KATRINA WARD
New Zealand Artist, Textile Designer & Educator

Journal

Who Else Wants Constructivist Kids?

When teachers recognise and honour the human impulse to construct new understandings, unlimited possibilities are created for students
— Brooks & Brooks 1999

I want my kids to be constructivist kids. But when I talk about it, I realise that I might be leading you into a jargon-filled educator’s rabbit hole - so this little blog is my attempt to unpack the ‘constructivist’ word in real terms, explain why I’m passionate about it in education and give you some key things to look out for in your child’s classroom/s.

Things have to change in education. The sage on the stage, the teacher as the vessel of knowledge, as the ‘expert on all things’ and other ‘old-school’ ways of teaching simply are not relevant any more. Students have access to a range of different technologies and can learn using a variety of methods in their own time and at their own pace due to so many changing things - why would we therefore expect that a ‘listen to me and learn this now’ model would still be a useful, engaging or effective method of teaching?

This blog comes from the heart because my five year old recently ran away from school. What was he running from? Well, I dug a little deeper and we figured out, he was running away from traditionalism and swiftly towards constructivism. He was running from a lack of discovery, he was running from being told what to do, what to learn and when to learn it. He was running away from teacher-directed and towards being learner-centred.  His passionate and creative little brain wanted to use his experiences of the world to make sense of things. So in a fight or flight situation, he chose flight.

So... there were lots of tears and a bit of a big talk, and a bit of soul searching on my behalf too because I teach this stuff to teachers but I falsely thought that it might not matter (I chose location over learning which I am glad to have amended so early on!)… Anyway, constructivist learning is just the start of a conversation about why traditional educational delivery methods have to change…

When I was a student at high school, my Art History teacher showed his passion and commitment to my learning by bringing in stacks of rare art books for me to discover. There were so many that I couldn’t carry them! He didn’t read them to me, but simply provided me with the reading material and a whole lot of enthusiasm allowing me to dig out treasures that I could claim ownership of due to the process of personal discovery. What I discovered sewed a seed of lifelong learning for me and such a seed should be planted in every kid!  Nowadays, with a few pointers (teacher as guide), some well-selected key words and the use of a search engine or two, students have access to so much more knowledge - so much more than they can ‘carry’ AND it is accessible anywhere.. The teacher can still be the expert but in a constructivist classroom, kids and teachers should be more like inquisitive peers peering together into the unknown. Peers peering, Discovers discovering… now that sounds more like where education should be heading don’t you agree? Are you coming with me?

Constructivism is a learning theory that recognises that learners make meaning and learn as a result of their pre-existing experiences. Knowledge is not ‘given’ but rather it is ‘discovered’. An example of constructivist learning in a real life context would be allowing learners to uncover and discover knowledge together in a real experience (like visiting the museum and conducting scientific experiments together for example) rather than being told a truth from a potentially alien/other perspective. A constructivist learning environment might provide several activities for students to explore, for example, rather than telling students to do one thing at one time because that is the way it has always been done...

Social constructivism (see Lev Vygotsky for more on this) recognises that learners not only learn from individual experience but also through experiencing alongside others. So in a classroom of thirty kids, those thirty kids might be working in several groups rather than receiving information from one channel (channel teacher) as thirty individuals. A classroom that embraces constructivist learning principles students would explore learning materials and unpack them collaboratively in order to learn. Constructivist learning in your child’s classroom should be experiential AND social. THS means that the classroom environment is likely to be noisy, messy and chaotic (think ‘exciting!’) and this just hasn’t been happening in the ‘sit down and listen to me tell you how it is’ traditional model of teaching. So let’s make the change!

Some key characteristics of a constructivist classroom to look out for are:

Learners leading the learning

Teacher as facilitator not director

Process over product

Dynamic and shifting knowledge goals

Student interests pursued

Teacher as coach/scaffolder

Interactive and collaborative activities

Assessments are observations included in learning tasks

Real-world learning

 

Doesn’t this sound like fun? In this constructivist classroom model there is NO ROOM for imperatives like sit down, do not talk to the person beside you, copy what I have written on the board into a book, repeat after me, memorise this fact...

As a lifelong learner and educator I want classrooms everywhere to be exciting and engaging. If a child wants to run away at five, then maybe there’s something deeply wrong. I’ve seen some wrongs before and done my best to right them but it’s always felt like me against so many that are against me. Nowadays I have a whole vast community of educators, researchers, futurists and creatives who can see the need for change. I’ve been a secondary school teacher in a number of schools and I’ve inherited ‘sit down and shut up’ apathetic students who are so tuned out it’s hard to know what frequency they are on. I’ve taught kids whose own experiences and cultures are not valued or recognised as rich foundations for learning opportunities to be built upon. I’ve even  witnessed a class of sixteen year olds who, even though they’ve been at the same school for three years,  don’t even know each other’s names because they have not been given the opportunity to work together, collaborate and ideate using each other’s (numerous and great!) strengths.

I AM passionate about this. I have my WHY for why the education system needs to change and here it is: I want my children to thrive, to be social, to break down borders and challenge barriers. I want them to run when things need don’t fit, I want them to ask questions and find their own answers. I want them to be lifelong learners who learn for the love of it, not because they are told to.

Digital technology and new applications of learning theories in the classroom should be making SO many new things possible. We need to invest in these unlimited possibilities and question the status quo.

I know you want constructivist kids too.

So now that you know a little about constructivist learning theory - I wonder if it’s already embedded in your child’s classroom. And if it’s not, why not? Maybe it’s time for a wee chat.


 

References:

Where I work (Postgraduate Facilitator for The Postgraduate Certificate in Applied Practice (Digital and Collaborative Learning) www.themindlab.com

Brooks & Brooks (1999)  ‘In search of understanding : the case for constructivist classrooms’, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

FIshe, D., Fraser, B., Taylor, P. (2006) ‘Monitoring Constructivist Classroom Learning Environments’, International Journal of Educational Research 1997 vol: 27 (4) pp: 293-302

Marlowe, B.,  Page, M., (2005) Creating and sustaining the constructivist classroom

Publisher: Corwin Press, pp: 153

 

EASY LINKS:

On Constructivism (wikipedia)

On Social Constructivism in the Classroom

On the differences between traditional and constructivist classrooms: