Anchored Instruction: Why We Need It and How Technology Can Help (Bransford et al.)

Bransford, J. D., Sherwood, R. D., Hasselbring, T. S., Kinzer, C. K., & Williams, S. M. (1990). Anchored instruction: Why we need it and how technology can help. In D. Nix & R. J. Spiro (Eds.), Cognition, education, and multimedia: exploring ideas in high technology. Hillsdale N.J.: L. Erlbaum.

The authors discuss the advantages of anchored instruction (AI) and describe an implementation of AI using videodisc technology.

Both content and process are important for deep, effective thinking. “…Research demonstrates that knowledge of important content — knowledge of concepts, theories, and principles — empowers people to think effectively. Without appropriate knowledge, people’s ability to think and solve problems is relatively weak” (p.115).

The problem of traditional instruction is that it fails to produce the kinds of transfer we would like to see (p.115-6). “Failures to access and use potentially relevant information result in failures to transfer” (p.116).

When information is power, the teacher is revered (p.116). “Like Oog’s students, the astronomers actively sought particular types of knowledge because it had direct relevance for important problems — problems that they experienced daily and that were important to them” (p.117). [Just-in-time information is key.]

New information must be treated as knowledge-to-be-used [objects-to-think-with] rather than facts-to-be-learned. “…students often have not had the opportunity to experience the types of problems that are rendered solvable by the knowledge we teach them. They treat the knowledge as ends rather than as a means to important ends” (p.117). Thus, the knowledge remains inert (Whitehead, 1929).

“In general, the way in which individual concepts and theories are initially learned seems to play an important role in the degree to which this information is used later on” (p.121). The goal is to prevent access failures (p. 120)

Knowledge representations underlying competent performance is based on “productions” that involve “condition-action pairs that specify that if a certain state occurs…then particular mental (and possibly physical) actions should take place” (Anderson, 1987, p.193). “Productions provide information about the critical features of problem situations that make particular actions relevant” (p.120).

Educators must help students conditionalize their knowledge — i.e., acquire the knowledge in the form of condition-action pairs mediated by appropriate goal-oriented hierarchies (p. 120). The authors recommend presenting information in a “problem-oriented” vs. factual format; for example, by presenting facts and knowledge as “exciting inventions that make problems easier to solve” (p.127).

“Problem-oriented acquisition helps students appreciate the value of information” (p.121). It’s important for people to experience changes in their perception and comprehension of situations [as they acquire new bodies of information] in order to increase the likelihood that they will value new perspectives (p.122).

“…the opportunity to view information as means to important ends helps students learn about the conditions under which knowledge is useful (Simon, 1980). This increases the chances of spontaneously using that knowledge to solve new problems that are confronted later on” (p.131).

[So there seems to be two related goals here: viewing knowledge as tools and using knowledge as tools, esp in novel situations. Success in the former doesn’t guarantee success in the latter, just improves chances.]

Summary of current (unsuccessful) instructional settings:

  • Students acquire facts not tools for problem solving.
  • Students are not given experience with kinds of problems that make information relevant. and useful; hence, they do no understand the value of the received information.
  • Students fail to operationalize their knowledge in ways that specify how that knowledge should be used.

Anchored Instruction

  • To help students develop useful knowledge rather than inert knowledge.
  • Emphasis is on the importance of creating an anchor or focus that generates interest and enables students to identify and define problems and to pay attention to their own perception and comprehension of these problems.
  • Major goal: enable students to notice critical features of problem situations and to experience the changes in their perception and understanding of the anchor as they view the situation from new points of view.
  • Begins with a focal event or problem situation that provides an anchor for students’ perceptions and comprehension.
  • Ideally the anchor will be intrinsically interesting [always hard to find something appealing to everyone. Teachable Agents tap the universally motivating force behind social interaction and adoption/ownership, allowing the choice of content to be less consequential].
  • Effective anchors should also help students notice the features of problem situations that make particular actions relevant; relevant features of the problem that they are trying to solve. [How? format/layout features? prompts?]
  • Individual word problems need to be incorporated into a larger context that provides richer experiences with problem solving.
  • Verbal, case-based approaches to instruction comprise one successful category of AI. However, video-based anchors have certain advantages:


    • contain much richer sources of info compared to printed media
    • ability to perceive dynamic, moving elements facilitates comprehension (esp for young children)
    • easier to help students develop the pattern recognition capabilities necessary to specify the condition side of condition-action pairings

The authors have embarked on several projects with the goal to “provide conceptual anchors that enhance motivation to learn and permit students to integrate information across traditional subject areas…In everyday problem solving, we often need a combination of knowledge from areas such as history, literature, science, philosophy” (p.132).

[Where’s the student’s agency and awareness in all this? Feels like students are being kept in the dark… What would happen if one were to try to explain this access failure framework to a class before starting an anchored instruction lesson?]

“In general, the way in which individual concepts and theories are initially learned seems to play an important role in the degree to which this information is used later on” (p.121).
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