By Sarah Hampton
Sarah Hampton teaches middle school math and science at Sullins Academy in Southwest Virginia. She has ten years of teaching experience in various disciplines and settings.
Over the last sixty years, thousands of articles have looked at whether or not constructivism works. I wanted to understand the research, but it was overwhelming. However, thanks to advances in technology and fancy statistics, researchers can analyze aggregate data on the subject. After reading multiple articles and three meta-analyses (an analysis that aggregates data and allows you to look across many studies) specifically regarding science education and constructivism, two things became apparent. First, it is extremely difficult to show an impact of instructional strategies on student learning outcomes! Out of 1500 studies in one analysis, only six of the studies met the criteria that allow causal inferences to be made (Furtak, Seidel, Iverson, & Briggs, 2009, p. 27). Second, despite that difficulty, the evidence favors constructivism. The conclusions from all three meta-analyses demonstrated statistically significant positive effects of constructivist practices on student learning. So, if we know constructivism is good for our students, then why do we not see more of it in action? To hit a little closer to home, if I know these are good practices, then why am I not doing more of them? I think there are some legitimate obstacles. Here are my top three:
Obstacle 1: The time it takes to find or create relevant, quality tasks
The number of daily teaching requirements and professional demands apart from planning are enough to fill our workday! Planning inquiry instruction is extremely time-consuming because you have to sort through all of the activities that aren’t that great or don’t apply to your subject or grade level. Half the time I end up creating my own from scratch, which is also a time drain. In contrast, planning for direct instruction is a snap. Decide what you want to cover and write down the topic in your lesson plans. Done. As a result, to save time, we often revert to direct instruction (otherwise we cut into our family time to plan).
Proposed Solution A: Find a resource that produces quality learner-centered, constructivist materials and start there. For math, I use http://www.mathalicious.com/ and https://illuminations.nctm.org/. Both allow you to filter by topic and grade level, which saves additional time. For science, I like http://www.middleschoolchemistry.com/.
Proposed Solution B: Try to view the time spent on finding quality materials as a necessary startup cost. If you like them, then you can recycle them year to year. In addition, Berland, Baker, and Blikstein argued that constructivism can actually save time when fully implemented by enhancing “classroom dynamics that may streamline class preparation (e.g., peer teaching or peer feedback)” (Berland, Baker, & Blikstein, 2014).
Obstacle 2: The instructional time it requires to implement meaningful tasks
I don’t know about you, but I start my year feeling behind! There just doesn’t seem to be enough time for my students to deeply comprehend the required algebra or physical science concepts as dictated by state and national standards within the given time frame. When we allow the pressure of the standards and test to dictate our instructional practices, we begin to look for the fastest possible way to disseminate information, and direct instruction is efficient--we just tell them what it is we want them to know. However, efficient is only efficient if it is also genuinely effective.
Proposed Solution: Try to see beyond the standards and the test. D.F. Halpern expressed concern about our preoccupation with these and said, “We only care about student performance in school because we believe that it predicts what students will remember and do when they are somewhere else at some other time. Yet we often teach and test as though the underlying rationale for education were to improve student performance in school. As a consequence, we rarely assess student learning in the context or at the time for which we are teaching” (Halpern & Hakel, 2003, p. 38).
I am not a teacher because I want my students to pass a test. I am a teacher because I want my students to excel in life. Constructivist practices require students to think critically and creatively, innovatively problem solve, collaborate, and communicate--therefore preparing students for the test and beyond. As Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, and Chinn (2007) argued, “This evidence suggests that these approaches can foster deep and meaningful learning as well as significant gains in student achievement on standardized tests” (p. 99). I suspect the greatest benefits of constructivism are immeasurable and consequently undocumented and marginalized. I would love to know the impact on long-term retention, higher order thinking, lifelong learning, and employer satisfaction.
Obstacle 3: The difficulty of meshing inquiry and explicit instruction
I want my students to do the work of the learning, so it doesn’t seem like inquiry if I’m leading the discussion. But sometimes whole group instruction makes the most sense for the instructional goal.
Proposed Solution: Adjust your understanding: constructivism does not preclude explicit instruction. You are probably engaged in more constructivism during whole group instruction than you think. Simple strategies like accountable talk and purposeful questioning lead to minds-on learning even when students aren’t engaged in hands-on learning (Goldman, 2014). Constructivism is often equated with minimally guided instruction, but they are not synonymous. In fact, “most proponents of IL (inquiry learning, a type of constructivism) are in favor of structured guidance in an environment that affords choice, hands-on and minds-on experiences, and rich student collaborations” (Hmelo-Silver et al., 2007, p. 104, emphasis added).
The goal of constructivism is for our students to actively construct meaning for new information rather than passively accepting our word for it. Since we can create opportunities for our students to do this in multiple ways, we should focus on the culture of constructivism rather than the day to day teaching methods we use to maintain that culture.
In conclusion, constructivism isn’t easy, but it is necessary to help students learn. It’s worth finding a way to overcome the obstacles. If you are interested in reading more about why, then please see below for a complete list of the works I cited and consulted. Don’t forget to leave your own comments - I would love to hear your obstacles and solutions, too!
Citations and Further Reading
Alfieri, L., Brooks, P. J., Aldrich, N. & Tenenbaum H. R. (2011). Does discovery-based instruction enhance learning? Journal of Educational Psychology, 103(1), 1-18.
Available at: http://www.cideronline.org/podcasts/pdf/1.pdf
Berland, M., Baker, R. S., & Blikstein, P. (2014). Educational data mining and learning analytics:
Applications to constructionist research. Technology, Knowledge and Learning, 19(1-2),
Available at: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/41c0/0af6ce63b919530ea691d058e8725d33d901.pdf
Furtak, E. M., Seidel, T., Iverson, H., & Briggs, D. (2009). Recent experimental studies of
inquiry-based teaching: a meta-analysis and review, European Association for
Research on Learning and Instruction, Amsterdam, Netherlands, August 25-29, 2009.
Available at: http://spot.colorado.edu/~furtake/Furtak_et_al_EARLI2009_Meta-Analysis.pdf
Goldman, P. (2014, January 22). #2. What is Accountable Talk®? Institute for Learning
Available at: http://ifl.pitt.edu/index.php/educator_resources/accountable_talk/podcasts/2
Halpern, D. F. & Hakel, M. D. (2003). Applying the science of learning to the university and
beyond: teaching for long-term retention and transfer. Change, July/August 2003,
Hmelo-Silver, C. E., Duncan, R. G. & Chinn, C. A. (2007). Scaffolding and achievement in
problem-based and inquiry learning: a response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark
(2006). Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 99-107.
Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction
does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based,
experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.
Available at: http://cogtech.usc.edu/publications/kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf
Lang, Albert. (2010). Executives Say the 21st Century Requires More Skilled Workers.
Minner, D. D., Levy, A. J., & Century, J. (2010). Inquiry-based science instruction - what is it
and does it matter? Results from a research synthesis years 1984 to 2002. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47(4), 474-496.
Schroeder, C. M., Scott, T. P., Tolson, H., Huang, T., & Lee, Y. (2007). A meta-analysis of
national research: Effects of teaching strategies on student achievement in science
in the United States. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44(10), 1436-1460.
Available at: http://cudc.uqam.ca/publication/ref/12context.pdf
Shah, I. & Rahat, T. (2014). Effect of activity based teaching method in science. International
Journal of Humanities and Management Sciences, 2(1), 39-41. Retrieved from
Stohr-Hunt, P. M. (1996). An analysis of frequency of hands-on experience and science
achievement. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 33(1), 101-109.
Available at: https://vista.gmu.edu/assets/docs/vista/JournalOfResearch.pdf
Windschitl, M. (1999). The challenges of sustaining a constructivist classroom culture. Phi
Delta Kappan, 80(10), 751-756.
Available at: http://www-tc.pbs.org/teacherline/courses/inst335/docs/inst335_windschitl.pdf?cc=tlredir