Learning theories in practice/Constructivist classrooms
Individual Knowledge and Negotiated Meanings: A Constructivist Classroom”
When a teacher says their classroom is constructivist, an image of students working on projects in small groups instantly appears. Constructivism is often linked with student centered, active learning. But what does this really mean? Are all of these really examples of constructivist theory in practice? The purpose of this chapter is to engage educators in thoughtful discussion and reflection on some of the issues faced when attempting to structure classroom practices using constructivist learning theories. My goal for the chapter is that it will provide educators with a better understanding of constructivist theory, why constructivist theories are relevant in today’s classrooms and how competing forces are making it difficult for educators attempting to establish constructivist classrooms. Ultimately, I am hoping that educators who read this chapter will come away with a renewed sense of the importance and relevance of constructivist theories and how they are being applied in the classroom.
What is Constructivist Theory?
At a recent workshop our task was to examine how well we, as teachers, understood and were able to teach the 2nd grade social studies TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills): which states “The student is expected to: identify characteristics of good citizenship such as a belief in justice, truth, equality, and responsibility for the common good.” The discussion became quite heated in the group that was trying to define “justice.” The group was having a hard time with the definition because the two elementary school teachers had a different definition than the college level teacher. The issue was whether or not elementary school children should have the same expectation of justice as adults. Without a common definition of the word we were never able to move on to the question of how to teach this to 2nd graders. However, over the course of the discussion we all considered and eventually articulated our own personal definitions.
Constructivism is a theory of learning in which the student uses prior understandings in concert with current experiences to construct, elaborate or restructure their knowledge. The teacher’s role is to support that active process through exploration and dialogue (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996, and Windschitl, 2002). One of the most difficult epistemological underpinnings of constructivism for educators to embrace is that there are no universal truths and that meaning is negotiated (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996, and Windschitl, 2002). While constructivism is often talked about and referenced with teaching ideas like student-centered learning, constructivism by its very nature is not compatible with standardized curriculum and more objective forms for knowing. Windschitl (1999) argues that constructivism is a cultural system and not just a set of strategies, which has the potential to create learners who are able to make sense of the world.
Constructivism is a response to the perceived lack of recognition by behaviorist and cognitive learning theorists of the unique learning characteristics of individuals and of the social nature of learning (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996, and Windschitl, 2002). Jean Piaget is widely recognized as the founding father of Constructivism with his notion that learning is individually constructed however this idea was not unique to Piaget, many other philosophers have written on the same idea as far back as the18th century, Vico, and more recently Dewey, Rousseau, Whitehead, Kuhn, Wittgenstein and Rorty (Phillips, 1995 and Duffy & Cunningham, 1996). What has emerged in the constructivist literature is a bifurcation into two camps the individual cognitive constructivists (sometimes referred to as psychological constructivism) and the social constructivists (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996; Windschitl, 1999, 2002 and Richardson, 2003). The individual cognitive constructivists focus on the individual’s reaction to the experience and to the process through which understandings are formed. Dewey and Piaget describe a similar process by which the individual encounters a situation where they are uncomfortable and unable to easily explain the situation. New knowledge is then constructed as the individual must restructure their knowledge in order to accommodate the new information (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996). Von Glaserfeld’s theory of radical constructivism similarly considers the individual’s response as the primary force for knowledge building; he feels that considering the social aspects of learning an inappropriate leap (von Glasersfeld, 2000). Conversely, social constructivism places the emphasis on the interaction with others; knowledge is seen entirely as a negotiated human construct (Richardson, 2003 and Windschitl, 2002). In direct contrast to the radical constructivists, social constructivist do not believe that how one is situated in the world can be separated and not considered in the process of knowledge making (Lewin, 2000). Vygotsky is largely seen as the pioneer in this branch with his focus on language; Dewey has also contributed with his description of schools as communities (Phillips & Soltis, 2004, and Popkewitz, 1998). Prawat (2000) does an admirable job of describing the evolution of Dewey’s thinking as he develops the idea of the classroom as social units in which students are explore ideas and thus building their own knowledge.
Why is Constructivism Important?
At the start of the 2006-2007 school year Louisiana and the Gulf Coast was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The school district in which I taught saw a wave of new students enrolling. The 6th grade social studies curriculum in the two states is very different so those students missed out on the content they would have otherwise received, and did not have the prior knowledge we expected them to have. By the same token teachers are traveling into new cultural settings. In the last school I taught in the 7th grade team leader for Texas History got her certification in Louisiana, she never received any formal education in the subject in which she now taught. On a wider scale a school I was recently in advertised that it had students enrolled from over 100 different countries. Imagine the range of experiences that these students and teachers could potential bring into the classroom.
In the early 20th century when Lev Vygotsky and John Dewey were writing, the world was experiencing a period of intense change. Following the Progressive Era and the end of World Wars I and II, the political, economical, and cultural systems were subjects of attention and public debate. Part of that discussion was a reconsideration of what it meant to be a modern citizen. Vygotsky, Dewey and more recently Fleury (1998) and Lewin (2000) wrote of the need to educate for participatory democracy, which has been identified as a primary benefit of constructivist teaching (Popkewitz, 1998). Through their use of knowledge as a social construct a notion of knowledge as practical emerges and seeks to end a dualistic understanding of a separate government that acts upon its citizens. Citizens through the use of their practical knowledge concerning their communities are thus able to become active within the government and work for change (Popkewitz, 1998).
More recently an idea of cultural constructivism is being discussed, educators are recognizing that both teachers and students are more mobile and that increasingly both are asked to teach and learn in situations that are very different culturally than those in which they are most familiar. This cross-cultural teaching creates problems when choosing content, school systems, assessment, classroom communication, and teaching methods. Using constructivist theory as the basis for classroom instruction in these multi-cultural settings allows teachers to teach with both the individual and their values and past experiences in mind (Hutchinson, 2006)
Critical constructivists add another layer to the belief that knowledge is socially constructed. Most closely connected with the social studies content area it is based on the comparison between logical positivism and what is sometimes described as traditional social studies. When content knowledge is defined as a series of objective facts, knowledge is static and because competing explanations are not acceptable history is presented from a single perspective meant to explain all individual experiences. Critical constructivists call on students to understand the power structures and interests that shape the knowledge that is presented as facts in schools. Content knowledge is then understood to have multiple perspectives and is constructed by humans (Fleury, 2001).
The primary concern of educational theory is how students create knowledge. Schools and teachers in turn demonstrate what type of knowledge is important through the use of instructional strategies and content. Education is at its most basic level about teaching what is important. When we teach with strict hierarchies and factual bodies of knowledge, we limit student’s abilities to envision alternatives and to see themselves as agents of change. This has not only political but also economic and social consequences in that it limits the potential for new research, discovery and understanding. Inventors need the ability to experiment and explore in the process of finding a new discovery, constructivism affords them that opportunity (Larochelle, 2000).
What are the Issues for Classroom Educators?
General issues with theory and instructional models: Constructivism is an educational theory, an idea about how students will learn best. It does not provide even general guidelines about how it should be practiced in the classroom. It is the job of instructional theorists to take that notion of how students learn and interpret it into a theory of instruction. Classroom teachers then take that instructional theory and implement it in their classroom where there is another level of interpretation as teachers must find a practical application that fits the needs of their specific classrooms. These three levels of interpretations and analysis are rarely done in consultation with the others. Therein lies the disconnect (Windschitl, 1999). Educational theory is brought to life in the classroom but it is rare for teachers to have specific knowledge of education theory and to make thoughtful, informed decisions based on those establish theories. The result is that teachers will implement theories but in incomplete, or safe ways and they lack the knowledge to make informed critical decisions about strategies (Jonassen, 2006 and Windschitl, 2002). Without this understanding of theory and purpose, new instructional strategies have the appearance of “just another new idea,” they appear unrelated and not grounded in any overarching goal. It is not surprising that parents also get concerned with the application of what appears to be experimental practices (Windschitl, 2002).
Theorists and instructional designers are fond of presenting learning as if it happens one way for all; this is however, not the case. Teachers have been saying for some time that students are unique, they learn differently in different situations and that teachers need to use a variety of theories and strategies dependent on the content and classroom climate (Jonassen, 2006 and Richardson, 2003). What is need are more instructional models that have been tested in practice building that connection between instructional designer and classroom teacher (von Glasersfeld, 2000). Another related issue is the current climate of control by policymakers and the standards movement (Windschitl, 2002). Given that learning is not a scripted process that can be standardized, policy makers will need to relax their control and allow teachers to make curriculum and instruction decision based on community needs. Education is a conservative act making this relaxing of control a difficult process (Fluery, 1998).
Changing role of teacher and student
During a class discussion with sixth graders I asked them to describe what it means to protest and each one gave me a different definition. One said that it means to shout and wave signs, another said it means to be angry, another said you get arrested, someone else added that it means you want to fix something, one student offered Martin Luther King as an example and finally a student described as a peaceful march. We talked about how all of these can be true; it depends on your viewpoint.
Duffy & Cunningham (1996) describe learning and knowledge as a rhizome, meaning that like a ginger plant or many types of grasses the root shoots off in many directions creating a complex structure of divergences and connections. The rhizome is so complex that it cannot be easily diagrammed or understood; the rhizome can only be appreciated from the current view point. This is a very different understanding of learning and knowledge for most educators and it will require them to think very different about their teaching. Teachers can no longer see themselves in the typical culturally constructed role of the all knowing expert. Teachers will instead need to embrace the position of mediator, helping student describe what they are experiencing without demanding one particular explanation (Windschitl, 1999 and 2002).
Another significant problem for teachers is their ability to assess student knowledge. Teachers need an in depth understanding of the content area along with a large vocabulary so that they can communicate with students about their knowledge constructs (Duffy, 1996; Richardson, 2003; and Windschitl, 2002). Larochelle (2000) feels that teachers are overly concerned with a students “knowledge of”, or gaps in factual content, at the expense of “knowledge that”, or the complexity of ideas. The later is certainly more difficult to assess given the frequent lack of descriptive language on the part of both the teacher and the student. This type of monitoring, which checks for a good level of reasoning, requires that the teacher and student have close ties in order to build sufficient language skills to communicate their knowledge constructs (Larochelle, 2000 and Windschitl, 2002).
Some ideas for instruction
Recently I had the opportunity to observe in a 7th grade Language Arts classroom. The teacher had the desks arranged in groups of three and the students were working on an individual writing assignment, over the course of the class period the students were sharing their work and providing suggestions to each other. The purpose of these “consultations” was for the students to improve their writing and to practice giving and receiving feedback. On my next visit the students had completed reading a short story and were in their table groups working to complete a group story outline. They were discussing their understanding of the story plot and negotiating the language for the plot summary. On both days the teacher was moving around the room and providing assistance only if asked.
Beyond the possible issues with implementation there are many instructional methods that offer themselves as constructivist, but it can be very difficult to determine which strategies and practices truly embody constructivist theory. Windschitl, (2002) suggests that activities be thought as having either strong or weak ties to constructivist theories. It is easy to say that in constructivist classrooms students construct their own knowledge but even in the most traditional of teaching activities not associated with constructivism, the direct lecture, students are building some type of knowledge. So yes, students must always be constructing their own knowledge, but the classroom culture must one where knowledge is not defined by a set of objective facts (Windschitl, 2002).
One example of how teaching practices can look constructivist but not support the idea that knowledge is subject can be found in a comparison of constructivism and cooperative learning. Both have mixed teams but cooperative learning also allows for the practice and rehearsal of information, constructivism which is marked by student inquiry does not. For example, a teacher can arrange students into groups and allow them to research and create a representation of a content related concept, this could be considered both constructivist and cooperative learning. However, if the teacher used the same groups to have students quiz each other over vocabulary terms or review for a test that could be considered cooperative learning but not constructivist (Vermette & Foote, 2001).
With constructivism’s foundation in experience and the social nature of schools another issue concerns student’s ability to work in groups. Students may not always be interested in group work and a considerable about of time may need to be spent helping students develop collaborative skills. The benefit for students can be an increased sense of themselves as intellectuals and an understanding of the influences of others on their knowledge (Windschitl, 2002). While large groups have the benefits of increased opportunities for discourse and influence they can be problematic due to varying levels of participation which guarantees different knowledge constructs. Nuthall (2002) finds that it is best to have small groups engaged in common activities. The literature contains a wide base of the support for long-term project-based curriculum (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996 and Windschitl 1999).
Constructivism like other educational theories cannot be simply reduced into a set of classroom practices. Constructivism requires a new set of assumptions about what our classrooms should look like and who creates the curriculum content. Constructivism has the potential to empower our students into active citizenship. In order for constructivist theory to research its full potential teachers must become better educated and more thoughtful about the classroom strategies they employ.
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