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
|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.
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