classroom atmosphere which encourages all students to take on the desire to become lifelong learners is a challenging task. The task is even more daunting when the context of the assignment takes place within the walls of a 7th grade social studies classroom. Middle school students are progressively less interested in social history, and increasingly more interested in what the latest top 40 music group did on their last concert tour. None the less, by using a constructivist approach to the classroom, the students were engaged in the subject matter, and moved in the direction of developing the target attitude - that of being personally interested in the education process.
As a constructivist educator, I must admit that I am a relative constructionist, and not one who takes the constructivist dogma to unrealistic conclusions. Let me explain. As a constructivist, I cannot pretend to have an "objective" view of how the current educational conditions have evolved. Some say that the main root of the trouble is that, for 50 years in the last century, education has suffered the virtually undisputed domination of a behaviorist, and structuralist teaching. The behaviorists eliminated the distinction between training (for performance, like Pavlov and his dogs) and teaching that aims at the generation of understanding. All learning was derived from a model that seems to have been derived from experiments with captive pigeons and rats. Its fundamental principle was the "law of effect," in which Thorndike (1931, p. 101) formulated the observation that animals, including students in the classroom, tend to repeat the actions that led to satisfactory results and rewards. The behaviorists reformulated this by saying that any response that is "reinforced" will be repeated. Thus they turned cause and effect into a "learning theory" based on the power of reinforcement.
The structuralist reinforced this approach to education by devising information delivery schemas which gave the student the opportunity for reward by repeating desired behaviors. When the student 'learned' the desired information, he was 'rewarded' with good grades. But again, this approach did not address the core question, of whether or not the student had taken on, and internalized the desire to learn.
For education, this learning theory had unfortunate consequences. It has tended to focus teachers' attention on students' performance rather than on the reasons that prompt them to act in a particular way. Reinforcement fosters the repetition of what gets reinforced. But it does not guarantee that the acting subject's understanding of the problem, or the inherent logic that distinguishes solutions from inadequate responses. Thus, the training practices by behaviorists and structuralists modified behavioral responses, but it leaves the responding subject's comprehension to fortunate accidents.
From the constructivist perspective, as Piaget stressed, knowing is an adaptive activity. A student should be led to think of knowledge as a compendium of concepts and actions that one has found to be successful, given the purposes one had in mind. Piaget coined the constructivist paradigm, and insisted that students needed to be encouraged and led to engage the learning process in order to create their own, constructed models of information.
While I approached this project from a constructionist perspective in terms of curriculum design, and information delivery method, I remain a bit of a structuralist in that the students are required to come to know a specific body of knowledge and be able to repeat specific developed ideas as part of the curriculum. I believe that the mixture of structuralist and constructionist is necessary because of a deep flaw in Piaget's theories.
Paiget developed his goal from an evolutionary model, in which animals had to develop, or construct enough information to adapt and function in their own world. An animal was thus called adapted had a sufficient repertoire of actions and information about his environment to cope with the difficulties presented by the environment in which it lives. While the human animal achieves this state with relative ease, the human 'animal,' (and sometimes this terms applied quite closely to my 7th grade students) has to develop two sets of working schemas which animals do not need to address. First the human thinker must cope with the difficulties that arise on the conceptual level. Situations change, and the problems presented in the classroom do not always reflect the real world. The independent reality which teachers speak of as 'adaptation' does not become accessible to human cognition. What must be developed on top of the knowledge is the ability to use the knowledge to adapt to changing dynamics.
Secondly, the human 'animal' is likely to remain an 'animal' in behavioral style if specific character traits and disciplines are not taught at the same time the student is educated with information, and engaged in the learning process. In this level, I have been influenced by Jefferson, Webster, and Mann who believed that the role of public education was to educate the whole child, intellectually, socially, and morally. (Ornstein, 2003) While moral issues which are related to religious instruction have been deemed inappropriate in the classroom, moral issues of character development, such as hard work, developing keen mental skills thorough memorization, and respect for the teacher - student relationship have not been, and should not be. In regard to these positive educational outcomes, teaching some of the material from a structuralist point-of-view has positive benefits in the classroom.
Constructionists Gale and Steffe use the example of a constellation in order to explain and support the function of the constructionist teaching paradigm. They point out a constellation in the northern hemisphere called Cassiopeia. The configuration of stars from our perspective is in the shape of a W. The shape has been recognized for thousands of years, and it served the navigators as an aid to find their way across the seas. It has not changed and has proved as reliable, real, or as truth, at least from our perspective. However, from another perspective, the 5 stars which make up the crown would not form the configuration of a W. whatsoever. "Alpha is 45 light years away, Beta 150. The distance to Gamma is 96, to Delta 43, and to Epsilon 520 light years. Consider this spatial arrangement for a moment. If you moved 45 light years toward Cassiopeia, you would have passed Delta and you would be standing on Alpha. The constellation would have fallen apart during your journey. If you moved sideways from our earth, it would disintegrate even more quickly. Where, then, does this image called Cassiopeia exist?" (Gale and Steffe, 1995)
The authors are quick to say that the W. shaped constellation only exists on our mind, and not in reality. The process of picking out and connecting is the stars into a constellation are part of the constructivist perspective - that reality is constructed from a certain reference point. AS an educator in the 7th grade classroom, I have to add to their short sighted definition, which seems bent on supporting modern educational theory rather than effective practice in the classroom. The W. shaped constellation exists for every person on this planet. Although if we did life in a different reference point, we would not see the constellation the same, we do not, we live here. There exists a specific structure of those 5 stars to our common experience, therefore my students, while they may be free to think of the situation from another point-of-view, learned about, and mastered a specific body of knowledge regarding the 'constellations' and events included in our social studies classroom from our common point-of-view.
Herbert Spencer also dealt with the issues around which constructivist educators have found energy for their theories. Spencer wrote about, and built on a main theory which suggested that students should be taught 'how' to think, and not 'what' to think. Writing in 1860, his theories influenced a slow metamorphosis away from rote learning and memorization, the structuralist paradigm, toward investigation and experimentation which was based in scientific theory. However, the result of the false differentiation was the creation of dichotomous educational philosophies where no dichotomy needed to exist. Spencer was inaccurate in making the distinction between the 'what' and the 'how' of education, because it is impossible to do one without the other.
In my social studies class, the student could not understand how to think about events until they knew the 'what' of the events. They could not postulate about cultural issues of our nations history until they knew and had mastered the facts regarding our history.
Modern educators are rediscovering that during the process of teaching a student 'what' to think, he also has to learn how to think, and investigate and develop personalized understandings. An educational system which is based on only teaching 'how to think' unfortunately produces children which are neither educated, nor critical thinkers. They are only critical, possibly cynical. In my 7th grade classroom, there already exists a large degree of cynicism which comes with the age. As an educator, I want to teach them content, and concepts,…