanded. She changed her ideas about how the unit could benefit her students. Despite her initial concerns about testing, her concern about her superintendent’s expectations, her principal’s expectations, the opinions of her peers and her own lack of confidence in herself and her students’ abilities to successfully engage in the unit, she developed the unit fully using all the outside resources and expertise available to her. This openness to dialog and reflection on her learning beliefs, albeit outside her local context, made the completed unit possible and made it possible for her students to problem-solve at this level. The identification of primary belief contradictions through professional development processes such as reflection and the resolution of these types of contradictions can be a productive aspect of professional development programs for educators implementing innovation.


Systems Analysis

Designing studies of innovation in education based on a systemic analysis of change efforts in the teachers’ work activity can potentially aid educational researchers hoping to understand how teachers design and implement reform-based learning environments. Alan Schoenfeld wrote in Looking Toward the 21st Century: Challenges of Educational Theory and Practice about the ways research in education may develop to meet the challenges of studying complex, fluid educational settings. He asks:

Can we develop theoretical understandings and build functional models of complex social systems? Is it possible to characterize in a precise and detailed way the factors that shape what happens in a school district, in a school, in a classroom? How much, and how, do they matter? And what about individual agency? “(1999, p. 8).

He described the need for basic research characterized by its "contribution to general knowledge" which can lead to use-inspired basic research as a goal in educational research. He suggests that “educational research has evolved to the point where it is possible to work on problems whose solutions help make things better and contribute to theoretical understandings" (1999, p. 10). In this same article he describes his research goals as:

On the practical side: to improve teaching, you need to understand it. On the theoretical side: Teaching is a wondrously complex, highly interactive, knowledge-dependent act. We have now reached the point where we can hope to understand it, and to build detailed models of it. If we succeed at this, we will have developed enhanced understandings of human behavior in complex social contexts. Please note that this work is situated in practice-we conduct studies of real teachers who are trying to make things work-but also that these studies are conducted with an eye toward theory, both in the selection of the cases and the goal of really understanding what enables teachers to do what they do. (p.11)

Professional Development

A professional development program designed for teachers implementing new programs needs to address the prerequisite to challenge themselves and their students. It should offer the teachers chances to dialog with other innovative teachers in order to evaluate and revise their current concepts and abilities. This process should include dialogs that identify and evaluate learning activities that encourage advanced learning processes in students and also include developing supportive dialogs that help teachers overcome frustrations and develop their advocacy for their students’ potential learning as a result of constructivist-based learning processes.

Korthagen suggests using collaborative dialog and personal reflection as processes to identify the holistic gestalt structures of teachers implementing change in order to identify their pre-existing schema and help them create a new theory of education. He refers to this process as “level reduction” (Korthagen, 1993, p.10). He 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 form a “gestalt” theory of how teachers respond. Gestalt is a “complex interplay between social, cultural, psychological, and physical factors that are linked to concrete situations.”(Korthagen, 1993, p. 9) Korthagen also described the difficulty of changing a gestalt. This change process can be developed through a defined reflection process including collaboration with other teachers working at the same level, or a higher level, of reform.

Kenneth Zeichner writes that “The challenge and support gained through social interaction is important in helping teachers clarify what they believe and in gaining the courage to pursue their beliefs” (Zeichner & Liston, 1996, p. 76).

The innovative teacher’s ability to problem-solve and resolve the contradictions that arise when implementing reform is an important aspect of a professional development program for educators. Teachers should be trained to anticipate problems and how to prepare for them by communicating their goals and needs to their local community. Innovative educators should receive professional development in how to communicate their new needs and interests with important personnel in their local context so these people can support them when issues arise that prevent her from meeting her new goals for her students.

Ultimately the most productive professional development program for innovative educators is one that works—one that allows the teacher and her students to experience success in spite of the problems that arise when teachers develop new learning experiences for their students. Janice’s changed her beliefs about the learning potential of her students as a result of their successful participation in this advanced problem-solving unit. She transformed herself as an educator as a result. This kind of success and transformation may be especially important for urban teachers who have a myriad of issues that can negatively impact their beliefs about their students’ potential and their own contextually-based capabilities to implement constructivist-based learning environments successfully. In this case, despite all the inherent difficulties in her urban setting, Janice transformed her beliefs about her students’ potential and her ability of develop their potential. As she said in her final interview

The unit required them to use higher order thinking skills. They got better and better at it as the unit went along. The unit was different than anything they had done before. In the beginning I didn't know what to expect. Now I know what to expect. I would do the unit all over again.


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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.

Donna L. Russell, Ph.D., Assistant Professor
Instructional Technology
Curriculum and Instructional Leadership, Suite 309
School of Education
University of Missouri-Kansas City
Kansas City, MO 64110

(cell) 314-210-6996  (office) 816-235-5871

russelldl@umkc.edu  http://r.web.umkc.edu/russelldl/

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