this chapter we explore three learner-centered classrooms.
While the focus of the activity is on the student, the teacher
establishes the lesson context and provides the tools and
structure to complete the activity.
part of the fifth grade language arts strand, students met
twice a week to explore folktales from around the world.
First, each student found a folktale to read, learn, and
tell to the class. Some of the stories came from the school
library, some from talking with their family or from stories
the students already knew. Some were from the local area,
but others were from around the world. The student marked
the tale's country of origin on a world map posted in the
class. While they listened to the various stories, the students
talked about what they liked about them, how they thought
the story had originated, and how some stories were like
others. As the tales continued, a class list of different
story characteristics emerged from their comments.
After all the
stories were completed, the teacher divided the class into
working groups of three students and asked each student
to write a two-page tale, remembering the characteristics
from the class list. Members of the working groups read
each other's tales, provided feedback and suggested additions,
which the author could use or not. The working group also
illustrated the tales, providing at least one picture for
every story. By the end of the unit, the class had a collection
of stories and illustrations bound in a class booklet.
while presumably adhering to the curriculum, was based on
student interests. Students chose a folktale that held particular
interest or meaning for them and the teacher encouraged
them to critique each folktale. Through reflection (discussion)
about each folktale and collaboration (peer editing), students
could construct their own understanding of folktales and
gain another perspective on interpretation through the comments
of fellow students.
enter school with estimation skills, aware of their approximate
height or age, for example. By building lessons around this
prior knowledge, teachers can help students develop a personal
understanding of mathematics. In real life we estimate all
the time--for example, when determining the number of hours
to reach a destination or when figuring out how much money
to leave for a tip.
In this activity
for a fifth grade classroom4, the teacher breaks
the class into several small groups and introduces three
estimation exercises. First, students are given a cluster
of ten dots. They must estimate several other clusters as
"fewer than ten," "more than ten," or
"about ten." Students discuss "good"
estimates--how close the estimate must be to the exact number--and
then emphasize that in some situations, an estimate is just
as good as the exact count. Students estimate the number
of candies in a jar and pencils in a box, documenting how
they arrived at their estimate.
choose strategies to respond to the problem "What is
the sum of 243 + 479?" One group adds hundreds and
tens to produce an approximate sum of 700. Another estimates
a sum of less than 750 by rounding 479 up to 500 and 243
up to 250.
estimate the dimensions of classroom objects. To calculate
the height of the door, one group places their tallest member
against the doorjamb. He knows that he is five feet tall
and reaches slightly more than halfway to the top of the
door, so the door is about nine feet. One girl, measuring
the teacher's desk, recalls reading that a child's hand
is about five inches. Her group decides that two "hands"
equal a foot and estimates the desk length to be four and
one half feet.
exercises encourage numerical flexibility, mastery of a
certain level of mathematical computation, and reflection
about spatial and mathematical concepts. Such skills are
especially important when using calculators or computers,
since students must have an estimate available for comparison
with the calculator's answer.
By posing problems
that demand reflection and self-generated meaning, teachers
can help students build their own understanding and gain
a better sense of what the numbers represent. In the above
example, students draw upon their pool of knowledge (the
boy as five feet tall, the size of a hand) to create a way
to solve the problem.
what the learners and teacher did in this activity. First,
the estimation exercise provides students the opportunity
to use their prior knowledge to solve real world problems.
Second, students accessed a variety of tools (clusters of
dots, candies in a jar, and classroom objects) to construct
their own understanding of the mathematical principles involved.
Finally, by posing problems that demand activity, reflection
and self-generated meaning, the teacher helped students
build their own understanding and gain a better sense of
what the numbers represent.
following example was a three-week exercise, originating
in a Latin class, that could also be used for an interdisciplinary
literature, government, or history class.
at some point or another study the death of Julius Caesar
or read the play by William Shakespeare. The death of Caesar
raises still-relevant questions about political, personal,
and national ambitions. Because all societies, 2000 years
after the fact, still wrestle with such issues, the class
decided to engage in a mock trial of Caesar's murderers,
Cassius and Brutus.
To prepare for
the trial, students watched and read the play Julius
Caesar and viewed parts of the film Cleopatra. Through
a weekly Roman history class, they learned about events
leading up to 44 B.C. Based on their points of view about
the murder, students formed a prosecution team (those representing
Rome) and a defense team (those representing Brutus and
Cassius). Each group voted for its lawyer, produced a set
of witnesses (e.g. Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Caesar's widow),
chose witness roles, and began planning its legal strategy.
Since the trial
was modeled on the American legal system, two lawyers from
the community provided in-class consultations about various
legal and courtroom procedures and placed themselves on
call after school. Students were very excited at having
such "real-life" expertise at their disposal and
approached the exercise with tremendous seriousness.
necessary library research was conducted during and after
class. Groups presented daily research findings and witness
questions to the teacher. She returned them the next morning
with questions to encourage further research or to refocus
those who were off track. In class, the teacher circulated
between the groups, listening to their strategies, and through
her questions guided students to a particular strategy or
issue that they may have missed. On the days of the trial,
students from a seventh grade English class served as jurors.
One teacher gave up her planning period to serve as the
judge; another videotaped the trial.
The trial is
a good example of how learning can transcend content area
mastery toward the development of a set of academic life
skills. Students gained content knowledge of Latin legal
phrases and historical information about the last days of
the Roman republic. They learned the nuances and complexities
of reasoning and how to anticipate and address opposing
arguments. Most important, they were excited about the authenticity
of the exercise and felt that history had come alive for
All the students
participated in the evaluation of this activity by critiquing
themselves and their peers. Students were forthright about
their efforts and the efforts of their group members. Their
grade was based on the process (group cooperation, communication,
preparation, and individual effort) and a final product
(their performance in the videotaped trial).
As with the other
learner-centered examples presented in this chapter, several
constructivist ideas are evident in this activity. Each
team of student lawyers constructed their own belief system
about Brutus's and Cassius's actions based on their interaction
with resources (the two lawyers, the teacher and their team
members), materials (class lecture notes, film, Shakespeare's
play, historical documents) and their accommodation or rejection
of the information presented each day. By reflecting on
the day's trial and by interacting with their peers, students
developed a greater understanding about both subject area
content and legal procedures.