A guided tour of one constructivist method

The following text came out of an email discussion with a former girlfriend who asked my thoughts on constructivism and how it might be employed in the classroom.

My goal was to move my students from the elitist model to a self-directed program.  I wanted to get them away from seeing me as the source of all instructions and all knowledge.  Unfortunately, most kids come into the classroom with the mindset that the "teacher" is there to do the teaching.  The entire year was a process of turning responsibility over to the learners.

At the beginning of the year I generally gave the class a few very general self-directed activities to 1) establish a baseline and 2) to set the precedent that the course was intended to be self-directed.  The first exercise was the usual "describe an occupation in Biology/Chemistry/etc." as was appropriate for the course.  They wrote a paper and did a presentation on their "job" followed by a question and answer session.

Once we started covering content, the first few "lectures" were generally unrehearsed Socratic dialogues.  I would say, "What is 'life'?  How do we know something is living?" then, "How could you try to confirm that experimentally?" and so on.  The goal was to get them thinking on their feet, but I wasn't putting anyone on the spot at that point, just asking the class in general.  Still, this phase developed the students' ability to provide much of the content.

Next, when I would cover a chapter, say, one on genetics, I would supply a list of 10 to 20 questions beginning with, say, "Who/what/when/where was Gregor Mendel?" and ending with "How is dominance/recessiveness determined on a molecular level?"  Obviously, these would increase in difficulty.  The students were a heterogeneous population as well.  "Who was Gregor Mendel?" is just as tough a question for the right student as a question on molecular mechanism is for the more gifted in the class.  I would assign these in an apparently "random" fashion to the students.  My "randomness" was methodical, of course.

The goal of the question sheet was to provide an anchor for the kids.  By having the learning objectives stated as individual questions, no matter how far off topic the discussion, the students always had a tangible directive regarding what they were supposed to take from that portion of the lesson.  This tool created the opportunity to explore teachable moments while hanging onto a salient reminder of what the class was to cover in that unit.

Ten minutes after the questions were assigned, the kids would present their responses to their assigned question(s) to the class, who then took notes accordingly.  The style of presentation was entirely up to them.  I generally asked probing questions and offered historical anecdotes, etc. while the other students sought clarification and tied up loose ends.

As the semester wore on, I began to have them generate their own questions and even to design exams.  Essentially, they were choosing (with guidance) the content, the teaching methods (including experiments), the means of assessment, etc.  I pruned inappropriate or irrelevant material, but basically their education was actively generated by their involvement and only occasionally received passively.  That's constructivism... at least by some definitions.  Obviously, I'm only describing the construction of the curriculum here, but there is an underlying construction of knowledge in students' minds in a way much like that described by Vygotsky.

You might view this in a behaviorist sense by saying that I "shaped" (in the Skinnerian sense) my kids into teaching themselves.  Ultimately I served only as the moderator and as a resource for additional content and/or clarification.  Naturally, I acted as the grader of their exams to ensure accuracy, impartiality, and that complaints/reprisals resulting from unfavorable grades would be directed at me and not other students.

Now, here's a more specific example of how you might apply a constructivist approach with labs:  In chemistry, I used to find experiments in sourcebooks.  Of course, you probably saw some of these same ones in your own high school and college chem classes.  You get this 8 page long handout that gives you 1) the history of the experiment (who performed it, when, etc.), if it has any historical significance, 2) the scientific background (e.g., explaining the trend of electronegativity across the periodic table, etc.), 3) the step-by-step procedure (with each step numbered; God forbid you should deviate from the Holy sequence!), 4) a pre-fabricated empty data table in which to record your results (after all, you're not going to even attempt to manipulate any variables beyond those prescribed in the procedure), and 5) some fill-in-the-blank follow-up questions.
That's the close-ended version.  Here's my approach.  First of all, I stole the best ideas from the sheet, then simply provided students with a data sheet containing the following: 1) a space for their names, 2) a list of the most important variables, and 3) some short answer follow-up questions. 

My rationale: 

  • Lab time is too precious to waste establishing significance of the concepts covered after the fact.  The historical background is best covered in advance.
  • The scientific basis of the experiment should be made evident by the experiment itself and not the other way around.  Who tells the punch line before the joke?
  • The procedure must be thought about.  If kids aren't figuring out their procedure for themselves, they're performing a demonstration, not an experiment.
  • Data tables should be arranged to best describe results to the experimenter.  Thus a good experimenter will consider the results and the relationship between the variables when constructing his/her own data table.  Further, additional variables (e.g., the effects of temperature, changes in pH, etc.) may be suggested as the experiment proceeds and should therefore be incorporated as they present themselves.
  • Follow-up questions should produce closure in terms of experimental design as well as content.  They should be open-ended so as to provoke thought to the point of whole-class discussion (e.g., how did the concepts employed relate to other concepts covered previously?  which controls might have been better employed?, what follow-up experiments might extend knowledge still further?, etc.).
It's that simple.  Not that any of my teachers ever did that.  Hopefully my students learned to fish for themselves.

All text copyright Alexplorer.
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