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
By Judi Fusco
Active Learning Day is Today, October 25! What are you doing for it? What will active learning look like in your classroom? In active learning, students work on meaningful problems and activities to help them construct their learning. This includes inquiry activities, discussion and argumentation, making, solving problems, design, and questions.
Last month, we had the pleasure of helping organize the Active Learning in STEM Education Symposium, sponsored by NSF as part of the activities honoring the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching awardees. The keynote speaker, Bill Penuel, focused on “talk” -- particularly “accountable talk” -- as an important activity to support Active Learning.
If you want to know more about accountable talk, take a look at the Talk Science Primer by TERC. There are many great tips for teachers of all subjects in there. For Math Classrooms, here’s a link discussing Creating Math Talk Communities. For general information about it see ASCD's Procedures for Classroom Talk.
In the Active Learning in STEM Education Symposium, one of the presenters, Joe Krajcik, discussed Interactions, a curriculum aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) to make science an active endeavor in a classroom. (Visit the Interactions project page and click on the curriculum tab to learn more.) Language and talk are essential in NGSS. You may want to check out the videos on the NSTA site where you can see what NGSS looks like in action. You can also see what NGSS looks like in a 4th grade Science Classroom; this video was shown in the Active Learning Day in STEM symposium by Okhee Lee as she discussed NGSS for all Students including English Learners.
Other presentations at the symposium included Jennifer Knudsen on Bridging Professional Development and the idea of using Improv in a Math class, Eric Hamilton on collaborating with a cyber-ensemble of tools, Tamara Moore on using mathematical modeling to engage learners in meaningful problem solving skills, David Webb on AgentCubes as active learning, and Nichole Pinkard on Digital Youth Divas and making eCards to learn about circuitry. (See links to the presentations of all the speakers on the site. )
Active Learning Day is officially today, but there’s no reason why you can’t do more in your classroom at any time. Leave a comment and tell us about what active learning looks like in your classroom!
By Patricia Ruiz
Pati Ruiz is a doctoral student in Learning Technologies at Pepperdine University. She has worked as a teacher (Spanish and Computer Science), Director of Learning Technology, and is the incoming Dean of Studies at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City.
As a teacher studying the learning sciences in graduate school, I understood constructivist practices in theory, but I often wondered what constructivism looked like in action. Taking a constructivist perspective, Windschitl (2002) describes learning as an act of both individual interpretation and negotiation with others, where knowledge is the collection of what is constructed individually and collectively. In classrooms, a constructivist or open approach should support learners in actively constructing their own knowledge, but what does that really look like? How much time does it take? What are the challenges?
I spoke with some teachers to learn more about how they support an open approach to learning in their classrooms. This post will focus on the strategies of a middle and high school math teacher I interviewed. Future posts will focus on the work of high school Spanish and English teachers.
Math Classroom Example: Christine Trying a New Curriculum
Christine DeHaven is in her fifth year teaching middle and high school math. In her Honors Algebra 1 class at Pacific Ridge School, she always taught in a very guided or instructivist approach. For example, if the topic was lines, she would first lecture about lines, then work out one example in front of the class, and then students would do some problems on their own in class. For homework, students would complete more problems that progressed in difficulty. The class would then move on to the next topic. Christine noticed that students were just memorizing steps instead of problem solving, so she decided she needed to change her teaching approach.
Christine had learned about a new curriculum that allowed the students to learn through conferences and visits to other schools, including The Bishop’s School, Deerfield Academy, and Phillips Exeter Academy (where the curriculum was developed). Christine and a colleague decided to swap their traditional direct-instruction approach for a problem-based approach. Christine had seen the new curriculum in action, and felt that it could work at her school, too. Still, she modified the curriculum slightly for her students. Sometimes the transition to a new approach needs to be done gently. Here is what Christine’s curriculum looks like now.
First, students are assigned 8-10 homework problems per night. The goal for students is that they attempt all of the problems before class. When they arrive to class the next day, students pick a problem to solve on the board. Multiple students may put up the same problem, and everyone contributes at least one problem. After all of the problems are on the board, groups of students go to the board to present one problem at a time. If there are multiple solutions to the same problem, Christine leads a discussion about which solution is more efficient. With this new method, Christine finds that her students have more ownership of what they are learning. They apply problem solving skills to the homework and construct their own understandings through their solutions and conversations about their solutions. When they present their work and discuss the various solutions, students gain a better understanding of the concepts because they have to make a case for or against a certain way of solving a problem. Christine also encourages students’ use of graphing as a method to solve the homework problems. Students use tools like the Desmos Graphing Calculator to see a visual representation of the problem. In this way, Christine guides students to look at problems in three different ways: numerically, algebraically, and visually.
Parent education and administrator support has played an important role in the ease of adopting her new curriculum. While Christine initially received some negative feedback about her approach from parents, she felt well supported by her school administrators who are able to point concerned parents towards research and articles about the success of this approach. Open house became an opportunity for Christine to educate concerned parents--she even encouraged them to work with their children to solve the daily homework problems. Christine still attempts to engage parents by encouraging them to follow along on the course website. Many do, and often share stories of working on problems with their children. While parents were initially skeptical, many now tell Christine how much they appreciate the new approach and they have fun helping their children with their math homework. In the beginning, Christine also got negative feedback from students. But - for the most part - they have come around now that they have more practice with the approach. Something else that has helped students adjust is that the homework problems they are solving are very realistic; students can relate to them. For example, one problem, which aims to help students understand how dangerous glancing at a phone is when driving, asks students to compute how far they would drive down the highway in the time it took them to read or respond to a text message. Many of Christine’s students are learning to drive or have friends who are, so problems like these are relevant and engaging to them. (Please don’t text and drive!)
Though challenging, Christine persisted in adopting the open curriculum because she felt that it was the best approach for her students. She thinks that students have a better understanding of the concepts they have covered. For example, they understand how to factor a polynomial and aren’t just guessing and checking. She reports they are able to prove why the square root of 2 is irrational. They also have a better sense of how a graph relates to algebra, and they persist in solving problems. When solving homework problems, students don’t always know the math theories or strategies they are using, but they are developing algorithms and figuring out problems as they go. These are essential skills for mathematics. Additionally, when students don’t solve a problem the first time, they are willing to try again and again. In this way, they are developing a growth mindset and starting to see the payoffs.
This approach has been more time consuming for Christine. It’s the first time she’s seen many of these problems on the homework, so she needs to solve them all in multiple ways before going to class. She needs to think like her students and try to anticipate the problems they’ll have and the misconceptions they might bring to a problem. This means she really needs to know the content she’s teaching. It’s more prep time before class, especially in the first year, but this way she knows how to guide discussions and ask the right questions. Christine uses her expertise to help students gain a deeper understanding and make connections to content they have seen before. She’s not lecturing as much anymore, but she remains the content area expert.
This idea leads to something that might be a struggle for some. It is described by Harland (2003) like this:
“When students arrived at a position where they could function well together and drive the enquiry forward, they seldom asked for help, and the teaching team no longer had their old roles and familiar student contact. Paradoxically, we felt some sense of loss at this stage and concluded that a lot of pleasure in teaching had gone…”
For Christine, though, she simply sees her role as a teacher changing. She is now more of a facilitator who ensures that students hit certain key points. She guides students in thinking more deeply by helping them ask questions instead of giving them answers. Her connection with students is now stronger, in her opinion. Preparing for class is more involved and time-consuming and her role in the classroom is smaller. But for Christine, that’s okay. What excites her about teaching is helping students discover the math that she loves, and she’s doing that.
If you’re interested in learning more about open approaches to Mathematics education, Christine recommended the Exeter Mathematics Institute and the Mathematics Visionary Project. We would love to hear what you think and the questions you might have for Christine or other teachers.
Harland, T. (2003). Vygotsky's zone of proximal development and problem-based learning: Linking a theoretical concept with practice through action research. Teaching in higher education, 8(2), 263-272.
Windschitl, M. (2002). Framing constructivism in practice as the negotiation of dilemmas: An analysis of the conceptual, pedagogical, cultural, and political challenges facing teachers. Review of educational research, 72(2), 131-175.