The process of breaking a concept down, putting it back together, and then enhancing that model is a framework that can potentially transform how we learn in school. As a teacher looking at the current state of education, the state of many of our student’s understanding is very shallow because instruction is not designed for our students to deeply understand and hold on to that understanding for the long haul. Information is held on until an assessment like a test, quiz, midterm, or final is completed and then it disappear. In this blog, we are going to explore the following essential questions:

  • Why is the constructivist approach to learning and teaching effective in keeping understandings deep in the long term memory?
  • What processes, frameworks, and pedagogical strategies should we considered when we approaching learning from a constructivist and constructionist approach?
  • What compromises must we consider when we approach learning from a constructivist point of view?

Constructing the Bridge the Understanding

In order to understand how understanding work, I will be making an analogy using bridge construction to making a network of neural connections within our brains. Though this mental model is partially accurate due to it’s complexity, creating understanding is properly represented as constructing a network of connections or bridges versus one bridge. Re-framing what we need to learning also means breaking down bridges or neural connections and rebuilding new ones.

Understanding for the Long Term

If a bridge is sturdy, it’s integrity will last for a very long time. A sturdy bridge has supports, scaffolds, and structures embedded so that it will last for a very long time. Those support, scaffold, and structure exists because the structure of the bridge has been tested, iterated, and upgraded based upon the conditions the bridge lies in. Work and effort has been put into constructing those supports. Vice versa, a bridge that is unstable hasn’t been given the time, resources, supports, scaffold, and structure for it to be a stable bridge and over time will slowly corrode and eventually will break down. If the person walking across the bridge represents information and stimuli on a stable bridge, the information would transmit efficiently whereas a less sturdier bridges will lose that connection.

Nerve Impulse being transmitted through axons to neighboring nerves cells.

Analogously when the brain is trying to make meaning, it forms a complex neural network. A complex neural network represents multiple access point to reference an association to an abstract concepts. A complex neural network also represents the sturdiness of the bridge. Though over time certain details of that memory will degrade, that structural integrity of the neural network still exist for us to remember and concept from a while back. All in all, deep understanding means a complex neural network has been built. The dilemma that we are up against is how do we facilitate the growth and structuring of this complex neural networks that our students are forever structuring and restructuring?

The Lens In Which We Build the Bridge From

There are an infinite amount neural network or bridges that our learners built. This shows that all our learner are unique in their own sense as the bridges that we will mostly likely work from is based on the bridge that our students experienced and crossed in their prior experience. Our prior experience, our culture, values, beliefs, our environment, . . . our schema all contribute to why and how we build a network of bridges moving forward. In fact, our schema contributes to organizing and filtering all of this information that we gather in our environment. Our schema contribute in the process of sense making by recognizing patterns and prioritizing all the input coming in from our learning experience. Our schema is our primer to learning; it’s a mechanism that customizes how these neural connections are uniquely glued together.

The Pathway to Understanding

Building a bridge sounds simple conceptually but it is more than that. There has to be a purpose why the bridge is being built and where this information is going. If there is lack of purpose, there is lack of motivation to make that network of neural connection. Goal setting and purpose is a catalyst that jumps starts the brain to want to solve something or make meaning as our brain innately does that consciously or unconsciously. The brain want to know where this learning will lead us and hence learning from a variety of relevant experience will lead to new neural pathways that are built to deeply understand the big picture concept.

Constructing a Sturdier Bridge

After looking at how and why these neural bridges are formed, as educators we are in a bind of looking at which learning approach will best make these neural connection sturdy for the long term. There are a number of approaches to learning and instruction. For the purpose of this blog post, I’ll be coming from a lens in which the learner constructs meaning from environmental stimuli and experiences or the Constructivist Learning Theory (Constuctivism). Many pedagogues are used so that our learners are able to construct meaning for themselves such as Project Based Learning, Problem Based Learning, Portfolios, Inquiry Based Learning, Dialogue and Discourses, Thinking Aloud, Complex Instruction, and more. The state pedagogies are all applications of the Constructivist Learn Theory. I will be using the constructivist approach to learning and teaching due to the understanding that our brains are always adapting, reframing, and shifting. Understanding is iterative rather than static.

In this approach, learning is facilitated. Our role as a constructivist facilitators/coaches is to

  • BE PURPOSEFUL: Start with the Big Picture Concept In Mind.
  • RE RESOURCESFUL: Curate a variety of different resources and experiences
  • SCAFFOLD LEARNING: Teach student how to use those resources and facilitate experiences
  • FACILITATE: Facilitate meaning making by making sense of all the experience and resources.
  • .COACH: Notice and provide feedback for growth.

The goal behind this process is build a strong foundation of understanding so that we can connect new learnings to the previous understandings and build upon that. In building from what they already know, they strive to better understand the big picture concept. When our student undergo this cognitively heavy process, our learners are always referring back to that big picture concept when they experience an event that relates to it. The facilitator is always enticing connections and meaning making by asking “How does this experience relate to our big picture?” Meaning making is a metacognitive process in which our learner are constantly in this state of organizing, reorganizing, and updating. It’s this process in which we make the networks of bridge complex and sturdier by associating different event and concepts to the big picture concept.

The Constructivist’s Compromise

As with any approach, the constructivism is a big shift if you’ve been instructing in a conventional way. In the article by Dr. Bada (2015), he compares a traditional classroom to a constructivist classroom

1 Shift from traditional to constructivist classroom | Download Table

This comparison between traditional teaching and constructivist classroom has some implication with our teaching practice.

  • A constructivist teaching doesn’t primarily use a given curriculum. A constructivists might use components of the curriculum or adapt it to their context.
  • A constructivist builds off of what students already know. They have an asset based mindset. Remember, we are using student’s already existing schema to help make connections between what they already know and what is being learned.
  • A constructivist classroom requires a lot of front load work from planning backward from the big picture concept, designing assessment, planning group work, coaching students, and looking at learning from a interdisciplinary point of view.
  • Educators are not separate from the student learning process, educators parts of student learning process.
  • The constructivist approach is an interdisciplinary approach and will require a singular teacher to explore connections of experiences outside of their core course. Approaches like interdisciplinary teams make this work more efficient when teacher across disciplines can converse about the connections that students will eventually make.
  • If you thinking of covering everything on the standards list, you won’t. A constructivists understands that understanding takes time and everybody has their own unique rate and ways to demonstrate understanding. The compromise is if we are to facilitate learning on a deeper level, it will take time and we won’t cover everything. By constructing knowledge, the student builds a strong conceptual framework and is able expand on that. If we were to cover everything, chapter by chapter, standard by standard, student’s understanding would be shallow and less connections are made. We only have enough time in a school. A constructivist’s priority is make sure students learn how to learn vs. coverage of curriculum.
  • On the other hand, what we will see is active learning happening, a classroom culture based on growth, and relationships with students where we know every student’s backgrounds, strengths, and needed improvements.

After experiencing this process for 10 years, I’ve improved it along the way. My first couple years of approaching teaching and learning from a constructivist point of view were a little rough around the edge so expect that to happen and expect a lot of reflection and re-framing so that you are able to improve your craft moving forward. You learning is iterative and you are also in the process of constructing your understanding of the constructivist approach. I advise start small.

The Constructivist Classroom

When designing the space and instruction for a constructivist classroom, it is important to:

  1. Accept the student’s voice and accept their prior knowledge because that gives the us, the facilitator, something to work with and build off of.
  2. Use a wide array of materials whether it be primary sources, manipulatives, data, tool, etc. Don’t forget to teach your student how to analyze and use them as a learning tool.
  3. Include dialogue and conversations as social constructivism is key to gaining multiple perspectives to getting to the big picture concept. It is important to scaffold how to have dialogue using sentence starters and interactive practice.
  4. Empower students to ask probing and clarifying questions and make sure we appreciate them for asking them for those questions.
  5. Engage students in experiences that show contradiction to their initial mental model and encourage discussion and meaning making to push for reconstructing their mental model.
  6. Assess students through performance tasks

In Conclusion

Having a constructivist lens to learning puts our students at the driver seat to construct their own meaning about world around them. Your work in planning the experience and creating the culture is key so that their learning becomes personal and they own their mental model of how things function.

References

Bhattacharjeem J. (2015). Constructivist Approach to Learning – An Effective Approach of Teaching Learning. International Research Journal of Interdisciplinary & Multidiscipinary Studies. Vol 1. Issue 5. 65-74

Dr. BADA, Olusegun, S. (2015). Constructivism Learning Theory: A Paradigm for Teaching and Learning. IOSR Journal of Research & Method in Education. Vol. 5. Issue 6. Ver. 1. 66-70

Dagar V., Yadav A. (2016). Constructivism: A Paradigm for Teaching and Learning. Arts and Social Science Journal 7. 200

Driscoll, M. P. (2014). Psychology of learning for instruction. Harlow: Pearson Education.

Matthews, W. (2003). Constructivism in the Classroom: Epistemology, History, and Empirical Evidence. Teacher Education Quarterly. 51-64

Tam, Maureen. (2000). Constructivism, Instructional Design, and Technology: Implications for Transforming Distance Learning. Educational Technology & Society. 3.

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