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Now for some concrete examples of constructivism in the classroom! In this section we show you some actual programs and activities that illustrate constructivism IN ACTION.
Constructivism in Action
In Classrooms
In Schools and Projects
At the Discover Lab
What Do Constructivist Lesson Plans Look Like?

Constructivism in Action

In Classrooms

We know there are many kinds of constructivist classrooms. What common features do they share? What are things we will always see in a constructivist classroom?

Jacqueline Grennon Brooks talks about constructivism.

Virginia Lockwood, a first-grade teacher at P.S. 116 in New York, talks about the importance of her students' creating their own knowledge.

The next three videos demonstrate a particular constructivist technique in action -- the strategy of "academic controversy," in which students research and gather information about a controversy, advocate a particular position using evidence to support their point of view, then generate a consensus or compromise among themselves that merges the opposing perspectives.

In the video to the right, Peter Mason's class at Bayard Rustin High School for the Humanities in New York debates a wildlife conservation issue.

In Tim Simonds's sixth- and seventh-grade classes at the Sulk School of Science in New York, students simulate an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council to address a scenario the teacher has constructed. The students have been studying the history of the people, nations, and governments involved in a dispute between Venezuela and Guyana. Both nations claim sovereignty over the territory of Essequibo, a region in Northern Guyana. In order to provide the context for "learning-by-doing," the teacher presents a hypothetical scenario in which Venezuela attacks and occupies Essequibo.

Students adopt the role of U.N. delegates representing the member nations. In order to serve their nation's interests and understand the nature of the dispute, students research "their country's" historical background as well as the factors leading to the conflict they are attempting to resolve. During the course of the simulation, student delegates present and debate their viewpoints, learning how to negotiate a compromise resolution that will be voted upon during the session. Following an initial presentation of each side's claims, students switch positions in order to reformulate arguments according to the opposing camp's perspective. As a result, students learn to appreciate diverse perspectives on a given issue because they are compelled to understand the forces that drive an opposing point of view.

During the caucuses, students debate, justify their claims, and try to persuade other delegates to vote in favor of their position. This process allows students to discover and understand the factors that influence actions and events in history. After student delegates have argued their positions, they are prepared to vote on a resolution. Students are not merely learning history, they are creating history by experiencing the multiple complexities of historical events.

The sciences are a particularly fruitful area for students to draw on their previous knowledge and experience to conduct experiments and construct knowledge about various scientific concepts.

Once again, rather than merely reading about and being "informed" by the teacher, these eighth-grade students at the Spry Middle School in Webster, New York, try to understand the interaction between motion and speed through the mechanisms that drive a ride at an amusement park. The first step is to brainstorm ideas based on their own experiences and other related knowledge that they already possess. These assumptions are tested and confirmed or rejected by subsequent research the students actually conduct.

Feature A critical knowledge-building step entails conducting research in order to draw conclusions that will help students to answer their questions and verify their assumptions. In addition, students must explain the results of their research, a step that engages the students in the critical thinking process as they draw their conclusions. They create their own mental models in order to explain their results, draw conclusions, and communicate these conclusions to their peers.

Here, children are designing a parachute in order to explore the effect of shape, size, and weight on the rate of descent. In a traditional setting, the teacher "teaches" these facts in the classroom. However, a real-world design problem allows children to discover the interaction between these variables. Through trial and error and collaborative learning, children attempt to figure out which combination of conditions will enable a parachute to descend.

Virginia Lockwood encourages her first graders at P.S. 116 to reflect on their knowledge-creation process.

Virginia Lockwood's first graders express their knowledge in their presentation on sharks.

In Schools and Projects

top The following schools and projects incorporate aspects of constructivist theory:

SchoolDalton School, New York

Well-known constructivist private school, considered to be one of the most innovative reform models in education. According to the Web site, "Inspired by the intellectual ferment at the turn of the century, educational thinkers such as Dewey began to cast a bold vision of a new progressive American approach to education. Helen Pankhurst caught the spirit of change and created the Dalton Plan." You can read about such aspects of the school as the "House," the "Assignment," and the "Laboratory."

SchoolGreater Brunswick Charter School, New Jersey

A charter school based on "broad themes of child-centered learning in the vein of constructivism" and other innovative approaches to learning stemming from the work of Howard Gardner and Maria Montessori. Students "direct their own learning" via Personal Education Plans.

SchoolSchools affiliated with the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow

ACOT is a project in which international schools explore computer-mediated constructivist projects. The following are four of the sites:

SchoolDodson Elementary School, Nashville, Tennessee

The constructivist Dodson School "teaches academic and life skills. Its curriculum is as vast as the world around us and as small as the needs of a single child," according to its statement of philosophy. The school also houses the Teaching and Learning with Technology Center that serves the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. The Web site has good links to projects.

SchoolFrancis W. Parker School, Chicago, Illinois

Established in 1901, this independent school prides itself in the teaching of "critical thinking, providing not only a framework for students to learn about the world, but also a self confidence that will sustain them through risk, challenge and uncertainty." This statement reflects the constructivist approach to teaching and learning. Community building is also a major emphasis of this school.

SchoolFoxfire Schools

Foxfire Schools are an exciting experiment in democratic and constructivist learning in rural, Appalachian Georgia. Their thirty-year history illustrates how schools in economically distressed areas can excel based on participatory democracy. The mission of these schools is "to teach, model, and refine an active, learner-centered approach to education which is academically sound and promotes continuous interaction between students and their communities so that students will find fulfillment as creative, productive, critical citizens." The Foxfire projects became a model for schools nationwide to implement learning strategies that build minds, communities, and inroads to historical and cultural continuity. One of the most famous is Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, Rabun Gap, Georgia (http://www.rabungap.pvt.k12.ga.us/Rabun%20Gap/RGNS_Frame.htm) -- the school where students have preserved the historical traditions of Appalachia through Foxfire writing projects that have gained national prominence.

SchoolReggio Emilia Schools, Reggio Emilia, Italy

Schools in the community of Reggio Emilia, Italy, are based on a child-centered philosophy developed there. They emphasize a wholistic approach to critical and creative inquiry, with themes drawn from the works of John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, and Jerome Bruner. These include "approaching old activities in newer ways," "exploring hundreds of languages," and "collaborative learning." Reggio Emilia-style schools have sprung up elsewhere. The Web site is unofficial, but schools submit explanations of their teaching pedagogy there.

At the Discover Lab


Jacqueline Grennon Brooks, EdD. (this CONCEPT TO CLASSROOM workshop's content expert), Cathy Bennett, and the Center for Science, Mathematics and Technology Education run the Discover Lab at SUNY Stony Brook. The Discover Lab features classrooms-in-a-classroom where education students teach K-12 students while learning about constructivist teaching.

Following are some examples of the type of activities going on there.

Last year, many people were wondering about the Y2K problem and whether many services we take for granted would really break down. The Discover Lab developed a curriculum (one among many) called "Starting from Scratch," designed to start students thinking about what people would need to know if we really had to start from scratch. Below are some of its components, as described by Jacqueline Grennon Brooks:

1. Communicating
We don't have anything to use for writing. But we do have some soil and wax. Could we make our own crayons? How hot do we need to get the wax for it to melt? Does it always melt at the same temperature? How do we mix the soil and the wax to get the smoothest color crayon?

Photo by Catherine Bennet


Photo by Catherine Bennet

2. Maintaining a Garden
We have a garden on a hill and a pond below it. We want to use the pond to water the garden. But, water always seems to flow down. We could carry buckets. But, there must be an easier way! We have some siphoning tubes, an aquarium aerator, and materials to make water wheels and aqueducts. Will any of these items be useful to help us solve our problem?

3. Feeding Ourselves
Pasta is a comfort food for lots of people. Without any boxes of spaghetti around, could we make our own? Take out the flour and water and a little olive oil, if you're lucky, and let's find out how much flour you need with how much water to get a dough that's not too sticky, but not too dry. After we make our dough, we need to determine how big to make the pasta pieces. We can use the pots of boiling water to cook the pasta. But, there are so many of us, we each only get five minutes of boiling time. Does the size of the pasta matter in how long it takes to cook?

4. Appreciating the Life around Us
In the movie THE LION KING, Mufasa told Simba that, in the end, we're all food for earthworms. Maybe we need to learn a little about earthworms to know what that means? We have some questions: Do earthworms prefer the light or the dark? Can they swim? Can they hear? It appears that asking them won't give us an answer. So, how else can we find out? We have the earthworms. What else do we need, and what do we need to do to find out the answers to our questions?

5. Expressing Our Artistic Selves
We have some cloth we can use to make clothes. But, it's too plain and we like color. A friend told us that we could get the orange out of yams, the red out of beets, the purple out of cabbage juice, and the green out of spinach, and then we could use the color to dye the cloth. But, how do we go about doing that? Do we chop or grind the vegetables? Can we mix them with water? Does the temperature of the water make a difference? Another friend said that vinegar somehow helps. What does it do?

Photo by Catherine Bennet

  6. Keeping Our Property Clean
We found a huge collection of old pennies. But, they're so grimy that the bank wouldn't take them. The bank tellers told us that the dirty pennies would jam the counting machine. We need to clean them, but we have no cleaning supplies, only some leftover items from the refrigerator and kitchen cabinet: ketchup, salt, oil, some lemons, vinegar, baking soda, and chili sauce. Will any of these items help solve the cleaning problem?

Photo by Catherine Bennet

7. Learning about Other Ways to Grow Plants
We've heard of hydroponics many times, the science and art of growing plants without soil. The seeds and the plants that grow from them need some type of support and a way of getting the water and fertilizer that they need. With the materials on the table or others that you need and we can get for you, design a system whereby your plants can grow. One major challenge to hydroponic gardeners is the wicking system that brings the water to the plants. We have three different types of wicks. Which is the "best"? How do you know? What is your proof?

Let's look at a student response to the last lesson on hydroponic gardening.


Workshop: Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning
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