It is important to have a clear, research-based philosophy of education. This allows educators to develop what they feel is important when educating children. As such, I believe that the philosophical understandings behind constructivism and Lev Vygotsky to be relevant to today's educational landscape. Constructivism is grounded in the writings of Piaget (Powell & Kalina, 2009) while Vygotsky's (1978) theories sprouted the notion of the zone of proximal development.
Theoretical Framework of Educational Philosophy
Constructivism and the zone of proximal development are central to my philosophy of education. Constructivism (Powell & Kalina, 2009) is rooted in Piaget's (1999) theories of cognitive development. What strikes me about constructivism is that it emphasizes the idea that children must construct their own understanding from their experiences; teachers cannot force a true understanding of content (Mayer, 1996). Each individual child, regardless of age, has their own set of understandings; these understandings are based upon past experiences (Piaget, 1999). According to Piaget (1999) children will apply what they know to situations which are unknown until an understanding of the new situation occurs. Therefore, teachers must use strategies that will lead them to their students' prior knowledge before the beginning of a lesson or unit (Powell & Kalina, 2009). The students' understandings should guide the lessons, not the teacher's preconceived ideas about what the students should know.
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Additionally, Piaget (1999) states that children think about concepts in parts and wholes. Elkind, Koegler, and Go (1964) found that as age increases, the ability of the child to distinguish both parts and whole also increases. As Piaget (1999) and Mayer (1996) assert, this means that teachers must be cognitive of this and arrange their lessons around encompassing ideas that will engage students and lead to an understanding of the individual parts.
Vygotsky's (1978) work has brought the zone of proximal development. The zone of proximal development can be described as zone between what a student can do independently and what the student can do with teacher support (Vygotsky, 1978). By teaching the student within their specific zone of proximal development, the most benefits will occur; the material will not be too hard or too easy. Important to the idea of the zone of proximal development is the notion of scaffolding (Eun, 2008). Scaffolding allows the teacher to provide support for the student; therefore, allowing the student to take on increasingly challenging tasks (Eun, 2008).
Hernandez-Ramos and De La Paz (2009) designed a quasi-experimental research study around constructivist theories and integrating technology into the history class. According to Hernandez-Ramos and De La Paz (2009) project-based learning, which is grounded in constructivist theory, was used to tap students' prior knowledge, provide an active and social learning environment, and allow the students to make sense of new knowledge.
The method used for this study (Hernandez-Ramos & De La Paz, 2009) was quasi-experimental due to the fact that the researchers were not able to randomly assign students and teachers. One school was used as the intervention, or treatment, school and another was used as the control. The classes were heterogeneous, consisting of a total of 170 participants at the middle school level. Three teachers participated. Though there were a good number of participants, for this study to have external validity it would need to be replicated at additional schools and with a broader base. Though a control group was included that also took the pretest, in order to reduce pretest-treatment interaction, it would have been better to also include a treatment group that did not receive the pretest (Lodico, Spaulding, & Voegtle, 2010). The study conducted by Hernandez-Ramos and De La Paz (2009) concluded that using constructivist teaching methods, such as project-based learning experiences and working with other students, provided for higher test scores than traditional teaching methods at the control school.
Gnadinger (2008) conducted a qualitative study of a multi-age primary classroom focusing on strategies encompassing Vygotsky's (1999) zone of proximal development. The teacher holds beliefs that the best way to teach is from a constructivist view (Gnadinger, 2008). Gnadinger (2008) observed the classroom once a week during the study and interviewed the teacher and students to obtain data regarding the integration of scaffolding techniques. The focus of the study was to determine if and how students can provide scaffolding for one another in a group situation. Given that this is a question of how scaffolding occurs between peers (Lodico, Spaulding, & Voegtle, 2010), I think that a descriptive study was appropriate.
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Gnadinger (2008) compiled videotapes, observation notes, and interviews during the study. One drawback to this study is that Gnadinger (2008) coded her data according to pre-established codes. She states that she realizes that other themes emerged, but that she ignored those. Even though there was no post-test given to determine student learning, the study does show through descriptive methods that students do scaffold one another when care is taken to pair a more capable and less capable student together (Gnadinger, 2008).
Hernandez-Ramos and De La Paz (2009) and Gnadinger (2008) conducted research that supports the theories of constructivism and zone of proximal development. I have chosen these two theories to base my own philosophy on because both are relevant to today's students and because they allow me to reach the widest range of learners in my classroom. Hernandez-Ramos and De La Paz (2009) determined that by integrating constructivist techniques students were more involved and had a higher outcome at the end of the unit. By allowing students the time they need to construct their own understanding and providing opportunities for students to work together and construct projects, rather than rote memorization, teachers can reach more students. Gnadinger (2008) found through observation that students can provide the scaffolding needed to support the learning of all students in a classroom. This allows the teacher to provide many learning opportunities despite the varying levels of students in the classroom.
Most importantly, these two theories work hand-in-hand. Vygotsky's (1999) theories are grounded in the constructivist views held by Piaget (1978). Therefore, I can use both of these theories in my classroom simultaneously. Every year children come to me at so many different levels. I need to be able to structure my class in such a way that all of the learners are engaged, inspired, and learning. By integrating these two theories into one philosophy, I am able to design lessons that take into account my students' varying levels understanding, their differing backgrounds and prior knowledge, and their broad interests.
Philosophy of Education
Future Implications to Practice