the constructivist learning model towards real reform in science education

r. yager -- the sci teacher -- sept 1991 -- p52

constructivist teachers of science promote group learning, where two or three students discuss approaches to a given problem

Cognitive scientists have monopolized the basic research agenda in science education for the past decade. This productive research reveals that: most persons have misconceptions about mature; typically schooling is ineffective in altering misconceptions; many of the most able students (such as university physics majors and engineering students) have as many misconceptions about science as the average high school student; it is difficult to simulate the exact pathway for learning; understandings are difficult to measure with standard achievement tests; and students who score well on standardized tests are often unable to successfully integrate or contrast memorized facts and formulas with the experience-based interpretations they have acquired prior to instruction.

Much cognitive science research has been used to support a new model of learning. This most promising new model is called the Constructivist Learning Model (CLM). Russell Yeany (University of Georgia) has called CLM the most exciting idea of the past 50 years. Furthermore, he has suggested that the model may well serve as a means of connecting all current lines of research prevalent in science education.

Today's science education research focuses more on students than teachers. With the emphasis on the learner, we see that learning is an active process occurring within and influenced by the learner as much as by the instructor and the school.

From this perspective, learning outcomes do not depend on what the teacher presents. Rather, they are an interactive result of what information is encountered and how the student processes it based on perceived notions and existing personal knowledge. All learning is dependent upon language and communication. Figure 1 illustrates the role of communication in constructivist classrooms.

Ernst von Glaserfeld, a prominent constructivist, claims that the existence of objective knowledge and the possibility of communicating that knowledge by means of language have traditionally been taken for granted by educators. During the last three decades faith in objective scientific knowledge has served as the unquestioned basis for most of the teaching in K through 12 schools and institutions of higher education. The traditional epistemological paradigm is now being turned upside down. Yet, in most schools of education, teacher preparation continues as though nothing new has happened. Despite recent research findings, the quest for never-changing objective truths continues as though it were completely possible to fulfill. It is important that all educators know of these developments if changes and reforms based on them are to have an effect.

An alternative theory of knowing -- cognitive construction -- was explained by Piaget, but von Glasersfeld traces the roots of this theory farther back to the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vica who wrote a treatise in 1710. One of Vico's basic ideas was that epistemic agents can know nothing but the cognitive structures they themselves have put together. "To know" means 'to know how to make.' He substantiates this notion by arguing that one knows a thing only when one can explain it. Such explanations are for others to understand and to use.

Leyden note:
epistemic Piaget was not a psychologist - but a genetic epistemologist -- trying to figure out how we -- figure out; in your ELE 4450 course - look up epistemology
Indeed, constructivists do not consider knowledge to be an objective representation of an observer-independent world. For them, knowledge refers to conceptual structures that epistemic agents consider viable. Constructivists are like pragmatists in that they do not accept the idea of truth as correspondence with reality. Modern science does not give us truth; it offers a way for us to interpret events of nature and to cope with the world.

How do we learn the knowledge that enables us to cope ? From Piaget's perspective, cognition is an adaptive function. Von Glasersfeld believes that the technical sense of the term "adaptive" comes from the theory of evolution, but has been misinterpreted. In phylogney, no organism can actively modify its characteristics to suit a changed environment.

In both the theory of evolution and the constructivist theory of knowing, viability -- or ability to cope -- is tied to the concept of equilibrium. The equilibrium, however, is not static like a balance beam, but dynamic like that maintained by a cyclist. The brain is continually seeking to impose order on incoming stimuli and to generate models that lead to adaptive behavior and useful predictions.

A human being's experience always includes and is strongly influenced by our social interaction with other humans. We can only know what we have constructed ourselves, but such learning always takes place in a social context. Even when we seem to think, to identify issues, and to propose responses, language is used in accomplishing each. The use of a schema always involves the expectation of a result. On an abstract level, we often turn expectation into a prediction. If we grant that others are capable of planning, this means we believe others can have schemes -- perhaps even the ones that have worked well for us. Then, if a particular prediction we have made turns out to be corroborated by what another person does, this adds a second level of viability to our schema that in turn strengthens the experiential reality we have constructed.

Many cognitive psychologists believe that American pedagogy has been dominated by the behaviorist model. In the behaviorist approach to teaching and learning, the teacherŐs task consists of providing a set of stimuli and reinforcements that are likely to get students to emit an appropriate response. If the goal is to get students to replicate a certain behavior, this method works well; but if understanding, synthesis, eventual application, and the ability to use information in new situations is our goal in education, a behavior approach is not place in the model for understanding, it is not surprising that behaviorist training rarely produces it.

From communication theory we have learned that neither words nor sounds carry traditional meanings in themselves. And yet, traditionally we see many science teachers who are convinced that the first step to learning science is to learn its special vocabulary -- often by rote. From a constructivist point of view, then, this means that language users must individually construct meanings of words, sentences, and stories. This construction does not always need to proceed entirely from scratch. Once a child has learned a certain amount of vocabulary and has some idea of the rules of combining words and phrases, these patterns can be used to speed up the process of communication. From a constructivist perspective, however, the use of language per se in teaching cannot be a means of transferring information. Language must have meaning and not be a source for it. We use language to cope with our environment, to help us make sense of the world, and to communicate how we can use the meaning formulated.

Von Glaserfeld argues that, if instead of presupposing that knowledge has to be a representation of what exists, we instead think of knowledge as a mapping of what turns out to be feasible, given human experience. He suggested that profound changes in the way we teach our children would result. It would force educators to separate more clearly the goals of teaching from the goals of learning. Curriculum materials would be designed more effectively; teachers would realize that rote learning and repeated practice are not likely to generate real understanding and useful knowledge.

Teachers would also understand that knowledge cannot simply be transferred by means of words without first an agreement about meaning and some experiential base. Explaining a problem will not lead to understanding unless the learning has an internal scheme that maps onto what a person is hearing. Learning is the product of self-organization and reorganization. Knowledge is not acquired passively.

Constructivist teachers of science promote group learning, where two or three students discuss approaches to a given problem with little or no interference from the teacher. What happens to and with such small groups of students can be used as a whole class arrives at consensus of the various small group analysis.

Insofar as learning and knowledge are instrumental in establishing and maintaining the student's equilibrium, they are adaptive. Once this way of thinking takes hold, teachers change their view of problems and solutions. It is not linger possible to cling to the notion that a given problem has only one solution. It is also difficult to justify conceptions of right and wrong answers. Constructivist teachers would rather explore how students see the problem and why their paths towards solutions seem promising to them.

How can science teachers move towards constructivist approaches ?

It may not be a significant shift from existing practice, but rather reorganization with new emphases. In fact, many exemplary teachers instinctively use many procedures that illustrate the CLM. Some of these include:

Researchers at the National Center for Improving Science Education have proposed a teaching model that uses CLM.
It includes four aspects:
proposed explanation and solution, and
taking action.

Figure 2 uses this model to illustrate strategies that characterize CLM.

Figure 3 is a self-check instrument that can be used to determine the degree to which a given teacher is utilizing CLM. The extent to which a teacher allows students to construct their own meaning will vary from teachers, individual students, and particular classrooms. School policy may also dictate the extent to which teachers can use constructivist approaches.

Ten points are offered to characterize a science classroom where the constructivist model can work best.

Such classrooms are those that:

Recently, the inconsistency of learning models and teaching and techniques used in typical teacher education programs has been examined.

If CLM is to achieve the impact many are convinced it should make, basic reforms in science teacher education must be contemplated. Teacher education is widely criticized as ineffective. As we learn more about how students learn, it seems we should utilize these same techniques in programs designed to prepare new teachers as well as those designed for inservice of teachers.

When the constructivist model is used, the following statements will characterize science teacher education programs:

One leader in defining constructivist perspectives has advanced several assumptions that characterize inservice teacher education activities that utilize CLM. They are as follows:

If constructivist philosophy and its use in K-12 settings and teacher education fulfill the promises that current research and initial results suggest, reform in science education finally has a much needed focus. Perhaps Yeany is right when he describes constructivism as that exciting model that seems to connect research and exemplary practices. The constructivist model allows us to shed our immediate history of frustration with haphazard reforms and to move into the next century with enthusiasm, promise, and excitement.

Constructivists / Science-Technology-Society Grid

Leyden note:> this grid just doesn't "translate" into the Net because charts can't be made on Netscape. Dr. Leyden will give you a xerox copy of the chart.

individual student --- identifying problem --- suggesting response --- self-analysis

pairs of students
1. comparison of ideas
2. resulting questions agreeing on approach to problems two person agreement

small group review
1. consider different interpretations.
2. achieve consensus

1. consider different responses
2. achieve consensussmall group consensus

whole class (local community)
1. discussion
2. identifying varying views acts to gain consensus whole class agreement

science community
comparison of class
views vs. those of scientists
comparison of class views vs. those of scientists
consensus/ new problems/ actions

constructivist strategies for teaching

observe surroundings for points of curiosity
ask questions
consider possible responses to questions
note unexpected phenomena
identify situations where student perceptions vary
engage in focused play
brainstorm possible alternatives
design a model
look for information
evaluate choices
experiment with materials
engage in debate
observe specific phenomena
analyze data
employ problem-solving strategies
collect and organize data
define parameters of an investigation
identify risks & consequences
select appropriate resources
discuss solutions with others
design and conduct experiments
propose explanation and solutions
construct a new explanation
construct and explain a model
utilize peer evaluation
assemble multiple answers / solutions
determine appropriate closure
review and critique solutions
communicate information and ideas
integrate a solution with existing knowledge and experience
taking action
ask new questions
apply knowledge and skills
share information and ideas
transfer knowledge and skills
make decisions
develop products and promote ideas
use models and ideas to illicit discussion and acceptance by others

scales for evaluating degree of constructivist learning

teacher or student

yes or no
varied evaluation techniques used
student practices self-evaluation
concepts & skills applied to new situations
students take actions
science concepts emerge because

11 / 11st / 95