My first confession is that I didn’t know I was a constructivist. Once I realized this, it’s become easier to make intentional decisions about my classroom.
So what is a constructivist? Adherents of constructivism essentially believe that children learn by being actively engaged in and reflecting on their experiences, children learn through social interaction with others, they have different ways and modes of learning, and they develop higher-order thinking through guidance at critical points in the learning process. Of course, this is a simplified view of it; entire books have been written on constructivist classrooms. But for my purpose, what’s most important is the view that learning is an active, participatory venture.
So what does this have to do with my classroom? Well, it forms the theoretical foundation for all that I do. There’s much talk today about the condition of education. Many are concerned but not always for the right reasons. Test scores often don’t tell us much about the state of our children’s education because commonly they aren’t measuring the right things. Brooks & Brooks (1993) lamented:
Many students struggle to understand concepts in isolation, to learn parts without seeing wholes, to make connections where they see only disparity, and to accept as reality what their perceptions question. For a good many students, success in school has very little to do with true understanding, and much to do with coverage of the curriculum. In many schools, the curriculum is held as absolute, and teachers are reticent to tamper with it even when students are clearly not understanding important concepts. Rather than adapting curriculum to students’ needs, the predominant institutional response is to view those who have difficulty understanding the unaltered curriculum as slow or disabled.
Although this was written 20 years ago, it could have been written today.
If educational reform is to be successful it must start with how students learn and how teachers teach, not with legislated outcomes.
So what are the issues?
Too often the North American classroom is dominated by teacher talk. It is the teacher’s responsibility to disseminate knowledge and the students’ job to memorize it. In this atmosphere it is not common for students to initiate comments or questions, and even more rare are student to student interactions, where our students can learn from and hear each other. The physical structure of most of our current classrooms supports this.
Next year my classroom will be different
Most of our current classes structurally discourage cooperation and collaboration. For many hours of the day, our students are expected to sit and learn by themselves.
I have to confess that all of the years I’ve taught, my classroom has been teacher-centered. Students facing the front. Me talking. Next year my classroom will be different. We’ve replaced all of the small rectangular tables with four larger round tables that will facilitate student conversation. My students will be looking at each other, not just me. And we will actually have room to work on projects.
The second issue is that most teachers rely on textbooks. Whatever the textbook says is the only viewpoint that is taught, and yet so many of these books leave out the voices of those who have been oppressed. Consequently alternative opinions are rarely considered.
Up until this year, I’ve used textbooks for science and English. And while I will still use literary texts in my English classes, I don’t think we’ll even take the science texts off the shelf. Last year, in my Biology class, we constructed our own text on a wiki. It was interactive and included students notes and pictures. I love this because we can tailor our text to specifically meet the needs of my students, and my students can contribute to it. It contains my voice and theirs, not just what a publisher deems important.
Getting students doing the hard work
Student thinking is devalued in most classrooms. Very rarely are students encouraged and enabled to think through intricate issues. There is often a right answer and our students are expected to find it.
I confess that I am guilty of this as well, especially in science. Too often I’ve had my students engaged in staid inquiry following a recipe lab with a predetermined outcome that is “correct.” While I think science tries to replicate previous findings for the purpose of proving a body of knowledge, too often my students are not asked to contribute their own thinking and findings to this knowledge base.
I’ve realized that, ultimately, my students have a much higher stake in their education than I do. For some of them, it will be the only organized education experience they’ll take part in. It’s a shame when it’s spent memorizing and regurgitating disconnected facts that are of no use to their “real lives,” when instead they could be engaged in developing skills such as problem-solving, collaboration, critical thinking, information literacy, and other 21st century assets.
I think we’re right in believing that the current education system requires an overhaul, but not in the direction it’s currently headed, from all I’m able to observe. Testing students more isn’t going to help. Unless we begin to honour our students as emerging thinkers, and value their current interests and present conceptions, little is going to change.