The Best for Last

Hello friends! School begins on Monday, January 12th–only six short days from now! I have decided to “go out with a bang!” In my last few days of freedom, I am going to paint our hallway (a badly needed “to-do”)! I will post before and after pictures when I’m finished.

Also, of all the papers I wrote last term, I have saved the best for last to share with you. I loved this paper! Why? I think because it expresses so many thoughts I’ve been formulating about education and learning theories over the years–thoughts that I’ve never really been able to put into words before. Well, now I have. And I like the finished product!

But this paper didn’t start out that way! I made the mistake of writing this paper solely on my research! I had collected numerous quotes from excellent sources regarding the Constructivist theory of education and had them all neatly arranged and recorded in my prepared APA template (for my best tips on writing academic papers, see this post). However, instead of beginning my paper with my own thoughts and words (based on the research as a collective whole), and filtering the quotes (or summaries) in as needed, I made the mistake of forming all my main points directly out of the research. I thought I could go back over my work and rephrase the quotes and add in my own thoughts later. It didn’t work! All I ended up with was a very dry, boring monologue that had no flow or originality. I ended up having to start completely over–on finals day, no less (by the grace of God, a technical issue on the school’s end caused them to extend the due dates two days)! However, this time I didn’t put the cart before the horse–or the research before the personal touch. I’m so glad I went to the trouble, because the final product is something far better than the original!

Enjoy, and please feel free to share your thoughts!

School Setting

Constructivist Learning Theory

Introduction

I had never heard of constructivism before I began my formal studies in elementary education, but when I came to the module discussing it, I think I wore out my highlighter and underlining pen. There was so much about the theory I loved. Yet, at the same time, there were certain principles in the theory which raised nagging doubts in my mind as to their validity and compatibility with a Christian worldview. This strange combination of excellent practical applications mixed with shaky foundations can be seen in the summary of constructivism, in principles of constructivist instruction and motivation, and in my own reaction to the theory.

What is Constructivism?

Foundational Beliefs

Constructivism is not as straightforward as some might think. In reality, it is more of a philosophy than a theory, due to the fact that it is difficult to research some of its tenets (Schunk, 2012). Not only that, but there are also multiple branches of constructivism, divided over the question of how learning is constructed—whether personally, through social interaction, or in the context of the environment (Archer, 1998). Despite these varying views, there are a couple foundational principles all constructivists share. One is the important role cognition plays in development. Constructivists believe learners “develop knowledge for themselves” (Schunk, 2012, p. 231). This leads them to the assumption that truth is relative and subjective (Ibid). Here is an example of where the Christian educator must be discerning. Archer (1998) pointed out that each individual is created uniquely, and each experiences life in a different manner, which will affect how different people view and understand the same ideas. However, he also made it very clear that God created absolute truths and a reality which is not just a figment of individual perception.

While constructivism is on the opposite end of the spectrum to behaviorism and firmly establishes that learning is a cognitive process, it does acknowledge the role behavior plays on learning. Thus, the importance of hands-on learning is another foundational belief of all constructivists. Students should never be treated as passive receivers of imparted knowledge (Schunk, 2012). Rather, students should take an active part in the learning process, constructing their own understandings of the content and “learning by doing” (Steiner, 2014, p. 319). McCullough (2008) explained that teachers with a biblical perspective should be focused on far more than just shaping outward behaviors, and that one way to create and inspire an internal drive to learn is by making instruction “interaction oriented” (p. 118). The constructivist beliefs about the roles of cognition and behavior in learning are illustrated in the teachings of the two main constructivist theorists.

Theorists

Piaget and Vygotsky are the two most recognized constructivist philosophers, both of whom focused on different aspects of the philosophy. Piaget created the theory of cognitive development, which emphasizes learning stages based on how perception at different ages affects learning, ideas, and conclusions. He believed learning is caused through “cognitive conflict,” or a contradiction to current beliefs, which leads to an attempt to reconcile what was once understood with new, apparently contradictory information (Boyaci, 2013, p. 1). Vygotsky, on the other hand, emphasized the effect of the environment and social interaction on learning and established the zone of proximal development theory. This theory recommends teaching through stages of modeling, assisting, and then allowing independent practice and using scaffolding, or focusing on what is within the learner’s ability (Schunk, 2012). While on the surface these theories might seem plausible, one must keep in mind that they are based on humanistic principles and Marxist ideologies (Ibid). Furthermore, these foundational beliefs have a direct effect on instruction and motivation.

How Does Constructivism Affect Instruction?

Lesson Plans

Constructivists’ belief that knowledge and truth are personally constructed has a number of unique effects on lesson plans. Instead of teachers using all their time creating lesson plans for the whole class, they instead focus their attention on providing each individual child with the material he or she needs to learn (Schunk, 2012). This type of personalized curriculum creates an excellent environment for learners with both developmental setbacks and unique learning styles, since each student works on material catered to his or her personal learning abilities (Archer, 1998). Another effect on lesson plans is that students are encouraged to go “beyond basic requirements by exploring interests” (Schunk, 2012, p. 231). This focus on learning only what one is interested in has its limit, however. McCullough (2008) pointed out that there will be times when students must master lessons not to their liking. Yet another unique constructivist curriculum type is unit studies, or the study of an individual topic woven throughout all learning disciplines. While constructivists use personalized, interesting, and topical lesson plans to help each student construct a better knowledge base, Christian educators might follow these same practices because they believe each child is created with a unique style of learning and area of intelligence and no two children can be educated alike.

Activities

The constructivist principle of the importance of activity in learning leads constructivists to shun the use of lectures and rote memorization, which revolve too much around a teacher “delivering instruction” to passive learners (Schunk, 2012, p. 231). One way to actively involve students is through utilizing questions and interactive displays to lead children to draw accurate conclusions on their own (Kauchak & Eggen, 2014). Another way is through collaborative activities, which reflects Vygotsky’s ideas of socially elicited learning. Cooperative learning, or “social group learning and peer collaboration” (Schunk, 2012, p. 235), provides a good opportunity to again enhance the learning experiences of students who are developmentally challenged or who have unique learning styles. These students are not to be segregated in their own collaborative groups, but are instead paired with learners who have a wide range of learning abilities and styles (Schunk, 2012). Constructivists believe the best learning takes place through these active, social experiences.

How Does Constructivism Affect Motivation?

Classroom Management

Student-teacher relationships are the most vital aspect of constructivist classroom management. Boyaci (2013) outlined the importance of being a teacher who invites and initiates conversation with students. Kauchak and Eggen (2014) recommended getting to personally know students and their unique qualities early in the school year as a way of showing you care about them individually. Besides taking the time to build a personal relationship with each student, teachers must create an environment that is not conducive to misbehavior (Boyaci, 2013). Practically speaking, this could include removing distractions, perfecting transitional procedures, meeting physical needs as far as possible, helping children feel safe and accepted, and making sure that they are understanding the material and/or instructions (McCullough, 2008). To constructivists, “prevention is always better than cure” (Boyaci, 2013, p. 13). By building strong, caring relationships with students and making sure external factors are not contributing to their misbehavior, teachers can motivate students to do their best and thus prevent many behavior problems.

If behavior problems arise despite the best precautions, constructivists believe they should be dealt with logically and in context of relationships. Constructivists do not believe in using rewards and punishments which merely shape outward behavior with little concern for internal cognition (Boyaci, 2013). Boyaci and McCullough (2008) both recommended using an intervention method of increasing intensity, such as beginning with a reminder, moving to a warning, and then employing logical consequences if the first measures are not successful. Constructivists also encourage teachers to discourse with misbehaving students to understand their perceptions of the situation and their personal needs, rather than immediately punishing their actions with little concern for their motives (Boyaci, 2013). Christian educators must approach this method with caution. McCullough (2013) pointed out the importance of building relationships with students and creating an environment in which they feel safe to express their thoughts. However, she also made it very clear that each individual is responsible for the choices he or she makes and should not be allowed to blame those decisions on the environment or unmet needs. Constructivist classroom management focuses on increasing students’ internal motivation to make good choices, but also on understanding their internal motivations for making poor choices.

Student Learning

A strong emphasis on intrinsic motivation, along with the constructivist philosophy of students as “authors of their own knowing” (Steiner, 2014), causes adherents to promote self-instruction. In the constructivist philosophy, students are seen as their own teachers, and adult teachers as the students’ guides (Boyaci, 2013). To foster the motivation for self-learning in students, they must be given an appropriate amount of control over their learning (Schunk, 2012). In other words, students work with their teachers to create personal learning goals and look to their teachers for the tools and resources to attain their goals. Teachers can increase internal motivation in their students in a couple of ways. First, they can use a more personalized grading system. Constructivist teachers grade students on the basis of their individual progress, instead of their comparison to other students (Schunk, 2012). They also can assess progression of learning by evaluating a variety of assignments, instead of just test scores (Boyaci, 2013). Secondly, they can integrate real-life application or “authenticity” (Archer, 1998, p. 92) into instruction, letting students put learning to use in real-life situations. McCullough (2008) urged Christians to rethink the idea of teachers as facilitators, pointing out that it stems from the idea that children were born with a propensity to develop properly. However, Christian educators can conscientiously view themselves as facilitators, so long as they are guiding their students to discover God’s truth and become students of the Great Teacher, rather than encouraging them to develop their own “truth.”

Am I a Constructivist?

Constructivism closely reflects ideas I fostered before I formally studied learning theories. For example, I believe that every student should be treated as a unique learner, not confined to standardized curriculum and assessment methods. I love the idea of allowing students to explore their personal interests as part of their education program. I want to give my students the tools they need for independent learning and educational responsibility. In my future classrooms, I plan to assist my students by using integrated curriculum and incorporating real-life into learning. Constructivism gave intellectual voice to many of my personal learning and teaching theories. Still, I would not call myself a constructivist for three reasons. First, while I really like many of the practical applications of this theory, I do not wholeheartedly concur with some of the foundational principles behind those ideas. As a Christian, I believe in absolute and objective truth, not subjective, personally perceived truth. I also do not agree with the humanistic principles of need-satisfaction that guide constructivism. A biblical worldview instead points out that the ultimate need of each child is a solution for sin in the heart—a solution that only Jesus Christ can provide (McCullough, 2008). Secondly, I do not believe in aligning myself solely to one theory. Instead, I agree with Derby (2002) that “epistemological world views are logically compatible” (para. 15). Rather than clinging to one to the denial of the others, I prefer to form my own beliefs containing a “logically consistent blend of concepts borrowed from different epistemological systems” (Ibid). Lastly, I want my personal learning theories to have a biblical basis, not be backed by atheistic psychology. For this reason, I will believe and apply constructivist principles only to the extent that they do not go against what I know to be true from God’s word.

Conclusion

Constructivism is an example of doing the right things for the wrong reasons. The theory contains many excellent applications for lesson planning, classroom activities, management, and motivation. However, constructivists’ reasons for using such practices stem from worldly and vain philosophies. Still, this does not make the methods themselves inherently wrong. Boyaci (2013) reminded his readers that even Christ taught in ways that could be called constructivist. As seen throughout this paper, Christians must approach this theory with caution and be careful to filter its principles through their biblical framework.

References

Archer, A. C. (1998). Constructivism and Christian teaching. Christ in the Classroom, 23, 85-101. Retrieved on December 4th, 2014, from http://ict.aiias.edu/vol_23/23cc_085-101.pdf

Boyaci, A. (2013). The implications of constructivism on classroom management. Anadola University. Retrieved on December 8th, 2014, from http://home.anadolu.edu.tr/~aboyaci/ders/syonetimi/implications.pdf

Derby, S. J. (2002). Naïve teacher education + naïve assessment = naïve teacher epistemologies: A response to Schraw and Olafson. Issues In Education, 8(2), 159.

Kauchak, D. & Eggen, P. (2014). Introduction to teaching: Becoming a professional [5th ed.]. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

McCullough, J. D. (2008). Kingdom living in your classroom. Colorado Springs, CO: Purposeful Design Publications.

Schunk, D. H. (2012). Learning theories: An educational perspective [6th ed.]. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Steiner, D. M. (2014). Learning, constructivist theories of:. Value Inquiry Book Series, 276, 319-320. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.

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