The constructivist approach to teaching and learning allows students to build on what they know
using real world experiences provided in the classroom.
Prior to my becoming a teacher in gifted education, I had heard of a method of teaching called Constructivism. From what I could figure, students made sense of the world on their own; they built their knowledge through the experiences they had in school. My naive thinking was, “What if they create information which is wrong? This method is ludicrous and leads to students who have potentially crafted ideas that are all wrong. That’s not education!” However, I was inexperienced in the process, but little by little, in my work with gifted students, I figured it out. As I closed out my career, I couldn’t understand how people could teach without Constructivism in their classrooms.
In general, Constructivism's central idea is that human learning is constructed. Learners approach situations with knowledge gained from previous experiences, and that prior knowledge is influenced by new learning experiences. Thus, what a student knows already is blended with new ideas gained from a well crafted learning opportunity that is assembled by a skilled educator. This truly models how people learn in the real world. We are constantly being bombarded with new experiences. When those experiences are filtered through what we know already, our prior knowledge is affected, and we thus construct new ideas. Learners either reject the new learning, modify their previous ideas, or design ideas that further support and deepen the ideas that they had.
Yes, students learn by building on past knowledge, and when a teacher presents a direct lesson to a class, students use that information to add to their knowledge base. They learn, but that is not Constructivism. In order to run a constructivist classroom, students need to do and be actively involved, they need to collaborate, they need to get up and move, they need to manipulate materials, and they need the freedom to explore the topic under study. Essentially, the students direct their learning with the teacher guiding the activity. In my constructivist classroom, I set up the activity and got out of the way as much as possible. My thought was that this is full contact education and everyone needs to be a participant.
Constructivist learning is active as opposed to passive, and students learn by doing instead of observing. Passive education is extremely inefficient for it fails to engage the student within a given subject. In constructivist environments, learners confront their previous understandings in light of what they encounter in new learning situations. If what learners encounter is inconsistent with their current understanding, their understanding can change to accommodate new experiences. Learners remain active throughout this process: they apply current understandings, note relevant elements in new learning experiences, judge the consistency of prior and emerging knowledge, and based on that judgment, they can modify knowledge. It is through the new ideas they encounter and incongruous challenges to their knowledge that they grow.
The role of a constructivist teacher is to be a guide for the learning process. The teacher provides students with opportunities to test their current understandings and build upon their understandings. The constructivist approach to learning emphasizes authentic, challenging projects. The teacher's role is not that of an expert but instead one of a facilitator. Teachers encourage, and they design experiences to utilize group interaction. The interplay between participants in a learning experience helps students become explicit about their own understanding by comparing it to that of their peers. Conceptual growth comes from the sharing of various perspectives and the simultaneous changing of internal representations in response to their peer’s perspectives as well as through cumulative experience. Clearly, constructivist learning takes a good amount of time, and the process cannot be rushed. Teachers need to accept that and not be constrained by the hands of the clock. Unfortunately, education is not good at that; the pressure is always on to do more and more within a school day. The problem is, and teachers know it, doing more in a cursory mode does the students no value. Thus, Constructivism and the permission to teach in that style so that the richness of education is gifted to the students.
Constructivism requires careful monitoring of the learning experience. As students begin working on their activity, the teacher needs to circulate, listen closely to the discussions that happen in small groups, and when needed, drop a well-timed, thought provoking question. I usually walk away at that point while saying, “I’ll be back to see what you figured out.” After collecting information from all groups and assessing the level of understanding, the teacher needs to bring the class back together to have the students’ thoughts brought forward and facilitate debate; that’s the fun of Constructivism. When students present ideas, defend those ideas and challenge each other, true learning occurs. Ideas which are presented that are contrary to a student’s knowledge and cause that student to change his or her ideas, produces an exciting moment. Often, the challenge to the class is, “Prove you are correct.” No definitive answers are given by the teacher, but instead, questions to raise the depth of thought are given to guide the learning experience. Depth of knowledge is the goal, and when the questions are timed right and pique the curiosity of the students, they will jump at the chance to build their knowledge by investigating further. The teacher needs to be actively thinking during discussions as there are times when the accepted ideas by the class are going in the wrong direction. That’s when a new idea that challenges the students’ thinking is generated by the teacher. Thus, thinking ahead of where the student conversation is going is crucial to the success of a Constructivist activity.
When students are given the power to direct their own learning, the result is powerful. The students’s responses that drive a Constructivist session, and that alone provides motivation to participate. A class can analyze a literature book and for the teacher, the same book is analyzed differently the next year because the students drive the discussion. Each class brings different perspectives, so no two discussions of the same material are ever the same. Because students are actively involved in the process of learning, and they are fully engaged in the activity, the amount of learning that occurs far exceeds that of a lesson where students are told what to think as they passively sit in their chairs listening to an instructor drone on. The process is fun, and students, whether they realize it or not, learn how to think, how to process ideas and how to ask questions that will help them ascend to deeper knowledge. These skills are the goals of education, and when a child masters them, he or she can function in the world outside of the classroom. He has learned how to navigate his way through his own world and process the information that comes to him. Constructivism teaches children how to learn and how to think. That is simply due to the fact that knowledge reproduction is not the emphasis in Constructivism; knowledge generation is. Students collaborate and support one another rather than compete against each other, and the students develop a cohesive bond with each other as they are at their utmost success when a problem is figured out. The best way to do that is to assist one another in their learning.
The Constructivist approach to learning creates exactly the type of students that are needed in the 21st Century. To think of the approach as a flawed learning strategy shows the naivete’ of the instructor. I know; I was that instructor. I apologize to my students who missed my Constructivist years. But then, everyone evolves. That is what happened to me, and it helped me improve as an educator. Hopefully, my classes enjoyed the open ended challenges that were provided in my classroom. I know I enjoyed watching my charges become excited about learning, connect ideas, and create information that went well beyond my expectations. That is the strength of Constructivism.
For further reading:
What is Constructivism? from the Western Governors University
Pedagogy and design, Constructivism from the Center for Educational Innovation, University at Buffalo
Constructivism Leaerning Theory from TeAch-nology
Teaching Science Using Construtivism
All of the experiences that children have combine with what they already know to create new information.
That is the crux of Constructivism.