A Window Into Constructivism

Glass has been the main component in creating the flat surface in windows as early as the 17th Century. It is a simple substance- the main chemical component being silicon dioxide (SiO2). This is one technology that people of 2008 would scarcely consider “technology”, as it contains not even a single computer chip. However, a few fun observations of late have led me to a better understanding of the true nature of constructivist learning principles.

I have known for years that the ultimate birth of my children would bring profound changes in my life. Perhaps that is why I waited until I was 38 years old to undertake such an awesome task. Almost daily my schema on learning changes as a result of observing and interacting with my precious daughter during her everyday exploits.


You see, secondary teachers rarely enter the profession from a constructivist vista. Yes- we are creatures in love with learning. However, we are also creatures in love with a particular field of study and the body of knowledge that accompanies it. This is no doubt a pretty noble thing in itself. To love learning about a system of knowledge so amazing and awesome that we choose to dedicate our lives creating an environment where others can arrive at the same epiphanies is largely an honorable and unselfish thing. Nonetheless, I would argue that our weaknesses often center around the ways in which we came to learn the nuts and bolts of learning itself.

Delaney has a love/hate relationship with glass. At times, she stands tall with her bengal cats to take in views of the outside world through the eight-foot picture window in the front room. The butterflies that flit to and fro for their delight as well as the flying by of cars that evoke a “vrooooooom” from her lips are simple delights for felines and 18-month-olds alike. And yet, lately her interactions with glass can produce mild terror as well.

When my babe was an infant, a roll through the local automated carwash was a breeze from the viewpoint of her cushy carseat in back. This same event, for the past few months has been anything less than pleasant. Just today it hit me- my daughter simply does not understand glass. This ubiquitous substance we have taken for granted for so long is still so mysterious in her world.

Today, upon completion of my weekly mowing ritual, I set about watering the myriad flowering plants that adorn the entrance of our home. Delaney loves flowers. She also loves her Daddy. These two facts combined created a most interesting reaction today as she keenly watched my work from behind the glass of our front door. Sensing her gaze, I quickly turned to her with hose in hand and sprayed water carelessly into the air around me for the sole purpose of seeing her nose crinkle and eyes glisten as she laughed at me like she does so wonderfully often.

She didn’t laugh. She didn’t crinkle her nose impishly. In fact, her first move was a simple backward step so as not to get wet. Her second was to let out a squeek letting her Mommy know she was quite scared. She looked at me as if my very next move might douse her with damp droplets of cold cold water from the hose. She looked at me with an uncertainty that made me pause mid-swipe with the hose and dampen the ground where my feet tread bare. After repeating the action a time or two (i am a scientist by training and multiple trials are needed for any real conclusion) it was quite clear that she was terrified that she might actually get soaked within the shelter of the front hallway she has come to love.

Drawing room - stained glass

Glass is ethereal. It is such a subtle technology we take it for granted until it becomes soiled. It provides shelter and yet allows views of the world from inside the refuge of our homes. Behind glass, we are safe from all but the most terrifying of storms. Though apparently, from my observations of late, glass is so mysterious at some level of development that we don’t just “get it” at first glance. Who teaches us about glass? Who sits us down in front of chalk or PowerPoint extolling the wonders of this see-through substance?

See my point? Glass is Delaney’s “photosynthesis”. Glass is her “pythagorean theorem.” At eighteen months, glass is her “democracy”, her “cubism”. How will she ever come to understand the simple realities of such a mundane, yet developmentally-abstract thing?

Well, I must tell you… I am working on the lecture as you read this. “Look here… see… it doesn’t hurt you.” “You aren’t getting wet… Daddy is… big time.” As silly as that sounds, that is largely what we do in high schools and universities across the nation and likely, the world. While we inherently know that the path toward understanding of something as simple as glass to a child is marked with trial and error, we continue to deliver beasts such as “tone” and “metaphor” as things to listen to… to remember… to write down in a notebook for later use.

Tonight I will rest assured that our windows will soon seem a shelter for my babe. I know she will come to this understanding on her own. I also wonder how I might enhance this learning, how I might “teach” her sooner that she has nothing to fear of water behind glass. As humans and as parents we know that through creating safe situation after safe situation for our kids to realize that all is well, we might hasten the learning of our children. Building an environment ripe for learning is our number one goal at home. Why is it less than simple in our classrooms?

I know we have a thousand standardized bits of knowledge to impart. I know that benchmarks loom which require a march through a sometimes-scripted curriculum. Do we really think that a lecture and discussion will suffice in delivering the concept of a coffee table that will not collapse? Regardless of what the “ticket out” says that day, do we believe in our hearts that this shotgun approach to learning will leave our students with a true understanding of what it means to deliver a speech to a specific audience?

Inside, I know we don’t believe that. We are a collection of intelligent and creative people. This is why I believe that the only true path toward reformation of our schools is to learn again all we can about what it means to discover “glass” all over again. We need to drop the bravado that comes with being amazingly smart in the subjects we teach. We need to sink not only our minds but also our hearts into the ideals that Piaget first dabbled in and figure out how to create an environment for our children to learn about the complexities of our world in the 21st Century.

*image of stained glass graciously attributed to “Wealie” on FLICKR.

Sean Nash

Biology teacher in the great state of Kansas. Back at it in the classroom after a 30-year career in Missouri. Former District Curriculum Administrator, Instructional Technology Coordinator, and Instructional Coach. Biology instructor since 1993. Find more about my passions and my work at http://nashworld.me

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