do we learn? Watching a young child grow from infancy to toddlerhood,
we marvel at the amount of learning that has allowed her to understand
her expanding environment. Those early years provide the basis for
language, physical dexterity, social understanding, and emotional
development that she will use for the rest of her life. What a vast
amount of knowledge is acquired before she sets foot in school!
This child taught herself by gathering information and experiencing
the world around her. Such learning exemplifies constructivism-an
idea that has caused much excitement and interest among educators.
Constructivism emphasizes the importance of the knowledge, beliefs,
and skills an individual brings to the experience of learning. It
recognizes the construction of new understanding as a combination
of prior learning, new information, and readiness to learn. Individuals
make choices about what new ideas to accept and how to fit them
into their established views of the world.
In the Classroom
The constructivist teacher sets up problems and monitors student
exploration, guides the direction of student inquiry and promotes
new patterns of thinking. Classes can take unexpected turns as students
are given the autonomy to direct their own explorations.
A May 1990 article in Phi Delta Kappan recounts the story of a
fourth-grade teacher who challenged her students to experiment with
the idea of heat. Convinced that their hats, sweaters, blankets,
and rugs all produced heat on a cold winter day, the children placed
thermometers inside the garments and recorded the results. After
three days the clothes still showed no rise in temperature. Although
some of the students began to realize that they needed alternative
explanations, many clung to their belief that the clothing generated
heat. They were willing to continue testing the garments until their
hypothesis was proven-the entire year, if necessary. The teacher
had to set limits for the task and guide the students' examination
of the evidence.
Constructivist teachers refer to raw data, primary sources, and
interactive materials to provide experiences for their students
rather than relying solely on another's set of data. For teachers
who have used only one printed text, a shift to other sources may
take some adjustment. For example, rather than read about the census,
students examine and interpret census data. Or better yet, they
plan a mini-census, gather their own data, and interpret the results.
Holding on to What They Believe
Our students represent a rich array of different backgrounds and
ways of thinking. Myths, taboos, things we learn from our families,
friends, and teachers-all are part of cultural influence. Content
is embedded in culture and it is difficult to separate the two.
When presented with information in the classroom that contradicts
existing ideas, a student may try to accommodate both interpretations,
rather than change deeply held beliefs. Unless the teacher realizes
what views the students hold, classroom teaching can actually help
students construct faulty ideas.
If the classroom can provide a neutral zone where students exchange
their personal views and test them against the ideas of others,
each student can continue to build understanding based on empirical
evidence. Hands-on activities and observations of the natural world
provide shared experiences for those constructions. For example,
to study the phases of the moon, the class could keep a “sky journal”
(an observational log of the moon and its shape in the sky) for
several weeks. Small groups discuss the various observations and
speculate about their meanings. If models, text references, or illustrations
are available as resources, students should know that these are
the results of others' observations and speculations. Such references
are actually the “constructions” by others of the current understanding
of the world around us.
Easing Into Constructivism
Just as students do not easily let go of their ideas, neither do
school boards, principals, parents, or, for that matter, teachers.
Ideas like student autonomy and learner-driven inquiry are not easily
accepted. Required course content and externally applied assessments
are realities that teachers must accommodate. A teacher inspired
to change to constructivist instruction must incorporate those realities
into her approach.
She might begin gradually, trying one or two “constructivist”
explorations in the regular curriculum. Listening to students as
they discuss ideas together is a good way to start shifting the
balance of responsibility to the learner. Another step is using
primary sources and raw data as the basis of inquiry, rather than
relying solely on the text.
If students begin thinking about accumulated knowledge as an evolving
explanation of natural phenomena, their questions can take on an
exciting dimension. In the next two or three decades, research will
change the way most of the accepted facts of today are perceived.
Our challenge is to foster students' abilities so they can continue
to learn and build their understanding based on the changing world
In a Constructivist Classroom...
Student autonomy and initiative are
accepted and encouraged.
By respecting students' ideas and encouraging independent
thinking, teachers help students attain their own intellectual
identity. Students who frame questions and issues and then
go about analyzing and answering them take responsibility
for their own learning and become problem solvers.
The teacher asks open-ended questions
and allows wait time for responses.
Reflective thought takes time and is often built on others'
ideas and comments. The ways teachers ask questions and the
ways students respond will structure the success of student
Higher-level thinking is encouraged.
The constructivist teacher challenges students to reach beyond
the simple factual response. He encourages students to connect
and summarize concepts by analyzing, predicting, justifying,
and defending their ideas.
Students are engaged in dialogue
with the teacher and with each other.
Social discourse helps students change or reinforce their
ideas. If they have the chance to present what they think
and hear others' ideas, students can build a personal knowledge
base that they understand. Only when they feel comfortable
enough to express their ideas will meaningful classroom dialogue
Students are engaged in experiences
that challenge hypotheses and encourage discussion.
When allowed to make predictions, students often generate
varying hypotheses about natural phenomena. The constructivist
teacher provides ample opportunities for students to test
their hypotheses, especially through group discussion of concrete
The class uses raw data, primary
sources, manipulatives, physical, and interactive materials.
The constructivist approach involves students in real-world
possibilities, then helps them generate the abstractions that
bind phenomena together.
These suggestions are adapted from
In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms
by Jacqueline G. Brooks and Martin G. Brooks (Alexandria,
VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development,