Zeroing in on Constructivism

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Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) is by no means a new pedagogical approach and is a term often ‘thrown around’ in educational settings. My school identified IBL as its pedagogical approach long before I started teaching there, and theoretically, teachers across all year levels and all departments use this in their everyday teaching and learning. While my teacher training prepared me to recite the premise behind IBL and Constructivism on demand, it was not until I completed study in this area while enrolled in my Masters of Education, that I began to fully understanding exactly what IBL entailed. Inquiry-Based Learning has become of great interest to me as it is something that if often deemed effective and essential in best-practice teaching and learning, yet there are many educators, such as John Hattie, who remain sceptical about this approach. While Hattie does not claim that IBL doesn’t work, he does suggest that it is an ineffective teaching method, as the skills involved do not transfer easily across disciplines and content takes a back seat to critical thinking and exploration (Visible Learning plus, 2011, para 2.). Futhermore, Jeffrey and Peggy Wilhelm suggest that as a theory of learning, IBL caters for all learners in the classroom however, often, it is the delivery of IBL models that fail in their effectiveness (2010, p.40). Similarly, David Yun Dai, Kathryn Gerbimo and Michael Daley asserted in their study, ‘Inquiry-Based Learning in China: Do Teachers Practice What They Preach, and Why?’, that the effect of IBL is often limited by the understanding of school administrators, teachers and parents of the philosophy as they consider IBL as a teaching technique and not a way of learning (2011, p.154). It is factors such as these that lead me to believe, while Inquiry-Based learning has potential to be effective, it is greatly dependent on the understanding and delivery of this approach by educators. Perhaps one of the determiners of this is reliant on educators’ understanding and interpretation of Constructivism, the theory from which Inquiry-Based learning has evolved.

Constructivism is very much a theory about knowledge and learning although, often, is misinterpreted as a theory of teaching, leading to a vast range of ideas about what constitutes Constructivist practice in the classroom. We often hear Constructivism mentioned with jargon such as ‘student-centred’, ‘problem-based’, ‘real-world’, yet what we forget is, Constructivism does not constitute what we teach, but how we learn. To be truly Constructivist in their teaching, educators must connect theory to practice and sadly, this is often where they fail. Based on the work of Dewey, Paiget, Vygotsky, Bruner, Gardner and many others, Constructivism constitutes the idea that knowledge is constructed through the active participation and development of the learner (Twomey Fosnot, 2005, p.33). A Constructivist classroom environment is one in which students, “search for meaning, appreciate uncertainty, and inquire responsibly” (Brooks & Brooks, 1993, p.v). Through this, we encourage our students to think and rethink, validate and exhibit their understanding as they learn (1993, p.v). Thus, errors, reflection and dialogue are essential in meaning made by the learners as they build on earlier conceptions and ideas (2005, p.34). Consequently, Constructivist teachers must constantly analyse their curriculum and instructional methodologies while continually reflecting on the learning process as they go, rather than planning a unit with pre-conceived expectations of what and how learning will happen (Brooks & Brooks, 1993, p.13).

As educators, it is easy to misjudge learning as the recitation and repetition of facts, ideas and procedures. What is missed, is the fact that memorisation does not necessarily mean knowledge. Piaget emphasised that the construction of knowledge is an adaptive activity that occurs through assimilation and accommodation; once a new equilibrium is achieved in the learner, learning has happened (Von Glaserfeld, 1989, p.128).   Forman and Kuschner use the example of the difference between a student understanding or not understanding the game of baseball. Simply memorising the rules of the sport does not constitute knowledge. It is not until a student understands how to apply the rules of the game, make inferences about tactic and strategy and becomes generative in their use of the rules that learning has occurred (1977, p.84). This has great implications for many educators, who become overwhelmed at the thought of loosening the reigns and putting learning in the hands of each individual in their class. Constructivism is about abandoning what is familiar and comfortable in our perspectives and practices, and experiencing a paradigm shift through the adoption of new ones (Brooks & Brooks, 1993, p.25). John Dewey’s assertion that, “education is not an affair of telling and being told but an active and constructive process,” is a perfect articulation of this concept (as cited in Kuhlthau, Maniotes & Caspari, 2007, p.14).    Essentially, the foci of Constructivism are cognitive development and deep understanding, as learners become nonlinear in their learning processes through the active organisation and reorganisation of structures and conceptions. The challenge for educators who adopt Constructivist practices, is not then to simply hand the responsibility of learning over to students and label their pedagogy as student-centred, but to change their classrooms to environments that encourage students to think and explore.

These ideas are but scratching at the surface of Constructivist thinking, however, they do provide a starting point for educators who are unaware of the theoretical background of pedagogies grounded in Constructivism, such as Inquiry-Based Learning. Whereas Constructivism is often seen as a relaxed practice that allows students to learn about whatever they want, in whatever manner they want, it is in fact a rigorous thinking process that allows for empowerment and genuine understanding in learners. The Constructivist theory of learning challenges educators to consider whether their students are simply memorising and repeating, or actively understanding what is taught in their classrooms. My examination of the foundations of Constructivism leads me to question whether it is the misinterpretations of this theory and its applications to pedagogy that influence educators such as Hattie to question the effects of Inquiry-Based Learning.

Reference List

Brooks, J. G., &Brooks, M. G. (1993). The case for constructivist classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Dai, D. Y., Gerbino, K. A., & Daley, M. J. (2011). Inquiry-based learning in china: Do teachers practice what they preach, and why?Frontiers of Education in China, 6(1), 139-157. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11516-011-0125-3

Forman, G., & Kuschner, D. (1977). The child’s construction of knowledge. Belmont, Calif: Wadworth Co

Jeffrey, D.W., & Wilhelm, P.J. (2010). Inquiring minds learn to read, write, and think: Reaching all learners through inquiry. Middle School Journal, 41(5), 39-46. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/336833607?accountid=13380

Kuhlthau, C. C., Maniotes, L. K. & Caspari, A. K.  (2007).  Guided inquiry: learning in the 21st century.  Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Twomey Fosnot, C. (Ed). (2005). Constructivism: theory, perspectives, and practice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press

Visible Learning plus. (2011). Inquiry learning. Retrieved April 9, 2014, from http://www.visiblelearningplus.com/faqs/inquiry-learning

Von Glaserfeld, E. (1989). Cognition, construction of knowledge, and teaching. Synthese, 80 (1), 121-140. doi: 10.1007/BF00869951

Image Attribution

School Girls Learning From Teacher At Desk.[Photography]. Retrieved from Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest.http://quest.eb.com/images/154_2877820

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One thought on “Zeroing in on Constructivism

  1. Yes, this challenges teachers to really step back and examine how they help students to construct their own learning. It challenges me to tak a step back also. I tend to agree with your comments relating to Hattie as well. All of his work seems to be grounded in test data, based on his own methods of exploration? (As I say, so it seems). Perhaps, when inquiry learning is developed by an effective team of teachers, around relevant and meaningful experiences, then we will see the evidence. There are certainly many examples – particularly in the USA, where schools have turned around their test results with PBL and IBL. Maybe it is a matter of connecting all the dots!

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