Teachers and teacher educators make different meanings of constructivist learning theory. At a recent retreat with facilitators of learning communities for teachers who were studying in a Masters of Education program, we were talking about our common reading of The Case for Constructivist Classrooms (Brooks & Brooks, 1993). We asked the ten facilitators to answer this question, "What is constructivism?" The results were interesting because all of their definitions were quite different and reflected their own understanding of the term and the text. This was a clear demonstration that what we read does not produce a single meaning but that understanding is constructed by the readers who bring prior knowledge and experience to the text and make their own meaning as they interact with the author's words. The following interpretation of constructivist learning reflects our understanding of and beliefs about constructivism.
2. Knowledge is symbolically constructed by learners who are making their own representations of action;
3. Knowledge is socially constructed by learners who convey their meaning making to others;
4. Knowledge is theoretically constructed by learners who try to explain things they don't completely understand.
We are proposing a new approach for planning using a "Constructivist Learning Design" that honors the common assumptions of constructivism and focuses on the development of situations as a way of thinking about the constructive activities of the learner rather than the demonstrative behavior of the teacher. Most conventional teacher planning models are based on verbal explanations or visual demonstrations of a procedure or skill by the teacher which are then combined with practice of this method or skill by the student. Much of this approach seems consistent with the description of classroom activities reported in a major research study titled A place called school conducted ten years ago by Goodlad (1984). He found that most of the time, most of the teachers talk to the kids. Students explained that physical education, fine arts, or industrial arts were their most interesting classes because they actually got to do something. They were active participants in learning rather than passive recipients of information. This is the primary message of constructivism; students who are engaged in active learning are making their own meaning and constructing their own knowledge in the process.
1. Situation: What situation are you going to arrange for students to explain? Give this situation a title and describe a process of solving problems, answering questions, creating metaphors, making decisions, drawing conclusions, or setting goals. This situation should include what you expect the students to do and how students will make their own meaning.
2. Groupings: There are two categories of groupings:
A. How are you going to make groupings of students; as a whole class, individuals, in collaborative thinking teams of two, three, four, five, six or more, and what process will you use to group them; counting off, chosing a color or piece of fruit, or similar clothing? This depends upon the situation you design and the materials you have available to you.
B. How are you going to arrange groupings of materials that students will use to explain the situation by physical modeling, graphically representing, numerically describing, or individually writing about their collective experience. How many sets of materials you have will often determine the numbers of student groups you will form.
3. Bridge: This is an initial activity intended to determine students' prior knowledge and to build a "bridge" between what they already know and what they might learn by explaining the situation. This might involve such things as giving them a simple problem to solve, having a whole class discussion, playing a game, or making lists. Sometimes this is best done before students are in groups and sometimes after they are grouped. You need to think about what is appropriate.
4. Questions: Questions could take place during each element of the Learning Design. What guiding questions will you use to introduce the situation, to arrange the groupings, to set up the bridge, to keep active learning going, to prompt exhibits, and to encourage reflections? You also need to anticipate questions from students and frame other questions to encourage them to explain their thinking and to support them in continuing to think for themselves.
5. Exhibit: This involves having students make an exhibit for others of whatever record they made to record their thinking as they were explaining the situation. This could include writing a description on cards and giving a verbal presentation, making a graph, chart, or other visual representation, acting out or role playing their impressions, constructing a physical representation with models, and making a video tape, photographs, or audio tape for display.
6. Reflections: These are the students' reflections of what they thought about while explaining the situation and then saw the exhibits from others. They would include what students remember from their thought process about feelings in their spirit, images in their imagination, and languages in their internal dialogue. What attitudes, skills, and concepts will students take out the door? What did students learn today that they won't forget tomorrow? What did they know before; what did they want to know; and what did they learn?
When referring to student learning we deliberately use the phrase "concepts, skills, and attitudes" to convey different dimensions of knowledge. The accepted educational language described by current NCATE accreditation standards is "knowledge, skills, and attitudes." This implies that skills and attitudes are something different than knowledge or that knowledge is merely a collection of facts or information. Perhaps some of the confusion derives from Bloom's (1956) taxonomy of objectives starting with knowledge and proceeding through comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Again, this language is accepted as a standard in the education curriculum. Bloom later classified objectives in the affective domain and the psychomotor domain as well as in the cognitive domain. This left us with the legacy of knowledge as separate from what we can do with it or how we feel about it. We would argue that what Bloom has labeled knowledge is really information and that the other levels are different ways that learners construct knowledge for themselves and may not be discreet and hierarchical as Bloom suggests. However, these classifications can serve as an important guidelines for moving beyond recitation of information as the goal of education. We contend that an understanding of education should begin with epistemology rather than relegating it to the province of philosophy as an academic pursuit. Constructivist learning implies an initial concern with what knowledge is and how knowledge is actively constructed by the learner. Advocates of constructivism agree that acquiring knowledge or knowing is an active process of constructing understanding rather than the passive receipt of information.
Bloom, Benjamin. (Ed.). (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay.
Brooks, Jacqueline Grennon and Brooks, Martin G. (1993). The case for constructivist classrooms. Alexandria, VA: ASCD
Brookfield, Stephen. (1986) Understanding and facilitating adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Bruner, Jerome. (1986) Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.
Carini, Patricia. (1986) Building from children's strengths. Journal of Education, 168(3), 13-24.
Cooper, Joanne. (1991) Telling our own stories: The reading and writing of journals or diaries. In Stories Lives Tell, (eds. Witherell, C. & Noddings, N.) New York: Teachers College Press.
Dewey, John (1964) John Dewey on education: Selected writings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Duckworth, Eleanor. (1987) The having of wonderful ideas. New York: Teachers College Press.
Engel, Brenda. (1994) Portfolio assessment and the new paradigm: New instruments and new places. The Educational Forum, 59 (Fall, 94) 22-27.
Flanders, N. (1970) Analyzing teacher behavior. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Fosnot, Catherine. (1996) Constructivism: Theory, perspectives, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.
Gagne, Robert. (1970) The conditions of learning. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. .
Goodlad, John. (1984). A place called school. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Hunter, Madeline. (1982) Mastery Learning. El Segundo, CA: TIP Publications.
Johnson, David and Johnson, Roger. (1975) Learning together and alone. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
McCutcheon, G. (1982). How do elementary teachers plan? The nature of planning and influences on it. In W. Doyle & T. Good (Eds.), Focus on teaching (pp. 260-279). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Montessori, Maria. (1965) Dr. Montessori's own handbook. New York: Schocken Books. (Original work published in 1914)
Morine-Dershimer, G. (1979). Teacher plans and classroom reality: The South Bay study: Part 4 (Research Series No. 60). East Lansing: Michigan State University Institute for Research on Teaching.
Perrone, Vito. (1988). Alternative assessment. Alexandria, VA: ASCD
Piaget, Jean. (1977) Equilibration of cognitive structures. New York: Viking Press.
Sanders, Norris. (1966). Classroom questions: what kinds?. New York: Harper & Row.
Schmuck, Richard. & Schmuck, Pat. (1988) Group processes in the classroom. Dubuque, IA: W. C. Brown.
Schon, David. (1987) Educating the reflective practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Simon, Martin A. (1995) Reconstructing mathematics pedagogy from a constructivist perspective. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 26, 114-145.
Sizer, Theodore. (1992) Horace's school: redesigning the American high school. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Slavin, R. E. (1980a). Cooperative Learning. Review of educational research, 50, 317-343.
Steffe, Leslie P. & and D'Ambrosio, Beatriz S. (1995). Toward a working model of constructivist teaching: A reaction to Simon. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 26, 146-159.
Steffe Leslie P. & Gale J. (Eds.) (1995). Constructivism in education. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
von Glasserfield, E. (1995). A constructivist approach to teaching. In L. Steffe & J. Gale (Eds.), Constructivism in education (pp. 3-16). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
Vygotsky, Lev. (1986) Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Original work published in 1962)
Wiggens, Grant. (1995) Curricular coherence and assessment: Making sure that the effect matches the intent. ASCD Yearbook 1995, 101-119.
Zahorik, J. (1975). Teachers' planning models. Educational Leadership, 33( ), 134-139.
For a simplified version of our Constructivist Learning Design follow this link:
Constructivist Learning Design Notes
For a description of our Constructivist Learning Design research follow this link:
Learning Design Study