The communities of Santa Teresa, New Mexico and El Paso, Texas have something in common÷both communities are monitored by the U. S. Border Patrol, but not in the way that many illegal aliens have come to expect their attention. The U. S. Border Patrol has set up outreach centers to bring about goodwill and provide teenagers with the opportunity to explore career possibilities. For the legal citizens of these communities, this is a wonderful initiative. For the undocumented aliens, parents of teenagers coming face to face with the U. S. Border Patrol in school, it’s a nightmare.

Illegal immigrants fear that the U. S. Border Patrol may try to identify children of illegals, and then use this information to locate and prosecute the parents. Despite the U. S. Border Patrol’s protests that this will not happen, the relationship between parents and school officials is tenuous. How will parents who are illegal immigrants attend school meetings if they fear encountering deportation officials? While the stakeholders of these border communities probably have not heard of ill-structured problems, they are certainly in the middle of one.
Ill-structured problems like this one are messy by nature. They are like the real-life situations students can expect to encounter when they leave school, and they can be great learning opportunities as a form of problem-based learning. Problem-based learning (PBL) uses real-life problems modeled after a contemporary or historical case to engage students as they pursue specified learning outcomes that are in line with academic standards or course objectives (Stepien & Pyke, 1997). Students work through the problem as a stakeholder. The teacher acts as a guide or advisor as students explore the issues involved, formulate questions, conduct research, and consider possible solutions to the problems.
Since most problems spring from a lack of information, problem-based learning makes an ideal tool to use and reinforce the Big6 Skills. The Big6 approach to information-problem solving provides a framework for students to find, organize, and present the information that they need to solve-real life problems. This accomplishes two goals÷to help them complete their assignment efficiently and successfully, and to remind them that they must be information processors in their life beyond school. Combined with graphic organizers, the Big6 becomes a powerful tool to help students work through the U. S. Border Patrol scenario.
Using graphic organizers with the Big6 process can help students build their own knowledge and reflect on how new information links to their mental framework, or schema, of the world. This is important because, according to Buzan (1996), the human brain works primarily with key concepts in an interlinked and integrated manner. For each step in the Big6, there is at least one graphic organizer that helps students integrate new information with information that they already know (see Table 1).
Table 1. Matching Each Big6úSkill with a Graphic Organizer Tool
Table 1

BIG6 Skill Graphic Organizer
Task Definition 1.1 Define the problem 1.2 Identify information needed
  • Chain of events: Use to plan out problem-solving process.
  • //Fishbone Mapping:// Use to identify problem causes and interrelationships between them as they relate to the problem.
  • //Cycle:// Use to show interactions between events.
  • //Spider Map:// Use to explore a topic and identify main ideas and details.
  • //Problem/Solution:// Use to identify a problem and consider multiple solutions and possible results. ||
Information Seeking Strategies 2.1 Determine all possible sources 2.2 Select the best source
Location & Access 3.1 Locate sources 3.2 Find information within sources
Use of Information 4.1 Engage information in sources 4.2 Extract relevant information
Synthesis 5.1 Organize information from multiple sources 5.2 Present the result
Evaluation 6.1 Judge the result 6.2 Judge the process
  • Interaction Outline: Use to judge the problem-solving process, and the interactions between team members. ||

Problem-based learning is a valuable tool for students of many levels. However, the task of designing a problem-based learning lesson can be daunting÷the problems are large and messy, and it can be a challenge to know where to start. The following Big6-related five actions can help you keep your problem-based learning lesson under control and moving along.

Action 1
 – Select a Problem and Brainstorm an Idea to Explore Its Potential (Task Definition)
According to Stepien and Pyke (1997), a problem-based learning situation must meet several criteria. The situation must provide an effective way of engaging students with experiences that scaffold higher order thinking. The situation should also accomplish curriculum objectives and include age-appropriate topics. Further, the learning situation should take the form of an ill-structured problem to foster inquiry at a level that is cognitively engaging but not frustrating. 

Lastly, the situation should make efficient use of instructional time allotted to the unit.When selecting a problem, the teacher can either look through academic standards and objectives for a dilemma, or search news stories for a problem that will allow the introduction of academic standards. In examining the problem, the teacher can use a brainstorming map to explore the content that students may encounter as they go about examining the issue and suggesting possible resolutions.

Brainstorming with some form of visual aid (e.g, spider map, clustering, fishbone mapping) can be an important tool for teachers to consider the breadth of the issue and to include cross-curricular connections. For example, in the past, the author worked with a sixth grade social studies teacher who was asking the class to examine the core dilemma involved in dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. 

By focusing only on activities to teach history, the sixth grade teacher missed the big question, “Should we have dropped the bomb?” and possible explorations through the stakeholders’ points of view (for example, President Truman, U. S. Air Force Pilot, residents of Hiroshima, etc.).

Action 2
 – Engage Students in a Real-Life Problem (Task Definition)
This action builds a blueprint for inquiry and the investigation process to follow. As the teacher, you identify key curriculum goals and work forward from those to pose an engaging introduction that reflects a real world, ill-structured problem.As in real-life, students must use the inquiry process and reasoning to solve the problem. The narrative that introduces students to the real-life problem is the key to a successful problem-based learning lesson. You can find sample narratives at: The Curriculum Using Technology (CUT) Institute Materials web page.

Action 3
 – Focus Inquiry and Investigation (Task Definition to Information Seeking Strategy, Location & Access and Use of Information)
Once students are engaged in the problem, they begin to write down their hunches about it and identify with a stakeholder. Following this, they can begin the process of locating, gathering and using sources of information using the Big6. Inquiry and investigation builds a basis for students to design a solution product.

Action 4
 – Support Problem Resolution (Synthesis)
As students work their way through the different points of view according to the stakeholder position they have taken, it is important that they share information with each other. One way to do this is to encourage students to suggest a solution to the problem that considers the various points of view of all stakeholders. The teacher will want to facilitate a discussion to determine how students will share information to arrive at such a solution.

Action 5 – Facilitate Problem Debriefing (Evaluation)
After solving the problem, a key piece of problem-based learning is to debrief students. The debriefing step asks students to consider what steps they took to solve the problem and to determine the effectiveness of their reasoning. In addition, students reflect on whether or not they believe their solution will address the causes that were identified in Task Definition. For example, students can look at the criteria identified in Task Definition and ask themselves, “Did I find research from multiple sources?” and “Did I spend my time well in gathering and using information from various sources?” The role of the teacher is to help students focus on metacognition and to review issues inherent in the problem (Gallagher, 2000).

An Example: On the Border
This article began with a presentation of a problem that exists on the border of the United States and Mexico. Here’s how the author used this situation to develop a problem-based learning (PBL) lesson called “On the Border,” which reinforces essential Big6 information problem-solving skills.Don’t forget that preparing curriculum is an information exercise for the teacher, just as the lesson itself presents an information problem for the student. 

Since lessons based on real-life problems are broad and information-rich, Task Definition is a particularly important step for the teacher.A particularly useful Task Definition exercise for lesson planning is the articulation of curriculum objectives and learning outcomes. 

When developing the On the Border lesson, the author identified four curriculum objectives:

Students will:

  • Examine how history, culture, and geography influence a person’s perception toward a particular issue.
  • Construct an understanding of the various stakeholder points of view by immersing themselves in the role of individuals who live there.
  • Research, analyze, and synthesize how the historical, geographical and cultural implications have influenced the views of various groups of people found on the border between the U. S. and Mexico.
  • Apply what they have learned concerning differing points of view, and technology, to create a multimedia presentation to the class.

Once the teacher has defined the desired learning outcomes for the lesson, the next step is to consider possible issues associated with the central problem. This will help the teacher to identify and anticipate ways that students may potentially approach the problem. In developing the On the Border lesson, the teacher used a brainstorming map ( to examine the issues connected with this particular ill-structured problem. 

The brainstorming map identifies possible stakeholders, issues arising from the influx of undocumented workers, the deaths of border patrol agents, the culture clash between Mexico and the United States, the impact of free trade policies the federal government has enacted and much more. Of course, as any experienced teacher knows, there is no way to anticipate everything the class will come up with–expect to be dazzled by your students’ insight and creativity!

While Task Definition deals with the problem at hand, it also asks you to define the type of information needed. For the teacher, this means considering what he or she expects for the final product of the lesson. The author determined that as students progress through the lesson, they would build a portfolio for assessment. Each assessment task pinpoints specific learning objectives. 

An overview of the assessments for this lesson include:Student Product Objectives (I=Individual Product; G=Group Product):

  • Fishbone map of the causes and effects. (I)
  • Cluster map of stakeholder questions. (I)
  • Comparison/Contrast chart on information sources. (I)
  • Spider Map that identifies stakeholder question responses. (I)
  • Problem/solution map that reflects all stakeholders’ information. (G)
  • Venn Diagram with different points of view. (G)
  • Multimedia Presentation (G) assessed using the Multimedia Presentation rubric.
  • Peer Evaluation (G) assessed using the Peer Evaluation rubric.

Engage Students in a Real-life Problem (Task Definition)
Once the teacher has gone through his or her own Big6 process to plan the PBL lesson, it is time to present the lesson to the students and prepare them to engage in their own information problem-solving process to complete the lesson successfully. First, it is important to help the class understand the importance of the problem. Role playing is one way for the students to become actively involved in the problem. The student must say, “My mother is an illegal alien. How do I feel about the U. S. Border Patrol in school?” or perhaps, “As the U.S. Border Patrol Agent in charge of setting up the outreach centers, how can I reassure these children that I am not here on official business in order to hunt their parents?”The teacher can use the Big6 and graphic organizers to help students identify with a particular group. Following is an excerpt from the lesson, where students use graphic organizers to help them begin to define the task of their particular stakeholder group.

Big6 #1: Task Definition

1.1 Define the information problem: The U.S. Border Patrol has created several outreach programs to provide teenagers the opportunity to explore career possibilities. With these programs, the Border Patrol hopes to improve its relationship with residents in El Paso and Southern New Mexico. One particular initiative in Santa Teresa, New Mexico seems to be doing just the opposite. As you listen to the National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast, do the following:

  • Create a fishbone map of the situation.
  • Identify the stakeholders involved with each cause and identify who is impacted in the result.
  • Select a stakeholder that you would like to know more about.

1.2 Define the information needed to solve the problem: After selecting the stakeholder you would like to know more about, ask yourself as many questions as you can about the point of view you will represent. Use Inspiration software to create a cluster map of these questions. Develop specific questions about your point of view to which you do not yet know the answer.
Big6 # 2, 3, 4: Focus Inquiry and Investigation (Task Definition to Information Seeking Strategy, Location & Access and Use of Information)

2.1 Brainstorm possible sources of information: After you have done a Web search on your topic, organize the possible sources in a chart, like the one below. Use the chart to compare and contrast sources of information and to gather information for the questions you’ve written. Be sure to use citation guidelines for any information you find.

2.2 Selecting the best sources: Look at your chart and decide which sources you will use to respond to your questions.
Big6 #5 – Support Problem Resolution (Synthesis)

5.1 Organize information from multiple sources: Once again, a graphic organizer can help with this task. Create a spider map that deals with your stakeholder questions and summarizes the information you have found to answer your questions. This will ensure that you include all of the important information that you have collected, and will help to illustrate the relationships between ideas. 

Next, develop a problem/solution map to show solutions from your point of view, what you think the results will be, and how these results will affect the overall situation. This is where the point of view of the stakeholder is particularly important÷keep in mind what your group will think is a good idea, and what solutions the members of the group would be opposed to. 

Finally, share your information with your team (the other stakeholders) and then create a Venn diagram to show how the different points of view are similar and different. This will give you the information that you need to develop a problem/solution map that includes the ideas of all members of your group.

5.2 Present the information: Now that you have analyzed the results of your research, develop a multimedia presentation. Using eight slides, address the major points of your group’s problem/solution map, such as:

  • Title of your presentation and list of Group Members
  • What’s the problem?
  • Why is this a problem?
  • Who are the stakeholders?
  • What are some of the attempted solutions and their results? (use a different slide for each solution and result).
  • What do you see as the end result of these problems/solutions?
  • List your references.
  • Reflect on your success as a group.

Big6 #6 – Facilitate Problem Debriefing (Evaluation)

Since students worked both individually and as a group for this project, it is important that they evaluate their individual work as well as their team work.

6.2 Judge the process (Individual): Use the following checklist to judge your information gathering process.

  • What I created to finish the assignment is appropriate for what I was supposed do in Big6 #1.
  • The information I found in Big6 #4 matches the information needed in Big6 #1.
  • I have given credit to my sources and have used a standard citation format.
  • My work complies with copyright laws and fair use guidelines.
  • My work is neat.
  • My work is complete and includes heading information (name, date, etc.).
  • I would be proud for anyone to view this work.

Judge the Process (Group): Use the following checklist to judge your group’s information gathering process.

  • The group received a high score on the multimedia presentation rubric.
  • We have given credit to our sources and have used a standard citation format.
  • The group’s work complies with copyright laws and fair use guidelines.
  • The group received a high score on the peer evaluation rubric.
  • Our work includes the components outlined in Big6 #5.
  • We would be proud for anyone to view this work.

Using graphic organizers with the Big6 information problem-solving model provides students with essential tools to participate in problem-based learning. Graphic organizers give students maps they can use to locate, gather, organize, and synthesize information from a variety of resources. 

Then, students can put that knowledge to use in developing possible solutions for real-life, messy problems. The process of growing up isn’t easy . . . it requires us to work through problems, running into barriers as we gather information and trying to reconcile new information to what we already know. 

That’s why information problem-solving processes, such as the Big6, are important; they allow us to externalize the process we go through. By making the process external, we can begin to approach the situation, not only as stakeholders willing to fight for our beliefs, but also as people who can recognize and reconcile different points of view.


  • Guhlin, M. (1999). Five steps to Big6ú problem-based learning lessons using graphic organizers. [Online]. Available:
  • Freeman, G. (1999). The graphic organizer. [Online]. Available: (current September 8, 1999)
  • Gallagher, S. A., & Stepien, W. (January, 2000). Problem-based learning: Blueprint for bringing curriculum reform to the classroom. Workshop presented at the ASCD Professional Development Conference, San Antonio, Texas.
  • Stepien, W., & Pyke, S. L. (Summer, 1997). Designing problem-based learning units. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 20(4), 380-400.
  • On the Border Lesson
  • Brower, D. (no date). Border patrol outreach programs. [Online].

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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin’s blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure

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