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Medium | Tips for Constructivist Teachers

Updated: Jan 15, 2021

A few ways teachers can use reliable and systematic strategies/approaches to help learners construct knowledge.

Before beginning my dissertation work, I always knew that my approach to both instructional design (ID) and teaching is laden with constructivist elements as I believe that learners learn best by doing and also by reflecting for metacognition. However, I was unaware of the learning theories that made up constructivism or how they informed the theoretical frameworks in many of the instructional planning methods and active learning strategies I used in my work.

Since doctoral students are required to produce knowledge, I recently began to understand about the learning theories that anchor both ID and several of the prominent research studies that impacted the classrooms of both myself and the teachers I have worked with throughout the years. Unfortunately, either no one told us what they were, or we were oblivious when they did.

I came to know that my previous understanding was only based on years of practice. And although I eventually became a good lesson planner and facilitator (by using educational protocols) — I realized that I could not explain to others why my pedagogical strategies were right — I just knew that they work.

As elements of constructivism inform the theory for many (if not most) of the popular instructional strategies, instructional planning approaches and scripted curriculum in our schools, I, therefore, believe practitioners should understand why and how such practices help students learn and ways of leveling up their own ID and teaching practices for enhancing the experience of their learners. This is how we can start in three steps.

Understand how constructivism develops

Know that constructivism is a paradigm for teaching and learning and is an amalgamation of the behavioral and cognitive learning theories and also shows up in other theories as well (i.e., general systems theory, communications theory, etc.). Moreover, Mapping or illustrating something this complex is not easy — as it seems to be always evolving — mainly due to the diverse ways’ technology is used to augment instruction.

This is clearly depicted in the concept map by author Michael Lacoursiere below — as it is easy to see that constructivism is not linear — lacks structure — but can be accessed through tested ID models and frameworks that are more linear and systematic (i.e., UbD, Workshop Model, HQPBL, etc.) and possess constructivist elements.

Moreover, since teacher newbies often find it difficult to make sense of all this on their own — they will benefit from coaching and modeling by more experienced colleagues and practitioners. In my current role, my colleagues and I coach and critique each other in our ID practices through the use of protocols:

• A new lesson utilizing the UbD approach is critiqued using Critical Friends protocol.

• The Workshop Model is modeled by a colleague and then coaches other colleagues as they map out their use of the strategy with students.

• New concepts (i.e., computational thinking) are taught to colleagues by using the Jigsaw Technique.

• The Looking at Student Work protocol is utilized for assisting colleagues for planning interventions and next steps when viewing students’ products.

Develop awareness of how constructivism relates to student learning

As a paradigm for teaching and learning — constructivism says that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. And in the classroom the goals of Constructivism are problem-solving, higher order thinking skills and collaboration.

Good practice for guiding student learning to achieve these goals is the use of essential, guiding and driving questions. By making our questions engaging, open-ended and aligned with student learning goals — student inquiry is launched and provides us more in-depth insight into the needs of our learners.

For example, in a given lesson — students who lack either declarative or procedural knowledge will get stuck in problem-solving when attempting to answer the guiding/driving question. When they do not know specific facts or steps to solve let’s say when applying a math formula — they will get stuck — need HELP — and many will give up.

Therefore, teachers who rely on constructivist approaches will have to glean from what occurs in the classroom to both determine and maximize their time with students — and can considerably improve their practices by:

• Utilizing instructional approaches and activities that cause students to learn experientially (i.e., Problem-Based Learning, Project-Based Learning, Service-learning, simulations and role-playing but not limited to).

• Utilizing engaging student-centered instructional design and teaching practices to help students construct learning in meaningful ways. Some examples of this are backward design planning and using protocols like Best Ever, Charette, and the Question Formulation Technique — among others).

• Helping students connect previous knowledge to new knowledge through effective scaffolded instruction and gradually reducing the scaffolds as students become more independent and can problem solve more on their own.

• Having students interact with professionals for more authentic and real-world work that allows them to take more active roles in both what they create and whom they create for (i.e., addressing problems, issues or challenges in the community).

• Engaging students by making them take an active role in their learning as they have more voice and choice over how they transfer learning (examples of transfer may include public service announcements (PSAs), mock TED talks, writing blogs, and making presentations but not limited to).

Develop your identity for constructivist teaching

On a personal note, I was not engaged in many significant constructivist active learning opportunities by either my teachers or many of my professors before embarking on my Ph.D. journey with Old Dominion University. Moreover, it has taken me many years to seek out the right professional development to help me develop both my identity as a constructivist teacher and the expertise to be able to engage learners to be active participants in their own learning. Finding this to be an ongoing process, I think it’s critical for teachers to have roadmaps to follow and not wing it in the classroom.

For teachers who are beginning or wanting to enhance their constructivist teaching practices, I believe they should be aware of the following in regards to constructivism:

· One needs to be a very skilled practitioner to be at a high level and this will take both practice and time.

· It is easier to utilize instructional models and frameworks that have specific protocols for engaging their students actively.

· It is difficult to learn and do by yourself — so teachers and students often need modeling, coaching, and scaffolding.

· Is not an exclusive practice for every student or lesson.

· Learners often assess themselves — and that could cause them to fall behind if they do not understand how to use assessment tools (like rubrics and checklists).

· Teachers have much planning to do prior and after meeting with their learners.

· Frequently participate in book studies with colleagues.

· Consider becoming active learning partners with students — meaning you DO NOT have to know everything. This practice is useful when having to earn trust with learners, teach new material, or in disciplines like computer science or engineering where many teachers are teaching topics without lots of expertise or prior exposure to the content; they are teaching.


• Cult of Pedagogy

• High Quality Project-Based Learning

• Protocols — School Reform Initiative

• The Comprehensive Handbook of Constructivist Teaching

• The Jigsaw Classroom

• The Workshop Model

This post was originally published at this link.

Jorge Valenzuela is an educational coach and a graduate teaching assistant at Old Dominion University. He is the lead coach for Lifelong Learning Defined, a national faculty of PBLWorks and a national teacher effectiveness coach with the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association (ITEEA). He is also a member of the Lead Educators Team for littleBits.

You can connect with Jorge on Twitter and Instagram @JorgeDoesPBL to continue the conversation.

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