Constructivism in the Classroom

Behaviorist models of learning may be helpful in understanding and influencing what students do, but teachers usually also want to know what students are thinking, and how to enrich what students are thinking. For this goal of teaching, some of the best help comes from constructivism, which is a perspective on learning focused on how students actively create (or “construct”) knowledge out of experiences. As discussed in the previous chapter, constructivist models of learning differ about how much a learner constructs knowledge independently, psychological constructivism, compared to how much he or she takes cues from people who may be more of an expert and who help the learner’s efforts, social constructivism.

For many educators, the social context of learning is critical. Ideas are tested not just on the teacher, but with fellow students, friends and colleagues. Furthermore, knowledge is mainly acquired through social processes or institutions that are socially constructed: schools, universities, and increasingly these days, online communities. Thus what is taken to be ‘valued’ knowledge is also socially constructed.

Constructivists believe that learning is a constantly dynamic process. Understanding of concepts or principles develops and becomes deeper over time. For instance, as a very young child, we understand the concept of heat through touch. As we get older we realise that it can be quantified, such as minus 20 centigrade being very cold (unless you live in Manitoba, where -20C would be considered normal). As we study science, we begin to understand heat differently, for instance, as a form of energy transfer, then as a form of energy associated with the motion of atoms or molecules. Each ‘new’ component needs to be integrated with prior understandings and also integrated with other related concepts, including other components of molecular physics and chemistry.

Thus ‘constructivist’ teachers place a strong emphasis on learners developing personal meaning through reflection, analysis and the gradual building of layers or depths of knowledge through conscious and ongoing mental processing. Reflection, seminars, discussion forums, small group work, and projects are key methods used to support constructivist learning.

Although problem-solving can be approached in an objectivist way, by pre-determining a set of steps or processes to go through pre-determined by ‘experts’, it can also be approached in a constructivist manner. The level of teacher guidance can vary in a constructivist approach to problem-solving, from none at all, to providing some guidelines on how to solve the problem, to directing students to possible sources of information that may be relevant to solving that problem, to getting students to brainstorm particular solutions. Students will probably work in groups, help each other and compare solutions to the problem. There may not be considered one ‘correct’ solution to the problem, but the group may consider some solutions better than others, depending on the agreed criteria of success for solving the problem.

It can be seen that there can be ‘degrees’ of constructivism, since in practice the teacher may well act as first among equals, and help direct the process so that ‘suitable’ outcomes are achieved. The fundamental difference is that students have to work towards constructing their own meaning, testing it against ‘reality’, and further constructing meaning as a result.

Video 4.6.1. Constructivist Teaching Strategies discusses the practice of constructivism in the classroom.

Both types of constructivism focus on individuals’ thinking rather than their behavior, but they have distinctly different implications for teaching related to three ideas in particular: the relationship of learning and long-term development, the role or meaning of generalizations and abstractions during development, and the mechanism by which development occurs.

The Relationship Between Learning and Long-Term Development of the Learner

In general psychological constructivism such as Piaget emphasize the ways that long-term development determines a child’s ability to learn, rather than the other way around. The earliest stages of a child’s life are thought to be rather self-centered and to be dependent on the child’s sensory and motor interactions with the environment. When acting or reacting to his or her surroundings, the child has relatively little language skills initially. This circumstance limits the child’s ability to learn in the usual, school-like sense of the term. As development proceeds, of course, language skills improve, and hence the child becomes progressively more “teachable” and in this sense more able to learn. But whatever the child’s age, ability to learn waits or depends upon the child’s stage of development. From this point of view, therefore, a primary responsibility of teachers is to provide a very rich classroom environment, so that children can interact with it independently and gradually make themselves ready for verbal learning that is increasingly sophisticated.

Social constructivists such as Vygotsky, on the other hand, emphasize the importance of social interaction in stimulating the development of the child. Language and dialogue, therefore, are primary, and development is seen as happening as a result—the converse of the sequence pictured by Piaget. Obviously a child does not begin life with a lot of initial language skills, but this fact is why interactions need to be scaffolded with more experienced experts— people capable of creating a zone of proximal development in their conversations and other interactions. In the preschool years, the experts are usually parents; after the school years begin, the experts broaden to include teachers. A teacher’s primary responsibility is therefore to provide very rich opportunities for dialogue, both among children and between individual children and the teacher.

The Role of Generalizations and Abstractions During Development

Consistent with the ideas above, psychological constructivism tends to see a relatively limited role for abstract or hypothetical reasoning in the life of children—and even in the reasoning of youth and many adults. Such reasoning is regarded as an outgrowth of years of interacting with the environment very concretely. As explained more fully in the next chapter (“Student development”), elementary-age students can reason, but they are thought to reason only about immediate, concrete objects and events. Even older youth are thought to reason in this way much, or even all of the time. From this perspective, a teacher should limit the amount of thinking about abstract ideas that she expects from students. The idea of “democracy,” for example, may be experienced simply as an empty concept. At most it might be misconstrued as an oversimplified, overly concrete idea—as “just” about taking votes in class, for instance. Abstract thinking is possible, according to psychological constructivism, but it emerges relatively slowly and relatively late in development after a person accumulates considerable concrete experience.

Social constructivism sees abstract thinking emerging from a dialogue between a relative novice (a child or youth) and a more experienced expert (a parent or teacher). From this point of view, the more such dialogue occurs, then the more the child can acquire facility with it. The dialogue must, of course, honor a child’s need for intellectual scaffolding or a zone of proximal development. A teacher’s responsibility can, therefore, include engaging the child in dialogue that uses potentially abstract reasoning but without expecting the child to understand the abstractions fully at first. Young children, for example, can not only engage in science experiments like creating a “volcano” out of baking soda and water but also discuss and speculate about their observations of the experiment. They may not understand the experiment as an adult would, but the discussion can begin moving them toward adult-like understandings.

How Development Occurs

In psychological constructivism, as explained earlier, development is thought to happen because of the interplay between assimilation and accommodation—between when a child or youth can already understand or conceive of, and the change required of that understanding by new experiences. Acting together, assimilation and accommodation continually create new states of cognitive equilibrium. A teacher can, therefore, stimulate development by provoking cognitive dissonance deliberately: by confronting a student with sights, actions, or ideas that do not fit with the student’s existing experiences and ideas. In practice, the dissonance is often communicated verbally, by posing questions or ideas that are new or that students may have misunderstood in the past. But it can also be provoked through pictures or activities that are unfamiliar to students—by engaging students in a community service project, for example, that brings them in contact with people who they had previously considered “strange” or different from themselves.

In social constructivism, as also explained earlier, development is thought to happen largely because of scaffolded dialogue in a zone of proximal development. Such dialogue is by implication less like “disturbing” students’ thinking than like “stretching” it beyond its former limits. The image of the teacher, therefore, is more one of collaborating with students’ ideas rather than challenging their ideas or experiences. In practice, however, the actual behavior of teachers and students may be quite similar in both forms of constructivism. Any significant new learning requires setting aside, giving up, or revising former learning, and this step inevitably, therefore “disturbs” thinking, if only in the short term and only in a relatively minor way.

Implications of Constructivism for Teaching

Whether you think of yourself as a psychological constructivist or a social constructivist, there are strategies for helping students help in develop their thinking—in fact, the strategies constitute a major portion of this book, and are a major theme throughout the entire preservice teacher education programs. For now, look briefly at just two. One strategy that teachers often find helpful is to organize the content to be learned as systematically as possible because doing this allows the teacher to select and devise learning activities that are better tailored to students’ cognitive abilities, or that promote better dialogue, or both. The second strategy is the self-assessment and self-direction of learning.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

One of the most widely used frameworks for organizing content is a classification scheme proposed by the educator Benjamin Bloom, published with the somewhat imposing title of Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Handbook #1: Cognitive Domain (Bloom, et al., 1956; Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). Bloom’s taxonomy, as it is usually called, describes six kinds of learning goals that teachers can in principle expect from students, ranging from simple recall of knowledge to complex evaluation of knowledge. (The levels are defined briefly in Error: Reference source not found with examples from Goldilocks and the Three Bears.)

Bloom’s taxonomy makes useful distinctions among possible kinds of knowledge needed by students, and therefore potentially helps in selecting activities that truly target students’ zones of proximal development in the sense meant by Vygotsky. A student who knows few terms for the species studied in a biology unit (a problem at Bloom’s knowledge and comprehension levels), for example, may initially need support at remembering and defining the terms before he or she can make useful comparisons among species (Bloom’s analysis level). Pinpointing the most appropriate learning activities to accomplish this objective remains the job of the teacher-expert (that’s you), but the learning itself has to be accomplished by the student. Put in more social constructivist terms, the teacher arranges a zone of proximal development that allows the student to compare species successfully, but the student still has to construct or appropriate the comparisons for him or herself.

Table 4.6.1. Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives
Category or type of thinking Definition Example
Knowledge Remembering or recalling facts, information, or procedures List three things Goldilocks did in the three bears’ house.
Comprehension Understanding facts, interpreting information Explain why Goldilocks liked the little bear’s chair the best.
Application Using concepts in new situations, solving particular problems Predict some of the things that Goldilocks might have used if she had entered your house.
Analysis Distinguish parts of information, a concept, or a procedure Select the part of the story where Goldilocks seemed most comfortable.
Synthesis Combining elements or parts into a new object, idea, or procedure Tell how the story would have been different if it had been about three fishes.
Evaluation Assessing and judging the value or ideas, objects, or materials in a particular situation Decide whether Goldilocks was a bad girl, and justify your position.

Video 4.6.2. Bloom’s Taxonomy: Structuring the Learning Journey explains the various levels and applications of this model.

Metacognition

A second strategy may be coupled with the first. As students gain experience as students, they become able to think about how they themselves learn best, and you (as the teacher) can encourage such self-reflection as one of your goals for their learning. These changes allow you to transfer some of your responsibilities for arranging learning to the students themselves. For the biology student mentioned above, for example, you may be able not only to plan activities that support comparing species but also to devise ways for the student to think about how he or she might learn the same information independently. The resulting self-assessment and self-direction of learning often go by the name of metacognition—an ability to think about and regulate one’s own thinking (Israel, 2005). Metacognition can sometimes be difficult for students to achieve, but it is an important goal for social constructivist learning because it gradually frees learners from dependence on expert teachers to guide their learning. Reflective learners, you might say, become their own expert guides. Like with using Bloom’s taxonomy, though, promoting metacognition and self-directed learning is important enough that I will come back to it later in more detail (in the chapter on “Facilitating complex thinking”).

Video 4.6.3. What is Metacognition? explains the process of metacognition.

By assigning a more active role to expert helpers—which by implication includes teachers—than does the psychological constructivism, social constructivism may be more complete as a description of what teachers usually do when actually busy in classrooms, and of what they usually hope students will experience there. As we will see in the next chapter, however, there are more uses for a theory than its description of moment-to-moment interactions between teachers and students. As explained there, some theories can be helpful for planning instruction rather than for doing it. It turns out that this is the case for psychological constructivism, which offers important ideas about the appropriate sequencing of learning and development. This fact makes the psychological constructivism valuable in its own way, even though it (and a few other learning theories as well) may seem to omit mentioning teachers, parents, or experts in detail. So do not make up your mind about the relative merits of different learning theories yet!

Five “E” Model

A popular model for implementing constructivism in the classroom has been defined by the Biological Science Curriculum Study (BSCS). This model suggests that constructivists lessons should engage students, allow them to explore, aid them in explaining their experience, learning is elaborated, and the lesson includes evaluation.

Engage

In the Engage stage, students have their first encounter with the lesson topic. Through questions, thinking, and discussion, students begin to make connections between previous knowledge and the present learning experiences. This process of engagement helps assess current understanding, establishes the organizational groundwork for the lesson ahead, and stimulates student involvement in the anticipation of learning. This is the opportunity to grab the students’ attention and get them excited about what they will be learning. Teachers might ask questions, present a problem, or facilitate some discussion to engage and motivate students.

Explore

In the Exploration stage, the students directly explore the topic of the lesson and related materials. These activities are experiences that ground students in the lesson. Students can work independently, but working in groups allows students to learn from others and build a common understanding of the topic of the lesson. Group work also encourages communication about the topic, which may assist them with sharing what they are learning in subsequent stages. During this stage, the teacher is a facilitator. They provide materials and guidance but allow the students to guide their inquiry. The teacher may ask questions to stimulate students’ thinking or give support, but exploration is about students’ discovery. Direct instruction should be minimal, if at all.

Explain

The third stage, Explain, is the point at which the learner begins to put the experience of the activity into a communicable form. Students may need to articulate the process they used, the sequence of events, their thought processes, and results. Communication may occur within the learner, with peers, or with the teacher. Sometimes even all three. Again, working in groups, learners support each other’s understanding as they articulate their observations, ideas, questions, and hypotheses. Explanations from the teacher, an expert, can aid novices with acquiring and using language to articulate their learning. For example, a student, through exploration, may report that magnets “stick” to metallic objects. The teacher, in their discussion with the student, can introduce terminology to replace the novice term “stick” by referring to “an attracting force”. Introducing terminology after the student has had the experience is more meaningful because the learner now has context for which to attach that term. Establishing common language for concepts enhances the communication between teacher and
students and aids the teacher in determining the students’ understanding and possible misconceptions.

Elaborate

In the fourth stage, Elaborate, students expand on the concepts learned, make connections to other related concepts, and apply their understandings to their world. For example, while exploring light phenomena, a learner constructs an understanding of the path light travels through space. Examining a lamppost, she may notice that the shadow of the post changes its location as the day grows later. This observation can lead to further inquiry as to possible connections between the shadow’s changing location and the changes in direction of the light source, the Sun. Applications to real-world events, such as where to plant flowers so that
they receive sunlight most of the day, or how to prop up a beach umbrella for shade from the Sun, are both extensions and applications of the concept that light travels in a straight path. These connections often lead to further inquiry and new understandings.

Evaluate

Evaluate, the final stage, is actually an on-going process of assessing students’ understanding and knowledge of concepts. Assessment can occur at all stages instructional process, but a more formal assessment is typically done to determine whether learning objectives have been met. Evaluation and assessment might be informal, like posing questions for students to answer in class or listening in on conversations that groups are having during the activity. Evaluation can also be formal, such as a test, report, or prepared presentation. Tools such as rubrics and checklists can be helpful in evaluating outcomes. Concrete evidence of the learning process is most valuable in communications between students, teachers, parents, and administrators.

Evaluation does not need to be the end. The results of the evaluation might guide the development of future lessons and activities. The evaluation might reveal gaps in learning that need further enrichment. They also provide useful feedback so the teacher can make modifications and improvements to the lesson for next time. The evaluation process is a continuous one that gives the constructivist philosophy a cyclical structure where questions lead to answers that lead to more questions and instruction is driven by both the planned lesson and the inquiry process.

Examples

Video 4.6.4. Constructivism demonstrates the Five “E” model.