Contructivist Teaching and Learning
By: Audrey Gray
SSTA Research Centre Report #97-07: 25 pages, $11.
|PART ONE: INTRODUCTION||Constructivist Teaching and Learning is a
summary of a Master's thesis by Audrey Gray, University of Saskatchewan, entitled
"'The Road to Knowledge is Always Under Construction': A Life History Journey to
Employing a qualitative research approach and a narrative reporting style, Ms. Gray explores the journey of Pat Gray, a Saskatoon English language arts teacher, towards the development of a constructivist approach to teaching and examines the ways he incorporates ideas and strategies into his teaching practices.
The research provides insight into the process of teacher change and development and raises questions about teacher professional development that have implications for the way constructivist and transactional curricula are implemented. Executive Summary
|PART TWO: CONSTRUCTIVIST TEACHING AND LEARNING
A Classroom Example of
|PART THREE: PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT OF A CONSTRUCTIVIST TEACHER|
|PART FOUR: CONCLUSION|
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Constructivist Teaching and Learning
Constructivist teaching is based on the belief that learning occurs as learners are actively involved in a process of meaning and knowledge construction rather than passively receiving information. Learners are the makers of meaning and knowledge. Constructivist teaching fosters critical thinking and creates motivated and independent learners.
This report examines constructivist teaching and learning by looking at the distinctive features of a constructivist programme, the qualities of a constructivist teacher, and the organization of a constructivist classroom. A constructivist teacher and classroom differ from a traditional classroom in a number of ways: the learners are interactive and student-centered; and the teacher facilitates a process of learning in which students are encouraged to be responsible and autonomous.
Part One of this report provides a definition of an a rationale for constructivist teaching. Part Two examines the characteristic features of a constructivist classroom interweaving the research literature on constructivist teaching with the narrated experiences of a practising constructivist teacher. Part Three presents a discussion of the professional development of a constructivist teacher. Part Four considers implications of and possibilities for this research on constructivist teaching and suggests recommendations for schools, colleges and school boards.
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Constructivist Teaching and Learning
This report presents a summary of a Master's thesis by Audrey Gray, University of Saskatchewan, entitled "'The Road to Knowledge is Always Under Construction': A Life History Journey to Constructivist Teaching".
The research in "'The Road to Knowledge is Always Under Construction': A Life History Journey to Constructivist Teaching" explores the journey of Pat Gray, a Saskatoon English language arts teacher, towards the development of a constructivist approach to teaching. It looks at the influences, incidents, and insights that prompted Pat to make changes in the direction of constructivism, focuses on his growth and development of a constructivist approach, and explores the ways he incorporates constructivist ideas and strategies into his teaching practices.
Constructivist teaching is based on the belief that learning occurs as learners are actively involved in a process of meaning and knowledge construction as opposed to passively receiving information. Learners are the makers of meaning and knowledge. Construcivist teaching fosters critical thinking, and creates motivated and independent learners.
This summary report examines constructivist teaching and learning by looking at the distinctive features of a constructivist programme, the qualities of a constructivist teacher, and the organization of a constructivist classroom. A constructivist teacher and a constructivist classroom are distinguished from a traditional teacher and classroom by a number of identifiable qualities: the learners are actively involved; the environment is
democratic; the activities are interactive and student-centered; and the teacher facilitates a process of learning in which students are encouraged to be responsible and autonomous.
Pat's developmental transition from traditional forms of instruction to a constructivist approach to teaching provides insight into the process of teacher change and development. The research shows that, for Pat, change to a constructivist approach to teaching was a developmental process that occurred over time and involved a paradigm shift. The research raises questions about the process of teacher change and development that have implications for the way constructivist and transactional curricula are implemented.
Part One of this report provides a definition of and a rationale for constructivist teaching. Part Two examines the characteristic features of a constructivist classroom interweaving the research literature and the significant findings of constructivist teaching. Part Three presents a discussion of the professional development of a constructivist teacher. Part Four considers implications and possibilities resulting from this research on constructivst teaching and suggests recommendations for schools, colleges and school boards.
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PART ONE: INTRODUCTION
What is Constructivism?
Constructivism is a view of learning based on the belief that knowledge isn't a thing that can be simply given by the teacher at the front of the room to students in their desks. Rather, knowledge is constructed by learners through an active, mental process of development; learners are the builders and creators of meaning and knowledge. Constructivism draws on the develomental work of Piaget (1977) and Kelly (1991). Twomey Fosnot (1989) defines constructivism by reference to four principles: learning, in an important way, depends on what we already know; new ideas occur as we adapt and change our old ideas; learning involves inventing ideas rather than mechanically accumulating facts; meaningful learning occurs through rethinking old ideas and coming to new conclusions about new ideas which conflict with our old ideas. A productive, constructivist classroom, then, consists of learner-centered, active instruction. In such a classroom, the teacher provides students with experiences that allow them to hypothesize, predict, manipulate objects, pose questions, research, investigate, imagine, and invent. The teacher's role is to facilitate this process.
Piaget (1977) asserts that learning occurs by an active construction of meaning, rather than by passive recipience. He explains that when we, as learners, encounter an experience or a situation that conflicts with our current way of thinking, a state of disequilibrium or imbalance is created. We must then alter our thinking to restore equilibrium or balance. To do this, we make sense of the new information by associating it with what we already know, that is, by attempting to assimilate it into our existing knowledge. When we are unable to do this, we accommodate the new information to our old way of thinking by restructuring our present knowledge to a higher level of thinking.
Similar to this is Kelly's theory of personal constructs (Kelly, 1991). Kelly proposes that we look at the world through mental constructs or patterns which we create. We develop ways of construing or understanding the world based on our experiences. When we encounter a new experience, we attempt to fit these patterns over the new experience. For example, we know from experience that when we see a red traffic light, we are supposed to stop. The point is that we create our own ways of seeing the world in which we live; the world does not create them for us.
Constructivist beliefs have recently been applied to teaching and learning in the classroom.
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Why Is Constructivism Important?
Educational curricula and teaching methods are changing. One component of the current redevelopment of all subject area curricula is the change in focus of instruction from the transmission curriculum to a transactional curriculum. In a traditional curriculum, a teacher transmits information to students who passively listen and acquire facts. In a transactional curriculum, students are actively involved in their learning to reach new understandings.
Constructivist teaching fosters critical thinking and creates active and motivated learners. Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde (1993) tell us that learning in all subject areas involves inventing and constructing new ideas. They suggest that constructivist theory be incorporated into the curriculum, and advocate that teachers create environments in which children can construct their own understandings . Twomey Fosnot (1989) recommends that a constructivist approach be used to create learners who are autonomous, inquisitive thinkers who question, investigate, and reason. A constructivist approach frees teachers to make decisions that will enhance and enrich students' development" in these areas. These are goals that are consistent with those stated by Saskatchewan Education in the the 1984 government report, Directions, that launched the restructuring of Saskatchewan's curricula. This demonstrates that constructivism is evident in current educational change.
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PART TWO: CONSTRUCTIVIST TEACHING AND LEARNING
Pat Gray, a Saskatoon teacher, has intuitively acquired a constructivist theory of teaching English language arts over the course of his career. While many people struggle with the concept of transactional instruction, Pat, for many years, has been experimenting with a variety of transactional instructional forms. Making students active agents in their learning appears to be something that he does naturally.
A Classroom Example of Constructivist Teaching
As a researcher of constructivist teaching, I visited Pat Gray's classroom. His secondary language arts programme exemplified the attributes of constructivist teaching: learner-centered instruction in a democratic environment; active learners who build and create meaning and knowledge; learners who hypothesize, question, investigate, imagine and invent; learners who reflect and make associations with prior knowledge to reach new understandings.
Colourfully illustrated children's dictionaries, student-created serial postcards storying imaginary holiday adventures, and visual responses to poetry decorated the hallway leading into Pat's classroom. In the classroom itself, an abundance of student work was displayed throughout the room. Posted on all available bulletin board space was an uncommon and diverse array of written and visual student productions, sometimes several revised drafts of a written creation being exhibited to demonstrate the process involved in the product. In one corner of the ceiling was a compelling mobile, an imaginative and sensitive response to literature, as evidenced by the representation of characters, Laura, Amanda, Tom, and Jim, the characters from Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. There they hung, delicately suspended in their own separate worlds, connected only by a thin filament of thread, the infrangible ties of family and past history. And at the back and center of the room was an imposing five foot tall oak tree! With some ordinary construction paper, marking pens, and an interesting and resourceful treatment of various other types of art materials, an inventive group of students had depicted an intriguing and fascinating response to To Kill A Mockingbird . The oak tree was, in fact, a museum to house important artifacts from the story.
A number of years prior to this visit, I had been a guest in Pat's classroom, and the same kind of richness of student work and activity had greeted me at that time, and a warm image of an elementary classroom had been brought to mind. I remember the room was filled with red geraniums in terra cotta pots and contained round tables instead of the usual student desks, and although the first class of the day hadn't yet begun, the room already contained many configurations of grade nine students with an obvious sense of ownership of the classroom as they engaged themselves in an assortment of activities. One student busied herself watering the geraniums while two students, contorted faces pressed close to the aquarium glass, tried to engage the goldfish (Oscar and Syd Fishes, I was later informed) in a conversation. At a corner table, a huddled couple intently examined a Life magazine while next to them, a lively group of three or four students was occupied in transforming a rather large chunk of white bristol board into a lively looking collage. Their teacher was surrounded by a small group of laughing students involved in some discussion, and I remember I was impressed by the ease and comfort with which they interacted with him, and the affection they seemed to have for him, it being only the second week in September and Pat being new in the school. It was obvious to me that people enjoyed living there!
And now, as a graduate student, my research took me back to Pat's classroom where the experience, once again, was memorable.
A class of grade ten students arranged themselves in the groups in which they had been working the previous day. They were involved in a group translation into contemporary English of Julius Caesar, each of five groups translating a different act. In their attempts to modernize and present Shakespeare's work, students were required to come to an understanding of characters and events in the play, which would determine verbal and nonverbal representations. Later, the students would enact, in full costume, one scene of their choice from their contemporary constructions, with the remainder of the scenes to be presented in a readers' theatre. While the costumes for the enactment would be contemporary, the students had to make decisions regarding the most appropriate costumes for each character based on their own interpretations of and transactions with Shakespeare's text. The exercise was, as Pat later told me, an experience from which they would come to an understanding of linguistic evolution and character development. As I wandered from group to group, I encountered interesting and often entertaining discussions as students in the groups negotiated interpretations of Shakespearean discourse and debated how particular characters might say their new constructions. In the meantime, Pat was visiting each group, providing assistance where necessary, and probing to elicit personal responses and to encourage depth in their discussions.
"Who's your favourite character in your act?"
"Tell me about Cassius. Why do you like him?
And so the conversation and the class continued.
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The Constructivist Classroom
A constructivist teacher and a constructivist classroom exhibit a number of discernable qualities markedly different from a traditional or direct instruction classroom. A constructivist teacher is able to flexibly and creatively incorporate ongoing experiences in the classroom into the negotiation and construction of lessons with small groups and individuals. The environment is democratic, the activites are interactive and student centered, and the students are empowered by a teacher who operates as a facilitator/consultant.
Constructivist classrooms are structured so that learners are immersed in experiences within which they may engage in meaning-making inquiry, action, imagination, invention, interaction, hypothesizing and personal reflection. Teachers need to recognize how people use their own experiences, prior knowledge and perceptions, as well as their physical and interpersonal environments to construct knowledge and meaning. The goal is to produce a democratic classroom environment that provides meaningful learning experiences for autonomous learners.
This perspective of learning presents an alternative view of what is regarded as knowledge, suggesting that there may be many ways of interpreting or understanding the world. No longer is the teacher is seen as an expert, who knows the answers to the questions she or he has constructed, while the students are asked to identify their teacher's constructions rather than to construct their own meanings. In a constructivist classroom, students are encouraged to use prior experiences to help them form and reform interpretations. This may be illustrated by reference to a personal response approach to literature, a constructivist strategy first articulated by Rosenblatt (1938). Rosenblatt (1978) argues for a personal and constructive response to literature whereby students' own experiences and perceptions are brought to the reading task so that in transacting with that text, the realities and interpretations which the students construct are their own. A reader response approach to literature rejects the idea that all students should necessarily come to the same interpretation of a selection of literature, that single interpretation being the teacher's or someone else's. A reader response approach allows students to explore variant interpretations, the teacher's own interpretation being only one possible interpretation in the classroom.
In a traditional classroom, an invisible and imposing, at times, impenetrable, barrier between student and teacher exists through power and practice. In a constructivist classroom, by contrast, the teacher and the student share responsibility and decision making and demonstrate mutual respect. The democratic and interactive process of a constructivist classroom allows students to be active and autonomous learners. Using constructivist strategies, teachers are more effective. They are able to promote communication and create flexibility so that the needs of all students can be met. The learning relationship in a constructivist classroom is mutually beneficial to both students and teachers.
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A Construcivist Classroom is Student-Centered
A Construcivist Classroom is a Student-Centered Classroom. The student-centeredness of a constructivist classroom is clearly apparent in a reader response approach to literature. Recognizing the significance of the unique experiences that each reader brings to the reading of a selection of literature, the teacher in a response-centered approach seeks to explore the transaction between the student and the text to promote or extract a meaningful response (Rosenblatt, 1978). This places the student in a central position in the classroom since exploring this transaction seems unlikely to occur unless the teacher is willing to relinquish the traditional position of sole authority, thereby legitimating the unique experiences that all members of the class bring to the reading rather than just those experiences the teacher brings. The resulting perception and effect in the classroom is evident in students' recognition that the discussion is a legitimate one involving questions to which nobody knows the answer. It isn't a treasure hunting game where they are trying to guess what is in their teacher's head, but a process that creates meaning and knowledge.
From a constructivist perspective, where the student is perceived as meaning-maker, teacher-centered, text-centered and skills-oriented approaches to literature instruction are replaced by more student-centered approaches where processes of understanding are emphasized. In a discussion of language arts instruction based on constructivist theories of language use and language development, Applebee (1993) suggests that
[r]ather than treating the subject of English as subject matter to be memorized, a constructivist approach treats it as a body of knowledge, skills, and strategies that must be constructed by the learner out of experiences and interactions within the social context of the classroom. In such a tradition, understanding a work of literature does not mean memorizing someone else's interpretations, but constructing and elaborating upon one's own within the constraints of the text and the conventions of the classroom discourse community. (p. 200)
A constructivist student-centered approach places more focus on students learning than on teachers teaching. A traditional perspective focuses more on teaching. From a constructivist view, knowing occurs by a process of construction by the knower. Lindfors (1984) advises that how we teach should originate from how students learn.
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Constructivism Uses a Process Approach
What is essentially involved in constructivist strategies and activities is a process approach to learning. Applebee (1993) remarks that "rather than emphasizing characteristics of the final products, process-oriented instruction focuses on the language and problem-solving strategies that students need to learn in order to generate those products" (p. 5). And as students interact with their teacher and with each other as part of either whole class activities, small group activities, or individual activities, they practise using language in a variety of contexts developing and honing many different skills as they do so.
In a process approach, Langer and Applebee (1987) explain, a context is created within which students are able to explore new ideas and experiences. Within this context, a teacher's role in providing information decreases and is replaced by a "strengthened role in eliciting and supporting students' own thinking" (p. 77) and meaning-making abilities. In a process approach to learning,
ideas are allowed to develop in the learner's own mind through a series of related, supportive activities; where taking risks and generating hypotheses are encouraged by postponing evaluation; and where new skills are learned in supportive instructional contexts. (Langer and Applebee, 1987, p. 69)
Applebee and Langer argue that in such contexts "students have the best chance to focus on the ideas they are writing about and to develop more complex thinking and reasoning skills as they defend their ideas for themselves" (p. 69).
Constructivist activities in any subject area can range from very simple to sophisticated and complex depending on the teacher's learning objectives. If a teacher were to devise a construcivist activity, the first thing that she or he would have to do is establish an educational objective. The teacher would then need to think of a meaningful activity which would, at the same time, help students to reach the objective and to explore and construct knowledge based on what they're reading and what they already bring to the activity. The teacher would also need to reexamine the mechanics of how to run a class and would have to entrust a lot to the
students. This is demonstrated in the following activity involving The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, which Pat developed to achieve a variety of language arts objectives.
My class and I began by examining the linguistic evolution of the English language including Middle English in which Geoffrey Chaucer writes. I then provided each student with Chaucer's text in Middle English. Next, I gave each a pronunciation guide. Finally, to the whole class, I read the Introduction to the Prologue in Middle English, and as a class, we translated it. I then provided a brief character sketch of each character in the Prologue after which each student elected to join a character group of his or her choice, for example, the squire, the group's task being to become an expert on the particular character which they had selected. Each group was then provided with a chart on which they were to record the various aspects of their character's 'condicioun'. The group's next undertaking was to rehearse a dramatic oral reading of their character's portion of the Prologue. In so doing, each group began, with assistance when required, to come to an understanding of their character. Then each group was expected to thoroughly research their character in order to come to a better understanding of the historical persona on whom Chaucer based his literary rendering and to place that character into a social, historical, and cultural context. The preexisting character groups were then split up, and students were instructed to form new groups of three or four none of which could contain more than one of the same character. Then their task was to complete an activity called Table Talk at the Tabard in which each group was asked to create and script a playlet among the three or four characters, the purpose of which was to bring to life each of the characters. By the time the students had seen everybody else's presentation, they had at least a passing knowledge of, and an appreciation of, all of Chaucer's characters along with the language of Chaucer's time.
The possibilities for constructivist activities are limitless. It is important, however, regardless of subject area, to provide enough activities for student choice and to encourage student-generated activities.
Constructivist teaching is an exceptionally interesting and exciting way to teach because students are involved in learning activites they appear to enjoy, and much more student-teacher contact is possible. It extends one's impact as a teacher.
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Constructivist Teaching Involves Negotiation
Negotiation is an important aspect of a constructivist classroom. It unites teachers and students in a common purpose. Smith (1993) confirms that negotiating curriculum means "custom-building classes every day to fit the individuals who attend" (p. 1). Boomer (1992) explains that it is important when negotiating for teachers to talk openly about how new information may be learned and about constraints such as obligatory curriculum. He comments on the meaning of negotiating the curriculum:
Negotiating the curriculum means deliberately planning to invite students to contribute, and to modify, the educational program, so that they will have a real investment both in the learning journey and the outcomes. Negotiation also means making explicit, and then confronting, the constraints of the learning context and the non-negotiable requirements that apply. (p. 14)
Cook (1992) explains why negotiating the curriculum with students is important:
Learners will work harder and better, and what they learn will mean more to them if they are discovering their own ideas, asking their own questions, and fighting hard to answer them for themselves. They must be educational decision makers. Out of negotiation comes a sense of ownership in learners for the work they are to do, and therefore a commitment to it. (p.16)
A constructivist teacher offers his or her students options and choices in their work. Rejecting the common practice of telling students what to do, he or she engages their trust and
invites them to participate in a constructivist process that allows them to be involved in decisions about their learning. Students actively involved in their own learning is a vital reality in a constructivist classroom. Students may participate in the construction of the curriculum by negotiating the themes that will be the focus of their work along with the selection of literature from a predetermined range of literature. Students may also participate in the design of their assignments, although the parameters for these may be established by their teacher. Finally, students may have some involvement in the way their assignments are evaluated.
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The Teacher in a Constructivist Classroom is a Researcher
A crucially important aspect of a teacher's job is watching, listening, and asking questions of students in order to learn about them and about how they learn so that teachers may be more helpful to students. Calkins (1986) notes that there is a thin line between research and teaching. At the same time that we teach children, they also teach us because they show us how they learn; we just have to carefully watch them and listen to them . This kind of watching and listening may contribute to a teacher's ability to use what the classroom experience provides to help him or her create contextualized and meaningful lessons for small groups and individuals. The ability to observe and listen to one's students and their experiences in the classroom contributes to his or her ability to use a constructivist approach. Paradoxically, a constructivist approach contributes to one's ability to observe and listen in the classroom. Thus, the process is circular.
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Students and Teachers are Interactive in a Constructivist Classroom
Another quality of a constructivist class is its interactive nature. Authenthic student-student and student-teacher dialogue is very important in a constructivist classroom. Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (1986) inform us that constructivists distinguish didactic talk, when participants report experiences but no new understanding occurs, from real
talk where careful listening creates an environment within which emerging ideas can grow. Perhaps this defines the difference between teacher talk in a direct instruction classroom, and purposeful talk by students in a student-centered constructivist classroom where meaningful discussion occurs and meanings emerge. Belenky et al (1986) explain that in "real talk", domination is absent, while reciprocity, cooperation, and collaborative involvement are prominent. Consequently, constructivist activities in the classroom that focus on speaking and listening promote not only constructivist thought but also important connections between teacher and students.
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Organization and Management of a Constructivist Classroom are Democratic
The organization and management of a class contribute appreciably to the creation of a classroom environment that promotes constructivist learning. A democratic classroom environment emphasizes shared responsibility and decision-making. It is generally accepted that practices which typify democratic classrooms include acknowledgement of the importance of human experience in learning; accommodation of small groups, individuals, and, occasionally, the whole class in instruction; creation of an environment that supports the active involvement of students in collaborative and empowering activities such as the exchange of ideas and opinions, and responsibility for making decisions about learning and for generating flexible rules; and teacher focus on students' learning rather than on teacher performance (Lester and Onore, 1990; McNeil, 1986; Dewey, 1916; Dewey and Bentley,1949) . Lester and Onore (1990) suggest that the attitudes, values, and beliefs of a teacher, specifically those related to the belief of student as constructor of knowledge, make it possible to create a democratic environment. A democratic classroom is self-regulating. Rather than overtly controlling the
students, a constructivist teacher structures the classroom so that students and teacher can share in the control of their environment. Students are directly involved in all matters that occur in the classroom that affect their being there as learners and as people. However, as Lester and Onore (1990) discovered, "changing any one aspect of a classroom, in particular, how language is used, isn't possible without simultaneously changing who has power and control over knowledge" (p. 5). Indeed, since student empowerment and autonomy are major goals in constructivist teaching, changing the power structure in the classroom is a desired course of action.
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Power and Control in the Constructivist Classroom are Shared
Student empowerment is, in fact, at the center of of a constructivist teacher's philosophy. Like parents who, from the moment their child is born, do everything possible to ensure that their child has the skills and abilities to live independently of them, so a constructivist teacher, from the moment a new set of students enters his or her classroom, does everything he or she can to provide those students with the skills and abilities to be confident and autonomous learners and citizens. And like parents who take pride in their children's accomplishments but not credit, a constructivist teacher doesn't take the glory for the accomplishments of his or her students, but rather empowers them with a feeling of competence and success.
Student empowerment and autonomy may be aided by encouraging students to ask questions and by making them active learners. Calkins (1986) laments that in most classrooms, we neither teach students to ask questions in schools nor allow students to ask questions, but simply require them to answer our questions, although asking questions is a challenging and important part of thinking and learning, especially if students are continually encouraged to ask more probing, more appropriate, and more effective questions. By asking their own questions, students acquire more consciousness of and control over their thinking.
Students having "control over their thinking" is an important matter in a constructivist classroom. The lack of opportunity for students to ask their own questions is a very real concern in many classrooms, and so exploring ways of getting students to ask questions, rather than the teacher asking all the questions, may make a significant contribution to making students independent as language learners. The person who has the questions not only has the answers but also the power. Power is a key element in a constructivist classroom. Power is not wielded by a constructivist teacher, and control is not imposed on students. Instead, a constructivist teacher uses an indirect form of control and empowers students by involving them, by giving them responsibility, and by encouraging them to be self-controlling and autonomous. While the teacher relinquishes power and control to empower the students, neither the teacher nor the classroom is out of control. A constructivist classroom is, in fact, highly organized. Students are given a lot of choices within the classroom, but those choices may be contained within parameters. Students are able to negotiate themes, but must abide by the range of literature that their curriculum prescribes. Students may design their own assignments, but the assignments must accommodate curriculum variables.
The apparant paradox in this 'constrained freedom' is highlighted by Daniel Sheridan (1993), who comments on the use of structure in a constructivist classroom:
Structure is one of the conditions of freedom. Yet we cannot leave it at that, for paradoxically there can be no freedom without some element of constraint. Thus within the structure of a learning situation there are always some constraints--yes, even in the most apparently "free" classroom, . . . . [S]tudents are constantly making language choices. Still, they are not "free" in any radical or idealized sense . . . there is a lot of structure . . . (p.116).
What Sheridan is saying here is exemplified in a constructivist class. Unless kids are provided with behavioural parameters, nothing gets accomplished because they don't know what it is they're really supposed to do. But once these behavioural parameters are established, there can be a lot of choices within.
The paradox about student centered instruction is the more control you turn over to the students the less you need to worry about control, and, in fact, the students are quite able to look after themselves and, even more, look after each other. In a constructivist classroom, control comes from students' involvement in responsibility rather than external imposition, freeing the teacher to focus on students learning, a profitable situation for both students and teachers.
Actively and interactively involved students, negotiated curriculum, and redistribution of power, control, and responsibility all contribute to a relationship between students and teacher that promotes a situation where learning thrives. With the development of a constructivist philosophy, a teacher of any discipline is able to create a classroom environment within which students are able to become autonomous learners.
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PART THREE: PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT OF A CONSTRUCTIVIST TEACHER
Constructivist classes reveal a shift in thinking in which the underlying assumptions about what knowledge is, about how people learn, and about what is important are different. One can grow from a traditional view of teaching in which one seeks to control one's subject area and students to becoming comfortable with a subject area that is less predictable and more ambiguous. This enables one to make the shift in thinking that may be necessary to be a constructivist teacher. The idea that our beliefs about teaching and learning affect our classroom practice, as well as our ability to change our practice, is explained by Lester and Onore (1990). Support for this idea comes from Kelly's (1991) personal construct theory.
Lester and Onore (1990) indicate that teachers' personal beliefs about teaching (their construct systems) account for the kinds and extents of change that teachers are able to make. We view our situation through the lens of our personal construct system. Our beliefs about teaching and learning account for how we think and act as teachers. Specifically, teachers' definitions of what knowledge is, how people acquire it, and how we determine whether knowledge has been acquired account for the degree and kind of change teachers will experience.
Personal construct theory was devised by Kelly in 1955. The theory proposes that, like scientists, we continually hypothesize about experience, formulating expectations based on a template of reality we have created through experience and reflection. We come to believe something through accumulated experience about it and then interpret experience according to those beliefs. These hypotheses, or personal constructs, may be modified with new experiences, but some are continually reinforced and confirmed, until, over time, they may actually shape experiences whereas when they were developing, experience molded them. It is for this reason, Lester and Onore (1990) believe, that beliefs and practices about schooling are so difficult to change. They suggest that we need to examine the constructs or beliefs that influence our decisions about teaching and learning in order for change to occur. They believe that by changing our beliefs about teaching and learning, we are able to change our practice.
Lester and Onore (1990) suggest that the main construct affecting a teacher's ability to teach in a transactional, constructivist way is the belief that knowledge is constructed by human beings. And so teachers would need to make a shift in thinking and change what they believe about knowledge in order to really change their teaching.
Lester and Onore (1990) propose that genuine learning or change comes not from disregarding all prior learning in order to relearn, but "from questioning or reassessing our existing beliefs about the world" (p. 41):
Change can occur through having experiences that present and represent alternative systems of beliefs and trying to find a place for new experiences to fit into already held beliefs (p. 41).
Reflecting on one's teaching practice contributes to one's ability to cross the bridge in terms of the way one thinks and believes about teaching. This enables him or her to move, for example, from a transmissional instructional practice to a constructivist and transactional one.
Reflection, Mezirow (1990) explains, involves a critique of the assumptions on which our beliefs have been built, and through reflection, our perspectives are transformed.
Giroux (1986) notes that teachers are often trained to use various models of teaching and evaluation, yet are not taught to be critical of the assumptions that underlie these models. He advises that teachers must be more than technicians but transformative intellectuals engaging in a critical dialogue among themselves.
The underlying assumptions about teaching and learning of a constructivist and a nonconstructivist teacher are quite different. Changing the gimmicks we use to teach in the classroom without changing the way we think about teaching and learning is, according to Lester and Onore (1993), insufficient to change our practice. A complete rethinking of what teaching and learning are is necessary if we are to really change what happens in the classroom.
In a constructivist classroom, teachers create situations in which the students will question their own and each other's assumptions. In a similar way, a constructivist teacher creates situations in which he or she is able to challenge the assumptions upon which traditional teaching and learning are based. Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (1986) report that at the constructivist level of knowing and thinking, we continually reevaluate our assumptions about knowledge; our attitude towards "the expert" is transformed; we are not troubled by ambiguity but are enticed by complexity; and we take on a never-ending quest for truth and learning where truth is seen as a process of construction in which the knower participates. A constructivist teacher's perception of expertise in the classroom is based on the experience of his or her students in interaction with each other and with their teacher, and his or her ability to tolerate ambiguity is high as evidenced in the tendency to create complexity.
Holding a constructivist view of knowledge, Lester and Onore (1990) point out, enables a teacher to explore and form new ideas about teaching and learning. But the job of translating this belief into daily classroom practice is still present. This job is often made difficult with all that impinges on it, for example, the existing school system and its policies, and the school culture.
Teachers are individuals who are often drawn into teaching by a love of kids. Constructivist teachers develop skills and abilities to empower students and to make them feel competent and significant. Perhaps some of what a constructivist teacher does is intuitive. Constructivist teaching also requires intelligence, creativity, patience, responsiveness, and the ability to live with ambiguity permitting one to spontaneously abandon a plan in order to accommodate specific individual or classroom situations. And while the job of being a constructivist teacher is demanding, its value is evident in the impact on students' learning and personal development.
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PART FOUR: CONCLUSION
Implications and Recommendations
Research suggests that constructivist teaching is an effective way to teach. It encourages active and meaningful learning and promotes responsibility and autonomy. Because constructivist teaching is beneficial in achieving desirable educational goals for students, it is important for teachers to grow professionally towards a constructivist practice.
My research and analysis of Pat Gray's life and career in "'The Road to Knowledge is Always Under Construction': A Life History Journey to Constructivist Teaching" reveal that for Pat, change to a constructivist approach to teaching English language arts has been a developmental process that occurred over time and involved a complete paradigm shift. The development of Pat's constructivist practice was a very active process during which much of the time practice preceded theory. His story of teacher change, growth, and development underscores an aspect of teacher development that is often ignored: curriculum development occurs, not through imposition of new ideas on teachers, but through personal development.
These findings have implications for the way constructivist and transactional curricula are implemented. They confirm that the responsibility for the professional development of teachers falls largely on the teachers themselves. This concept is generally recognized by teachers; however, the incentive to pursue personal professional development over the course of one's career is frequently lacking in teachers. For example, the importance of collegial sharing and support is widely accepted yet infrequently practised except informally. Similarly, teachers who are familiar with reflective practice resist it even though they recognize its importance in encouraging an awareness of how our students learn and, therefore, in how we need to teach. To encourage incentive, this research suggests that teachers need to be provided with opportunities, resources, support, encouragement and recognition in their professional development pursuits. They need to know that their efforts are being supported by their colleagues, administrators and school boards.
Considering the constructivist nature of many new curricula, it is important that the theory and concepts of transactional and constructivist teaching be communicated to administrators as well as teachers and student teachers of all grades and disciplines through on going, supportive professional development activities. The importance of administrative support for teachers attempting transactional and constructivist strategies needs to be communicated to school administrators through professional literature and professional inservice.
University instructors in colleges of education need to model constructivist practices and provide supportive assistance to preservice and inservice teachers as they grapple with these practices in their practicums and internships.
Transactional and constructivist practices may be modelled, and constructivist activities and strategies may be presented to teachers in teacher inservices and workshops. A discussion of the implications of such practices for teachers and students needs to be included in these inservices. Issues and concerns of teachers as they begin to make their transition to constructivist teaching need to be acknowledged and addressed through discussion, explanations of what to expect, practical suggestions, reassurance, and supportive understanding of teachers' concerns.
Resource information about constructivist philosophy and practices written in a nonthreatening style that respects teachers' current personal and practical knowledge would perhaps make personal and professional development toward a constructivist practice appealing. Information presented in a friendly and creative style may encourage teachers to embark on their own professional development journeys and may encourage teachers to be less reticent about risking innovative practices, thus beginning a developmental process of change. Indeed, an outcome of my study is that change is a developmental process in which practice often precedes theory, and teachers, encouraged to attempt constructivist practices and to be self reflective, and inspired by the success of those practices, may, in time, acquire the philosopy that underpins that practice.
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This research raises some possibilities for improving educational practice in Saskatchewan and some questions about the way professional development has traditionally been delivered and new curricula implemented. New curricula emphasize an holistic and constructivist rationale, and the implementation of these new curricula necessitates that teachers make significant changes in the way they teach. In addition to understanding the constructivist philosophy upon which these new curricula are based, teachers, administrators and others involved in implementing these new curricula need to understand the kinds of changes teachers need to undertake as they make the transition from more traditionalist forms of instruction to constructivist strategies as well as how they can make these changes. Generally speaking, professional and curriculum development is an evolving, personal developmental process that in itself is constructivist. This process can be greatly assisted by a supportive collegial and administrative medium that allows teachers to change their own personal constructs about teaching.
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