How do Students ‘Learn’ through Construction?

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In my last post, I raised my concern that the theory of Constructivism is often misrepresented as theory of teaching, instead of a theory of knowing. In this post, I hope to provide further insight into the theory of Constructivism and the implications of this on the way learning is catered for in our classrooms. Michael Devitt labelled Constructivism as, “the most dangerous contemporary intellectual tendency” as, although we are quick to accept that knowledge is constructed, the transformation of educational pedagogies and theories under the banner of Constructivism is often accompanied by confusion around what constitutes a Constructivist approach to teaching (1991, p. ix). In order to apply the theory of Constructivism to our teaching, we must first understand how learning happens.

We know that Constructivism is grounded in the concept that learners construct their own understanding through experiences and interpretations. This construction of knowledge comes initially from the prior knowledge, experiences, attitudes and interests that individuals bring to learning.  Learning then transpires when individuals apply these factors to new experiences and situations and construct their own understanding (Howe & Berv, 2000, p.30). One common misconception in relation to Constructivism is that learning must be social. This comes initially from the ideas of Vygotsky, who believed that knowledge was created through social interaction and immersion in a range of cultures (Lowenthal & Muth, 2009, para.7). This however, is not the only way knowledge is constructed. As mentioned in my previous post, Piaget’s work indicated that knowledge is constructed through an individual’s experience and prior knowledge (Lowenthal & Muth, 2009, para.6). Thus, while collaboration is often paired with Constructivism in educational settings, it is not essential that learning is social for students to construct knowledge. I would assert that balance between the two is beneficial for metacognition. It is imperative therefore, that we do not discard teacher-centred learning under the banner of Constructivist practice, as construction happens through knowledge and learning, regardless of the approach of the teacher.

While educators may use different pedagogical approaches to assist their students in constructing their own knowledge, what is essential, is that teachers adopt the mindset that they themselves are also learners. Brooks and Brooks asserted that students learn best when they work with adults who, “ask questions with which they themselves still grapple, who are willing and able to alter both content and practice in the pursuit of meaning, and who treat students and their endeavours as works in progress, not finished products” (1993, p.9). This assertion does not make the teacher redundant in student learning, it does however, reposition the teacher as a coach or facilitator of student learning who assists their students in developing, “an independent and active attitude of great importance for his or her functioning in a modern dynamic society (Taylor, 1992). Therefore, it is not only the student who is the focus of Constructivist practice; equal importance must be placed on the teacher as a learner. While in a classroom students will construct knowledge regardless of the method of instruction, by embracing Constructivism, educators will provide students with an environment that promotes learning and understanding.

The educator’s role in a Constructivist classroom is to assist learning through creating, synthesising and interpreting information. It is often lamented that applying Constructivist practice in the classroom involves getting rid of learning goals and lesson plans (Dick, 1992, p.92). However, instead of planning that caters for students getting from ‘A’ to ‘B’, Constructivist teachers need to refocus and readjust what they plan for in the learning of their students, instead considering how they will influence the depth to which students construct their own knowledge and understanding. Teacher preparation must centre on contemplating how they will pose problems for their student’s that will influence their thinking and understanding (Brooks & Brooks, 1993, p.44). To assist student’s in learning, educators in a Constructivist classroom must use the knowledge, attitudes and interests of learners as a starting point in their instruction. Educators must then design their instruction to provide learning experiences that interact effectively with the characteristics of their students in assisting them in constructing their own understanding (Howe & Berv, 2000, p.31). In preparing for learning by: integrating disciplines and curriculum, establishing a core knowledge domain, selecting tasks relevant to individual learners and situations, providing students with multiple perspectives and incorporating cognitive flexibility that promotes apprenticeship and real-world experiences, educators will ensure that they are catering effectively for the construction of learning in their classroom (Paparozzi, C, 1998, pp. 67 – 75).

Reflecting on the theory of Constructivism emphasises for me the great influence we as educators have on the way our students think, learn and understand. We must dispel the common adage that teachers teach as they have been taught and adopt practices that encourage and allow for the active construction of knowledge and understanding in our classrooms. Regardless of our instructional methodologies, the construction of knowledge and learning must remain at the forefront of our practices so that we are enabling learning in our students.

Reference List

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

Devitt, M.   (1991). Realism and truth. Oxford: Blackwell.

Dick, W. (1992). An instructional designer’s view of constructivism. In T. Duffy & D. Jonesson (Eds.), Constructivism and the technology of instruction (pp. 91-98). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Kenneth R. Howe and Jason Berv. (2000). “Constructing constructivism, epistemological and pedagogical.” In Constructivism in education, edited by D. C. Phillips, 19-40. Illinois: The National Society for the Study of Education.

Lowenthal, P., & Muth, R. (2009). Constructivism. In E. Provenzo, & A. Provenzo (Eds.),Encyclopedia of the social and cultural foundations of education. (pp. 178-180). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: http://dx.doi.org.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/10.4135/9781412963992.n86

Paparozzi, C. (1998). Implementing constructivism in the middle school classroom. (Order No. 9926671, West Virginia University). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 100-100 p. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/304454690?accountid=13380. (304454690).

Taylor, C. (1992). The ethics of authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Image Attribution

PublicDomainPictures. (2012). Connect connection cooperation hand hands holding. Public Domain CCO. Retrieved from http://pixabay.com/en/connect-connection-cooperation-hand-20333/

 

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