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CoRT thinking skills guide PBL science.


This study examined the role of CoRT thinking skills in supporting problem-based learning through a collaborative classroom culture, adjusting to changing student roles through structured "rituals," scaffolding student learning and performance, and initiating student inquiry. Pretest/posttest assessments of science content, interest, and descriptive vocabulary demonstrated significant student gains. The positive and enthusiastic student/teacher attitudes toward problem-based learning were also recorded.


Integration of technology and thinking skills through problem-based learning (PBL) is supported as an approach to science by standards such as the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996) the Benchmarks for Science Literacy (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993) and a recent report on K-8 science education (National Research Council, 2007). This approach promotes active student engagement in learning science (Lehman, George, Buchanan, & Rush, 2006). A problem-based learning model provides students an effective way to integrate curriculum in solving a poorly defined authentic problem with the teacher acting as a coach, thereby transferring learning responsibility to the student (Denton, Adams, Blatt, & Lorish, 2000;Torp & Sage, 2002). In this article we describe work with a third grade teacher involved in a technology outreach program in which we served as faculty mentors for integrating technology with science. We used the CoRT Breadth thinking skills (de Bono, 2000) to teach students problem-based learning of bird habitat adaptations.

Problem-based Learning

Barrows (n.d.) listed essential characteristics of problem-based learning: (a) students are responsible for their own learning; (b) the problem is ill-structured and open-ended to allow free inquiry; (c) A wide range of disciplines is integrated into the learning; (d) Students collaborate to solve the problem; (e) Ideas gained through self-directed learning are applied to the problem with reanalysis and resolution; (f) closure includes an analysis of concepts and principles gained from work on the problem; (g) self and peer assessment occur at the end of the unit; (h) the problem-based learning activities are valued in the real world; (i) students should be assessed on progress toward the goals of problem-based learning; and (j) problem-based learning must be the guiding pedagogical base for the curriculum rather than being part of a didactic curriculum.

The problem-based learning example unit on which this paper focuses conformed to the aforementioned ten characteristics. Students were formally assessed on acquired content knowledge, vocabulary, and curiosity through a set of pretest-posttest instruments. As Savery (2006) indicated, the adoption of problem-based learning in public schools is complicated by state-mandated curricula; standardized testing that supports drill and practice for the tests, and an instructional day that is organized by subject into time blocks. Additionally, teachers accustomed to direct and teacher-centered instruction generally need to experience problem-based learning themselves (Hitchcock & Mylona, 2000) to be successful in implementing student-centered problem-based learning activities in their classrooms. The ten CoRT Breadth thinking skills used in the investigation we describe here provided enough structure to enable a teacher inexperienced in problem-based learning to successfully conduct her first problem-based learning investigation with her third grade students. Coaching from technology outreach faculty members who were experienced in problem-based learning also supported the teacher.

CoRT Thinking Skills

Edward de Bono, celebrated author of the CoRT thinking skill series, has authored more than sixty books on thinking skills that have been translated into over 35 languages. The CoRT thinking skill series (de Bono, 2000) contains six lesson sets (breadth, organization, interaction, creativity, information / feeling, and action) with the set of ten lessons on "breadth" being the most foundational. These ten lessons include: PMI (Plus, Minus Interesting) ways to consider the treatment of ideas; CAF (Consider All Factors) an exploration of the factors involved; Rules; C&S (Consequence and Sequel) a focus on the consequences; AGO (Aims, Goals, Objectives) a focus on the purpose; Planning; FIP (First Important Priorities) a focus on prioritizing; APC (Alternatives, Possibilities, Choices) a focus on alternatives; Decisions; and OPV (Other Peoples Views) focusing on the viewpoints of others. De Bono states, "The specific purpose of this group of lessons is to broaden perception so that in any thinking situation we can see beyond the obvious, immediate and egocentric. Experience has shown that students who have been through the lessons develop a much broader view of situations" (de Bono, 2006, unpaged). The CoRT thinking skills have been used successfully in many settings from schools to industries to hospitals (Barak, M., & Doppelt, 1999; Melchior, Kaufold, & Edwards, 1988). In this article, we demonstrate the utility of these thinking skills in structuring an open-ended problem-solving investigation.

Subjects, Experimental Design, and Assessments

One third grade class of 21 students (11 F, 10 M; 12 W, 9 H) of mixed ability and Spanish/English proficiency from a rural farming/ranching community in the western United States participated in the study in 2000. The class contained 5 students from migrant families, 3 students who qualified for special education services, and 5 students with limited English proficiency. A majority (15) of students were identified as "low income," defined as participating in Title 1 and/or free lunch programs. Students took a pretest addressing content knowledge of bird adaptations for habitat and descriptive vocabulary one week before instruction began, and the posttest a week after the five-weeklong unit of study concluded. Two very similar versions of the assessment were created; they were identical except for the pictures and objects to which students responded. Half of the students took version A as a pretest and version B as a posttest; the order was switched for the remaining students.

There were three open-ended questions on this assessment. The first question was, "Tell everything you know about how birds' bodies and ways of living help them survive in the places they choose as their homes." This probed students for content knowledge of bird adaptations. The second question was, "Ask as many questions as you can about the picture." Version A showed a photograph of long-beaked wading shorebirds; version B showed two adult egrets with hatchlings in a nest. This question was used to assess curiosity, an important component both of creativity and motivation in science learning. This test question was based on an item in the "Thinking Creatively with Words" (Torrance, 1992) the verbal version of the popular Torrance test of creative thinking, still in popular use (Kim, 2006). Finally, we assessed students' productive levels of descriptive vocabulary by giving students three objects and asking them to, "Use as many words as you can to describe each object." A different set of objects was given for each version: set A included a flat glass marble, a Styrofoam S-shaped pellet, and a toy plastic lobster; set B included a metal car key, a spherical ornament, and a toy plastic frog. Descriptive vocabulary is an important component of science learning (Graesser, Leon, & Otero, 2002), as it provides a way of thinking about and expressing observations of physical attributes. Vocabulary development is particularly important for students with limited English proficiency and was a goal of this science unit in which students spent time verbalizing and discussing ideas (Centeno-Cortes & Jimenez, 2004).

During the five weeks of instruction, students participated in the problem-based unit on bird adaptations and habitats with integration of technology skills. Students worked both in small groups of five students at the four computers and as a larger class. The teacher kept a journal of what the class did each day.

Unfolding of the Investigation

At the start of the investigation, the teacher told students that they would be studying bird adaptations and habitats as it was part of the state curriculum for third grade. She suggested that they might build or enhance a habitat at their school for a bird of choice. The teacher asked the excited students how they might begin their work and after some discussion, students agreed to start by making a list of all possible birds. As students brainstormed birds, they recognized their unfamiliarity with birds. After discussion, students decided to ask their parents and neighbors about local birds. Additional information would be sought from references. At this point, the teacher suggested they integrate technology by gathering data more formally with a survey and compiling data on a spreadsheet for graphing. She also suggested making a database of bird information, as database construction was another skill they needed to practice.

Students then worked in small groups to design surveys that asked participants to name local birds and to give their reasoning about which bird was suitable for the school project. Students solicited responses from relatives and close neighbors. Students decided to limit the database of information to birds perceived as beneficial in this rural farming/ ranching community. They supplemented the information gathered through the survey with readings from books about birds and encyclopedia and Internet searches. The data base included each bird's name, physical description, adaptations for survival, main foods, and habitat.

A spreadsheet was used to tally and graph the times each bird was named as beneficial. The top five birds were then examined using a PMI. Students determined the pluses, minuses, and interesting aspects of building a habitat at the school for each of these birds. For example, "pluses" of crows included the ideas that these birds could be easily attracted to the school and they would be large and easy to observe. "Minuses" focused on the damage crows do to crops, their noisiness, and the opinions of some that they symbolize evil. An "interesting" aspect was they might grow fond of crows if they studied them closely. Students used the CoRT skill of Consider All Factors (CAF) to determine factors in choosing a bird for a habitat at the school. Students considered not only about the opinions of community members, but the birds' requirements, and the effect of the enhanced habitat on the school custodian and other students. In a later lesson, students generated all possible choices for a bird habitat by using the CoRT skill of APC (Alternatives, Possibilities, Choices). They considered various feeders, bird housing, and plantings, supplementing ideas with textual and Internet information.

Before determining the bird for which the habitat might be enhanced, students generated possible goals of the habitat by conducting an AGO (Aims, Goals, Objectives). They thought of many possible goals such as providing a model families could duplicate at home and providing a place for quiet contemplation or research data collection, but limited the goals to the three most important by using FIP (First, Important, Priority). The goals of top priority were to (1) educate students about birds; (2) provide shelter and food to a specific bird; and (3) beautify the school grounds. As a final technology integration project, students created ecology webs for four of the most interesting birds.

Using the CORT skill of "Decisions," the class chose hummingbirds because they were beautiful and no one would object to a habitat being built for them. Students used CAF to determine the factors involved in building the habitat, such as cost, materials, the flowers hummingbirds favor, maintenance of the habitat, safety, and the time it would take away from other schoolwork. Students also considered the immediate, short term, medium term, and long term effects of the proposed habitat and whether future classes would support it. They also considered Other People's Views (OPV) of the habitat, including the principal, custodian, other classes, nearby farmers, and parents.

Using the CoRT skill of "Planning," students decided to research the favorite flowers of hummingbirds and how they might make hanging baskets of discarded milk jugs. Students divided the tasks and each group worked on their part. When the enhanced habitat was completed, students used the final CoRT skill of "Rules" to create a set of rules for people visiting the habitat. At a school assembly, the class presented to the rest of the school an electronic slide show of their process in making the hummingbird habitat. A debriefing after the presentation provided opportunity for reflection and closure.

Pretest-Posttest Results

Students showed significant gains in all tested areas. On the pretest, students wrote an average of 11.5 simple bird facts and 2.1 bird adaptations for survival in response to question1. On the posttest, they wrote 15.4 simple bird facts and 5.4 bird adaptations, indicating a gain in content knowledge of birds. Students increased their curiosity as a result of the investigation. On the pretest, students wrote an average of 4.1 questions for the given pictures; on the posttest, this increased to 7.1 questions. Students also made vocabulary gains. On the pretest, they wrote an average of 4.8 descriptive words per object; on the posttest this increased to 7.2 words.

Discussion and Conclusion

Ertmer and Simons (2006) described specific challenges that teachers encounter during implementation of problem based learning and suggest ways these may be ameliorated. They outlined four main areas of challenge: (1) creating a collaborative classroom culture; (2) Adjusting to changing roles; (3) scaffolding student learning and performance; and (4) initiating student inquiry. In this section, we examine how the CoRT Breadth thinking skills support problem-based learning with respect to these challenges. Collaboration is an important part of problem-based learning and key to a student-centered rather than teacher-centered work environment. Debriefings of small-group generated survey questions, student findings from the surveys, and student ideas about the most suitable birds helped to build an atmosphere of collaboration. Also important, however, were the CoRT thinking skills that emphasized taking into account the views of others (OPV) many outside factors (CAF), consequences of actions (C&S) and goals (AGO). These helped students expand their thinking to include the views and needs of others.

Rituals (classroom scripts for specific activities) help structure an open-ended investigation to make it more comfortable for classes accustomed to more teacher-centered and structured work. The CoRT thinking skills provided a framework, allowing the teacher to assist students in thinking through the various aspects of solving the problem. The teacher was also supported in her adjustment to her new role as facilitator by the mentoring of two more-experienced faculty members who met with her weekly to discuss progress. Scaffolding of student learning using the CoRT skills broke the problem into component parts that were examined in an organized manner. The teacher also scaffolded student work at the computers, explaining each new application and helping students in small groups. Finally, helping students to initiate their work on the problem is necessary for inexperienced learners. The teacher helped students determine a starting point (identifying possible birds) and used CAF and PMI to get students thinking about the factors involved in determining the type of bird habitat they wanted.

We have shown how the CoRT thinking skills helped a teacher provide needed scaffolding for an open-ended science problem on bird habitats. Not only was the teacher new to problem-based learning, but this was also her first time using the CoRT thinking skills. In addition to applying the CoRT skills to the science problem, they also practiced these skills in a more generic way by following the teacher's guide as advocated by de Bono. The pretest/posttest assessments and enthusiasm of the students and teacher attest to the success of this approach. We suggest that this system of thinking skills be used for other problem-based learning explorations.


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Audrey C. Rule, State University of New York at Oswego, NY

Manuel T. Barrera, III, Walden University, Minneapolis, MN

Rule, Ph.D., is Professor of Science Education, and Barrera, Ph.D., is Dean of the School of Education
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Author:Barrera, Manuel T.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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