Is It Constructivism?

by Mimi Mayer
Published in SEDL Letter Volume IX, Number 3, August 1996, Constructivism

The word constructivism crops up in a growing number of education circles.

It appears in 28 files archived at the US Department of Education's World Wide Web site. The keyword constructivism summoned 240 journal article abstracts at the ERIC Gopher site - and that was a partial list only. Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Texas are developing curriculum frameworks based upon the national standards for mathematics and science, which apply constructivist strategies. Evidently, growing numbers of educators are talking about, writing about, and implementing constructivist pedagogies [see "The Practice Implications of Constructivism," pg. 3].

The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) has joined this conversation. Since 1992, its Eisenhower Southwest Consortium for the Improvement of Mathematics and Science Teaching, or SCIMAST, has provided professional development programs where constructivist teaching is modeled and practiced for constructivist teachers-to-be.

Among them are the faculty and administrators of the public J. S. Clark Magnet School in Monroe, LA, who participated in SCIMAST sessions during 1993-95. The school's history made it a perfect candidate for SCIMAST training. Under a federal desegregation mandate, it reopened in 1993 as a science, mathematics, and computer academy required to maintain a ratio of 60-to-40 African-American or Hispanic to White students. All but two faculty and staff members were freshly recruited to create academically challenging elementary-level programs.

J. S. Clark's programs are far more comprehensive than those typically offered to preschoolers through sixth graders. Its curriculum is designed to promote high-order cognitive skills of critical thinking, evaluation, logic, problem-solving, communication, and reasoning taught in a context of hands-on, cross-curricular learning. Assessment runs the gamut from portfolios and performance-based evaluation to standardized testing. All told, J. S. Clark combines traditional practices with those from education's vanguard - including constructivism.

This balance between old and new is evident in the work of two J. S. Clark teachers. Science specialist Joyce Tate's teaching has evolved to have a distinctly constructivist flavor during 16 years in pre-K - 6 classrooms, even as she stresses mastery of specific content in her science labs. A music and performing arts specialist with seven years' teaching experience, Kimberly Bissell maintains a similar balance between constructivist and traditional educational practices.

Yet these teachers are not deliberately following the constructivist program. Nor were the constructivist roots of their SCIMAST training emphasized during professional development sessions.

Tate says she is "somewhat" familiar with constructivism thanks to the Louisiana Systemic Initiatives Program (LaSIP), a state-sponsored professional development project that promotes science and mathematics curricular reform. "I was telling my LaSIP instructor, gosh, I think I've been doing that all along, but I didn't have a name for it," Tate comments. Bissell easily defines constructivism with an analogy: "It is like the spiral theory of learning, where you build on what's known and gradually go to the unknown."

It is. Constructivist teachers create classroom conditions that invite students to construct their own knowledge by determining students' prior knowledge and building on it. They are facilitators who mediate between learners' current and emerging understandings. They draw from a palette of instructional practices that are often claimed by constructivism but also associated with other learning theories: for instance, exploratory study that links students' emerging knowledge to the world around them, cooperative learning, and experiential learning based on student interaction with primary data and manipulative materials.

Constructivist or Not?

Since constructivism is first and foremost a theory of learning, questions arise about what genuinely constructivist instruction looks like in the classroom. It could be argued that Joyce Tate, Kimberly Bissell, and other teachers who use similar methods are practicing constructivists - whether they would give themselves that label or not. We compared several of their instructional methods with the five principles of constructivist learning delineated in Jacqueline Grennon Brooks and Martin G. Brooks' study, In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms.

1. Posing problems of emerging relevance to learners

Start with what students know and help them build increasingly sophisticated understandings by making the material and subject matter relevant to them; this is a cornerstone of constructivist education. Constructivist teachers frame instruction so their students can understand the relevance of new knowledge. Relevance need not preexist in students; when it doesn't, constructivist teachers nudge students to gradually realize the relevance of their emerging knowledge by encouraging them to explore new materials and solve problems.

One way Joyce Tate shows her elementary pupils that science is relevant to their everyday lives is by talking about their parents' professions. If a student's parent works in a fast-food restaurant, the class discusses boiling point, heat intensity, and the importance of estimation, prediction, and accurate measurement in that job. During a unit on small machines, parents who are mechanics come to Tate's lab to talk about the workings of levers and gears. Tate's students also bring backyard soil samples and other items from home for lab sessions.

"The children get real excited. They feel as though they have some kind of connection with science," Tate says. "A lot of students feel as if they aren't prepared for science or the math that we're going to do. But they find out we're talking about and using materials and items that are readily and easily available to them at home, right out of their kitchens, and they don't seem to be intimidated. They want to try, they want to do because they feel as though we're always going to begin with something they're comfortable and familiar with, and build on that."

2. Seeking and valuing students' points of view

Constructivist teachers see the viewpoints of their students as "windows into their reasoning." But to see through those windows, teachers must talk with and listen to their students - and allow students to come up with their own answers. Erroneous answers can reveal student viewpoints; in fact, they can give constructivist teachers a way to reach students and encourage the growth of new skills and more accurate understandings.

Tate applies this strategy when she encourages students to think of themselves as scientists who can make significant discoveries in the laboratory. "We find that science is changing daily and some of the things that we considered to be science gospel or the Facts have changed, and there may be other ways of looking at them. I try to encourage this in the science lab," Tate explains. "When we first started, I noticed that a lot of the students would write their hypothesis and, if something didn't happen the way they thought it should have, they would change it. They would erase the hypothesis, saying, 'Oh no! This is wrong! And I don't want anyone to see it!'"

Now, after an experiment or lesson, Tate asks her students if they found an unexpected result or if an aberrant sequence of events occurred.

"I've finally gotten them to see that this may be a new discovery," Tate says. "If your hypothesis isn't proven, then let's go back, replicate the experiment, and see why is it different. Maybe you're onto something new here. If so, document it, sign it, and make sure that I'm one of the corecipients of this discovery." She laughs. "In that sense, I've gotten them to feel confident to the point that they're almost anxiously waiting: 'Oh boy, I hope I find out something different! I hope this doesn't work!' Now they'll tell you very arrogantly, 'Hey, I'm onto something new here!'"

3. Structuring learning around primary concepts

To better engage their students, constructivist teachers often present curriculum holistically, organizing materials in conceptual clusters or, as some constructivists put it, "big ideas." According to Brooks and Brooks, this instructional approach entices students to build meaningful knowledge "by breaking up the wholes into parts that they can understand" and work with. The emphasis on primary ideas instead of sets of discrete facts also naturally leads to cross-curricular teaching and learning.

Bissell conscientiously works with big ideas. She wants students to leave her music laboratory with not only a high degree of musical understanding but the realization that the materials they study in different subjects are interrelated. Like other J. S. Clark faculty, Bissell coordinates her lessons with other teachers' in a vivid demonstration of cross-curricular learning. During African-American History Month, Bissell has students study the history of jazz or other African-American music. If the rain forest is the topic in social studies and science, part of music class is spent examining maps and studying the rain forest's terrain and the music of its peoples. The mix of subject matter expands students' understanding of the rain forest while helping them explore how geography affects human communication, including music. "We will really go into depth," Bissell adds. "We really would like students to realize that learning is of a global nature."

Tate's unit Science in Louisiana epitomizes big ideas and conceptual clusters. Tapping into information about the state of Louisiana helps her prompt students into thinking as scientists while helping them build their analytical and observational skills and knowledge. Students explore their state and local communities and compare them to others they've seen. They research and discuss Louisiana agriculture. They study Louisiana biomes and ecosystems. They investigate Louisiana's native wildlife and conduct documented studies of animals from the school zoo, which range from a speckled king snake to the microscopic denizens of local waterways. They read children's literature that has scientific content and adapt the material to provide a Louisiana twist. If these children's books are by Louisiana authors, so much the better; the writers should expect to receive letters from Tate's students during the coming school year.

"We want to know what science background the authors have and what was instrumental in their writing the books. Where do they live, and what can they tell us about their community, so we can make comparisons to ours," Tate says. Literary pursuits in the science lab also help build students' content reading skills, Tate points out, while encouraging children to explore scientific ideas and principles.

4. Adapting curriculum to address students' suppositions

If constructivist learning begins with what students already know and helps them build on that knowledge, then teachers must realize what their students know and think at the beginning of a lesson. Thus, teachers should first determine the degree of their pupils' prior knowledge of a subject. This can help teachers alter the curriculum so study units can open with students' expressing their current assumptions; teachers design subsequent lessons to help students form a more accurate understanding of the subject matter by working with primary materials and raw data. Some constructivist teachers also modify a curriculum to cater to students' distinctive learning styles.

The zoo in J. S. Clark's science lab is a case in point. At the school year's beginning, Tate leads her students to the row of cages and aquariums where the children see birds, fish, amphibians, and small mammals. When asked, they say all the cages and tanks contain living things - except for one tank containing pond water. "There's nothing alive in there," the children say, giving Tate an opportunity to introduce the concept of microorganisms and begin lessons in the use of microscopes.

Bissell designs music lessons that have aural, visual, tactile, and kinesthetic elements. "I believe that if you don't have all four, you're going to leave someone out who is a kinesthetic learner or a tactile learner or an aural or visual learner," she says.

She didn't always teach that way. "When I started teaching, I was following the little curriculum guide," Bissell continues. "And I had a really good music series which told you, 'Here's what you do next.' At the end of the year, there was a little paper-and-pencil quiz that you gave to the kids and you saw how much they'd remember, which wasn't a whole lot.

"Now my kids are not only able to read music by the time they hit fifth and sixth grade, they can write their own compositions, they can discuss stylistic elements, they can incorporate instruments and talk about the different timbres they would make," she says. "But more than that, they can experience and share music, which is what the goal of music education should be."

5. Assessing student learning in the context of teaching

In traditional education, teachers assess students by grading assignments, from worksheets to examinations, and rating student work on the number of right and wrong answers. In contrast, constructivist teachers assess student learning while they teach to gain insight into students' understanding as well as the level of their cognitive development. Right and wrong answers are important to constructivist teachers - but so are opportunities to gain insight into their students' current understanding and the chance to enhance that understanding.

Bissell and Tate are of two minds about assessment. As public school teachers who are expected to measure their students' performance, they administer tests and quizzes. Tate believes her students should know how to take tests successfully - so much so that she works this skill into her lessons. But Bissell and Tate also use select alternative assessment techniques in class to continuously obtain clear pictures of student learning.

During science labs Tate invites students to draw up a KWL chart, where students list what they Know, what they Want to know, and, after the lesson, what they have Learned. Since the students' KWL charts make the direction of their learning concrete, Tate can more readily assess what students are learning while they're learning it.

Tate also tracks students' understanding of content by asking them to contribute one question to her multiple-choice science quizzes. And since the children love trying to stump their classmates, their quiz questions are often "far more challenging than what I would ask. But the students are able to answer each other's questions," Tate says.

Bissell's students go beyond quiz-writing to assessing some of their classmates' assignments; a strategy she picked up in SCIMAST training helps keep the grading fair. When beginning a lesson, Bissell uses rubrics, or sets of scaled, written criteria for an assignment, which she posts on the blackboard. She lists the tasks students must complete to earn each grade, with the C list the shortest and the A+ list the most extensive. The rubric guides students as they work by providing clearly defined sets of tasks to achieve. And when the class discusses which grade to award to individual assignments, they refer to the rubric and match the assignment to the criteria for each letter grade. Bissell finds this instructional approach motivates some students to redo assignments to improve their grades.

"They want to learn; they want to do well," Bissell says. "And if they think they're controlling it, they have a much better chance of success than if I'm handing out paper and pencils and saying, 'This is my test of your ability.'"

Training Constructivist Teachers-to-Be

Tate and Bissell were interested to learn their SCIMAST training was rooted in constructivism, for SCIMAST specialists rarely trumpet the theoretical foundations of their professional development programs. To explain this intentional omission, SCIMAST trainers cite a constructivist precept: learning takes place as people build their own understanding of a subject or set of skills; the act of building understanding is more meaningful to learners than the memorization of facts or procedures.

"From my perspective, the training is constructivistic in the sense that we attempt to provide experiences that enable the teachers to build their own understanding of content and pedagogy," says Barbara Salyer, a senior training/technical assistance associate with SCIMAST. "Activities are designed to be experienced, with time for reflection on those experiences. Ideally, we would also include an attempt to get at the teachers' previous knowledge, before the training."

Salyer also has a pragmatic reason for underplaying the constructivist foundations of SCIMAST training: "I don't want to come in with a term that sounds like something from the world of research that is not based in the classroom."

Marilyn Irving, another SCIMAST senior training/technical assistance associate, brings up "prior knowledge" and mentions that it is highly valued in the learning theory known as constructivism. But she has more pressing concerns. "I want to know what the teachers have to say and what they're doing in class. I want to leave them with something they can actually take back to the classroom and use."

"We try to initiate dialogue about constructivism," says María Torres, also a SCIMAST senior training/technical assistance associate. "I think constructivism is good teaching. Good teachers ask the kinds of questions that help kids think independently and create their own understanding."

Wesley A. Hoover, who oversees SCIMAST and other programs as a SEDL vice president, says training is designed so SCIMAST staff can actively demonstrate constructivist teaching; modeling constructivist teaching is more consistent with this theory of learning than a SCIMAST lecture on the Theory, Practice, and Implementation of Constructivism ever could be. "We want to give them the experience as they will implement it in their classrooms. Just giving instructions to these teachers is not enough," Hoover says. By participating in training where they fill the role of constructivist learners themselves, teachers can be better prepared to implement constructivist pedagogies.

Even though more educators are integrating constructivist approaches into their teaching, the practices are still new. And they can cause a dilemma for the lone teacher or the staff members of the single department who introduce constructivist pedagogies in an otherwise traditional school.

"In the past, SCIMAST was mostly concerned with just training teachers. Now we're getting whole sets of faculty - or multiple classrooms, at least - so that, (1), there's not just one teacher trying to buck the system at a school, and (2), those teachers have colleagues they can rely on for help," Hoover says. "Colleagues help deal with problems that come up; they're right there if teachers need to talk over a situation: 'We did this and it was a disaster! What can I do next time?'" Hoover says. By training clusters of faculty - and now the principals and administrators who are instrumental in implementing new instructional practices - SCIMAST staff development sessions provide sympathetic colleagues for educators experimenting with constructivism.

And this will swell the number of educators who are exploring constructivist-based instruction - whether they call their teaching constructivism or not.

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