Constructivism: Making Personal Connections

As teachers, we all have educational theorists or pedagogies we subscribe to. The choice of whom to follow, how to blend multiple philosophies if you like more than one, and how to apply those philosophies is a deeply personal affair that really separates each teacher. It’s what makes every classroom a unique learning space. I thought it might be fun over the next few weeks to cover my personal blend of philosophies I either use or am learning about because I think it’s fascinating.

Because I intended to go into museum education when I entered my teacher prep program, I found myself more drawn to discovery and student-centric philosophies, applying them to my museum work almost as soon as I was out of class most days. Museums and other cultural institutions are often designed to be self-directed learning experiences, leaving visitors the ability to discover what interests them and learn more about it, and I wanted to be part of designing for that.

That was actually what drew me to Constructivism. Informed by the research of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, Constructivism touches on what the learner already knows, shows it to them in a new light or extends it, and then asks the learner to draw their own conclusions by reflecting on the reconciliation of what they know and what they’ve just experienced. The idea is that this new bit of information becomes a part of the learner so the next time they experience the same thing, they’ll know what it is.

Constructivism builds, or scaffolds, on to what the learner already knows, giving it an advantage to be learned once the learner can see the connection. Sometimes, it’s just enough to make a simple correction. “Yes, dear. That red bird is a cardinal.” Sometimes, the connection has to be formed over a period of time. “Do you remember back to when we multiplied fractions? This is like that, but with one additional step.” “Close, but remember multiplying fractions?” etc. etc. etc. When the connection is made and firm in the learner’s mind, they are usually able to explain that connection either to you or, as I often see, to another student, helping them further build their understanding of the new connection.

Making these connections on a personal level encourages the student to learn the material for the sake of making that connection, for learning that new material, for preparing to learn the next bit that will scaffold on to the new learning. It’s fun to watch happen. (This is when I most often see that light bulb moment with my students.) It’s also self-assessing. When you tap into the prior knowledge and find either nothing there or a weak connection, you know immediately you need to stop and address that gap before moving the student forward to the new bit. It’s an organic teaching method, and I’ve had success using it with students of various ages and skill levels as well as in various settings.

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