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Constructivism in the Classroom

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When implemented in the classroom setting, the constructivist learning theory can be a bit challenging at first. It deviates sharply from the traditional classroom elements in such a way that for many educators, it can seem daunting. However, there are a host of resources available to enable educators to understand practical applications of the constructivist learning theory and how they can facilitate the learning process in their own environment, thus improving classroom procedures.

Constructivism in the Classroom

In a constructivist-based classroom, the teacher is little more than a guide, someone who provides support, or scaffolding, for learners as they progress through their various goals. The majority of interaction in this sort of classroom management is done in student groups; they are encouraged to learn from one another. Students are encouraged to ask questions; when they do, they are rewarded, and the steps are taken to ensure they can find the answer themselves. Primary sources are implemented, reinforcing the idea that students in a constructivist classroom are independent learners with their own theories about the world around them.

Assessing Constructivism

Assessments in a constructivist classroom do not stand out as such; students are not given an objective test at the end of an exercise to gauge whether or not they memorized the concepts. Instead, nontraditional types of assessment are implemented, allowing teachers to accurately gauge students progress at various points. This removes the pressures associated with assessments, and ensures that student learning is being gauged at various points in the learning cycle. Exhibits, portfolios, interviews, and other types of nontraditional assessment are common in the constructivist classroom, as it enables each student to demonstrate what they have learned using their strengths and abilities; they are not forced to conform to the specific style of a particular test.

To describe this continuing phenomenon of how individuals continue to learn, Piaget coin the term “constructivism.”  As stated by Waite-Stupiansky (1997), constructivism:

…describes the theory of how people learn and refers to the process of change or knowledge construction that occurs in one’s thinking as learning occurs.  Traditionally, knowledge has been treated as a collection of facts and information.  Piaget demonstrated that knowing something involves much more than being able to recite memorized information.  Knowing involves organizing information and forming a conceptual foundation within which new knowledge can fit.  Knowledge is never static; it changes and transforms with each new discovery.  Furthermore, the learner has an active part in the knowing process.

Using the Constructivist Approach in the Classroom

Educational strategies utilizing a constructivist approach must match a student’s developmental level.  By utilizing this approach, expectations of students are raised for deeper understanding on the part of the students.  Constructivist teachers must teach for understanding. Teaching and learning under the philosophy of constructivism is guided by several key principles:

  1. Learning is a search for meaning.  Therefore, learning must start with the issues around which students are actively trying to construct meaning.
  2. Meaning requires understanding wholes as well as parts.  Parts, however, must be understood in the context of wholes.  Therefore, the learning process focuses on primary concepts, not isolated facts.
  3. In order to teach well, educators must understand the mental models that students use to perceive the world and the assumptions they make to support those models.
  4. The purpose of learning is for an individual to construct his/her own meaning, not just memorize the “right” answers and regurgitate someone else’s meaning.  Since education is inherently interdisciplinary, the only valuable way to measure learning is to make the assessment part of the learning process, ensuring it provides students with information on the quality of their learning.

According to Teaching with the Constructivist learning Theory organization, these principles have an unequivocal effect on the impact of learning in the classroom.  Constructivist approaches directly influence several aspects of traditional education including: the design of the curriculum, which necessitates the need for hands-on problem solving and the abandonment of standardization; instruction, which now requires educators to focus on making connections between facts and fostering new understanding; and assessment, which calls for the elimination of grades and standardized testing.

In order for educators to have success with this type of teaching atmosphere, certain characteristics must be present within the learner(s).  One of the principle goals of a constructivist approach to education is to help students become responsible decision makers.  Helping students construct moral understandings of right and wrong is a necessary and important part of education.  It is, therefore, important that students develop a sense of moral understanding.  Utilizing this idea, discipline is no longer viewed as the act of controlling students, but rather guidance is viewed as the opportunity to assist students in the development of social and cognitive skills.  In addition, students must make an effort to cooperate with each other in a spirit of mutual respect and have a sincere desire and motivation to learn.  It is important to note that while many of these characteristics are intrinsic in many students, students lacking these characteristics can be fostered and nurtured by proper instruction, curriculum and assessment.

In attempting to apply the constructivist approach to the classroom, it is quite obvious that the benefits would be numerous.  To qualify this statement, a brief understanding of the motivation behind individuals must first be explored.  Maslow suggested that the highest level in a hierarchy of motivational forces is the need to realize to the full our potential as people (self actualization).  Evans then argues that people in the caring professions (doctors, nurses, etc.) achieve a considerable amount of self-actualization by performing tasks that show concern for other people.  By this reasoning, these individuals, must have a large motivation to learn and achieve.

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