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Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Theory of Learning Explained-Constructivism

This is the first of a three-part series relating learning, teaching and cognition to theoretical models. The purpose is to explain how children and adults learn. I will explore the psychological and social influences as it applies to your child’s education. I will keep the jargon and acronyms to a bare minimum. My intention is to provide parents and teachers with sound, research-based suggestions for helping their child learn in a manner that best fits his strengths. Each person learns in a unique fashion. Our job as parents and teachers is to help students understand why they do what they do, and how to use specific mental tools to increase their ability to learn simple and complex concepts. 
Constructivism-Making sense of the world through connections and building knowledge upon what we know or the alternate title- If I have to sit through six hours of lectures, I will pull out my hair!
Constructivism is based on the principles that learning occurs when children are actively connected to creating their knowledge. Children do not learn best when they sit passively and listen to a teacher spew facts and figures. The students use prior and current knowledge to make sense of what they are studying. A good example of constructivism in action is reflected in a fifth grade science lesson. I asked students why manhole (or sewer pipe) covers are round. I could have explained the possible answers and moved on to a different topic, but that may or may not have allowed the students to build knowledge that will be stored in their brains. Instead I gave them cardboard, coffee cans, construction paper, tape and various other supplies to help them support their hypotheses. Through their understanding of basic shapes, geometry and rudimentary engineering, the students hypothesized (guessed) that an object that is a circular shape cannot fall in a hole of the same size. Any other shape, a square for example, could be turned on its diagonal and dropped into the hole. The second answer, one I had not anticipated, is that the cover has to be round because the pipes are cylindrical.
Over the last 16 years in the classroom I continue to observe in awe and excitement when a child finally “gets it”. There is a great satisfaction seeing new learning and connections take place.  On the flip side I witnessed many youngsters struggle with learning. I’ve seen tears, anger and frustration.
I have tried dozens of different strategies to help struggling learners. I have done the same to help gifted learners accelerate and I have worked with a mix of strategies for all of the students who traverse back and forth on the continuum of self-efficacy.  I know I stated I would not use teacher jargon, but self-efficacy is a critical term. I want all parents and students to have a solid grasp of what it means, how it works, and how understanding the psychological impact it has on learning. This term will weave its way through my first article and it is beneficial for all of us to have a clear grasp of the concept.
Self-efficacy is a term that describes how confident a student feels about his potential to succeed in a given task. Some researchers claim that the more confident a student is about a subject, say math, the better he will do.
Of all the strategies I employed with students, I found that the most successful way to get them challenge themselves intellectually is based largely on how they think about themselves and their chances of success. Teachers try to code and secretly label the various ability groups that we corral students into, but it doesn’t matter. They all know who (or think they know) the smartest and weakest students are. That in itself is enough to inhibit a love of learning. Children are consequently self-conscious about their academic ability that it restricts them from truly challenging themselves. I believe this stems from three things: The first is the incorrect assumption that failure is bad. The second is the incorrect assumption that the speed of knowledge acquisition relates to higher intelligence across all disciplines. And the third is that most, not all, of the teaching styles in our schools are delivered with the “average” child as the focus.

School Goals
There is a massive push at the federal, state and local levels to rapidly change the way teachers teach and students learn. The traditional, teacher-directed, student-passive manner that began in the industrial age has not changed much. You would be hard pressed to not find students sitting in neat rows facing a teacher who is standing in the front of the classroom. The teacher lectures and delivers information to the students who in turn show their understanding by answering mostly low-level types of questions such as recalling facts. The student who has trouble reading does not do well in this environment, nor does the student who learns rapidly, nor does the student who learns best if he can touch things, move around, ask a ton of questions, and make connections. That student is sometimes referred to as ADD, ADHD, hyper, fidgety and so on. I get fidgety if I sit quietly for more than 15 minutes too. Our district is combating poor teaching with building a strong knowledge of good teaching skills to classroom teachers. Diversifying the manner in which children are taught strengthens their ability to learn.

Parent Activity and Theory in Action
So how can your knowledge of constructivism and self-efficacy help your child in the classroom? We’ll explore this concept in two areas. The first thing you can do is help your child understand that failing does not mean he is a failure. Smart people ask many questions. The second area I want you to focus on is how people learn. There are decades of research conducted and documented by some of the world’s leading educational theorists. These researchers have painstakingly observed children to determine the myriad ways in which they learn. One such researcher is Jerome Bruner.
Jerome Bruner, who shares a birthday with my wife, just turned 97 years old on October 1st. He is a leading educational psychologist and has developed theories on how people create and retain knowledge. Bruner (Presno, 1997) believes that children learn by building a base of knowledge and connecting new concepts. He strongly believes that learning goes beyond the school walls. That true learning can only take place when children see how everything interconnects and applies to the real world. Bruner states that teaching and learning should go beyond the curriculum and standards. It should be not be limited to basic facts and memorization. Learning should be constructed through experiences and connections. Children should build their knowledge through a rich and dynamic learning environment. I will give an example of this from my experience as new elementary teacher in the late 90s.
It was common practice for fourth-graders to study the different regions of the United States. Some of you may remember “helping” your child with their cardboard reports. The students were required to memorize the state capitals in their regions throughout the course of the school year. That’s fine. I have no real problem with that. A few years later I visited a 7th grade social studies class. They were studying state and national capitals. What a waste of time. This is one of those things that are nice to know. Aside from trivia games, what are the intellectual benefits of knowing the capitals of Malaysia, Benin and Sao Tome? I argue that there are no benefits. Bruner, I believe would support the notion that children can learn this and other facts if they see the importance, how it applies to other things, and if they have a vested interest in learning it. If a child finds out that his grandparents emigrated from Liberia, he might develop a strong desire to learn all about that culture, the country and possibly the capital. This knowledge is not learned in isolation. It matters. Other children may learn particular capitals, but I bet they may confuse whether it is a city, state or country. That is clear evidence that they were only learning basic facts for the sake of learning basic facts.
A great way to learn about regions, states and capitals that Jerome Bruner would approve of would look similar to this: Give the student or a group of students a geographical region to study, maybe the northeast U.S. The students would select an area they are interested in. The teacher sets up events with other students across the region to interact with each other. This could be done low-tech with activities such as writing and getting pen pals, or it can be done high-tech where students Skype or video conference with other children across the country. Students could have prewritten questions and learn about locations from primary sources, not just text books. The students are actively engaged in learning that they construct. They are not simply the receptors of knowledge via a teacher’s lecture or text-based assignment.

Final thoughts
Constructivism is one example of how people learn and retain information. Learning is a complex process that is affected by many external and internal influences.  Building your knowledge of how children learn- will help you- help them. If you have any questions or feedback, post a reply or comment in my blog and I will gladly respond.

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