Theories Underlying the Constructivist Approach

According to Elliot Eisner: teaching is an art and the creations of the teacher in producing an engaging stimulating and insightful lesson are the result of using many different skills but these are influenced by qualities and contingencies that are unpredictable but all teachers do operate with theory where theory is a general set of ideas through which we make sense of the world And according to Peel (1967): psychology may be defines as the science of behaviour and experience In my essay, I will attempt to describe those theories underlying the constructivist approach.

As is noted by Driver (1988), pupils can often pass through the education system still holding to false or inaccurate views despite the instruction they receive in the sciences at school. Meaningful learning can be said to occur when knowledge is internalised by the learner, in other words, when it is adopted into their everyday thinking by relating it to what they already know (Kyriacou, 1997) The degree of this assimilation and accommodation which is described by Piaget can be judged by assessing the learners ability to transfer this learning, i. . to apply acquired knowledge and skills to new tasks and situations. If the measure of the effectiveness of a teaching approach is taken as being the achievement of meaningful learning (Kyriacou), it seems that the educational strategies employed by science teachers are falling short of attaining the desired outcome In the context of meaningful learning, recent research would appear to support the conviction that the key factor in the learning process is the motivational impetus of the pupil.

Relevance to real life experiences and stimulation of interest are of central importance, with the pupil taking an active role in the learning process. Achievement of this end necessitates adopting an inductive or discovery approach to teaching and learning whereby investigatory and constructivist methods are employed. In my discourse, I will attempt to describe the framework of constructivism, it being a multifaceted philosophy, with many proponents, based on the tenet that meaning is not something which can be given, but is constructed by us in our own way based on our current understanding (Duckworth, 1997).

It is a framework greatly influenced by Piagetian epistemology while also encompassing various contrasting theoretical and practical perspectives on how children learn. Prevalent among these perspectives are the theories of Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner, while Gardners theory of multiple intelligences also musters an impact. The Theorists Piaget: Theory of Genetic Epistemology Piagets theory focuses on the various reconstructions that a childs thinking goes through in the course of cognitive development.

In terms of long-term memory he argues (Piaget + Inheld, 1969) that the cognitive structure of the memory is made up of various schema. According to Kyriacou, each schema is an organisation of information, or a pattern of action used to interpret phenomena. The modification and reorganisation of these schema is an ongoing process, which involves assimilation and accommodation of new information through the childs interaction with the environment.

Assimilation is described as the process by which the child uses their preconceived notions to interpret experiences. Conversely, accommodation involves adjusting or revising their existing schema to incorporate new experiences and make sense of the environment. Piaget begins with the relatively simple behaviour of the infant and traces its progression to more and more complex levels of cognition and activity perceiving this development as proceeding in a given sequence of phases. These four phases of cognitive growth are catalogued as : sensory-motor (0-2) where intelligence takes the form of physical actions only. The child does not realise that objects can exist apart from them. 2: the preoperational phase (2-7), which is often subdivided into pre-conceptual and intuitive, is signalled by the child’s beginning to develop concepts, but solely in an egocentric way, being unable to comprehend any viewpoint but their own.

Preoperational children have a tendency to make up explanations in order to describe confusing experience. : in the concrete operational phase (7-11) logical thinking begins to emerge. Piaget describes operations as actions which can be internalised and reversed. The child begins to use mental operations and think about actions and can classify objects by characteristics, arranging them by quantitative measurement. The most important progressions in this phase are the emergence of conservation and reversibility. The chid develops the ability to distinguish between quantity and physical appearance, but only in a concrete manner.

As of yet, there are no formulations of objective reality. 4: Formal operations (11-16) is the phase which, as a teacher of secondary level, I am most concerned. In this stage the child becomes independent of concrete reality, leading to abstract thinking and deductive reasoning. The child can now reason by hypothesis, manipulate relations and frame generalized systems. Piaget (1962) emphasises the active role of play and imitation in the growth of intelligence. He asserts that the child learns by doing.

Using symbolism or representation of absent objects provides children with a means by which to build knowledge abut the world. In the context of imitation, the pivotal role of the teacher becomes apparent. Vygotsky: Social Development Theory Vygotskys framework explains consciousness as the end product of socialisation. He emphasised the importance of tools of development and distinguished between psychological tools which direct mind and behaviour (such as language, signs and symbols etc. ), and technical tools which merely produce changes in objects (Vygotsky, 1981).

It is through acquiring these psychological tools that the child develops, however it is not the tools themselves which are important, but the meaning encoded in them (Knox and Stevens pg 26 intro, 1993). In his 1978 treatise, Vygotsky explains his idea of the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition. He contends that higher mental functions emerge out of the social processes (Daniels, 1996) and that every function in the Childs development appears twice, first on the social level and later on the individual level (Vygotsky, 1978).

He studied the development of concepts and determined that only through interaction with adults do children infer the sense of a concept (Laird, 1986). He made a distinction between two kinds of concept: spontaneous or everyday concepts and scientific concepts defined by the presence or absence of a system (McElwee, 2002). The investigations of Vygotsky and Shif in comparing causal and adversative relations led to the belief that the development of scientific concepts precedes that of everyday concepts (Daniels, 1996).

This indicates that instruction in scientific concepts plays a decisive role as scientific concepts restructure and raise spontaneous concepts to a higher level (Vygotsky, 1987). The acquiring of these scientific concepts takes place through social interaction (either with more advanced peers or with adults) by means of psychological tools, the most important of which being speech. Vygotsky believed that the words used in teacher-pupil interactions shaped the characteristics of the scientific concepts (Minick, 1985), which are then used to build up or modify everyday views.

Given the indisputable link of culture, society and language, this theory binds the process of cognitive development inexorably to culture. The childs conceptions progress from a social interaction/verbal situation (interpsychological) to an internalisation (intrapsychological) by which the concept can be adapted and utilised by the child. Another aspect of Vygotskys theory involves the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development, whereby the interpsychological and intrapsychological mix.

The ZPD defines the range within which the instruction of adults is likely to be most effective (Schaffer, 1996). The potential for cognitive development is limited to a certain time span, with its optimum achievement being dependant on social interaction. This potential, the ZPD, is defined by Vygotsky (1978) as: the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by individual problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers

Bruner The principle theme of Bruners theorising is his notion of the nature or pattern of intellectual growth. He believes that growth is characterised by increasing independence of response from the immediate nature of stimuli, a capacity to report on actions (past or future) by means of words or symbols (such as language or mathematics) and the capacity to deal with several alternatives simultaneously and allocate time and attentions in a manner appropriate to these multiple demands (Bruner, course of cog dev).

He postulates the dependence of this growth on; the internalisation of events into a model of the environment which can be used to make predictions and inferences and interaction of a systematic and dependant nature with a more knowledgeable or advanced tutor. He also expounds the importance of language in bringing order to the world, both as a medium for exchange and an instrument for the learner. (Bruner, 1966) He suggests that the progress of the childs cognitive development is described in the notion of representation: the translating of experience into a model of the world.

The first stage of this representation is through action alone the enactive mode, based simply on learning responses. Secondly, the iconic representation, which is based on knowledge derived from building and organising mental images (Kyriacou, 1997) in a highly concrete visual way. Finally comes symbolic representation the translation of experience into language whereby observed events can be encoded (Bruner, 1966) and symbolic systems can be constructed. Bruner also noted that intellectual development runs the course of these three systems of representation until the human being is able to command all three.

It is apparent from his work that Bruner incorporates the theories of, among others, both Piaget and Vygotsky. He describes the growth of intellect in terms of modes, or phases, but in describing these phases, correlates them not only with the physical world of Piaget, but also with the social constructions of Vygotsky. Bruner is also responsible for the introduction of the metaphorical term scaffolding in reference to teacher support, particularly of the kind envisioned by Vygotsky in regard to his notion of the ZPD.

In this context it is a process by which a teacher provides students with temporary frameworks for learning. This framework is then gradually withdrawn until such point as the pupil can achieve the desired outcomes independently. Kyriacou affirms that the importance of scaffolding lies in the fact that it revolves around pupil based activity. The pupil does the work, with the teacher simply helping to direct the pupils cognitive process. The teacher adopts the role of a facilitator of learning, rather than an imparter of information. Howard Gardner: Multiple Intelligence Theory

Howard Gardners theory of multiple intelligences arose through his work with children and brain damaged adults. He was impressed by the fact that people demonstrate a wide range of capabilities and can have great strengths in specific areas and none in others (Gardner, 1990). This led him to the conviction that traditional views on intelligence, measured by standardised IQ tests, were falling short of accurate assessment in so far as they only took in to account two particular aspects of human capabilities namely logical and linguistic ability.

Inquiries into the nature of intelligence led him to the advancement of a broader, pluralistic, way of understanding intellect (Gardner and Walters, 1993). The prevalent conception (influenced strongly by Piaget and Vygotsky) of intelligence was being the ability to provide succinct answers speedily to problems of language and logistics (Gardner, 1993). Gardner proposed that intelligence is, in fact, the ability to solve problems that are significant in a particular cultural setting (Gardner and Hatch, 1989). The traditionally valued logical and linguistic talents are only two of many problem solving skills.

He suggested a prerequisite of intellectual competence as being the potential for finding or creating problems, thus initiating a process of acquiring new knowledge (Gardner, 1993). In his 1983 Frames of Mind, Gardner describes eight criteria, or signs, of intelligence: Potential isolation by brain damage; the existence of exceptional individuals; identifiable core operations; distinctive developmental history; evolutionary history and plausibility; experimental support; support from psychometric findings; susceptibility to encoding.

Only intelligences that satisfied a range of criteria were accepted as bona fide and they must also enable the individual to solve genuine problems or difficulties (Gardner, 1983). From beginning with problems that people solve and working back as to how the must be solved (Gardner, 1999) Gardner identified seven intelligences describing them as: logico/mathematical, linguistic, musical, spatial, bodily-kinaesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal.

In addition Gardner, at a later date, has added what he terms naturalist intelligence describing it as the ability to recognise, categorise and draw upon certain features in the environment (Gardner, 1999). In the context of the eight specified criteria there is speculation over the merits of three further categories spiritual, existential and moral, but he deems these difficult to define and notes a lack of empirical evidence to support them. Constructivism

Constructivism is an umbrella term that encompasses and incorporates all of the outlined theories. The first origins of the constructivist viewpoint can be traced to Immanuel Kant (McElwee, 2002). Amongst developmental psychologists, and the educational community in general, a consensus has been emerging that places weight on the value of seeing the child as actively constructing their knowledge and concepts through interaction with the environment, both physical and socio-cultural. (Hawkins and Pea, 1987).

In Piagetian theory, the material world should serve as the starting point of learning (Piaget, 1973). Through their physical negotiation of puzzling or discrepant events (Appleton, 1997), pupils can be placed in positions of cognitive conflict that results in disequilibrium between schemata present and discrepant sensory information (McElwee, 2002). Children are thus guided towards constructing an understanding of natural phenomena and developing frames for deciphering natural and social events. Hawkins and Pea, 1997). Vygotsky (1978) in his social constructivism argues that the development of constructs takes place by means of social experiences. The pupil, through teacher-student and peer interactions, learns to make independent use of techniques, skills and concepts. Bruners scaffolding approach encompasses these views of Vygotskys. He advocates that teachers set up learning processes whereby the student, through activity and interaction, gradually builds up representations.

As students continue to engage in situations, they begin to take over the processes, which are then internalised and transferred ads teacher support is withdrawn. He argues that deep understanding does not simply arise from acquiring new information, but from relinquishing or reconfirming some other way of conceiving phenomena (Bruner, 1962). Understanding is developed by way of engaging with the world, or the approximations thereof set up by the teacher to advance the learning process. What is the ultimate goal of the science teacher?

According to Elliot Eisner: teaching is an art and the creations of the teacher in producing an engaging stimulating and insightful lesson are the result of using many different skills but these are influenced by qualities and contingencies that are unpredictable but all teachers do operate with theory where theory is a general set of ideas through which we make sense of the world. The implications, which I attempt to describe, of constructivist theory for the science classroom are huge.

The most important consideration for the science teacher in adopting any teaching methods or practices is the influence of the pupils pre-learned misconceptions on their scientific outlook. Ausubel (1968) contended that the most important factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. The basic principle behind the constructivist view is that scientific theories are human constructs which are developed to provide explanations for how the world works. As Albert Einstein (1938) put it

Science is not just a collection of laws, a catalogue of facts, it is a creation of the human mind with its freely invented ideas and concepts. Physical theories try to form a picture of reality and to establish its connections in the wide world of sensory impressions. Each of us has our own set of personal constructs or preconceptions based on our experiences, which do not always agree with the scientific theory. Because these constructs or alternative frameworks (Duit and Treagust,) have developed over time through our sensory interactions, it can be very difficult to change or replace them.

My role of the teacher in this context is as a facilitator in a process by which pupils take some control over their own learning. I have observed many unique interpretations of the world based on the personal experiences of my students. Scientific explanations are not always the ones that spring to mind, and often defy common sense. For example, in teaching second years about atoms and molecules, even as a qualified physicist, I found myself at moments thinking that the particulate theory of matter does sound a bit farfetched. According to Ausubel (1968) preconceptions are amazingly tenacious and resistant to extinction… he unlearning of preconceptions might well prove to be the most determinative single factor in the acquisition and retention of subject-matter knowledge According to P McElwee, The discovery or investigatory method of teaching science is the setting up of an experiment which the pupil is asked to work on and solve for himself on the premise that if he does so he will both understand it better and remember it longer. Pupils are introduced to the process of scientific method: the design and implementation of an investigation through which a scientific theory may be tested.

Pupils get to explore the validity of their ideas. Teachers facilitate the process of implanting ideas in receptive young minds and allowing them to develop there by a process of germination Knox (1961). Wittrock () maintains that learning by discovery is its own reward and that it enables pupils to produce rather than reproduce and hence knowledge transfers itself to new situations. The currently prevalent deductive approach fails to harness this extremely valuable motivational factor.

The pupils own views and theories have no role to play and, as is pointed out by Nickerson (1985), there is a danger to educational approaches that treat students as merely lacking in information rather then taking into account possible strong preconceptions and misconceptions. I have attempted through practicals and demonstrations to set up situations involving cognitive conflict, presenting pupils with evidence that contradicts their current thinking in the hope of shaking their misconceptions and allowing them to integrate the new views into their intellectual structures and allowing pupils to use a wide variety of skills and strengths.

A POE strategy is used in which pupils are asked to make a prediction and then observe and explaining the actual outcomes (UESCO. ). As Hawkins and Pea state in their 1987 paper what everyday and formal scientific thinking have in common is the essential bridge between them: the concept of explanation. This approach, intended to challenge and alter pupils misconceptions by having them provide explanations for the contradictions thus giving them a deeper understanding of scientific concepts, has in my view yielded the desired results.

By means of pre- and post-tests does indeed give pupils a deeper understanding of difficult concepts. For example, I found that pupils had great difficulty in making the distinction between the air and oxygen. I set up a variety of learning activities which allowed pupils to experience and explore the differences and build up to the scientific distinctions for themselves. The subject oxygen is one in which pupils have a considerable amount of foreknowledge, not all of which is necessarily accurate or complete. The POE approach to the topic

Burbles and Linn in their 1988 paper on understanding stated, learners selectively incorporate information and modify their beliefs depending on how the information fits with their prelearned beliefs. An important consideration in ascertaining and challenging these ideas is the role of discussion. A practical that takes place without any discussion loses meaning. It is important that pupils explore theories, their own and those of their classmates, before and after undertaking the ascribed tasks. This encourages pupils to think about what they are doing and why they are doing it and they then have reasoning behind their predictions.

They have invested in the outcome of the tasks, which makes it stimulating and relevant for them. It is obvious from practicals that pupils do not always see what we want them to see. Awareness of the experiences of their peers and the questioning and prompting of the teacher are essential factors in guiding the observations of the pupils, and these things can only be properly employed by discussion. It also enables pupils to reflect on their mistakes and errors, recognise their significance in a laboratory situation and incorporate them into the learning process.


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