Last year, my wife and I made the very difficult decision to uproot our family and move to Charlottesville, VA. To be more specific, we moved to Albemarle County Public Schools. A lot went into this decision to change jobs, change the kids’ schools, sell our house and build a new one. The driving reason for this change was to get into a school district that embraced what I felt was a crucial philosophy of educational reform.

I wanted to be a part of this philosophy and more importantly, I wanted my kids to experience and benefit from the educational movement.

What is this movement I speak of?

Constructivist Teaching and Learning

Constructivism is basically a theory — based on observation and scientific study — about how people learn. It says that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.” — WNET Education

Or as John Dewey says:

“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.”

As a teacher, I want my students to be involved in the learning process. To be more clear, I don’t want them to sit back and simply receive information that they can regurgitate later for a test. They need to collect as many EXPERIENCES as possible so they can form their own knowledge and viewpoints.

I want them to dive in and construct their learning through real world experiences.

I want them to form questions based on discussions and curiosity. These questions will create experiences that allow students to form strategies towards answering their questions.

I want each experience to motivate students to work collaboratively and constantly question their methods and results.

I want them to experience roadblocks. That will cause students to reexamine their process and develop new paths and strategies towards the solution.

In short, rather than simply sitting back and receiving information from a teacher, they drive the process and learn HOW TO LEARN.

Constructivist Practice and Beliefs

Under the umbrella of Constructivist teaching is a variety of practices and beliefs that I greatly value. Here are a few:

  • Maker Movement
  • Student Empowerment
  • Problem / Project / Passion Based Learning
  • Authentic and Purposeful Learning
  • Student Agency

Within these practices, there lies an intentional effort to focus on a couple of key strategies. These two strategies are critical to the constructivist learner.

  1. Process through Choice
  2. Authentic Solutions via Authentic Problems

Process through Choice

In a traditional classroom, process is dictated way too much by the teacher. By this I mean…

  • TEACHERS give the steps for a project vs having kids develop the steps.
  • TEACHERS provide the driving questions vs having the kids formulate the questions.
  • TEACHERS use their creativity to design a project’s outcome vs allowing a student to creatively design their final product.

In other words, we get in the way of natural learning experiences by creating the process for students vs having the students be a part of the process.

When Teachers dictate the process, we rob students of so many powerful opportunities to drive their own learning. We rob them of the ability to constantly foster their creative mindset. We rob them of the natural collaboration experiences that come with working together to find their process. We rob them of the ability to construct their own processes based on previous learning experiences.

In developing a constructivist learning environment, a teacher needs to cultivate the power of the process. Our role shifts from deliverer of information and knowledge to facilitator of experiences.

When STUDENTS develop their own driving questions they become empowered in the learning process.

When STUDENTS collaborate and develop strategies they become empowered in the learning process.

When STUDENTS’ plans fail and they regroup, they become empowered in the learning process.

Let’s find the strength to get out of the way. When we do so, we allow authentic learning to take place and our STUDENTS will see the value in the process.

Authentic Solutions via Authentic Problems

A successful constructivist learning environment is all about authenticity. We automatically get a higher level of student buy-in when a task or project is real-world and authentic. As a general rule, when experiences don’t cause student’s to ask, “When will I ever need to know this?” the experience is so much more engaging.

In a lot of classrooms, we sell the experience short by only setting up authentic problems. After we set-up the authentic problem, we jump back into teacher-led solution scenarios.

We need to let the authentic learning kick-in. The process of getting to the solution is the key. You might be surprised to find that students will come up with solutions, or paths to solutions, that you never even thought of! This is where student-led learning grows. This is where we let kids LEARN HOW TO LEARN.

Let students construct their learning through trial and error.

Let collaboration skills grow by facilitating brainstorm sessions that lead to debates about strategies.

Let the power of constant student reflection be a valuable tool in problem solving.

Let whole group reflections and feedback occur that allows students to construct an evolving belief in what it means to solve problems.

Let the authentic experience remain authentic all the way through to the end.

The Constructivist Learning Environment

For most of us, the Constructivist culture sounds great in theory, but what does it actually look like in our classrooms? We can weave a Constructivist Environment into nearly everything we do. It starts with simply adjusting our mindset during the planning process. Instead of creating every project, activity or assignment from beginning to end, define a backbone of expectations and let your students fill in the rest. You will guide them along the way, but they will be in the driver’s seat.

Do you need to teach about profit and loss? Don’t just show them a chart and explain how it works. Have them develop and promote their own bake sale. Let them experience the decision-making that needs to take place. Promote reflection during and after the process..

How about a lesson on the assembly line? Let them decompose the actual physical object to learn how it was built. Now, have them develop an assembly line process for building that object. Let them experience the process to construct their own learning. Even better, if time allows, make this project about their own invention rather than decomposing an already existing object.

As the Constructivist learning environment spreads throughout the country, we will see more engaged learners and more classrooms that support real student growth.

Students will be equipped with the ability to KNOW HOW TO LEARN.

Students will be empowered in their learning process and make decisionsthat guide their growth.

Students will develop a problem-solver mentality and embrace feedback and reflection.

Collaboration will take on a much bigger meaning then simply getting into groups.

I encourage all of us to take the great things we already do to a whole new level. Develop a constructivist culture in your classroom and school that promotes authentic learning and problem solving. Demonstrate that you value the learning process as much, if not more, than just the result.

I would love to hear your beliefs and feedback pertaining to this post. Please subscribe below to get all of my posts. Go back and check out my original post, Something’s Missing where I kick off a series involving the C words that are missing in our students. Check out some of my other C Posts, CommunicationConfidenceCreativityConnection, and Catalyst. I greatly value all opinions and arguments. Engage in the comments and help continue this discussion. I look forward to what you all have to say.