Helping students construct their own ideas is considered by some educators a subversive idea that runs counter to the present impetus of the Race to the Top and NCLB Waivers. These Federal programs, especially NCLB, have created a narrowing of the curriculum, a data-driven, test-based school culture, and the despicable use of student tests as the main criterion of teacher accountability.
The theory of learning that underlies these Federal reform efforts is behaviorism. It’s a theory that is very good if you want to teach behaviors. But it is a theory that tends to retard the teaching of thinking. When we want our dog to sit, we hover a treat over the dog’s head and move it backwards so that the dog sits. Do this a few times adding the work sit, and you have it.
Commodities & Bricks. In humans, this is akin to learning by rote. And there are some things we learn by rote including names of the day, the months, names of numbers, the colors of the spectrum (ROY-G-BIV), and so forth. If we extend this idea further, we begin to think that we can transfer any kind of knowledge from teachers’ heads to students’ heads, as if knowledge was a commodity, or as I wrote in the last post, a brick.
But because we insist that we measure student’s learning with bubble tests based on a set of behavioral statements (we call these standards), we find that many teachers are teaching to the test. The whole exercise of learning in schools has become overly behavioristic using a simple input-output model, with the likes of Bill Gates thinking that all you have to do is to give the students a test at the beginning of a course, teach the course (input) followed by an end of the course test (output). The difference in scores can then be used as a measure of what was learned, not only for each student, but for entire class. And in this world of make-believe, the teacher is the one who caused any change in scores—at the individual and group levels.
Construction. Good teachers have always known that this approach does not lead students to be thinkers, problem solvers, or inventors. These teachers have always understood that students build up their knowledge through active engagement, inquiry, problem-based learning, and experiential learning. One powerful reminder of this is that teachers who use cooperative learning and collaborative strategies actually encourage critical thinking using this social organization. When students work together in cooperative groups they have to explain ideas to their peers, and all of this requires reflection. Reflection is a crucial step in understanding because the student begins to ask questions about knowledge. Students build up ideas about nature.
Teaching this way is subversive, especially in light of the policies that control what students should know in every course that is taught, and when they should know this stuff. It is also a “radical” method. In the NCLB/Race to the Top “reform model,” there is no regard for differences in the way students learn stuff, nor when they are ready to learn new ideas. And as important, the present reform policy of standards and test accountability, retards teachers’ professional abilities to make decisions of what, how and when stuff should be presented to their students. The authority to manage this lies with system departments of education.
A “Radical” Story
We continue this post with a story based on the experience of a teacher who graduated from a constructivist science teacher education program. In the context of this story, Reina is in her third year of teaching at the same high school in the southeast.
Reina, the first Latina biology teacher in her school, is a third year high school biology teacher in a community that has only one high school. In her teacher education program, she became extremely interested in a theory of knowledge, called “radical constructivism” which was based on the writings of Ernst von Glasersfeld. Radical constructivism, as she understood it, provided a framework to understand how students acquired knowledge. One of the basic notions underlying the theory was that students “constructed and made meaning” of their experiences. The theory provides more freedom for the students in terms of their own thinking processes.
Reina felt strongly that the constructivist framework supported her teaching philosophy better than the more structured approach she had been using. She had participated in a series of in-school-professional development seminars on cognitive approaches to teaching during her second year of teaching. Now in her third year, she felt more confident and was eager to apply constructivist theory to her teaching practice that she had experienced in her teacher education program, and was now being promoted in her high school.
Prior to the opening of school, Reina spent considerable time reviewing her unit plans, jotting down ideas for allowing more opportunities for students to formulate explanations and make sense of concepts on their own and in small groups.
She spent the first two weeks of school helping the students become skilled and familiar with hands-on learning and group interaction. Knowing that student construction of knowledge was not only an individual process, but a social process as well, she helped the students learn to work together in small groups. Many of her students showed some reluctance to autonomy, and all benefited from her guidance in the early stages of collaborative learning.
Reina sought to develop a teaching approach that would develop her students’ capacity to work at science learning in a manner that more fully represented the nature of science. Within the structure of the required curriculum, Reina had planned for opportunities to connect her instructional agenda with the students’ prior experiences, personal talents, and interests. In some instances she designed instruction that allowed students to make choices among learning activities, and specialize in aspects of certain topics such that particular students and groups might develop deeper knowledge about areas of interest – a knowledge that was subsequently discussed in front of and therefore benefited the whole class.
At the end of the two weeks, she helped the student groups to decide and select curricular topics and related learning activities that interested them.
About a month into the school year, Reina was visited by the district curriculum coordinator. Much to Reina’s surprise, the curriculum coordinator wondered if the method of teaching she was using would prepare the students for the end-of-the-year CRCT test. Reina indicated to the coordinator that she had already discussed what she was doing with her principal, Dr. Gabak. Gabak was a leader in the regional principal’s leadership association, and had done her doctoral work on how theories of cognitive science ought to play center stage in high school curriculum.
Reina’s tale tells the story of a teacher who appreciates that thinking, conceptualizing and language are developed from experience. There is no reason that we have to throw out the standards in order for teachers to take a constructivist approach. But to teach for conceptual understanding and the promotion of science inquiry means that teachers need to have the authority to interpret the curriculum standards based on needs and interests of their students, and not be held to state mandated curriculum standards (Wallace, 2011).
A Radical Theory?
In this view of teaching, the theory that drives it is based on two principles:
- knowledge is not passively received but actively built by the learner;
- the function of cognition is adaptive and serves to organize our experiences.
The purpose of teaching that embodies von Glasersfeld’s theory is to help students develop new understandings as a result of experience in the classroom. Instead of being content-driven, this approach to teaching is student-understanding driven. In this radical constructivist approach to teaching, knowledge is divided into two types. The first is experiential knowledge, and the second is explanatory knowledge. Neither of these can be given to someone else. Knowledge gained through experience will possess qualities as varied as the learners and their manner of engagement, and thus, these experiences cannot be transmitted directly by language. The learner must experience and the teacher must skillfully mediate experience (D. I. Dykstra, Jr).
Collateral Effects. One of the “collateral effects” of standards based accountability is that teachers have reported doing less experiential activities with their students, such as lab activities, inquiry-based problem solving, research activities such as water or air monitoring. In California, a large investigation of “quality science” teaching in the elementary schools led to the finding that less science was being taught in the schools, and this time was used for reading and mathematics. Lori Welsh, a 17-year veteran teacher in Dublin, Ohio, posted this comment on How Do Standards Impede Science Teaching and Learning:
There is a real-world component to this debate, one that is currently playing out in the very affluent Dublin City School District in Dublin, Ohio. Dublin failed their recent school levy. In an effort to cut costs (in their words “Enable efficiency of Personnel”) they are proposing moving to a block schedule in grades 6 and 7. Their proposal? 86 daily minutes of Language Arts and Math and 86 minutes every other day of Science and Social Studies. This equates to a 1/3 cut in instructional time in science over the course of a year in each of these 2 grade levels. And their reasons for doing this? Why, the Common Core Standards of course. I encourage everyone reading this to please go tohttp://www.facebook.com/dublinschoolcuts and educate yourself on this issue and how it is playing out in the real world of education. In my opinion, Dublin is pioneering a new trend: Let’s cut science because of the Common Core Standards. What a dangerous precedent to set.
But reports from research tells us a different story. For teachers that are moving in the constructivist direction, there is evidence to show that their students actually do better on “content-based” end of course examinations. To help us understand this a little more, here is a section from my book, The Art of Teaching Science.
We’ll compare two instructional approaches, the “realist approach” (traditional science teaching) and the “radical constructivist approach” based on work by physicist and science educator Dewey I. Dykstra, Jr.
The Realist Approach: Traditional Teaching. The realist approach to teaching is seen when content is presented as if students can receive it (know or learn it) in the same form as the teacher who communicated the knowledge (similar to the bricks metaphor we used in our discussion in the previous post). The teaching methodology in the realist approach boils down to “inform, verify, and practice” and this has been a method used for a long time. This approach assumes that ideas are out there and we can pass them on to students by making the content available via the spoken and written word. It seems like a reasonable idea. Science textbooks have been based on the idea of outlining concepts that are to be read and “taught” to students.
Dykstra reports results of a study investigating the effects on student understanding of several physics concepts in high schools across the U.S. The students in the study experienced the typical high school physics curriculum with lecture followed by a verification lab, reinforced by problem solving. Tests were designed to measure the students’ understanding of physics concepts of force and motion from the standpoint of the “person-on-the-street (POTS)” and the Newtonian-like view. You might think of the POTS view as the common sense or view that students bring to the physics classroom. The Newtonian-like view is akin to the concepts that you might find in a physics text, or in the Standards. Even with instruction in Newtonian ideas, students’ post-test scores showed very little change, and very little understanding of force and motion. When measured on a pre-post basis, the student’s knowledge of Newtonian physics changed very little. In this content-driven approach to physics, not only was there little growth in understanding, but there was also the unfortunate result of a negative view of physics expressed by most students, with some expressing thoughts like “I used to love math and science…now I just want to get through it.
In a study that Dykstra reported, students involved in a constructivist-based physics course showed very large gains in understanding of Newtonian ideas on the same concepts (force and motion) reported in the realist physics courses. Students in this physics course shifted their ideas away from POTS, and embodied the Newtonian ideas at significantly improved levels.
American education has moved to an authoritarian accountability regime based on national standards, and high-stakes tests. Unless we voice and act on our concerns that educators need to be involved in actualization of standards and tests, and not simply the recipients, we will continue down this path.