Sunday, 2 March 2014

WebQuests - the best way to foster critical thinking, social skills and problem-solving?

In an earlier post, I examined (amongst other things) Johnson & Johnson's 1974 version of "Cooperative Learning Theory" and considered its applicability as a theoretical basis for group and project work in modern language teaching. It certainly seems that a good case can be made for teaching social and collaborative skills as well as language knowledge in today's classes!

I was therefore most interested when the topic of "WebQuests" was introduced to us here at Warwick slightly under a month ago. Having enjoyed some success through adopting a fairly constructivist approach towards ESP teaching at business school earlier in my career, I was eager to know more about an approach that similarly emphasizes the practical application of information rather than simply its retrieval and/or rote learning.

Relevance and Rationale
Dr Bernie Dodge - arguably the "father" of WebQuests - explains the concept well in the following video:

Essentially, then, a WebQuest:
  • Is a constructivist lesson format;
  • Is "wrapped around a doable or interesting task that's a scaled-down version of something adults do";
  • Derives most (though not necessarily all) of its source material from the web;
  • Utilizes information pre-selected by the teacher;
  • Often involves students assuming roles;
  • Critically, involves higher order thinking skills (HOTS).
Higher order thinking skills represent the upper levels of Bloom's taxonomy, as shown in this diagram:

In a follow-on video, Dr Dodge goes on to explain this in rather more everyday, "action verb" terms:
  • Know, Tell, Remember - these verbs are largely reserved for the classroom, he suggests. 
  • Apply, Analyze, Explain - this could happen in the classroom or be taken outside. 
  • Decide, Design, Create, Predict, Judge - these are "life" verbs, corresponding to higher value-added functions in today's knowledge economy.
In other words, a Web Quest is far more than simply a Web Search. The defining features of a WebQuest - according to educators across the US, longitudinal studies (e.g. Zheng, Perez, Williamson & Flygare, 2008) suggest - are as follows:

1) Constructivist problem solving (critical thinking, leading to knowledge application);
2) Social interaction (leading to the development of positive interdependence, individual accountability and interpersonal skills, much as Johnson and Johnson (1974) would suggest);
3) Scaffolded learning (very much in the social constructivist tradition of Vygostsky and Bruner).

It is certainly exciting to see all of these potentially happening at the same time! A WebQuest can be designed to have four distinct stages:
  • Introduction; 
  • Task; 
  • Process; 
  • Evaluation
 Or possibly six:
  • Introduction; 
  • Task; 
  • Process; 
  • Resources; 
  • Evaluation; 
  • Conclusion
This has a number of parallels with task-based language teaching, if one includes a "focus on form" stage where feedback becomes appropriate. It can also be used to foster skills development, e.g. presentation skills.

Naturally, though, it is also extremely important for task success criteria to be explicit! offers a good illustration of how one can do this, using a template.

Propensity to foster language learning
Dr Dodge is a keen advocate of constructivism in education, and I'm quite keen as well. However, when applied to a language learning context the situation can be a little more complicated.

For instance, he suggests that it's best to start early in life with this approach, possibly as early as the 3rd grade in the US. This may work well with native speakers of a language or children raised bilingually if the initial steps to be taken into the learners'  zone of proximal development are relatively small across the class as a whole. However, in the case of second language acquisition I suspect this is all a little too soon, and we must also acknowledge that some societies do more than others to emphasize individual autonomy, regardless of children's age.

Also, in the case of adult learners one must always acknowledge the possibility that they may actually be rather good at higher order thinking skills in their native tongue - what's missing in the L2 is simply the means of expressing their ideas, or the communication skills to participate fully in teamwork. As a teacher, one must take such factors into consideration.

In addition, placing an over-emphasis on higher-order thinking may cause other less glamorous (but still vitally important) learning tasks such as the memorization of key topic vocabulary to be devalued in the eyes of your learners. One can argue that a balance has to be struck between instructionism and (social) constructivism here: too much of one and you start to lose the benefits of the other.

Nevertheless, there are strong reasons to rate well-designed WebQuests - i.e. those which genuinely foster collaboration and involve critical thinking and problem-solving - very highly indeed. Their affordances extend well beyond mere language acquisition and cross over into the acquisition of life skills. In short, they can help learners mature as people.

Furthermore, WebQuests allow for differentiation between (groups of) learners in mixed ability or multi-level settings: you can simply give different groups of learners different tasks to perform. They may therefore offer an ingenious (if not necessarily total) solution to one of the most difficult classroom management problems affecting teachers today.

The Consultants-e maintain a good repository of WebQuests at

You'll need the authors' permission to use the materials posted there, but they may instead offer a good example to follow if you wish to create your own.

Despite loving the main thrust of this idea, I would like to suggest there remain some caveats (and even Dr Dodge in the second of his two videos acknowledges traps exist for the unwary, if the right choices of topic, content, and task aren't made). 

Above all, it is crucial to understand your learners. For instance:
  • If you're teaching an ESP class, an authentic task to them means something that relates to their current or future work. To them, authenticity means specificity.
  • The input (information students get told to work with) should be of an appropriate length (e.g. 550 words maximum for a text at B2-level) and graded (i.e. simplified, or else have unfamiliar words explained) to the level of the learners. 
This may necessitate a teacher intervention - but could represent an opportunity for anyone wishing to follow in Sean Banville's footsteps!
Also, coming at WebQuests from a quality assurance perspective, a strong case can be made for the use of templates and standardized assessment criteria/rubric if you're in a management position and want to introduce the concept department-wide, just as you would with project-based learning.

However, when all is said and done I think WebQuests are a great idea, and it has never been easier for a teacher to put together a collection of them using free website creation (e.g. or blogging (Blogger; WordPress) tools. If you get to re-use them, you won't be sorry you put the effort in upfront. 

So that's what I think about WebQuests, anyhow. What about you?


  1. 1. There is a way of talking about web quests that makes them sound as if they were something completely new. Of course they are just a variation on a tried and tested theme - very similar to the sort of thing we were doing in the days before the internet, when teachers would queue up at the photocopying machine before a lesson. The internet allows teachers to cut down on the amount of photocopying, and makes it easier to do things like include clips of videos or music. No big deal really.

    2. You highlight the "practical application of information". Obviously in life, especially in the sort of utility-orientated society we live in, this is very important. But some of us would argue that teachers need to avoid making this the priority. Perhaps part of the issue here concerns constructivism, which might imply that as long as people are kept busy constructing the world everything is okay. But there are ways of constructing the world that are distinctly myopic - distinctly closed off to what, for some of us, really matters.

    Had a look at one of the e-consultants' quests about peace (women in combat). That asks students to imagine they are on a committee that must make a decision about policy. A nice life-like situation to put students in. Useful. And it gives them something to do that will bring them in contact with new language and enable them to practise using language they already know. But we also need to see that some students might also be in a different situation, one in which they are not yet inspired by English and have not yet been touched by the issue of war - people for whom this is just another hypothetical situation in which a hypothetical solution must be found. Instead of being directed only to useful info, they might also be directed to outstanding writing or speaking in English about war, where the tremendous power of language might open a few students up to something new - something that might move them - something that might then point their busy constructivist lifestyles in a different direction.

    1. Torn, thank you for a most intelligent response!

      I'd agree with you that web quests ought not to be a big deal in pedagogic terms. "Good teaching, using the web" to my mind represents a natural migration of inquiry-based learning to the tools now available to us as educators and learners.

      I probably ought to do a separate post on Puentedura's SAMR model, but if we use this as our paradigm I think web quests may not often transform learning but certainly can enhance it. A truly transformational learning experience is one that cannot happen without the use of technology, such as an e-twinning project.

      You are right to warn about the potential narrowness of a purely utilitarian approach towards teaching and learning. One encounters such attitudes from time to time in a business school environment, but a teacher can still do their bit to challenge people to look at life from alternative perspectives.

      For example, getting people to consider the "tragedy of the commons" and what, if anything, can be done about it is a much better way to get learners thinking about the impact of capitalism on the environment than a conventional question about curtailing pollution: it forces learners to look inside themselves and not simply treat global issues as a decision makers' problem.

      Your commentary on the women in combat web quest is very interesting, and it suggests it would be a good example of material trainee teachers could be asked to evaluate. I don't know if you've previously read Thoms, Gillis & Callestrali's "Using WebQuests in the Social Studies Classroom: A Culturally Responsive Approach" (2008), but I think there are good examples of lesson ideas here that really do challenge learners to think and to take into account minority perspectives. Moving people in an entirely different direction to the one they had before may be a bit much to hope for, but we educators can certainly do our bit to promote more enlightened thinking amongst learners.