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Thursday, September 17, 2015

5 Reasons Students Need a Constructivist Educator

Way back in 1993, Alfie Kohn wrote a book, Punished by Rewards, which made a case for educators to eschew behaviorist approaches to teaching and learning and essentially embrace a constructivist mindset. Unfortunately, despite Kohn's powerful prose, pockets of draconian educational leaders and "If you don't eat your meat you can't have any pudding" educators still exist in 2015. Behaviorist ideals (often couched under the guise of "rigor") fuel their approach to teaching.  Needless to say, I've been reflecting upon these two approaches to pedagogy and in this blog post, argue five reasons why constructivism is a rigorous, complex, and essential approach to PK-16+ classroom instruction.

5.  Scaffolding:  Constructivist educators scaffold the learning.  Before engaging novices in a task that is new or complex, the teacher models for the students how to complete it while slowly handing over the responsibility to the learner.  Scaffolding is essential not only for successful accomplishment of a new task but necessary for inducing risk taking in a safe, non-threatening environment.  Most learners (depending on the task), from preschool through college, benefit from this sort of teaching.

4.  Knowledge Co-construction:  Constructivist educators root their beliefs in the idea that deep knowledge is constructed when social language mediates cognition.  Critical thinking and idea exploration are at the heart of this sort of teaching and learning.  Dialogic discourse environments are prevalent in these constructivist classrooms.  In such environments, students talk more than the teacher, the talk is utilized to advance the understanding of complex concepts, and discussion isn't a hand bidding war.  Educators who operate from a behaviorist perspective employ lots of hand bidding because knowledge is viewed as correct or incorrect.  There is only one right answer and that can be found in a textbook or somewhere in the mind of the teacher.

3.  Rigor:  This buzz word kind of annoys me, specifically as it relates to education.  However, for the sake of argument, I suggest that constructivist teaching is inherently rigorous.  Does that mean that mountains of homework is given or that students must sit in rows while the keeper of knowledge imparts their wisdom on the empty vessel?  No, not at all.  In a constructivist classroom students must negotiate deep understanding, engage in learning tasks that are complex, demonstrate accountability to their thinking, and reciprocate with the academic community. It is therefore, no surprise that constructivist teaching is hard-work. Educators must be comfortable with silence and wait time, must know how to scaffold and conduct effective think-alouds, must establish healthy emotional learning communities, and above all must differentiate to meet the vast needs of every learner in the classroom.

4.  Intrinsic Motivation:  Recently, a colleague shared with me a Ted Talk by Daniel Pink on the role of extrinsic motivators in the workplace.  Echoing Kohn's work from 20 years ago, Pink argued (with credible research to back him) that extrinsic motivators are useless.  In a constructivist classroom, the goal of the learner isn't the grade - it's the learning - it's critical thinking.  Hence, students seek understanding because they are driven to do so and their curiosity is embraced. However, when pedagogy is rooted in behaviorism, the goal of school is to get a good grade, please the teacher, and unknowingly become a bullet point on a school-wide "data wall".

5.  Relationships.  A culture of caring is at the heart of constructivist ideology.   Students are respected, valued, and appreciated for the knowledge and experiences that they bring with them to the learning environment.  These experiences are leveraged and honored as important tools in the learning.  As Nel Noddings so beautifully put it, "The student is infinitely more important than the subject matter".   Constructivist educators recognize, and more importantly, embrace the power of these words.

In closing, this blog post is meant to be a simple and straightforward commentary on why constructivism matters.  By no means is the depth of either constructivist or behaviorist approaches to teaching represented in these few words, yet hopefully, the soul of the subject matter is.


Unknown said...

wow! The depth of ideas are so numerous, it will take time for me to reflect on vast number of educational nuggets that you have shared!

Colleen Pennell said...

Thanks for reading and reflecting!