Which letters to use?
Call it what you like: “problem-based learning”, “project-based learning”, “project-based science”, etc. Heck, use an acronym if you want to come off as in-the-know (or snooty depending on who you ask). Regardless of your fondness for the names or symbols, they all surround a solid educational tenet: learning should be experiential. If you cannot provide kids with a particularly valuable experience, then engineer one. Allow virtual experience. Create experience by proxy. Ideas experienced are far better than ideas discussed.
Bottom line in naming almost anything: in order to market something, you can’t just market “something”. Simple enough? I thought so.
In my district, an administrative push toward constructivism in our secondary schools has come complete with labels. It is important to note that I do understand the need to possess a common language. Getting to the heart of any issue is simpler if the involved parties do not have to talk the long way around issues. Get a common set of terms, figure out what they mean, inform all parties, stick with them. I get it.
However, I would assert the thing that gets lost in translation here is the commonality. Science inquiry, reading and writing workshop models, math investigations, and problem or project-based approaches in social studies… are all learner-centered constructivist approaches. In reforming curricula for school toward the 21st Century, it is important -in my opinion- to focus on student ownership and engagement. Omission of these facets risks an educational system that is even more disconnected for future students than it is for so many today.
However, there are arguments that fly in from both sides on this issue and they can be quite direct at times. Even a quick search will net individuals and groups who contend that constructivist practices are the hope for the future, and at the same time, the bane of the current day. Both sides of this argument hold merit. How can this be, you ask? Usually when pure arguments fall flat either way, it is due to the fact that the reality is far more complex. I would go so far as to say that the only people likely failing our children today are delivering instruction in a completely laissez-faire or purely direct way.
If you could just sign the dotted line on your teacher contract and follow one or the other school of thought until the day you retire with little thought, then you could argue that teachers might be paid too much. In reality, those reading this blog likely know that this is simply not the case. Learning, and thus teaching, is an incredibly difficult and nuanced endeavor. My biology background allows me to see human beings as the complex entities that they really are. Perhaps that is part of my personal angle into charting a path for my students.
My personal approach
I would suggest that my classroom is as constructivist-leaning as possible in secondary science in my corner of the world. We try to focus on process over content. As a generalist instructional coach in a high school, I have been perhaps able to more quickly make a move further down the constructivist pipeline considering I have to prep for far fewer classes. In fact, all you have to do for a glimpse of this reality is peek into a classroom reflection from October 24th. To be perfectly honest, October 24th of this year marked the first day where what most would refer to as “direct instruction” was utilized in my classroom.
My students are “big kids” and I tend to let them in on these decisions. It is interesting here to see how many of my students were huge advocates for the “direct instruction” approach to biological molecules. Even kids who had been brought along this year with nary a hint of teacher-driven content still harbored a longing for it. However, perhaps they just inherently knew that this was a curricular piece where they would have floundered at first on their own. We talk about scaffolding in class. They get it. They also get those instances where the gap between the curricular goal and background knowledge is just too large to scaffold in an appropriate time period.
I would have to say that has been building for some time. A favorite friend and coach (Jincy Trotter) and I, years ago, would lament how our practices at the beginning of the year would leave us “behind” most of our colleagues. Though we knew we were bringing our kids into the fold the best way we collaboratively knew how, we still felt pressure to “keep up” with the curricular bullet train.
In a constructivist classroom
*The following suggestions are from In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms by Brooks & Brooks, 1993, and were adapted by the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in 1995:
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 inquiry.
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 occur.
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 experiences.
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
While Jincy & I were busy turning kids on to the beauty of science, assessing their prior knowledge and experiences, engaging them in collaborative situations to teach classroom procedures, and building rapport, our friends nearby were blazing ahead on the prescribed pathway. Though we mostly caught up by year’s end, we preferred to err on the side of deep student engagement and learning as opposed to curricular coverage.
So perhaps the real bottom line here is that I suck as an educational blogger. I have been doing this for so little time that whenever I want to drop a cool link on my readers, I end up attaching 18 years of experiential baggage. Honestly, once again while I read the GenYES blog by Sylvia Martinez, I felt moved to write. Her post entitled: What Makes a Good Project inspired me to scribble a few lines in the direction of project-based learning. Look at what that got me. I guess succinct is just not my style
So to cut to my original goal, the document Sylvia refers to is located here in .pdf format. This document outlines “eight elements to guide great project design.” I would have to agree that these are all solid things to consider when planning a project or problem-based learning experience. The article references Seymour Papert’s constructionism. This is a very closely-aligned idea in many ways. The “questions worth asking” is also an important section, especially from the perspective of a coach. Outside consultation is always a valuable commodity in any worthwhile undertaking.
The important thing to keep in mind here, which is one of the criticisms of “project”-based learning, is that often in these classrooms, the approach means less than the “product”. If this is your hang-up, then be sure to key in on this quote while you take this article in:
“…artifacts are commonly thought of as projects, even though the project development process is where the learning occurs.”
To me, the bottom line is that this type of learning is often deeper, richer and more memorable than other approaches. It takes longer to develop. Even with a thorough understanding of the ways in which a curriculum can contain both coverage as well as depth, this is no easy task. Our secondary schools largely contain content experts with a smattering of pedagogical input throughout their brief teacher certification experience.
So to the millions of content experts without a background in curriculum, hang in there. Creating a learning environment where the prior knowledge of students is honored is a big step. Respect of student autonomy and initiative should be encouraged, as well as higher-level thinking and rich student dialogue about content and understanding. If you are feeling frustrated about a curricular piece that doesn’t seem to fit this approach, it very well may not. Our curricula have input from many outside influences and implementing one approach to solve all issues rarely works.
If you wonder where, when and how constructivist practices should be implemented into your classroom, find a consultant. Find someone to help you reflect along the way. Grab the shirtsleeve of your coach, call your curriculum coordinator, bug an experienced colleague. Whatever you do, find someone. Implementing engaging and rich experiences for our kids deserves the best collaboration and reflection you can get your hands on.
What do you call constructivism in your corner of the world? How do you manage student vs. teacher generated elements of your practice? Weigh in if you dare…
Schleisinger, Ariel. “”untitled”.” ariel.chico’s photostream. 15 AUG 2007. Flickr. 16 Nov 2008
Barnieh, Edward. “Speeding Bullet..” Edward B’s photostream. 03 JUL 2007. Flickr. 16 Nov 2008
Sutherland, Zen. “fog birds telephone wire close.” Zen’s photostream. 01 NOV 2004. Flickr. 16 Nov 2008