I had the awesome experience of joining the Teacher Institute at the Exploratorium. The Teacher Institute is a 3 week program for high school and middle school teachers to help transform our teaching practices so that it engages our student. I was intending to do this program 5 years ago (2009) but because of financial circumstances, getting money was a priority. I decided this year that I am going to stop teaching summer school, be selfish, and do some learning. That was the best decision I’ve made in my teaching career. For 3 weeks, a group of us teachers delved into the “constructivist” way of learning rather than one telling you what is happening. We were encouraged and empowered to come up with hypotheses without a fear of being wrong because there is nothing wrong with our perspective. Teacher’s were constantly bombarded with this one question, “What did you notice?” as a starting point before we figured out the mechanisms behind a phenomenon. Of course, we have misconceptions and those misconceptions are often corrected through more observations, testing, and tinkering. Engineering practices were emphasized as California is undergoing it’s STEM Initiative and as California is adopting the the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices. It is two days before the end of this program and this is an appropriate time to be reflective, to process, and to make changes to my current practice.
Throughout this program, I was the student (an observer) not only looking at the content being taught but more importantly what pedagogies were being used. According to the constructivist learning theory, our wonderful facilitators at the Teacher Institute were focused on “the learner thinking about learning and not on the subject.” (Hein 1991) They cared about what the learners were thinking through a data collection process to guides us in seeing if there are patterns that we have noticed because patterns help us construct a rule — our own personal theory of how a phenomenon work. My favorite lesson was the pinhole activity. I’ve studied physics but the way I studied physics was through reading, listening, lab work, tests, and other traditional ways. I got a B in physics which should mean I understood physics really well . . . RIGHT? . . . WRONG!!!!. I had no preconceive notions of what was going to happen. In fact, learning about the behavior of light and optics was something I feared because I didn’t fully understand it during high school and in college. But to be fully engrossed in how light behaves through experiencing the phenomenon, experiencing cognitive dissonance, observation, testing, and discussion, I was able to construct a model on how light behaves. From that point on, I was able to make connection to other exhibit in the Exploratorium.
This had definitely transform my way of thinking about how I teach . . . to teach through the lens of curiosity because curious doesn’t kill the cat. Curiosity motivates one to figure something out. Curiosity encourages life long learning because a learner might have a question or motivation to go beyond the scope of study. All teachers were motivated and were life long learners by asking questions which is always the first step to figuring out the answer. We were never given the answer which was a frustrating process and an important process.
There were moments in the three week progress where I didn’t get it. There was a workshop on creating speakers using a magnets, wires, and a cup. We were playing around with magnets to see their properties, creating a magnetic field using to see how they were interacting with a magnet. Of course the class was noisy because in an activity or project based setting we have to embrace this notion of structured chaos. Learning is suppose to be chaotic, in fact, a constructed thought always comes from nebulous ideas needing to be connected together. There were conversation here and there, there were messy tables, and there were other teacher constructing different ways to make a speaker. Our group failed multiple times because we didn’t find a relationship between the items given to us and we didn’t fully understand how the previous activities connected to creating a speaker. Persistence and grit is an important quality of an engineer and is often ignored because teachers fear that students will struggle and give up. It is a fine balance. I always like to start off my year in STEAM with this thought “YOU ARE GOING TO FAIL . . . IT IS OK TO FAIL . . . FAILING SHOWS THAT YOU ARE ATTEMPTING.” This is failing through a context outside of grades. With time, observing how other groups modeled speakers, and tweaking our devices, we were able to generate sounds and make sense of how speakers work. It was amazing. And guess what, we can tinker with it a bit more to make it sound louder.
The best part of this experience was looking at the exhibits and playing around with them. PLAY is such an important part of learning. Play is enjoyable, play is fun, play is serious work for our kids. When something is enjoyable, we learn effectively. (Willis 2014)
All in all, we experience what our students should be experiencing- construction. Constructivism has implications on instruction, facilitation, support, structure, space, and assessment.
- How do make sure that learning is an enjoyable experience?
- How do we structure in time for students to be curious and to play?
- How do we teach so that students are empowered to construct their understanding through making, breaking, tinkering, and collaborating?
- How do we empower our kids to be life long learners in the sciences and math?
Constructivism is not the silver bullet but it is a theory that that have many positive implication in education. What do you think? Try out constructivism in the classroom and tell me what you notice.