My philosophy of curriculum as it pertains to this course and through my new eyes at the end of the course, points to the constructivist-style curriculum as the most logical, meaningful, purposeful, intellectual, and authentic exemplars to model after. Focusing on a more educational description of constructivism, the meaning is intimately connected with experience. I believe students come into a classroom with their own experiences and a cognitive structure based on those experiences. These preconceived structures are valid, invalid or incomplete. The learner will reformulate his/her existing structures only if new information or experiences are connected to knowledge already in memory. Inferences, elaborations and relationships between old perceptions and new ideas must be personally drawn by the student in order for the new idea to become an integrated, useful part of his/her memory. Memorized facts or information that has not been connected with the learner’s prior experiences will be quickly forgotten. In short, the learner must actively construct new information onto his/her existing mental framework for meaningful learning to occur.
So what is the support structure for a constructivist learning setting and how do they differ from a classroom based on the traditional or didactic model? The current American classroom, whether grade school or college level, tends to resemble a one-person show with a captive but often comatose audience. Classes are usually driven by “teacher-talk” and depend heavily on textbooks for the composition of the course. There is the idea that there is a fixed world of knowledge that the student must come to know. Information is divided into parts and built into a whole concept. Teachers serve as pipelines and seek to transfer their thoughts and meanings to the passive student. There is little room for student-initiated questions, independent thought or interaction between students. The end result is that the instruction set forth for the learner is solely memorization of the facts and no conceptual depth and understanding (Erickson 30).
In a constructivist setting, knowledge is not objective; mathematics and science are viewed as systems with models that describe how the world might be rather than how it is. This is an example of the differences between the world of the declarative and procedural knowledge and thinking to understanding the critical empirical and explanatory principles within the curriculum. The role of the teacher is to organize information around conceptual clusters as seen in a concept map and in Gowin’s Vee, in order to help pose questions and unusual situations to engage the student’s interest. Teachers assist the students in developing new insights and connecting them with their previous learning. Ideas are presented holistically as broad concepts and then broken down into parts. The activities are student centered and students are encouraged to ask their own questions, carry out their own experiments, make their own analogies and come to their own conclusions and then eventually applying the new found knowledge and information to brand new situations.
Becoming a constructivist teacher is a difficult change since most teachers are prepared for teaching in the traditional manner. It has taken me these past two school years to “shift my paradigm” and adopt a new one but it does work if you are dedicated to putting in the time and effort to building your own curriculum built around the standards and back by the foundations that have been laid by Piaget, Dewey, Novak, Gowin, Erickson and the many others. These psychologists and experts in the mind and education have contributed to the following characteristics of what I believe is a representation of a constructivist teacher:
1. One of many resources that the student may learn from, not the primary source of information.
2. Engage students in experiences that challenge previous conceptions of their existing knowledge.
3. Allow student responses to drive lessons and seek elaboration of students’ initial responses. Allow student some thinking time after posing questions.
4. Encourage questioning by asking thoughtful, open-ended questions. Encourage thoughtful discussion among students.
5. Use cognitive terminology such as “classify,” “analyze”, and “create” when framing tasks.
6. Encourage and accept student autonomy and initiative. Be willing to let go of classroom control.
7. Use raw data and primary sources, along with manipulative and interactive physical materials.
8. Don’t separate knowing from the process of finding out.
9. Insist on clear expression from students. When students can communicate their understanding, then they have truly learned.
In summary, constructivist teaching offers a bold departure from traditional didactic classroom strategies. The goal is for the learner to play an active role in absorbing knowledge onto his/her existing mental framework. The ability of students to apply their school-learned knowledge to the real world much more valued over memorizing bits and pieces of knowledge that may seem unrelated to them. Curriculum designed with the constructivist approach requires the teacher to relinquish his/her role as sole information-dispenser and instead to continually analyze his/her curriculum planning and instructional methodologies. Clearly, the constructivist approach opens new avenues for learning as well as challenges for the teacher trying to implement it but isn’t it worth it? I believe it is worth every ounce.