Resources for Constructivism

Published in SEDL Letter Volume IX, Number 3, August 1996, Constructivism

The learning theory called constructivism exerts a growing influence on educators. But what conditions can classroom teachers and school administrators create that enable students to construct their own knowledge? These recently released research resources may shed light on constructivist educational practice.

Dynamic Teachers Take On Many Roles to Facilitate Student Learning
Exactly what makes certain teachers effective and inspiring in the classroom can be elusive. But now a book written by Sharon F. Rallis and Gretchen B. Rossman, with Janet M. Phlegar and Ann Abeille, successfully describes the characteristics shared by such "dynamic teachers" through its portraits of teachers Maggie and Don and their student teacher, Sonia.

"Being a good teacher now requires taking on new roles" to ensure that students learn, maintain the researchers. Their book suggests that dynamic teachers adopt no less than seven roles:

  • "The Moral Steward," recognizing the worth, capabilities, and rights of their students
  • "The Constructor," who understands the subject matter and knows different ways to teach it in order to accommodate students' various ways of learning
  • "The Philosopher," who reflects critically about what is and isn't working in the classroom and makes midcourse corrections as necessary
  • "The Facilitator," creating conditions in which students feel safe to take risks and make mistakes and have time to try again
  • "The Inquirer," who depends heavily on assessment to find out what students have learned and what they need to learn more about
  • "The Bridger," a partner with parents, other teachers, and the community to ensure that their classrooms are responsive to the community's needs and wishes
  • "The Changemaker," actively pursuing change in classrooms, schools, districts, professional associations, and policy arenas.

To Order: Dynamic Teachers: Leaders of Change is available from Corwin Press, Inc., 2455 Teller Rd., Thousand Oaks, CA 91320-2218 or from the Regional Laboratory for Educational Improvement of the Northeast and Islands, 300 Brickstone Sq., Suite 950, Andover, MA 01810. Cite order no. 9124, 157 pp., $20 plus $2.50 postage and handling, prepaid.

Confidence in Ability to Make Meaning Motivates Kids to Read and Write
For students to become good readers and writers, they need to believe in their ability to "make meaning" out of information. In other words, they need to see themselves as capable of synthesizing ideas, making judgments, and developing well-formed opinions.

Having confidence that they can understand what they read - and that they can write about it - motivates students to engage in literacy activities, suggest researchers Penny Oldfather and Karin Dahl in a paper from the National Reading Research Center.

Students who are confident of their ability to make meaning of information make sense of things by themselves, rather than waiting for a teacher, a book, or a set of data collected by someone else to do it for them, claim the researchers.

According to Oldfather and Dahl, certain teacher practices are particularly helpful in encouraging students to habitually make meaning of what they read. For example, teachers can share with their students the responsibility of creating meaning by not providing all the answers to questions. Instead, they might invite students to actively participate in class discussions, seriously consider students' ideas, and affirm a variety of student opinions and points of view. Or they might allow students to work together, a practice that encourages students to acknowledge, learn from, and build on others' ideas.

The researchers envision "classroom cultures in which students find their passions, discover what they care about, create their own learning agendas, and, most importantly, connect who they are to what they do in school."

To Order: "Toward a Social Constructivist Reconceptualization of Intrinsic Motivation for Literacy Learning" is available from the National Reading Research Center, Dissemination/Publications, 318 Aderhold Hall, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602-7125. Cite PRR No. 6, 19 pp., $4 prepaid; make checks payable to NRRC/UGARF.

Database Provides Wealth of Info on Alternative Assessments for Mathematics and Science

Why spend time digging up information on alternative assessments in mathematics and science when the regional educational laboratories have already done so?

For assessment specialists, curriculum coordinators, and other educators interested in designing alternative assessments, a computer database designed by the regional educational laboratories houses information on 208 science and mathematics alternative assessments for all grade levels. Alternative assessments are those for which students respond to open-ended questions or complete broadly defined tasks.

The information in the database comes from several sources, such as national and international journals, ERIC Clearinghouses, universities, professional organizations, and publishers of educational assessments. A catalog accompanying each database computer disk provides a hard-copy version of the information. The database is a recently updated third edition including information on some assessments not included in previous editions.

Each listing in the database describes a summary of the assessment, its purpose, the grade levels and student populations it is appropriate for, and contact information. It also contains information on the tasks that the assessment has students perform and the criteria by which teachers ought to judge student performance. Although the database does not contain the assessments themselves, it tells users where they might find copies of them.

To run the database, the computer needs to have the FileMaker Pro software program and a moderate amount of memory.

To Order: Improving Science and Mathematics Education: A Database and Catalog of Alternative Assessments, 3rd Edition (catalog and disk) is available from the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 101 S.W. Main St., Suite 500, Portland, OR 97204. Cite order no. NL-696-XX, 133 pp. and 3.5" MS-DOS or Macintosh disk, $18.30 prepaid; please specify MS-DOS or Mac disk with your order.

Resource Guide Lists Activities That Teach Students to Analyze Real Data
Most mathematics and science teachers do see the benefits of students analyzing real data to solve problems. What stymies them is adapting their lessons accordingly. A resource guide published by the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse describes books and computer programs packed with instructional ideas and materials for such activities.

The guide lists science and mathematics resources - appropriate for all grade levels - that describe activities in which students must make estimates, search for relationships, measure, graph, and communicate results. They also require that students hypothesize, question, observe, and synthesize material. These skills "help [the students] understand the connections between science, mathematics, and the real world," says the guide.

For example, the resource guide includes The Graph Club of Fizz and Martina. Appropriate for kindergartners through fourth graders, this multimedia kit helps students understand how different representations of data are related. Students work together on portfolios to solve problems in stories read aloud by teachers. Students then work on computers to create and analyze graphs that they've generated in their portfolios.

Teachers can find additional resources by searching the clearinghouse's computerized catalog of curriculum resources according to cost of resources, appropriate grade level, subject matter, author, or other characteristics.

To Order: ENC Focus for Mathematics and Science Education: Real Data Resources for Teachers is available from the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse, 1929 Kenny Rd., Columbus, OH 43210-1079. Free while supplies last, 26 pp.

Everyday Environment Contains Array of Meaningful Lessons for Students
The everyday environment is a resource-rich classroom for students. Even a trip to the local shopping center can be educational. Students can practice their skills in estimating how fast people walk. They can learn about human behavior and psychology by observing where people prefer to sit, how long they sit, and what they do while they're sitting. Or they can examine how a shopping center functions, investigating to what extent store displays influence shoppers' purchases.

In a book published by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools, outdoor educator Clifford E. Knapp describes 12 experiential learning projects on themes such as community planning, pollution, and fast-food fact finding. The projects offer creative approaches to reinforce skills students learn in the classroom in subjects that range from mathematics and science to psychology and social studies.

For each project, Knapp discusses the theme, the outcomes expected of students, the activities teachers can use, questions that help students reflect about what they've learned, and performance assessments to find out what students have learned.

Knapp notes that experiential learning is compatible with excellent teaching strategies. It lets teachers easily combine several disciplines into a lesson, and students use hands-on activities to develop their problem-solving skills.

Despite the appeal, not every project lends itself to experiential learning. "The teacher and students must know why they are leaving the classroom...[and] should be confident that a particular field trip or school site activity is the best way to achieve the objectives," asserts Knapp.

To Order: Just Beyond the Classroom: Community Adventures for Interdisciplinary Learning is available from the ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools, Appalachia Educational Laboratory, P.O. Box 1348, Charleston, WV 25325. 107 pp., $12 prepaid.

Conversations Help Students Connect Concepts in Stories to What They Know
Instructional conversations are open dialogues between teachers and students. They enrich students' understanding of what they read by helping them reconceptualize the ideas in the stories and relate them to what they already know.

In a fourth-grade transitional bilingual classroom observed by researchers G. Genevieve Patthey-Chavez, Lindsay Clare, and Ronald Gallimore of the National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning, students explored and revisited the notion of sacrifice. Students read several stories about sacrifice and discussed the concept as it affected their lives.

After several months, when students wrote essays about sacrifice, many students not only mentioned concepts discussed in the stories they had read, but also wrote about ideas they had discussed in class.

Moreover, some students wrote about relevant experiences outside school that they had not discussed as a class, such as religion and sacrifice. Students made "meaningful connections between ideas that emerge in school and their daily experiences in their other communities," say the researchers.

The researchers also maintain that jointly discussing and interpreting the text provides the foundation of a learning community that reflects students' beliefs and concerns.

To Order: "Creating a Community of Scholarship with Instructional Conversations in a Transitional Bilingual Classroom" is available from the Dissemination Coordinator, National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning, Center for Applied Linguistics, 1118 22nd St. W, Washington, DC 20037. Cite order no. EPR-15, 23 pp., $4 prepaid.

Teachers Share Ideas on Designing and Using Alternative Assessments
Having students create their own rubrics - well-defined criteria according to which their portfolios, demonstrations, and other alternative assessments are scored - helps students better understand what is expected of them. It can also enhance learning.

Fifth-grade teacher Karen Barry discovered that, with a little guidance, her students could choose appropriate criteria and use them to evaluate their own science work. She describes the alternative assessment projects that she and her colleagues worked on in a book published by the Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory. Edited by De Tonack, Ceri Dean, and Sally Robison, the book gives other teachers ideas about how best to design rubrics and use alternative assessments in the classroom.

In Barry's class, students eventually worked completely on their own to define criteria for evaluating "planet brochures" that they had produced. "The [project] supported the idea that students who are involved in creating rubrics understand them better and feel a sense of ownership and pride in their work," found Barry.

To Order: Assessment in Action: Collaborative Action Research Focused on Mathematics and Science Assessments is available from Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory, Resource Center, 2550 S. Parker Rd., Suite 500, Aurora, CO 80014. Cite order no. ML-696-XX, 75 pp., $12.50 prepaid.

Student Interaction Increases When Teachers Make Instruction Developmentally Appropriate
Students don't watch the clock in David Burchfield's first-grade classroom. Instead, they spend their time actively involved in learning - deciding what to do and evaluating their learning decisions - as Burchfield uses research on developmentally appropriate education to create an interactive classroom.

Research shows that, although a child's cognitive and social development passes through predictable stages, exactly when the child reaches each stage varies. Developmentally appropriate education compensates for this variability in students' development by allowing each student to learn at his or her own pace.

A videotape coproduced by the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory and the National Association for the Education of Young Children tracks Burchfield throughout the day as he strikes a balance between teacher-directed learning that is geared toward the general ability level of first graders and student-directed learning that gives students the freedom to initiate, plan, and direct their own work so that they are uniquely challenged.

In a typical mathematics time, students engage in an activity structured by Burchfield but are responsible to complete the task themselves. Afterwards, students share their findings with the whole class and investigate any discrepant results.

During read-aloud time, Burchfield reads to the class, asking them to predict and analyze each story. Students' reading abilities vary from preliterate to a fourth-grade level, yet it is not uncommon for them to team up to work on learning plans for their own reading and writing topics.

To Order: Developmentally Appropriate First Grade: A Community of Learners is available from the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1900 Spring Rd., Suite 300, Oak Brook, IL 60521. Cite order no. ECE-DB, 30 minutes, $39 prepaid.

Staff Development Prompts Teacher to Adopt New Performance Assessments
A supportive staff development program, coupled with actual practice in their new skills, turned skeptical third-grade mathematics teachers into believing users of performance assessments to determine how thoroughly students understood classroom topics.

As described in a report by the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST), before the staff development program, teachers generally assessed students' mathematics skills with timed computation tests. In workshops, teachers learned to complement these assessments.

For example, teachers learned to assess and score students' problem-solving, estimation, and other higher-order skills. By the end of the year, they were requiring students to explain orally and in writing how they had solved problems. Workshops also encouraged teachers to conduct informal observational assessments to learn about each student's abilities and problem areas.

Teachers also had previously believed that assessments on simple addition, subtraction, and multiplication problems were sufficient to determine whether students understood these operations or not. However, by the end of the year, "most teachers claimed that performance assessments gave them new and deeper insights into children's thinking and understanding," report researchers Roberta J. Flexner, Kate Cumbo, Hilda Borko, Vicky Mayfield, and Scott F. Marion.

To Order: How "Messing About" with Performance Assessment in Mathematics Affects What Happens in Classrooms is available from the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, CA 90024-6511. Cite order no. TR-396, 49 pp., $2.50 plus shipping, prepaid; CA residents add 8.25% tax.

Excellent Teachers Blend Different Approaches When Teaching Reading
A long-standing controversy in reading research is whether teachers should use whole language or phonics instruction when teaching students to read. A survey of top-notch elementary school teachers indicates that most actually blend both approaches.

Advocates of whole language instruction suggest that students learn to read by reading library books rather than traditional basal reading instruction textbooks. Those committed to phonics instruction promote a skills approach, emphasizing strategies such as decoding and sounding out words.

Fifty-four percent of the teachers surveyed considered themselves whole language teachers, while another 43 percent claimed they were somewhat whole language. Teachers said that 73 percent of the reading material in their classrooms was "outstanding children's literature," find researchers Michael Pressley, Joan Rankin, and Linda Yokoi of the National Reading Research Center.

Despite support for the whole language approach, 95 percent of the teachers said that they explicitly taught phonics, although 90 percent reported doing so in the context of "real reading." Forty-three percent of the teachers reported teaching phonics with traditional workbooks and skills sheets.

"In short, there was much more commitment to teaching phonics in ways that were consistent with ongoing reading and writing and students' needs during reading and writing than to teaching phonics in isolation," conclude the researchers.

The researchers also note other effective strategies used by these outstanding elementary school teachers, such as using a variety of reading activities and avoiding ability grouping.

To Order: "A Survey of Instructional Practices of Primary Teachers Nominated as Effective in Promoting Literacy" is available from the National Reading Research Center, Dissemination/Publications, 318 Aderhold Hall, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602-7125. Cite report no. 41, 27 pp., $4 prepaid; make checks payable to NRRC/UGARF.

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