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Constructing Knowledge in the Classroom

How do we learn? Watching a young child grow from infancy to toddlerhood, we marvel at the amount of learning that has allowed her to understand her expanding environment. Those early years provide the basis for language, physical dexterity, social understanding, and emotional development that she will use for the rest of her life. What a vast amount of knowledge is acquired before she sets foot in school!

This child taught herself by gathering information and experiencing the world around her. Such learning exemplifies constructivism-an idea that has caused much excitement and interest among educators. Constructivism emphasizes the importance of the knowledge, beliefs, and skills an individual brings to the experience of learning. It recognizes the construction of new understanding as a combination of prior learning, new information, and readiness to learn. Individuals make choices about what new ideas to accept and how to fit them into their established views of the world.

In the Classroom

The constructivist teacher sets up problems and monitors student exploration, guides the direction of student inquiry and promotes new patterns of thinking. Classes can take unexpected turns as students are given the autonomy to direct their own explorations.

A May 1990 article in Phi Delta Kappan recounts the story of a fourth-grade teacher who challenged her students to experiment with the idea of heat. Convinced that their hats, sweaters, blankets, and rugs all produced heat on a cold winter day, the children placed thermometers inside the garments and recorded the results. After three days the clothes still showed no rise in temperature. Although some of the students began to realize that they needed alternative explanations, many clung to their belief that the clothing generated heat. They were willing to continue testing the garments until their hypothesis was proven-the entire year, if necessary. The teacher had to set limits for the task and guide the students' examination of the evidence.

Constructivist teachers refer to raw data, primary sources, and interactive materials to provide experiences for their students rather than relying solely on another's set of data. For teachers who have used only one printed text, a shift to other sources may take some adjustment. For example, rather than read about the census, students examine and interpret census data. Or better yet, they plan a mini-census, gather their own data, and interpret the results.

Holding on to What They Believe

Our students represent a rich array of different backgrounds and ways of thinking. Myths, taboos, things we learn from our families, friends, and teachers-all are part of cultural influence. Content is embedded in culture and it is difficult to separate the two. When presented with information in the classroom that contradicts existing ideas, a student may try to accommodate both interpretations, rather than change deeply held beliefs. Unless the teacher realizes what views the students hold, classroom teaching can actually help students construct faulty ideas.

If the classroom can provide a neutral zone where students exchange their personal views and test them against the ideas of others, each student can continue to build understanding based on empirical evidence. Hands-on activities and observations of the natural world provide shared experiences for those constructions. For example, to study the phases of the moon, the class could keep a “sky journal” (an observational log of the moon and its shape in the sky) for several weeks. Small groups discuss the various observations and speculate about their meanings. If models, text references, or illustrations are available as resources, students should know that these are the results of others' observations and speculations. Such references are actually the “constructions” by others of the current understanding of the world around us.

Easing Into Constructivism

Just as students do not easily let go of their ideas, neither do school boards, principals, parents, or, for that matter, teachers. Ideas like student autonomy and learner-driven inquiry are not easily accepted. Required course content and externally applied assessments are realities that teachers must accommodate. A teacher inspired to change to constructivist instruction must incorporate those realities into her approach.

She might begin gradually, trying one or two “constructivist” explorations in the regular curriculum. Listening to students as they discuss ideas together is a good way to start shifting the balance of responsibility to the learner. Another step is using primary sources and raw data as the basis of inquiry, rather than relying solely on the text.

If students begin thinking about accumulated knowledge as an evolving explanation of natural phenomena, their questions can take on an exciting dimension. In the next two or three decades, research will change the way most of the accepted facts of today are perceived. Our challenge is to foster students' abilities so they can continue to learn and build their understanding based on the changing world around them.

In a Constructivist Classroom...

Student autonomy and initiative are accepted and encouraged.
By respecting students' ideas and encouraging independent thinking, teachers help students attain their own intellectual identity. Students who frame questions and issues and then go about analyzing and answering them take responsibility for their own learning and become problem solvers.

The teacher asks open-ended questions and allows wait time for responses.
Reflective thought takes time and is often built on others' ideas and comments. The ways teachers ask questions and the ways students respond will structure the success of student inquiry.

Higher-level thinking is encouraged.
The constructivist teacher challenges students to reach beyond the simple factual response. He encourages students to connect and summarize concepts by analyzing, predicting, justifying, and defending their ideas.

Students are engaged in dialogue with the teacher and with each other.
Social discourse helps students change or reinforce their ideas. If they have the chance to present what they think and hear others' ideas, students can build a personal knowledge base that they understand. Only when they feel comfortable enough to express their ideas will meaningful classroom dialogue occur.

Students are engaged in experiences that challenge hypotheses and encourage discussion.
When allowed to make predictions, students often generate varying hypotheses about natural phenomena. The constructivist teacher provides ample opportunities for students to test their hypotheses, especially through group discussion of concrete experiences.

The class uses raw data, primary sources, manipulatives, physical, and interactive materials.
The constructivist approach involves students in real-world possibilities, then helps them generate the abstractions that bind phenomena together.

These suggestions are adapted from In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms by Jacqueline G. Brooks and Martin G. Brooks (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1993)

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