Throughout my educational journey (as an educator and as a student), I have come across various strategies and theories on how to best maximize student academic performance. From numerous workshops and teacher development seminars to county mandated professional in services, I have been overwhelmed with multiple strategies and suggestions on how to boost student academic achievement. While some strategies are simply ineffective, others have fully captured my attention and have proved successful once I have implemented them in my classroom. I have especially tried implementing the constructivist approach in my classroom on many occasions and have had various outcomes (positive and negative) of student performances depending on the grade level and the content taught when I have implemented this theory. Since the current push in education is for the implementation of differentiation and constructivist approaches, it seems only appropriate to question the effectiveness of these strategies. Does a constructivist approach yield higher student academic achievement when compared to its counterpart direct instruction like educators are led to believe? Does the implementation of constructivism (via a Math Learning task) in mathematics help students retain information longer and allow them to make appropriate connections to other mathematical concepts?
The purpose of this paper is to look at the theory of constructivism and provide a conclusion of this theory's implementation (via learning tasks) based on my very own personal experiences.
Constructivism Defined( This is like an historical overview)
What is constructivism? Constructivism is simply the aspect of learning by doing so that learning becomes meaningful and permanent (reference?). The concept of constructivism has its roots in ancient times, going back to Socrates' dialogues with his followers, in which he asked directed questions that led his students to understand for themselves the weaknesses in their own thinking. In this century, Jean Piaget (Credited with the Formalization of the theory of constructivism) and John Dewey developed theories of childhood development and education that led to the evolution of constructivism. Dewey( year?)called for education to be grounded in real experiences and Piaget (year?) believed that humans learned through the construction of one logical structure after another. Piaget also concluded that the logic of children and their modes of thinking are initially entirely different from those of adults. The implications of this theory and how he applied it have shaped the foundation for constructivist education.
The Theory of Cognitive development, first developed by Jean Piaget, proposes four distinct, increasingly sophisticated stages of mental representation that children pass through on their way to an adult level of intelligence. The four stages which roughly correspond with age are the sensorimotor period (0-2 years), preoperational period (2-7 years), concrete operational period (7-11 years), and formal operational period (12 years and up). The sensorimotor stage is when the child learns about himself and his environment through motor and reflex actions. Thought derives from sensation and movement, the child learns that he is separate from his environment and that aspects of his environment (his parents or favorite toy) continue to exist even though they may be outside the reach of his senses. Teaching for a child in this stage should be geared to the sensorimotor system. As educators, we can modify behavior by using the senses: a smile, a stern or soothing voice which all serves as appropriate techniques. The preoperational stage is when the child starts applying his new knowledge of language and begins using symbols to represent objects. Early in this stage, the child also personifies objects and is better able to think about things and events that are abstract. Oriented to the present, the child has difficulty conceptualizing time. Their thinking is influenced by fantasy, the way they wish things would be, and assumes that others see situations from their perspective. The child takes in information and then changes it in their mind to accommodate their ideas. As mathematics educators, we must take into account the child's vivid fantasies and undeveloped sense of time. We can use neutral words, outlines of symbols and math manipulatives (such as shapes and base blocks) a child can touch which will give them an active role in mathematical learning.
The concrete stage occurs from around first grade to early adolescence. During this stage, accommodation increases, the child develops an ability to think abstractly and to make rational judgments about concrete or observable phenomena, which in the past needed to be manipulated physically to understand. As mathematics educators, during this stage, we should give these children the opportunity to ask questions and to explain problems back to us which would allow them to mentally manipulate information. The formal operations stage occurs during adolescence and is the last stage in Piaget's Theory. This terminal stage brings cognition to its final structure. The being no longer requires concrete objects to make rational decisions. At this point mathematically, the person is capable of hypothetical and deductive reasoning. Teaching for the adolescent may now become broad because they will be able to consider many possibilities from several perspectives. Among the numerous educators, philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists who have added new perspectives to the constructivist learning theory and practices, major contributors are Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, and David Ausubel.
Personal Implementation of Constructivism
In Sum, Piaget suggests that students learn by doing to successfully pass through each stage of cognitive development in which they will experience meaningful learning. While I agree wholeheartedly with this idea, I do not believe that this "learning by doing" approach is always appropriate for learning or even meaningful to students even when they are active learners. I feel that in order for learning to be truly meaningful to a student, the student has to be genuinely interested in the topic. Thus, meaningful learning can be permanent if and only if the student is interested in the subject matter. While I have personally implemented this learning theory in my classroom on numerous occasions, it has proved unsuccessful in many situations simply because the student was not interested in the content. I've tried to "dress up" many topics (i.e. making a word problems seem more relevant and real life like by giving examples that the students could relate to, etc.) in hopes that the students would find the content interesting, make the appropriate content connections in mathematics and in turn try to solve the "traditional" type problems that would appear on standardized type test through those mathematical connections. In most cases, the students made no long term connections to the mathematical concepts and could not solve traditional/standardized type questions after the constructivists approach was implemented.
In fact, some of my students' test scores have actually dropped since I've implemented the constructivist theory into my classroom. I largely attribute this decline to the way the students are learning versus the way they are being assessed; I teach them one way but then the county and state assesses them another. Ultimately, I feel that students and teachers are forced to make sense of an inconsistent curriculum; we are told as educators to differentiate to accommodate different learning styles but in the end, everything that count is standardized (none differentiated). This in itself is inconsistent and in my opinion simply unjust and unfair to the teachers (you have to teach inconsistently), parents (they do not understand tasks that are constructivist in nature and cannot help their child with their studies at home), but mainly the student (they are taught one way but tested another which leaves them very confused).
Curriculums & Assessments- A Case of Imbalance
If Piaget's constructivism theory is implemented in the mathematics curriculums (via facilitation, collaboration, differentiation, tasks, etc.), it can be concluded that students would retain information from mathematics longer, grasp the concept no matter the difficulty level and in turn, student achievement will be maximized, right? When learning is differentiated and presented in the form of a learning task in which students are learning by doing, the results should definitely be positive, correct? Contrary to most of the research that I have encountered (via professional developments, coursework or simply research studies I have personally examined), this is truly not the case in my classroom. Like many other "sound good" strategies and results of such strategies, the researcher who has tested these strategies has tested these strategies on a different group of students (the students tested are different from any other students) who will have responded to this treatment differently given uncontrollable variables (socioeconomic statuses, location, demographics, etc.) and because they are simply a different set of students, the result will never be the same. I am in no way discrediting previous research done on constructivism or facilitation but controllable and uncontrollable variables play an intricate part on the outcomes of such test. In fact, even when students are tested with very similar variables, the outcomes of the test are different. Thus, the results of an implemented strategy from a one room school house in Tulsa Oklahoma will probably be very different from the results of the same implemented strategy in an urban classroom in Miami Florida.
If we know then that differentiation is necessary because our students are diverse within the walls of one school house, why then do we enforce standardization nationwide? When I am observed by an administrator and if it is apparent that I fail to differentiate instruction, I am "called on the carpet" somewhat reprimanded for my actions. My question then is who calls my county office curriculum personnel "on the carpet" when they fail to differentiate benchmark testing? Further, who calls the state and federal officials in charge of education "on the carpet" when they implement and make law changes such as mainstreaming, full inclusion or high stakes standardized testing lawful? Mostly ALL (Educators, Administrators, Curriculum Specialists, Education Officials, etc) stakeholders of education in which I have encountered are screaming out for differentiation while our current system still implements a one size fits all curriculum where standardized test are mandated and it is the idea that ALL (all students no matter their mental capabilities (special needs students will all be eventually mainstreamed) or students that are not interested in a general diploma (students whom don't want to go to college) students wants or can pursue a general diploma. Thus, as an educator, I am left feeling unsure and frustrated about this issue yet I try to implement constructivism while simultaneously teaching to the test. It is tiring, ineffective and in most cases downright confusing for myself as well as well as my students.
Implications of a Constructivist Curriculum
What now? What will happen if we truly implemented constructivist curriculums? How would this affect college entrance scores or other standardized test scores? Would they increase or decline? How would our constructivist learners fare in college where the majority of the learning takes place traditionally (i.e. lectures)? Would they be able to adapt? All in all I feel that we need to make up our minds on whatever way we want our students to learn so that at the very least, our curriculums can become consistent. The way a child learns in elementary school should be very similar to the way they learn throughout high school. The way a student learns in high school should be very similar to the way they will learn in college. If this consistency is not thought about, planned for and implemented, I feel that we are setting our students up for academic confusion as well as academic failure.
In conclusion, I am a constructivist at heart or shall I say when our public academic institutions start assessing students differently, then I will be a true constructivist. I believe in meaningful teaching, kinesthetic learning and the notion of learning by doing so that learning can become more meaningful and definitely permanent but I also believe that this theory will only work when it is implemented in a totally constructivist based curriculum. From the lesson plans to the class interactions to varied assessments, the curriculum must "breathe" constructivism. In my opinion, this is the only way the constructivist approach would work in public education to service ALL students no matter how different they may be or where they are housed.