The Teachers Toolbox – Documents
Constructivism – a learning process
- Learning is an ‘active’ process which allows students to construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current and past knowledge.
- Students develop a cognitive structure, making meaning out of experience. This means the student can develop ideas beyond what he or she has been given.
- Bruner* (1990) has expanded his theoretical framework to encompass the social and cultural aspects of learning. Constructivism is made up of two main schools of thought: cognitive constructivists and sociocultural constructivists.
- Much of the theory is linked to child development research.
*Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
|There is now a large consensus amongst expert researchers on learning and on the brain, that we do not learn by passively receiving, and then remembering what we are taught.
Instead, learning involves actively constructing our own meanings. This literally involves the construction of connections between neurones. We invent our own concepts and ideas, linked to what we already know. This “meaning-making” theory of learning is called ‘ constructivism’ .
When you have learned something you have changed your brain physically. We notice this creative meaning-making process most, when it goes wrong.
Examples of when it goes wrong
Diarrhoea is ear ache ‘dire ear’
Name a food suitable for pickling: ‘a branston’
‘Beethoven expired in 1827, and later died for this.’
Teacher: ‘Is 7 a prime number?’
Student: ‘Because it’s odd.’
‘Chaucer wrote many poems and plays, and also wrote literature’
These genuine mistakes show ‘meaning-making’ in practice. If students just remembered what they were told, they would not make such mistakes; they would either remember or not. Conceptual errors show that we make our own mental constructs, we don’t just remember other peoples.’
So it is important to use teaching methods that:
- require students to form constructs; that is require them to form their own meaning or interpretation of the material being studied
- allow the learner and the teacher to detect misconceptions, errors and omissions in learning and correct them
- Knowledge is stuff
- The mind is a vessel
- Learning is storing stuff
- Acquisition only requires listening reasonably attentively, or even just being there
- Assessment is stock taking
- Analogies for learning involve transfer rather than constructivism
The mug is filled by the jug Teacher as petrol pump attendant filling student’s empty tanks
Constructivist Teaching – Brain friendly teaching
- Learning requires a stage where students are required to process the information given them. They need activities which require them to make personal sense of the material and so construct their own meanings.
- Research shows that learning activities that require active student processing improve recall by as much as a factor of ten, are more enjoyed, and create deeper learning.
- Meaning is personal and unique, and is built upon personal prior learning and experience, which differs from student to student. There is no one way to learn something and a variety of tasks and experiences are required to meet individual need.
- A useful analogy for effective teaching is sports coaching. The student is an athlete, and the teacher their coach. The teacher (coach) may explain, but this is not enough. The student (athlete) must train to practise and develop their skills, and the teacher (coach) provides suitable activities for this, and then provides feedback on the student’s performance during the practice and suggests remedial work where this is necessary. The athlete can only improve performance by training; the student can only improve performance by learning activities.
- The brain is a parallel processor not a sequential processor. So learners need to think about parts and wholes at the same time, and to integrate topics.
- Skills such as high order reasoning need to be taught along with content, not separately.
Learning is enhanced by a challenge, but weakened by a threat. Threats release cortisol into our body causing high order thinking skills to take a back seat.
Constructivist Teaching Strategies
As students’ learning will involve errors, tasks should offer opportunities for self-assessment, correction, peer discussion, teacher feedback and other ‘reality checks’.
Brain friendly strategies involve plenty of water, oxygen, protein, good diet, rest, and physical exercise as well as brain exercise. Learning drops by 20% if you eat excessive carbohydrates as this causes the release of ceratonin into our blood which relaxes us.
Full focus can only be attained for the same number of minutes as your age, up to about 20 or 25 mintues maximum. Short breaks and changes of focus help.
- ‘Teaching by Asking’ or guided discovery
- Explaining tasks that require students to express their understanding to each other, and to develop this understanding before expressing it (e.g. peer explanation, and Jigsaw)
- Ask ‘diagnostic’ question and answer, and use wrong answers to explore and correct misunderstandings. ‘Socratic questioning’.
- Use thought provoking tasks and questions that are high on Bloom’s Taxonomy, rather than simple recall as these require more thought and processing.
Analysis: ‘why?’ questions.
Synthesis: ‘how’ could you? questions.
Evaluation: judgement questions.
These high order questions require students to construct their own conceptions of the new material. You can’t reason with material until you have conceptualised it, so questions that require reasoning force conceptualisation.
- Use Case studies that relate the topic to real life or former experience and so former learning.
- Use Group work requiring students to discuss the material, so that peer checking and teaching takes place.
- Learning involves ‘pattern making’, so use mind maps and summaries that point out the relation of the parts of a topic to the whole. Also point out the relation of today’s topic to other topics.
- Teach skills in the context of the topic of your subject. Think of yourself as a skills teacher who uses content to teach the skills.
- Stimulation increases the learning rate. So use rich multi-sensory resources, lively activities and generate a sense of fun where you can.
For more constructivist teaching strategies see the following handouts:
See also the chapter in Teaching Today called ‘Teaching is a two way process’. This includes a game which is an excellent experiential way of putting over constructivism.
Also see Carole Dweck’s theory of motivation. This shows that students do not hold a constructivist view, but believe that learning depends on talent.
Constructivist Teaching Strategies
• Use teaching strategies that require students to make a construct. (Presenting information is not enough.) Students must apply, use, or process the information.
• Ensure that all students are participating in making constructs; holding them accountable for their learning.
• Ensure the tasks require students to process the information at a high level on Bloom’s taxonomy: Evaluation, synthesis, analysis etc.
• Require the students to make a product that is used to diagnose learning errors and omissions. e.g. speaking to a partner, matching cards, written work etc.
• Require students to check for their own, and each other’s learning errors and omissions.
• Require students to correct these learning errors and omissions.
• Make the above fun!
- Problem solving tasks with self assessment and peer assessment
- Evaluation matrix
|Students, working in pairs are given a text or watch a video etc, along with:
The pairs of students must decide which cards are correct, and what is wrong with the incorrect ones.
This is a greatly enjoyed activity with the atmosphere of a game.
• Peer explaining
|Students in pairs are given two related texts about topics that have not been explained to them, for example one about measles and another about mumps. They each study one of these alone for say 5 minutes. Alternatively they could use the same text/video etc, but look at different aspects of it. For example students could watch a video or read a text on the marketing policy of a small company, and one student could look out for strengths in the policy and another for weaknesses. Each student explains their topic to the other who asks questions until they understand. Integrative task: The pair then works together at a task that requires them to work together on both topics. A useful question for this is to ask students to “State what is the same, and what is different about measles and mumps.” Or “Considering both strengths and weaknesses, what do you think of the marketing policy? How could strengths be built upon, and weaknesses addressed?”|
|A Cooperative learning method
Jigsaw is one of many cooperative learning methods with high effect sizes*.
Each group studies one disease or question with the help of texts and worksheets etc. This is usually done in class time, though you might be able to adapt the method for students to do their learning outside of class time. (See Independent Learning)
• i. Severity of potential consequences • ii. Ease of protection