Reflective Overview On A Students Experience In Texas Education Essay

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The practice of reflecting on previously learned skills and knowledge is essential to understanding a person's own learning process. This paper is a presentation of this type of reflection. The purpose of this comprehensive essay is to provide the reader with the answer to, "How is my educational institution, (Texas State Technical College) using Project Based Learning (PBL) projects to help students apply 21st century skills with an emphasis on critical thinking?" This paper is structured into several areas. One area will provide the reader an orientation and background to the writer's educational institution. The second area will give the reader an understanding into Project Based Learning (PBL).The next topic introduces the reader to 21st century skills. The next topic reviews the area of critical thinking. The final area explores how TSTC Harlingen is implementing Project Based Learning into the college's instructional division. To fully understand the complexities of this important aspect of education, one needs a basic understanding of the writer's educational institution.

Texas State Technical College (TSTC) Harlingen was established in 1965 as the James Connally Technical Institute (JCTI) of Texas A & M University to meet the state of Texas' evolving workforce needs. TSTC is the only state-supported technical college system in the state of Texas. With a statewide role and mission, TSTC is effectively helping Texas meet the high- tech challenges of today's global economy in partnership with businesses and industries, government agencies, and other educational institutions by supplying skilled workers for the workplace (TSTC History, 2009). One of the most important aspects impacting on the writer's institution is the 2012 reaffirmation process and successfully completing the college's Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP). The submission of the QEP was required for the reaccreditation process of TSTC Harlingen in April of 2005. The QEP describes and outlines a course of action for institutional improvement critical to the enhancement of educational quality. The college's QEP directly relates to the improvement of student learning. As defined by Southern Association of Colleges and Schools/Commission on Colleges (SACS/COC) website, student learning encompasses "changes in students' knowledge, skills, behaviors, and/or values that may be attributable to the collegiate experience." The goals and evaluation strategies are also identified in the QEP must be "clearly linked to improving the quality of student learning" (Southern Association of Collegiate Colleges, 2008, pg. 1). SACS expects institutions to dedicate themselves to enhancing the quality of their programs and to creating an environment in which teaching, research, and learning occur. Additionally, the institution must ensure that the quality of educational programs and courses offered are placing primary responsibility for the content, quality, and effectiveness of its curriculum with its faculty. The leadership for the college determined that improving critical thinking skills among students is the primary objective for the QEP.

Although a state institution, TSTC Harlingen operates like any higher educational institution. The college strives to improve student learning and the environment for students to learn. To fully understand the importance of critical thinking requires an understanding of what critical thinking is.

What is Project Based Learning?

TSTC Harlingen decided to adopt the use of project based learning (PBL) as an instructional strategy for the technical programs. Project based learning is an inquiry based learning strategy by providing students with a project evolving around a problem, issue, or challenge. PBL projects provide a "constructionist" approach to learning that also Figure Figure depicts the essential elements found within a PBL. (What is PBL? BIE (2011)

provides areas for students develop their learning. PBLs are built around a series of essential elements (See figure 1).

Driving Question or Challenge. Crafting the driving question is the most important element of creating PBL. The driving question or essential question as it sometimes is called, provides the foundation for the PBL and focuses the students' research and activities. The driving question is one of the most difficult element of PBL for instructors to create. The driving question provides the essentials for student inquiry, research and the building of collaboration.

Need to Know. PBL projects provide the environment for students to understand concepts, theories and information they will need to solve the issue or problem. This connects "content" of the course to the PBL. A PBL project lets students see the relevance and importance of these concepts and theories as they are applied to their PBL project.

Inquiry and Innovation. Authentic PBL projects always provide students with the opportunities to research and create innovated ideas. PBLs provide students with an environment for students to be engaged in searching and discovering answers. Instead of reproducing work from a textbook or drawing, students are given the ability to evaluate ideas and search for solutions. Students also are afforded the opportunity to be innovative. An environment that there is not one solution affords the students to be creative. By being innovative students understand and "connect" theories and concepts as they impact on their PBL project.

21st Century Skills. A PBL project is designed to afford students to use and practice 21st century skills. These skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, and technical skills are skills they will need as they enter the workforce. This area is covered more in detail later in the paper.

Student Voice and Choice. In PBL projects students are given the ability to choose how to present their solutions or product at the end of the deliverable. Students work as cohesive teams without instructors directing their actions or how they will complete the project. This element is important because it places students in an environment that they'll be exposed when entering the workforce. Students will have to collaborate and select how they will approach the project, deadlines, roles and responsibilities, and selecting the best solution or product that meets the requirements for the project.

Feedback and Revision. Students need feedback throughout the PBL project. During the development of students' work they need to realize their initial efforts at producing a product or developing a solution needs revisions and changes. Students need feedback from a variety of sources. One of the first is the instructor. The instructor's role throughout the PBL process is more of a facilitator, making suggestions and recommendations to stimulate the students to find solutions on their own. Another area of feedback from their peers. This feedback can be from individuals or other teams. It is essential students obtain feedback from other students on their contributions and efforts. Another area of feedback students can obtain is from industry representatives. This feedback is instrumental since they obtain feedback from people who are and have been working within the industry that their PBL is effected by. This feedback also provides a person from outside the educational institution who can provide relevance and essential feedback to students on their progress and ideas.

Throughout the PBL feedback should be ongoing and consistent. Feedback should also be formative and summative. By providing consistent checks throughout the PBL gives students important feedback to ensure quality and detail in their project.

Publicly Presented Product. The completion of a PBL project usually ends with students publicly presenting their findings, product, or solution. A PBL project gives more authenticity when teams must present their projects to the public, members from industry, or the field. Having students present to the public also gives them an opportunity to make formal presentations of their project just as a team from a company would present their project to a CEO or board of directors for a company.

Research on Project Based Learning

If PBL projects are so popular what does the research says about the quality of this learning strategy? Thomas (2000) found that assessing PBL projects and their quality is difficult due to many institutions creating projects they identify as PBL projects. Thomas (2000) also point that much of the research and activities of PBL are primarily found at the K-12 school level. There has been various studies conducted that show inquiry based strategies such as PBLs are a benefit to students by teaching them 21st century skills and how to work collaboratively as a team (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008). In a study conducted over 82 different fields, Walker and Leary (2009) concluded when the field use assessments measuring the application of knowledge and principles, the results were more in favor of PBL projects then standardized assessment test.

A project completed by students is only as good as it is constructed and delivered. Project Based Learning (PBL) provides a well balanced framework that affords instructors an effective method to assess student's work on a relevant problem or issue. PBL also provides students the ability to work collaboratively using an inquiry based approach to learning that stimulates the students' use of critical thinking and essential 21st century skills.

21st Century Skills for Students

Figure Depiction of the Framework for 21st Century Learning. Partnership for 21st Century Skills (ND)

The environment of the workforce today and tomorrow requires a variety of skills students need to have as they enter the workforce. The world has dramatically changed from an industrial age to information age (Trilling & Fadel, 2009). These global changes have also dramatically changed the roles of learning and education for students. 21st Century skills represent a framework of both knowledge and skills that will be essential for students to develop and need as they enter the 21st century workforce. Figure 2 outlines the core areas of the 21st century skills framework that focuses on skills in using technology and learning skills such as critical thinking. This mix of technological skills, learning, and knowledge will give students the ability t complete demanding and multi-facet projects normally found in today's workplace.

Students are given opportunities to use vital 21st century skills to complete their PBL project. Technology such as computers, telecommunications as well as web 2.0 applications such as wikis, blogs, and instant messaging, provide students the ability to collaborate and share information. Students are assessed in 21st century skills as they work on their PBL project. Additionally, these skills are assessed as part of summative and formative assessments for each PBL project.

Critical Thinking

The use and assessment of critical thinking is very important for the college's PBL projects. The ability to think critically is essential for any student as well as members in our nation's workforce (Society for Human Resource Management, 2006). Critical thinking is an essential and powerful process for students in their personal and professional lives. The ability for students to use an effective method to solve problems, evaluate and synthesize facts, and make assumptions is an important skill to possess. There are global, national, state, and local concerns for individuals to be able to problem solve and to make informed decisions affecting their personal and professional lives. A report conducted by the Society of Human Resources during April and May of 1996 concludes that over half of U.S. high school graduates and a quarter of four year graduates who enter the workforce have little or no critical thinking skills (Society for Human Resource Management, 2006). The business community has also expressed concern over the lack of critical thinking and problem solving skills in the future workforce (Holter & Kopka 2001). To understand the impact of critical thinking within educational institutions, one must first understand what critical thinking is, understand how to improve critical thinking for the future needs of the workforce, and how to incorporate it into the department's PBL projects.

What is Critical Thinking?

There are many definitions to critical thinking such as Paul and Scriven's (1987), states, "Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action." Another definition by Ennis (2002) states "Critical thinking is reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe and do." Another definition comes from John Dewy, who was one of the founders of modern critical thinking, stating that critical thinking is active, persistent, and careful consideration of a belief or supposed form of knowledge in light of the grounds which support it and the further conclusions to which it tends (Fisher, 2001). Huitt (1998) states, "Critical thinking is reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do."

One of the most common theories for learning is Bloom's Taxonomy. These levels identified by Bloom and his scholars represent different levels of learning. The upper three levels of Bloom's taxonomy (analysis, evaluation, and synthesis) are often used as a definition of critical thinking (Ennis, 1993).

These definitions provided in the previous paragraph, provide both broad and narrow definitions of critical thinking. The various definitions on critical thinking demonstrate the lack of agreement on what is meant by critical thinking (Idol & Jones, 1991). For an educational institution whose focus is providing technical skills for the future workforce, the task force for the college realized these definitions were not satisfactory. After much deliberation, TSTC Harlingen developed their own definition of critical thinking through a task force made up of faculty and staff members' that would fit the technical college's variety of technical programs and its mission. The college's definition of critical thinking is:

"The ability to engage in the process of: application, analysis, evaluation, interpretation, and synthesis in order to make an informed decision (TSTC, Introduction to Critical Thinking, 2010)

Relevant Theories Impacting on the Implementation of Project Based Learning at TSTC

Critical Thinking Theory

The critical thinking framework used at TSTC Harlingen campus is based on Paul and Elder's (2001) theory of critical thinking. Paul and Elder (2008) states, "Critical thinking is that mode of thinking - about any subject, content, or problem - in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them" (Critical Thinking Community, www.HYPERLINK "http://www.criticalthinking/"crHYPERLINK "http://www.criticalthinking/"itiHYPERLINK "http://www.criticalthinking/"caHYPERLINK "http://www.criticalthinking/"lthinkiHYPERLINK "http://www.criticalthinking/"nHYPERLINK "http://www.criticalthinking/"g, 2008). TSTC Harlingen has received permission to use Paul and Elder's (2001) elements of thought, critical thinking standards, and stages of thinkers to incorporate into the college's critical thinking framework. The elements of thought present Figure Depicting the elements of thought from Paul and Elder's critical thinking framework (2008).

eight elements in order to organize thinking and reasoning in order to solve problems and make decisions. Figure 1 display the eight elements of thought are used to control and assess our thinking. The elements of thought allow students to break down their thinking into these basic elements in order to better assess their thinking. The critical thinking standards provide an assessment measure for students to assess the quality of thinking by applying clarity, accuracy, and reaching an improved depth to their thinking. The critical thinking framework also provides stages of critical thinking used to identify the improvement levels of critical thinking in students. Paul and Elder's critical thinking framework enables the college use this popular framework, an abundance of resources provided by the Critical Thinking Community, and the ability to use the critical thinking framework an many areas of the college's curriculum.

Constructionist Theory

One of the most prominent theories of learning is constructivism. Constructivism is a theory of learning that presents the idea that learning occurs when learners actively try to make sense of material presented to them (O'Neil & Perez, 2002). Boudourides (1998) demonstrates constructivism originated with the work of psychologist Jean Piaget believing knowledge is actively constructed by the learner, and not passively transmitted by the educator. The student engages in constructivist learning by actively and deeply processing the learned material in an attempt to understand it. Mimbs (2005) states constructivism is about thinking and the thinking process rather than about the quantity of information a student can memorize and recite. Constructionist approaches to learning emphasis problem solving, higher order thinking and deep understanding used in critical thinking (Johnston, 2005).

Constructivism is an important theory that influences not only the manner in which educators instruct but also the manner in which students learn and think. Constructionist approaches to learning emphasizes problem solving, higher order thinking and deep understanding used in critical thinking (Johnston, 2005). In a constructivist classroom, the teacher acts as a facilitator. The teacher guides the student, stimulating and provoking the student's critical thinking, analysis and synthesis throughout the learning process (Briner, 1999). Students need an environment to practice their thinking, ask thought-provoking questions, and create their own learning and knowledge. Project Based Learning projects give students the ability to construct their learning as outline above.

Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning

Figure Figure depicting original Bloom's Taxonomy with revised version. (Pohl 2010)

One of the universal theories on learning affecting learning strategies and student critical thinking is Bloom's taxonomy of learning. In the mid-1950s Benjamin Bloom and a group of educational psychologists compiled educational objectives known as Bloom's taxonomy, is (and colleagues') classification of the goals of education regarding the development of intelligence within three categories or domains: the cognitive domain (emphasizing mental processes), the affective domain (emphasizing feeling and emotion), and the psychomotor domain (concerned with motor skills). Within the cognitive domain, six levels are arranged in a hierarchy, in which the lowest level involves recall of facts and the highest level involves evaluation and assess. These levels are: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation (Leonard, 2002). Bloom's taxonomy provides instructors strategies to create learning objectives, make assignments that stimulate critical thinking. During the 1990s, another group cognitive psychologist that were led by a former student of Bloom's updated the taxonomy reflecting significance to 21st century skills and work. One of the major changes (See figure 4) was the use of verbs instead of nouns to describe the different levels of taxonomy (Pohl, 2010). Critical thinking skills are an integral part of both higher and lower order thinking as defined by Bloom. Sullivan (1999) states that critical thinking is defined into two components: 1) skills to generate information (this being the lower order thinking) and 2) using those skills to guide behavior (higher order thinking). A student using critically thinking about information or a set of facts so they can make an informed decision requires the thinker to go through the six levels of cognitive thinking defined by Bloom (Sullivan, 1999). The use of Bloom's taxonomy to improving students' critical thinking is important. One area that Bloom's taxonomy played an important role was in the creation of the college's definition of critical thinking. Another area is using Bloom's taxonomy to identify assignments and strategies that use the upper levels of Bloom's taxonomy to stimulate student critical thinking in classrooms.

Each of the theories explained in this section represents theories affecting the major aspect of TSTC Harlingen strategies to implementing PBL projects. The critical thinking theory by Paul and Elder (2001) represents the critical thinking framework TSTC Harlingen will use to develop critical thinking strategies for the college. The framework provides the foundation for developing changes in the college's curriculum. The constructionist learning theory engages students in the learning process and stimulates their critical thinking skills. This theory provides the foundation for instructors to change the method of delivering instruction and promote strategies that will stimulate students' use of critical thinking.

Structural Inequality and Critical Thinking

One area that critical thinking is needed is for students in assessing the many perspectives of diversity. Students need critical thinking skills in order to examine how socially structured differences affect their values, attitudes and behaviors at an individual and organizational level, both domestically and globally. Paul and Elder's (2001) critical thinking framework provides the element of Point of view stresses that reasoning is done from a point of view and to seek other points of view and identify their strengths and weaknesses. Critical thinkers use the element point of view to strive to be fair-minded in evaluating all points of view. This reduces "ego-centric" thinking that views a person's views and beliefs as being the best. Another element of thought is "Questions at Issue." This element of thought focuses on stating what the problem or issue is by reasoning and asking questions. Both of these elements of thought within Paul and elder's framework reduce bias by looking at other alternatives and perspectives.

Another area of Paul and Elder's critical thinking framework that focuses students to structural equality is the critical thinking intellectual standards, specifically breadth. Intellectual critical thinking standards guides students to be able to think, analyze their thinking, reason better by applying these standards to their thinking. One of the standards that help students reduce inequality is breadth. Breadth strives to look at other sides of the issue or problem. In her article, Diversity Education: Lesson for a Just World, Nieto (2010) stresses an essential component to social justice is by creating a learning environment that promotes critical thinking and supports agency for social change. When students do not practice and use effective critical thinking skills they do not question events, decisions that contribute to social and educational inequality.

Understanding and providing opportunities for students to develop and improve their critical thinking skills in PBL projects is extremely important. Project based learning projects provide the "constructionist" environment for students to construct their own learning as they research and collaboratively work on their projects. Bloom's taxonomy plays an important role as the projects focus on creating, analyzing, which are the upward levels of higher order thinking. Each of the PBL projects stimulate students to use critical thinking skills and have them assessed by the instructor.

Implementing Project Based Learning (PBL) at TSTC Harlingen

TSTC Harlingen began implementing PBL projects into the curriculum and instructional division during the summer of 2010.

Educating Faculty on PBL

The implementation of PBL began with an initial "kick-off" of training that was provided to key leaders within the instructional division and the director for professional development. Two days of training that was conducted by representatives from the Buck Institute for Education, members form the college. Another method of learning PBL was to construct an online course for faculty to complete. The online professional development course on PBL was built around the structure of training the initial faculty received. The education of faculty on building and using PBL is essential. Without proper and consistent training and education, PBL project quality and effectiveness will be diminished.

Building a Process to Implement PBL

To be successful at implementing PBL at TSTC a consistent process that could be assessed and be used by over thirty technical programs needed to be created. Appendix A shows a graphical representation of implementing PBL in each of the technical programs at TSTC. The process created by TSTC outlines for each department to identify a central idea, issue, or product for a PBL project, and then follow a set of steps to create, assess, and evaluate their PBL project. One of the next major steps in the process is to create and complete the PBL Overview Form. This document outlines the framework of the program's PBL. This includes identifying the driving question, assessments, and project calendar. The project overview form also identifies areas as to what 21st century skills will be used and assessed in the PBL project. Formative and summative assessments are built so that students are assessed at different points of the project so they obtain continuous feedback.

The form is reviewed the several faculty members so that it is detailed, clear, and uses the principles of a PBL project. One of the areas that each program will assess is the use of critical thinking. Each PBL will select several of the elements of thought that align with the PBL. This allows the college to conduct the PBL and assess the college's critical thinking initiatives. Once the program has completed the PBL, they conduct a post-PBL meeting to discuss the success and challenges of the PBL with other faculty. This meeting allows self-reflection, recommendations to make the PBL better, and the opportunity to "close the loop" of the learning activity.

An Analysis of Progress of Implementation

The implementation of Project Based Learning will reach the one year mark in several months. Three PBL projects have completed the full process displayed in Appendix A. One PBL was created in the Medical/Dental division, another from the Chemical Technology department, and the third PBL was unique as it integrated a technical program (Gaming) and an academic course (Speech). A second phase of training on PBL projects was conducted for those who attended the first phase. Several programs also began working on their PBL project overview forms.

The PBL involving the integration of the academic course and technical course has worked exceptionally well. This PBL was unique since a academic course and technical course collaborated together for the PBL. Both instructors have had much success with their students working together and sharing information as they completed the project. Both instructors will present their PBL, and represent the college this year at the annual National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD).

Some of the challenges of the PBL program are maintaining a consistent level of quality in each PBL project. The use of a training program that is traditional and uses an online self-pace program offers faculty a consistent framework, resources, and area to collaborate and communicate with other instructors. Another area that poses a challenge is when students "drop" their class as they are completing their PBL. This would not normally happen in the K-12 environment and is unique to post-secondary institutions. This problem has a tendency to create confusion and difficulty with remaining team members for the project since they must now take up task from the student who dropped. Instructors have been handling this situation on a case by case basis. Many instructors explain this type of situation can happen in companies also. People are transferred, moved to different projects, and other areas that demand project teams to be both innovative and flexible.

The implementation of PBL projects will continue through the next two years. Currently the college has incorporated PBL projects into their strategic plan for the college. Training will continue with several department chairs attending training this summer through the Buck Institute of Education (BIE), and the online professional development course for PBL continues to give faculty an opportunity to learn more about PBLs on their own time. The true success of implementing PBL projects will come by the success of the instructors building PBLs and the students working on them.


This comprehensive essay has demonstrated how is Texas State Technical College is using Project Based Learning (PBL) projects to help students apply 21st century skills with an emphasis on critical thinking. The implementation of PBL projects into the college's curriculum affords students a cooperative learning opportunity to learn and practice 21st century skills and critical thinking. Figure 5 shows a distinct relationship two key elements found in each PBL project and the elements discussed in this paper. PBL projects provide a blend of much these needed elements within the learning environment. Each PBL projects provides an environment for students to practice and use 21st century skills. In these skills are knowledge skills required for any project or team such as creativity, critical thinking, and the selection and use of technology. PBL projects provide an opportunity for students to use higher order thinking. This "constructionist" is learning strategy demands students to go beyond simply knowledge recognition and use higher orders of learning such as evaluating, interpreting, as well as creating. PBL projects also promote rigor and relevance. Each PBL project is tied to an existing problem or issue that impacts on industry, economy, of society. The PBL project promotes an environment for students to research, and solves problems and issues. Each PBL project also brings students together to work as project teams. Working collaboratively as a team member, understanding roles and responsibilities, communicating with team members, as well as understanding project management concepts is a skills that is critical to any industry in the workplace. Each of these elements converge together in a stimulating and rigorous learning strategy that instructors should use in many of the courses; Project Based-Learning (PBL).

Figure Convergence and relationship of key elements to Project Based Learning (PBL)

Appendix A

Implementing Project Based Learning into Technical Departments