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In this section of the constructivism workshop (Exploration), you will have many opportunities to both analyze what you're already doing well, and to explore some new techniques that you can add to your repertoire.

Each of the questions below is posed to open an area for discovery. We provide some tools and activities to help you build upon the knowledge you created in Sections 1 and 2.

How do I apply constructivism in my classroom?
What are some simple ways to get started?
What are some challenges I may face?
How do I assess student progress?
How does constructivism align with state and national standards?
How does technology complement constructivism?
How do I work with my school, the parents, and the community?

How do I apply constructivism in my classroom?

As you have seen, there are a number of ways and styles in which the constructivist approach can be applied in the classroom. However, Jacqueline Grennon Brooks and Martin G. Brooks set forth some guiding principles in their book IN SEARCH OF UNDERSTANDING: THE CASE FOR CONSTRUCTIVIST CLASSROOMS.

They are:

Principle 1. Pose problems that are or will be relevant to the students.

In many cases, the problem you pose is or will be relevant to the students, and they will approach it sensing its relevance to their lives.

For example, the general music class in an American middle school is a popular one -- the students find musical composition relevant because of their interest in popular music. The fact that there is an electronic keyboard connected to a computer on which to compose only heightens their interest.

A group of Australian middle-school students whose siblings, aunts, uncles, fathers, mothers, or neighbors are living in East Timor find issues of global peace immediately relevant. Their teacher acknowledges their strong feelings by creating a writing unit that allows the students to write about these feelings.

But relevance need not be preexisting for students. When connected to their Australian peers via the Internet, the American middle-school students can empathize and sense the relevance of peacekeeping in East Timor. The Australian students can e-mail the American students some of their writing. The teachers exchange digital photographs of their respective classes, and the children get to see their peers and their peers' surroundings.

Relevance can emerge through teacher mediation. Teachers can add elements to the learning situation that make the activity relevant to the students.

For instance, the Australian and American teachers can set up an interchange where the Australian youngsters write poetry and song lyrics about peace that the American students set to music. Both groups then post the results on a Web page. The teachers structure the situation so that the students gain skills in several areas (writing, music, communication, and Web-page construction) that have increasing meaning as the project proceeds.

Principle 2. Structure learning around essential concepts.

Encourage students to make meaning by breaking wholes into parts. Avoid starting with the parts to build a "whole."

For example, young storywriters can approach the concept of "telling a story" through discovery activities. These can include a class library of illustrated storybooks, a visit by a storyteller, and some Web activities sponsored by a book publisher. The teacher prepares the students for writing their own stories, and introduces the idea of sequencing through visuals. Students can rearrange parts of a known story or even digitized video material. This last activity might allow the students to reconstruct the order in which a visiting storyteller told her story.

Or, considering the world of a terrarium might help students construct knowledge about flora and fauna in relation to each other. Facts about mosses can make more sense in the context of microhabitats that the students have observed.

You can define or find "essential concepts" in different ways. You might refer to the list of standards your professional group publishes. Or, you can organize your constructivist work by exploring significant historical events (e.g., the Holocaust) or seminal works (e.g., a Mozart opera) from multiple perspectives.

Applying "Big Ideas" to Various Subject Areas

First Column: Concept

The following list of "big ideas" contains conceptual themes that emerge across various content areas. We chose to set down samples from two professional organizations. You might wish to examine the lists of similar materials from other organizations. Several states have published thematic and content-area standards as well.

Second Column: Examples of Areas of Study

We have suggested various content areas where the concept might find fertile ground. These are starter phrases, meant only to suggest areas that would need much deeper development.

Concept to be studied
Subject: example

From The Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy

cause and effect

Science: inertia

change and conservation

Science: terrarium

diversity and variation

History: immigration

energy and matter

Science: gases, fluids, solids

evolution and equilibrium

Art: design studies

models and theories

Mathematics: geometry

probability and prediction

Mathematics: statistics

structure and function

English: film study -- CITIZEN KANE

systems and interactions

Science: habitats

time and scale

Social studies: ancient civilizations

From the National Standards for Social Studies Teachers 1997

culture and cultural diversity

English: world literature

time, continuity, and change

Science: genetics

people, places, and environments

Media studies: learning about people in other countries

individual development and identity

Language arts: novels about growing up

individuals, groups, and institutions

Social studies: Visiting a healthcare institution

power, authority, and governance

Social studies: the Constitutional Convention

production, distribution, and consumption

Social studies: the Pineapple Project/Where does the food you eat come from?

science, technology, and society

Social studies: the Internet and the spread of cultural values

global connections

Language arts: world mythology

civic ideals and practices

Social studies: political internships

Principle 3. Be aware that students' points of view are windows into their reasoning.

The challenging of ideas and the seeking of elaboration threatens many students. Students in the traditional classroom who cannot guess what the teacher has in mind for the right answer quickly drop out of class discussion. They must be "gentled" into the constructivist learning environment through open-ended, nonjudgmental questioning.

Students also need to have an opportunity to elaborate and explain. Sometimes, how you feel about something or what you think is not as important as WHY. Using evidence/proof to present your opinion is most important! The construction of knowledge calls for not only time to reflect but also for time and practice in explaining. Neil Gershenfeld of the Media Lab notes that it is only through constant demonstration that his MIT students become good scientists. The many opportunities to explain what they're doing help them understand what they are learning.

Principle 4. Adapt curriculum to address students' suppositions and development.

Presenting developmentally appropriate work is a place to start. Most high-school students would find the preparation of a film script or a legal brief more engaging and relevant than the report format they mastered in sixth grade. Role plays are also interesting ways for students to present information.

As students engage in the work, the teacher must monitor their perceptions and ways of learning.

For example, a middle-school social studies teacher prepares for her students to study the concept of immigration through films, readings, examinations of firsthand accounts and photographs, and a field trip. In class discussion, she comes to perceive that her students found the multimedia presentations on the kiosks at Ellis Island effective. She also senses how many of her students empathize with the stories of the immigrants. She collaborates with the computer teacher to offer lessons in multimedia-presentation skills. The students work in groups to archive material and give multimedia presentations depicting the immigration experiences of families.

Principle 5. Assess student learning in the context of teaching.

Shift from measuring how well or poorly a student performs to assessing how much and what kind of help a student needs to be successful.

Removing bell-curve assessment frees students from the need to out-achieve others and allows them to collaborate, say, as specialists on the design and construction of a desalinization plant.

Authentic assessment 1 occurs most naturally and lastingly when it is in a meaningful context and when it relates to authentic concerns and problems faced by students. The students who assess their efforts to pass a bill in a mock legislature are likely to demonstrate greater mastery of government than those who face a multiple-choice test on the legislative branch of Congress. Tests -- particularly short-answer, multiple-choice tests -- ask, "Do you know this material?" Authentic assessment activities ask, "What do you know?"


Workshop: Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning
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