Friday, November 30, 2012

In Defense of Constructivism

By Marty Brooks (The author would appreciate your comments and suggestions.)

Since the inception of No Child Left Behind (2001) a debate has been brewing inside the halls of state legislatures, federal and state departments of education and local school district offices about the purpose and future direction of education in the United States. Truthfully, it hasn’t been much of a debate – those who see schooling as a cacophony of common standards, prescribed programs targeted at those standards, tests that assess the extent to which those standards are being met, and accountability measures that sanction teachers and schools failing to meet the standards are clearly holding sway.

Over the years, many noted thinkers and researchers, from Kozol and Goodlad to Kohn and Zhao, have excoriated venerated practices in education, exposed the injustices and inadequacies (and, in some cases, the insanities) of schooling and suggested that the fundamental structure of the American educational system has been steadily disadvantaging many students, particularly students of color and lower socio-economic means.  The insufficiencies and inefficiencies of public schooling (especially in our nation’s urban centers) have been well documented and invariably describe powerful institutional racism, substandard teaching, political indifference, public apathy, and personal suffering in school – all of which have coalesced to produce a perception of individual student, and whole system, failure that have literally screamed for school reform.  It’s a compelling case.

But, in response as a nation, we have made a terrible miscalculation about what affects student learning, and we are mis-educating our students.  In the pursuit of higher scores on tests, we have made the decision to sacrifice the promise of real student learning for the illusion of student achievement, and as a result a generation of students is sitting through years of mind-numbing lessons designed to prepare them to score well on these tests.  It’s the wrong response.

Student learning is and must be at the core of everything we do, particularly attempts to reform education. Everything else is political white noise – it’s there, in the background (and increasingly in the foreground), but it has virtually nothing to do with our real work. The testing and accountability mania that has seductively hijacked our nation’s educational agenda actually interferes with learning and causes harm to students (Zhao, 2012). 

High test scores have emerged over the last two decades as the Holy Grail of American education, particularly as international assessments, such as PISA and TIMSS, have shown American students scoring in the middle of the pack. Paradoxically, the emphasis on high scores serves to reinforce the very pretest-teach-posttest model of schooling that has led to the call for reform in the first place.  It is not without irony that several of the nations many American reformers envy because they score highest on international comparisons (OECD, 2010) do not administer high stakes tests to their students and others do so only at the end of the high school years.

History tells us that whenever testing has been the engine driving educational reform, the reform has failed.  And so it is today. There is no mystery about how to increase the percentages of students passing tests – identify what information the tests value, tie curriculum and instruction to the tests, stock classrooms with materials aligned with the tests, and focus classroom time on test preparation activities.  Test scores will improve … but student learning won’t.

Let’s be clear: the belief that higher scores on state tests are reflective of enhanced learning is a mirage.  It is reflective only of mimicked learning and thus we are mired in the illusion of reform.  Meaningful reform is only achievable if we make the conscious, committed decision to break away from the profoundly misguided notion that testing and accountability can drive systemic reform, and aim our energies instead at processes and practices focused on student learning.  Not at testing.  Not at sanction-based accountability systems.  Not at politically driven federal and state interventions.   We must place student learning at the heart of everything we do … it is our core mission.

The nucleus of our work is education - the processes of teaching and learning that occur daily and are the essence of classroom life. Educational reform must start with how students learn and the ways in which that knowledge informs how teachers teach. It is the search for and construction of understanding that sit at the center of the highly complex process of learning, and it is underpinned by what appears to be a simple proposition (Grennon Brooks & Brooks, 1999) … that we each construct our own knowledge and understandings.

The Mission
The conventionally accepted mission of schooling in today’s world – to attain higher scores on tests – is a perversion of our real mission, counterproductive to students’ education, and needs to be rethought with the construction of meaning placed at the core of the new mission. 

It is human nature to seek meaning.  It’s as natural as breathing:  we simply can’t help it.  Through daily interaction with our worlds, and the people, objects and ideas that comprise them, we are constantly seeking – and constructing – newer, richer, broader and deeper understandings.  On our way to work we encounter a traffic jam, and we seek to know why:  is it an accident or roadwork or just volume … and is this jam happening just today or is it indicative of a new traffic pattern that needs to be avoided in the upcoming weeks?  We turn on the radio to obtain meaningful information so we can understand what we are encountering and what we can do to resolve the situation.  We get into school and are told a meeting has been called by the principal before the first period.  We want to know why:  did something unusual occur? If so, what?  Before the meeting, we speak with our colleagues to see if they can shed any light so we can understand what is happening and prepare ourselves for the meeting.  We teach our first class of the day and discover that a particular student is absent.  Why?  Is she ill?  Cutting?  During the first break, we go the main office to find out so we can understand whether to mark her legally or illegally absent and perhaps make a call to her home.  We may even speak to some of her friends to find out why she is absent.  We get a phone message during the day from our spouse.  Why?  Is anything wrong at home?  Did our dinner plans change?  Did our child’s lacrosse game get changed? We wait for our break to make a call so we can understand what if anything is happening and what we can do about it. And so it goes, endlessly.  Life is a constant search for meaning. 

It is no different for our students than it is for us.  They are assigned to read a poem by Donne:  why?  What is it about this poem that separates it from the thousands of other poems they might be reading?  Why does the teacher think this particular poem is so special?  What is Donne trying to tell us in this poem, and how does it connect to the other poems we’ve been reading?  When a pebble is thrown into a body of water, floating objects move in toward the ripples, not away from them.  Why?  This phenomenon seems counterintuitive, but the evidence is irrefutable.  How is this explained?  No matter where we stand on the Earth, we always see the same side of the moon.  Why?  Doesn’t the moon rotate?  If so, shouldn’t we be able to see the other side?  Why don’t we?

Students are filled with questions about what they encounter each day, questions emanating from their quest to make meaning – about both the social cognition that underpins the lesson (why did the teacher choose this particular problem, reading, experiment, phenomenon?) and the content (why do we see only one side of the moon?).  If lessons are solely factual and formulaic, these questions rarely get asked and almost never get answered, and the reality that these questions even occur to the students is almost never acknowledged by the teacher.  The students are expected to simply and dutifully go about the business of memorizing the information.  If the lessons are structured around the construction of knowledge and meaning, however, exploration and analysis become embedded in the classrooms’ norms and structures, and the quest to make meaning is acknowledged and honored.

It is important to note that the quest for meaning occurs within the borders of learners’ personal worlds, spheres of knowledge and understanding that are internally constructed and are constantly changing based on new inputs.  There is not one, agreed-upon, fixed world “out there” for teachers to teach and students to learn.  Each student creates his/her own, unique world based on a variety of factors, including (but not limited to) personal experiences, beliefs, interactions with objects, ideas and other people, and, yes, schooling.

Through the reflexive and relentless pursuit of personal meaning, learners’ interests and needs are constantly shifting.  This process defies the notion that a fixed curriculum, which is an externally created and controlled body of knowledge pertaining to one, conventionally understood world, can be taught equally to all students and learned equally by all students.  Student engagement with a teacher’s curriculum, no matter how well conceived and how well “delivered” that curriculum may be, remains a matter of personal choice for the learner.  If the classroom environment permits the learner to acknowledge and reveal his/her own world, and to rethink it based on new information and experiences obtained through class lessons, the learner is likely to become and remain engaged.  If the classroom environment fails to honor the learner’s personal world and instead requires passive acceptance of conventionally accepted knowledge, the learner is far more likely to figure out – and succumb to - the rules of the schooling game: place information into short-term recall and mimic learning by memorizing information for tests. 

Our schools are filled with “successful” students who are highly skilled at playing this game but who actually learn very little. They attain high grades but find it difficult to transfer and apply what they supposedly have learned. This is a concern often validated by college professors who are continually surprised by how little high achieving high school graduates really know when they enter post-secondary settings, and by their inability to think creatively, reason analytically, solve complex problems and persevere through activities that have no immediate answer and require higher level thinking (Conley, 2010).

The intent here is not to minimize the need to learn discrete information and have lessons structured around sound curricula, or to dispute the need to assess student learning … or even to criticize the desire to have students perform well on assessments.  Students need to learn important information, be exposed to rich curricula, and perform well on assessments.  We need to be clear about what we want students to learn, and be able to assess what students know and can do.  And, our expectations must be high:  we want our students to know and be able to do a lot … and do it well.

But, what value do all these tests really add? Good teachers know what their students understand at any given point in time because they interact with them continually, pose questions designed to have the students reveal their thinking and their knowledge (and reveal their own personal questions, too), and require their students to validate their understandings through discussions, demonstrations, projects, performances, exhibitions and classroom tests.  Tests have a legitimate place in the continuum of assessment … but only as one of multiple ways of coming to understand what students know, and coming to know what students understand.

It is critical that we seek to measure what is important, not simply what is easy to measure. It is far more difficult to grade a two-week unit of study culminating in an trans-disciplinary demonstration of what the student learned than it is to give a multiple choice test at the end of the two weeks.  While the grading of the demonstration is nuanced and probably requires the teacher to use a rubric and pose probing questions to determine if real understanding was achieved by the student, and then to use his/her subjective judgment in assessing the extent of the student’s knowledge, the 20-question, multiple choice test requires only the ability to apply an answer sheet template and multiply the number of right answers by 5 points each:  17 right answers = 85%.  Done.  If the real mission of schooling is the search for understanding, then teachers need to be constant and continual assessors seeking to discover what their students do and do not understand, and then providing them with new opportunities to seek and construct knowledge and meaning.  Assessment is an undeniably critical component of this process.  But, assessment must have educational value and must be in service to student learning, not driving it. 

What Constructivism Looks Like In the Classroom
In a second grade math class I observed, students were asked to write number sentences for the number 139.  It was expected in this class that each student would write at least ten different sentences.  The students in this class wrote a wide variety of sentences, with surprisingly little overlap.  Some of the sentences chosen for discussion in the class were:
            {(60 x 2) + 15 + (4 x 1)}
            {(30 x 3) + (80 ÷ 2) + (13 – 4)}
            {75 + 100 – 36}
{(5 x 5 x 5) +14}
{(45 ÷ 5) x 10 + 9 + (200 ÷ 5)}

There are various ways to structure the teaching of math.  One is to organize lessons around the computation of the right answer, and another is to structure lessons that promote the search for multiple pathways to the right answer.  The sentences above are examples of seeking multiple paths to the right answer which, in this case, was already known by the students:  139.  Asking the students to write number sentences leading to the already-known answer is a very different cognitive process than giving students numbers and asking them to compute the answer … which is the normative mathematical procedure in most classes and on most tests.
Accurate computation is undeniably important in math, and so is conceptual understanding.  The students in this second grade class were developing a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts with a purpose:  deeper understanding leads to more proficient and efficient computation.  As the students in this class were constructing deeper understandings, they also were honing their computational skills in adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, all for the purpose of showing how to display the number 139. 

Certainly, the teacher could have come at this another way:  she could have written several number sentences for 139 herself – say, one that focused mostly on addition, one that included subtraction, one that required multiplication, and one that incorporated division - and had the students copy them into their notebooks.  But, instead, she asked the students to construct the sentences themselves, and in so doing she valued their thinking, learned about their individual skills and understandings, and simultaneously generated a good deal of interest.  Not coincidentally, the students demonstrated that they understood a great deal about math concepts and they also demonstrated the ability to compute and work with numbers to solve problems. 

Science lessons can be similarly structured.  For example, let’s return to the question, “Why, no matter where we stand on Earth and no matter what time of day or night it is, do we always see the same side of the moon?”  In this lesson, the teacher begins with the observed phenomenon (or, the “right” answer – we always see the same side of the moon) and has the students search for the cause.  This approach is counter to how most of us were trained to teach (we were taught to teach the causes leading to the phenomenon), but is a very powerful method for the construction of knowledge … because the answer is already known, and the task of the students is to discover why this phenomenon occurs.

The Rigor of Constructivism
Over the last few decades, constructivism has been critiqued as lacking rigor by education policy makers promoting the test-teach-test approach to reform.  The most common criticism, and misunderstanding, of constructivist approaches is that the curriculum is subordinate to student interest:  if the students aren’t interested in the lesson’s topic, then constructivist teachers don’t teach it. This “anything goes” critique is absurd and demonstrates an acute lack of understanding about learning, in general, and constructivism, in particular. (Grennon Brooks & Brooks, 1999)

Constructivist pedagogy is premised on the belief that all topics in the curriculum can be taught (and learned), and that relevance for the learner, if not present initially, can emerge through the thoughtful intervention of the teacher.  The lessons described above are examples of this.

It is essential to remember that learning is controlled by the learner, not the teacher.  We can invite students to learn, but we can’t mandate learning.  This simple truth lies at the heart of education. Consequently, the development and mediation of mind-engaging activities are among the most crucial quests of teachers.  Student engagement, so long misunderstood as static, is in fact quite a dynamic phenomenon.  For example, a student not compelled by Shakespeare may find automobile carburetors interesting, a student not excited by trigonometry many have great facility with world languages, and a student not drawn to history may be a computer whiz. 

In other words, a student’s disinterest about one topic in school does not presage disinterest in all topics.  Nor does it imply that a student’s interest in topics initially viewed as uninteresting (Shakespeare, trigonometry and history) can’t be piqued.  It can, and this is what good teachers do.  As thinking and sensing human beings, we are all unique.  We each have our own interests and our own needs fashioned out of our own sets of life experiences. Our willingness to learn is a function of our quest for meaning. When school structures, or any other structures for that matter, do not permit us to construct meaning, we often become resistant, disinterested and disengaged.  But, when the individual construction of meaning is acknowledged and honored, interest soars, engagement has no limits, and we learn. 
The Constructivist Approach to Teaching
Every day, students come to school ready, willing and able to construct new understandings of their worlds.  And every day, the methodologies teachers use in their classrooms either block this from occurring or facilitate its occurrence.  Let’s look at two examples. 

Several years ago I had occasion to visit a classroom in which 7th graders were asked to read and reflect on a poem.  After a few minutes of silent reading, the teacher asked the students to interpret the first two lines of the poem.  One student volunteered that the two lines evoked for her the image of a dream.  “Well, no,” she was told, “that’s not exactly what the author meant.”  Another student said that the poem prompted him to think of a voyage on the sea.  The teacher reminded this student that he was only asked to think about the first two lines of the poem, not the entire poem, but then quickly added that, no, the poem was not about the sea. Looking out at the class, the teacher said, “Let’s try again. Who can interpret the first two lines of the poem?”  No other students raised their hands. 

In another classroom in this same school, 9th grade students were asked to ponder the effect of temperature on muscle movement.  Students had at their disposal ice, buckets of water, gauges for measuring finger/grip strength, and other assorted materials and pieces of equipment.  The teacher broke the class into groups of four students, gave them some preliminary instructions, distributed a sheet of paper with a few broad, framing questions, reminded them to use the materials safely, and then turned them loose.  He moved about the room asking different questions to different groups of students, questions that were dependent on the experiments each group was constructing and the conclusions each group was drawing.  No matter whether their answers to his questions were “right” or “wrong,” he continually posed contradictions to their responses.  As the 42-minute period neared its end, the students were asked to begin wrapping up their activities and developing a hypothesis about the relationship between muscle movement and temperature.  The students expressed their dismay about having to end their experiments, and asked if they could miss their next class so they could stay and finish them.  When told they couldn’t, several asked if they could return to the classroom later that day to continue working on them during their free periods.  They were given permission to do so, and many in the class returned by the end of the day.

In the first classroom, the teacher communicated to her students that there is one right answer about the poem’s meaning, and that she already knew that answer.  The students’ challenge, therefore, was to figure out the answer the teacher already “knew” and feed it back to her.  Other ideas were rejected, kindly and politely, but rejected nonetheless as not worthy of discussion.  Thus, after two students responses had been rebuked, none of the other students wished to risk also being “wrong.”  Additionally, the teacher rejected one student’s interpretation of the poem on procedural grounds – her directions to the class clearly stated that the students were to focus on the first two lines of the poem, not the whole poem.   

But, what was really tragic about this lesson is that since only two students chose to participate, the teacher had no mechanism to assess the meaning that the other students made of the poem, and didn’t seem particularly interested in doing so.  Their initial interpretations didn’t matter to her.  In speaking with her after the lesson, she said that she planned to get at their interpretations through a test she was planning to give to the students later that week, but the present goal was to help the students understand what the author “really meant.” 

In the science lesson, the teacher also knew the “right” answer, an answer based on well-established scientific principles, but having the students recite it back to him was not the purpose of the activity.  In fact, he challenged all students’ answers, even when they were accurate.  He was far more interested in the questions his students were generating than the answers to those questions because he knew that their questions were his window into their understanding of the concepts that underpinned the activity, and would twig them to think more deeply about the multiple concepts involved in the activity.  It is highly unlikely that these 9th graders spent much time prior to this lesson thinking about the relationship between muscle movement and temperature.  The teacher helped the students to see relevance in a relationship they had never before pondered by framing an activity around one big question (concept), providing appropriate materials, and targeting questions to each group based on his sense of their understanding and progress.  He continually sought and valued and challenged his students’ points of view, and he used their comments as both a way to assess their present understandings and a way to promote additional learning.  No separate end-of-the-week test was planned … or required. 

Making Sense of Learning
Let’s revisit the critique that constructivism lacks rigor.  The thinking behind this view is that constructivist teachers condone abandoning the curriculum to pursue the situational whims and interests of their students.  If, for example, most of the students in the aforementioned 9th grade class wished to discuss the relationship between physical exercise and muscle movement (or, for that matter, any relationship other than the one initially presented by the teacher) rather than engage in the planned lesson, that would have been fine.  No, it wouldn’t have been fine, and the teacher who conducted this lesson continually brought the students back to the relationship between temperature and muscle movement.

The concerns about the constructivist approach to education are rooted in the belief that the information, facts and basic skills embedded in the curriculum, and necessary to pass high stakes tests, are cast aside in pursuit of more ephemeral ideas.  In math and science, particularly, there is concern among traditionalists that basic factual information and procedural knowledge are jettisoned in order to permit students to “think mathematically and scientifically.”  

For example, in the 7th grade English lesson described above, the critique would be that there is one main idea of the poem, and that having all students learn the main would have fallen prey to a lengthy and unfocused discussion of the students’ idiosyncratic interpretations.  No, it wouldn’t have.  Through a class discussion, students would have been exposed to a variety of interpretations about the main idea, and the teacher – if one main idea really existed and if she truly knew that idea (both of which are doubtful) – easily could have brought the discussion back to that idea. 

Constructivist teachers recognize that students bring their prior experiences and understandings with them to each new school activity and lesson. In other words, they are not the empty vessels some would like to think they are (Pinker, 2003), and thus it is critical for their lessons and activities to connect with the students’ experiences and understandings.  To a large degree, relevance and interest are more closely related to the learners’ experiences than the teachers’ planning.  Consequently, it is not only inappropriate to ignore students’ points of view, it usually is educationally counterproductive. 

It is important to reiterate that constructivist teachers present all of the relevant facts, information and skills that students are required to know, but they do so within the context of discussions about larger ideas.  For example, it is common for middle and high school students learning about the American Civil War to be expected to know key dates, battle sites and the names of various generals who led their troops into these battles, and these pieces of information are often presented to students sequentially for rote memorization to be fed back on subsequent tests. 

Constructivist teachers try to establish a broader context before presenting factual information, and do so by engaging their students in discussions of large issues, such as slavery, territorial expansion, states’ rights v. federal control, economics, and the technology of war, to name just five.  Without these broader contexts, the dates, battles and names of generals are simply an exercise in students’ abilities to memorize facts for short-term recall, and the ones who do it best get the highest grades. We know that in school we can get students to memorize information and correctly answer questions on tests, but at what price:  without the broader context, what will they remember in three days, three weeks, three months, or three years … what have they really learned? 

Constructivism as an approach to education does not alter what students are expected to learn, it alters how students are expected to learn, and honors the difference between authentic learning and mimicked learning.

Conley, D. (2010). College and Career Ready: Helping All Students Succeed Beyond High School. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
Grennon Brooks, J. & Brooks, M. (1999). In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms. Alexandria, VA: ASCD
Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development. (2010). Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Paris, France
Pinker, S. (2003). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York, NY: Penguin
Zhao, Y. (2012). World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin

1 comment:

  1. Well, having just retired from 50 years of teaching children and teaching teachers, practicing and promoting the notion that students learn best when engaged and motivated, it was a treat to have the above article forwarded to me today.

    I began to teach in the early 1960s, in the UK, then the haven of what US educators called Open Education. I ran workshops for EDC and other establishments across the US, and, in 1970, opened The Mountain View Center for Environmental education, with colleague and life time friend, David Hawkins. I was the Head of two schools in England before retiring and then setting up teacher education programs in the US.

    I have a bookcase full of pictures and letters from students of all ages (including a class I taught this summer, where, at 70, I was the youngest person in the room) that express delight and excitement for the joy of learning - when the process is authentic.

    How I sympathise with those teachers who do not have ownership of what they teach (or how they teach, for that matter), who are instructed to teach to the tests, who have to forgo the delight of seeing the joy of discovery and learning in a student's eyes.

    And I do my best, one on one, to support those who want to do their best for the students in their care.

    Thank you, Author. It's nice to know that I am not the only one who knows that currently, education has it wrong.


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