Not All Constructivism is Created Equal
A few days ago I was guest presenter in an ISTE webinar entitled “Getting Started with Problem-Based Learning.” The webinar was hosted by Jane Krauss, co-author of the publication “Reinventing PBL” and a contributor to a blog of the same name.
In this webinar, Jane was able to use a few projects from my school as case studies of problem-based learning.
You can watch the recording of the one hour webinar by clicking here.
One of the things I really appreciated about this presentation was the distinction that Jane made between activity or theme based projects and inquiry-based work that is organized around a unifying question or topic. In my experience, both in my own classroom and in observing other teachers, this is not an easy transition for teachers to make.
I believe this is one of the elements that characterizes really well-designed problem-based learning – that all the activities/lessons/experiences all work together to build deep understanding of a key concept or understanding, and that this key understanding is rooted in a discipline in the real word. It’s too easy for inquiry or constructivist practice to slip into a series of hands-on activities – I believe the most difficult challange of building an inquiry-based classroom is structuring the learning in such a way that it scaffolds students toward a unifying question or way of seeing the world.
In a previous post, I have written about liberating constraints, one way to frame thisdesign of learning toward deep, disciplined-based understanding.
Another way to approach this is to look at the concept of knowledge-building, as presented by Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter from OISE. Scardamalia and Bereiter highlight the difference between how knowledge-building is understood inside schools (a synonym for learning) and outside schools (actual knowledge creation). Scardamalia and Bereiter propose that much of what goes on in education falls under one of three approaches, none of which are true knowledge building experiences:
1. Focus on foundational knowledge – this leaves any true knowledge creation until graduate school or adult life
2. Focus on subskills – this is much of the 21st Century Learning dialogue. By this approach, students focus first on critical thinking, collaboration, or scientific method and later (again, at later stages of development) are allowed to combine or utilize these skills for the creation of new knowledge.
3. Inquiry-based approaches – the most common framework. Has the potential for deep knowledge building but easy falls into “shallow constructivism”
Shallow Versus Deep Constructivism
According to Scardamalia and Bereiter, there is a spectrum of work that exists under the umbrella of inquiry-based, or problem-based learning, that reaches from shallow to deep constructivism:
“The shallowest forms engage students in tasks and activities in which ideas have no overt presence but are entirely implicit. Students describe the activities they are engaged in (e.g., planting seeds, measuring shadows) and show little awareness of the underlying principles that these tasks are to convey. In the deepest forms of constructivism, people are advancing the frontiers of knowledge in their community.”
This is a challenging question to ask yourself – as I move student through a variety of educational activities in my classroom, are they able to describe the activity, or the deeper principles that are the goal of the activity?
What I also like here is that ‘ideas’ become central to the study – not activities. When designing this type of work, the first question needs to always be: “What do I want my students to understand?” or even better “What is worth knowing about this subject/concept/topic?” The task for the teacher then becomes structuring the learning environment in such a way that IDEAS become central to the work of the students.
In it’s best form, ideas become the centre of the classroom. All student work becomes public and all students are adding to the collective understanding of the class towards a given problem. This is where technology now enters the learning space – as social media can provide the platform for students to share, critique and deepen the collective understanding of the class.
As Scardamalia and Bereiter also tell us, in classrooms engaged in deep constructivism, the idea is a real object and treated as such. Both teacher and student are both under the authority of the idea (or discipline) at hand. This helps us to move away from the traditional diachotomy of teacher-centered versus student-centered education, and leads us into a richer space where teacher, student and discipline all have a voice and authority in the room.