Deconstructing Constructivism

I spent much of the past weekend on vacation. Apparently, my definition of being on vacation means doing a ton of reading. My Bloglines account had become this holding tank filled with articles, white papers, and books on constructivism, so one of my goals for myself was to clear out as many of them as I could. I’m still working on the books, but it was a fairly interesting read that reminded me of why I teach how I teach.

Because of my rather extensive background in teaching in informal settings, I figured out fairly quickly that I was probably a constructivist at my core. When you’re in a position to teach people with no opportunity to really know their academic background, it just seems the easiest way to go (in my own opinion). As a museum educator, I had very little time to ascertain where my audience was and tailor my presentations and workshops to that level of knowledge. I had to depend on them coming in with a certain level of knowledge and try to build on that.

In my current job, it’s really not much different. I have a little bit more time, and I’m working with individuals on a one-to-one basis, so i can more accurately pinpoint a level of prior knowledge quickly and work from there.

Part of what bothers me about what I read, though, is this strange notion that someone who teaches from a constructivist background must just leave the students to their own devices. The misconceived notion is that you figure out what they know, throw something new at them with no explanation, and hope they learn the right lesson from it. That might be somewhat true in the development of static museum exhibits, but generally, teaching from a constructivist perspective, again in my own opinion, is more than that.

For me, the process begins with ascertaining that level of knowledge and then introducing the new topic briefly. For those situations where i want the students to explore the concept for a bit before we talk about it, I allow them time to work through an experiment. It’s usually directly related to what I want them to learn. After everyone has had a chance to experiment with the concept, I like to bring everyone back together to discuss what everyone found, to see if a pattern can be found, and go from there. I’ve never once thrown a new concept at students and expected them to figure it out on the own.

Perhaps this makes me a part-time constructivist. I don’t know. I do think there’s something to be said for guided discovery, though. Through a controlled experiment and directing questions, partnered with discussion, there is so much a child can understand on their own, and I do feel that gives them a sense of ownership over what they’ve learned.

I used this technique successfully as a museum educator. I use it successfully with the students I currently teach. I think it’s really all about how you construct the constructivist lesson.

Some of the weekend’s reading:

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