A Short Study In Constructivism Essay

The other day while updating an old lesson on globalization, I started with reviewing the basic outline. It was nothing out of the ordinary:

  • Frontload vocabulary
  • Present the material 
  • In class activity to “practice” the material. In this case, they would explore the school for the origin of various items
  • Create a map showing where items come from

All in all it was a standard day. Not my favorite lesson, but a fun one. It had movement, it had learning, it had an assessment. There was nothing much to do to the lesson but update it and tweak a few things.

But then the thought hit me: What if I let them them try to figure it out? By spoonfeeding them the information I wanted them to learn up front, the activity was just redundant. Their was no discovery, no analysis, no extrapolation. Just some data collection towards a predictable end.

The more I looked at my lesson, the more I thought This sucks. (Side note: it’s frightening how often I think my old lessons suck) So I flipped the activity to the start of the class. No vocab, no explanation, other than the instructions. Off my students went to discover the origins of things on and around us. 

Then I asked them to make sense of the data. What does it tell us about our world?

“China makes a lot of stuff,” they realized quickly.

“Our stuff comes from all over the world,” one group said.

“Almost nothing is made here!” said another.

And then I asked them to analyze the data, and come up with hypothesis. Why was this?

The answers came, some right, and some wrong. But they were their own answers and their own ideas that they had constructed themselves. The debate was richer, their eyes were brighter, and their attention more focused when I explained globalization and its causes. 

It was a small thing, but I wonder why I don’t do it more. I know A LOT about my subject, I’m a nerd for history and junky for news. But I can’t pour that knowledge directly into my student’s brains. And it wouldn’t do them any good if I could. The world is changing so rapidly, there is no way the knowledge the world currently has will be enough. Things will change, new fields will develop, new discoveries will be discovered.

We need to teach them how to draw their own conclusions and analysis. That’s the whole basis of the constructivism movement, which argues largely that the future of education isn’t imparting knowledge, but imparting skills to acquire, organize, and analyze information. It’s a movement I largely agree with, though I admit I don’t understand it as well as I could. For me, flipping the order of my lesson was another baby step towards a more student centered classroom. And I still do believe in the power of direct instruction, delivered passionately to wow, amaze and inspire my students. The balance between the two styles of teaching is one I’m still learning to find.

What about you? Are you using an constructivism? If so, how much? I’d love to hear more from all the Social Studiers (and other educators) out there.

High School
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