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Constructionism: student learning and development.

Abstract

The purpose of this study was to assess learning and development of students taught under a constructionist approach. Participants were six teachers and 12 students from a small experimental school in Thailand. Evaluation of student portfolios at three different points in time indicated significant improvement (p < .01) in both academic achievement and desirable characteristics. Effect size analysis found that the academic effect gain was larger than desirable characteristics gain, and that gain in the time 2-3 (later) period was larger than gain in the time 1-2 (earlier) period.

Introduction

For many years, behavioral psychology was a dominant influence on schools (Druin & Solomon, 1996; Tullavantana, 2002). In the behaviorist viewpoint, teachers are the disseminators of information and students are passive receptacles of the knowledge that teachers impart (Hay & Barab, 2001; Tullavantana, 2002). Drill-and-practice is one of the instructional styles that support behaviorist learning (Suppes, 1980 as cited in Druin & Solomon, 1996).

During the 1970s, behavioral psychology declined in prominence and gave way to the rapid increment of cognitive psychology (Gosling & Craik, 1999). Cognitivism emphasizes learning process in the minds of students. Constructivism, one of the cognitive learning theories proposed by Jean Piaget, argues that knowledge is not transmitted from teachers to students, but constructed by students themselves when they interact with the environment (Bjorklund, 1995; Guzdial, 1997; Stager, 2001). This view of knowledge acquisition is similar to Dewey's (1933) idea of learning by doing and discovery learning as a result of interaction with the environment.

Constructionism, another one of the cognitive learning theories, was developed by Seymour Papert, professor of learning research at the Media Laboratory of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Guzdial, 1997). Constructionism, which goes a step further than constructivism (Druin & Solomon, 1996; Petcharuksa, 2001; Tullavantana, 2002), asserts that students are particularly likely to make new ideas and construct knowledge when they are engaged in building objects or making products by themselves (Guzdial, 1997; Hay & Barab, 2001; Papert, 1980, 1984, 1993, 1999; Stager, 2001). Therefore, while constructivism defines learning as the building of knowledge inside of one's head, constructionism suggests that the best way to ensure that such intellectual structures form is through the active construction of something outside of one's head-something tangible that others can see, critique, and, perhaps, use (Guzdial, 1997; Stager, 2001). Another benefit of learning through constructionism is social skill development. Papert (1993) indicated that a constructionist learning environment also allows students to show, discuss, examine, and collaboratively reflect on the cognitive artifacts or product that they create. In this way, their content area knowledge, habits of mind, and social skills will be developed (Hay & Barab, 2001; Stager, 2001).

To assess students' learning under constructionism, traditional testing (e.g., true-false, multiple-choice, fill-in, short-answer, and essay) may not be the most appropriate. Traditional tests fail to allow students to demonstrate the multidimensional aspects of what they have learned (Cole, Ryan, Kick & Mathies, 2000). Portfolio is potentially an authentic assessment tool for assessing student learning applied in a complex, real-world situation (Benson & Barnett, 1999). Portfolio reflects many types of student performances i.e. individual abilities and characteristics, as well as growth and progress as seen through their created products or artifacts (Aschbacher, 1990; Birenbaum, 1996; Moonkum, 2000; Poowipadawat, 2001). Although it could be argued that (a) traditional testing can be authentic (e.g., students do make multiple choices in everyday life) and portfolios can be contrived (e.g., designed to show only best, not typical, products), and that (b) both traditional testing and portfolios capture only a small part of student achievement and development, portfolios in general are more comprehensive and authentic (see Pressley & McCormick, 1995, p. 571-572). Since constructionism is a relatively new educational concept, its possible effects on students should be more comprehensively assessed. Learning under constructionism, at least at the present time, should be assessed through portfolios.

The influence of constructionism in Thailand was due to Seymour Papert. In 1997, Seymour Papert came to Thailand to lead a series of workshops on the constructionist approach to education. Teachers and educators from many provinces of the country were invited to attend. They were trained on the principles and management of constructionist learning and told to share these ideas with colleagues. The workshops were geared towards practicing teachers rather than university students. There has been considerable interest in constructionism among Thai educators since then. In November 2000, only three years after the workshops, Darunsikkhalai School, located in Bangkok, was established. The school was established by King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi, in collaboration with Suksapattana Foundation, Thaicom Foundation, and the Future of Learning Group at Media Laboratory of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Darunsikkhalai School, 2004). The school had 23 students, ages 6-11, and 13 teachers who had been trained at conferences and workshops on constructionism.

In Thailand, there have been dramatic changes in educational management since the enactment of the National Education Act A.D. 1999. Prior to 1999, children received nine years of basic compulsory education and the prevalent mode of instruction was teacher-centered. Some educators did advocate student-centered instruction but it was not openly sanctioned by the previous Education Acts. With the advent of the 1999 Act, basic compulsory education has been extended to 12 years. The Act also puts an emphasis on a new teaching style, shifting from teacher-centered to student-centered. As a result, many schools have provided a constructionist learning environment for their students (Petcharuksa, 2001; Tullavantana, 2002). Among these schools, Darunsikkhalai School in Thailand is the only school that relies solely on the constructionist approach to learning and provides its students with a totally project-based learning environment.

In that total project-based environment, the school defined a project as a topic that the students were interested in doing. Each student, in consultation with the teacher, was free to suggest any project in which he/she was interested. Students then voted on the project they would do as a group and decided on what products they would make. The teachers then developed project objectives and created assignments/worksheets related to these project objectives. As the students worked together on their project, they started to collect a variety of individual products (exercises, worksheets, work records, observation forms, evaluation forms cassettes, photographs, artifacts, etc.) in their working folders. Every three weeks, over the nine-week period, students chose their best products from their working folders to put into their portfolios. (At first the teachers modeled this selection process for the student, but the students quickly learned how to choose products that best fit the project objectives.) At this same time, each product in the portfolio was evaluated by (a) the student, (b) the teacher and (c) a peer, according to a predetermined rubric. The main researcher, the teachers and the students had previously collaborated to set up the rubric for portfolio evaluation. (See Instruments section.) Thus, project learnings were decided by both the teacher and the students. However, learnings of the basic required subjects, mathematics and the Thai language, were determined by externally-based standards, outlined by Thailand's Ministry of Education. Learning of these subjects took place in special sessions at intervals throughout the group projects with contents derived from the projects themselves. Efforts were also made to inculcate in students the five disciplines (see Instruments section) adopted by the school's administration during day-to-day interaction with the teachers. The final assessment of each student's learning was the "improvement" based on a series of three ratings of the products in the portfolio, not on the final product of the project itself. Improved ratings at three points in time over the nine-week project constituted a "success."

For example, a group of students decided to undertake the Natural Products project in which products such as fruit juice, herb ice-cream, and aroma candles were made. So, from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. everyday, they worked as a team, planning, researching information from various sources (e.g., the Internet, books, and knowledgeable people), and finally designing and creating the final products as planned. With teachers serving as facilitators, the students solved problems as they arose and learned from one another. This learning and teaching process was quite different from the typical Thai school model where about 30 to 50 students of the same age listen to the teacher's lecture and where learning outcomes are assessed by paper-pencil tests only. Obviously, this project-centered learning model presents many assessment challenges.

The objectives of the present study were (a) to assess the development of academic achievement of students taught by full scale constructionism approach at Darunsikkhalai School, (b) to assess the development of desirable non-academic characteristics in students taught under full scale constructionism, and (c) to compare non-academic and academic progress.

Method

Participants The population was the 13 teachers and 23 students (ages = 6-11 years) at Darunsikkhalai School in Bangkok, Thailand. Most students were from higher socio-economic-status families with parents having higher education degrees, and living in Bangkok and vicinity. Twelve older students, ages 9-11 years, (seven females and five males) and their six teachers constituted the sample for the present study. Older students were selected because, at a higher level of maturity and literacy, they could manage their portfolios for assessment better than younger students. The duration of the present study was from Jan 19, 2004 to March 19, 2004.

Instruments Portfolios were used to assess the learning and development of the students. Since student portfolios were not in place when the present study began, the researcher (the first author of the present paper) needed to develop the process of organizing student portfolios for the school. The students, the teachers and the researcher collaborated in deciding on the contents of the portfolios (e.g., exercises, work sheets, work records, observation forms, evaluation forms, cassettes, photographs and artifacts from group projects), as well as on setting up rubrics for portfolio evaluation. Every three weeks, the students examined their working [biders and selected the most satisfactory products to be included in their individual portfolios. At the same time they could remove less satisfactory products from the portfolios to place back in their working folders. Each portfolio was evaluated by three evaluators, i.e. the teacher, the student, and a peer of the student. Three areas of outcomes were evaluated:

1. Mathematical skills: Calculation/problem solving skill, and data presentation/analytical skills. Possible score range of 3-12 points each.

2. Thai language skills: Listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills. Possible score range of 3-12 points each.

3. Five disciplines: Desirable student characteristics proposed by Senge (1994, 2000). 3.1 Personal Mastery (PM)--knowing one's strengths and weaknesses, as well as knowing how to adjust.

3.2 Mental Model (MM)--listening to comments or suggestions from other people and being able to give reason why.

3.3 Shared Vision (SV)--setting goals and objectives for projects and activities together with other group members

3.4 Team Learning (TL)--working well with other project members and keeping them informed on progress.

3.5 Systems Thinking (ST)--working systematically by planning, following the plan, checking the products, and making adjustment.

Each of these five disciplines was rated on a four-point Likert scale, where I suggested lack of mastery and 4 indicated nearly complete mastery. Behaviors relevant to these five disciplines were to be observed while students were working together in group projects. Student outcomes through portfolios were evaluated by three raters--the student him/herself, a peer, and the teacher. A student's final outcome score was the weighted average of these three raters with the student's personal score receiving 32% of the weight, the peer 28% and the teacher 40%. These weights were derived after holding brainstorming session with teachers and then averaging the weights they proposed. The interrater reliabilities for the scoring rubrics of mathematics, Thai, and five disciplines were determined to be 0.93, 0.85, and 0.90 respectively.

Procedure The researcher (first author) worked with the teachers in explaining the portfolio process to the students. Students were instructed to keep working folders of their daily products (as opposed to the final product of the project). Every three weeks they selected their best work from that period (worksheets, planning sheets, calculations, artifacts, etc.) to place in their portfolios. To teach students how to select appropriate products, the teacher first instructed them to select the best product--the one that fit the project objectives the most. Then the students were instructed to select the next best product to put into the portfolio with consideration of whether the quality of the portfolio would be enhanced. If so, the product should be kept in the portfolio. If not, a different next best product would need to be selected. Subsequent products were selected following this consideration. At first, teachers modeled the selection process, based on the learning objectives that they and the students had discussed at the beginning of the project. The students quickly learned how to evaluate their own products, choosing those that best corresponded to the project objectives. Students were also allowed to replace items with better products to improve the quality of their portfolios. The products in their individual portfolios were evaluated three times over the nine week project period, by the student, the teacher and a peer, resulting in a weighted average score. (See Instruments section above.) Rating scores of student outcomes at three points in time were analyzed using a one-way repeated measure ANOVA to see if significant improvement occurred.

Result

In Mathematics, the area of calculation/problem solving skills was evaluated using portfolio contents such as worksheets showing how the students calculated the cost of materials and the income from sales of products they made in the projects. The mean score improved from 7.11 (SD=1.86), to 8.68 (SD=1.64), and to 9.80 (SD=1.20), and the difference was significant, F(2,22) = 64.556, p < .01. The area of presentation/analytical skills was evaluated from several items in the portfolio such as documents that surveyed the popularity of the project products that had been sold. The mean score improved from 7.79 (SD=1.89), to 9.19 (SD=1.20), and to 10.27 (SD=0.89), F(2,22) = 37.750, p < .01.

As for Thai, the students collected products reflecting listening speaking, reading, and writing skills for their portfolio. Such things as listening records, cassettes containing their speeches, short notes they took after reading stories or articles, as well as essays about what they did and learned in group projects, were included and evaluated. The mean "listening" score improved from 8.12 (SD=0.61), to 8.80 (SD=0.94), and to 10.70 (SD=1.35), F(2,22) = 37.755, p < .01. The mean "speaking" score improved from 8.09 (SD=0.98), to 8.63 (SD=0.97), and to 10.36 (SD=1.02), F(2,22) = 47.341, p < .01. The mean "reading" score improved from 7.48 (SD=1.37), to 8.46 (SD=1.44), and to 9.17 (SD=1.64), F(2,22) = 33.365, p < .01. Finally, the mean "writing" score improved from 8.39 (SD=1.77), to 9.59 (SD=0.91), and to 10.47 (SD=0.96), F(2,22) = 19.559, p < .01.

Students' growth in the five disciplines was evaluated from products collected in the portfolios such as students' working notes and teacher observation reports made during group project work. The mean "personal mastery" score improved from 2.79 (SD=0.51), to 2.95 (SD=0.40), and to 3.42 (SD=0.49), F(2,22) = 25.039, p < .01. The mean "mental model" score improved from 2.87 (SD=0.40), to 3.08 (SD=0.32), and to 3.33 (SD=0.35), F(2,22) = 8.973, p < .01. The mean "shared vision" score improved from 2.46 (SD=0.58), to 2.81 (SD=0.36), and to 3. 10 (SD=0.35), F(2,22) = 18.357, p < .01. The mean "team learning" score improved from 2.83 (SD=0.62), to 3.07 (SD=0.53), and to 3.40 (SD=0.48), F(2,22) = 19.752, p < .01. Finally the mean "systems thinking" score improved from 2.56 (SD=0.47), to 2.93 (SD=0.35), and to 3.24 (SD=0.31), F(2,22) = 25.368, p < .01.

Note above that all Fs were significant (p < .01). The 22 degrees of freedom for error in all F-tests exceed 20--the df number required for robustness in a univariate ANOVA (Tabachnick & Fidell, 1996, p. 71). Also note above that the mean score for every outcome increased from the first three weeks (time 1) to the second three weeks (time 2), and from the second three weeks (time 2) to the third three weeks (time3). However, the post-hoc pair-wise Bonferroni tests indicated that significant increase did not occur (p > .05) in four (speaking, personal mastery, mental model and team learning) of the 11 outcomes during time 1-2 period, but in only one outcome (mental model) during time 2-3 period.

Since an academic outcome had possible score range of 3-12 but a desirable characteristics outcome had a different possible score range of 1-4, comparing their possible differential gains would required the application of a common standard index such as an "effect size (ES)." An effect size (Glass, McGaw & Smith, 1981) is defined as the mean of the experimental group minus the mean of the control group and then divided by the standard deviation of the control group (Light & Pillemer, 1984). In a one-group pretest posttest design (such as the present study), the same group serves as its own control. Therefore, an effect size is calculated as the posttest mean minus pretest mean and then divided by the pretest standard deviation. In the present context, all effect size could be called a "standardized gain size" or just "gain size" for short. Calculated gain sizes for the present study were compared and discussed in the following paragraphs.

For mathematics, the calculated gain sizes for "calculation and problem solving" were 0.84 for time 1-2 period (first period), and 0.68 for time 2-3 period (second period). The calculated gain size for "data presentation and analytical skill" was 0.74 for the first period but increased to 0.90 for the second period. It was observed in the first period that students could add and subtract numbers fluently and correctly. However, they were not fluent in multiplying and dividing numbers especially dividing fractions and dividing numbers with more than one digit divisors. Most students wrote down the solution but did not describe the strategies of calculation or missed key elements of the calculation strategies. Students could create bar charts and line graphs well but they spent a long time making pie charts. They could not discuss the data presented in the charts. In the second period, students could multiply and divide numbers more fluently. Most students described the calculation strategies completely. Moreover, students could make pie charts taster than in the previous period. They could also discuss the interesting details of the data presented in the charts.

In the Thai language area, the gain size for "listening" increased from 1.11 in the first period to 2.02 in the second period. For "speaking," the gain size increased from 0.55 in the first period to 1.78 in the second period. For "reading," however, the gain size did not increase (0.71 for the first period but 0.50 for the second). Finally, gain size for "writing" increased from 0.68 in the first period to 0.98 in the second period. Thus, most gain sizes for language skills increased from the first to second period. It was observed that, in the first period, students only paid attention to the stories that they were interested in. They could not address main ideas of the stories that they listened to or read about. For speaking and writing skills, most of the students narrowly focused on the obtained topics and did not provide enough contents for listeners or readers. In the second period, the students could address main ideas of stories that they listened to or read about. They could also provide richer contents of various types.

As for the non-academic area, five disciplines, all calculated gain sizes increased from the first to the second period. The gain size for "personal mastery" increased from 0.31 to 1.18. It was observed that, initially, the students could comment on their strengths and weaknesses in their project work. However, most of them needed guidance from teachers in adjusting the processes or developing the products. During the second period, students were able to make the adjustment by themselves.

Gain size for "mental model" increased from 0.53 to 0.77. It was observed that during the first period, students only listened to comments and suggestions of teachers and close friends within the same projects. During the second period, however, they began to listen to comments and suggestions from friends in other projects. They could also give reasons for accepting or rejecting other people's comments.

Gain size for "shared vision" increased from 0.61 to 0.79. It was observed that during the first period, students did not cooperate with their colleagues in setting goals and objectives for the projects. As a result, there was duplication of products. The teachers had to guide them on setting objectives. During the second period, the students worked more coherently within their group projects.

Gain size for "team learning" increased from 0.39 to 0.62. It was observed that during the first period, students tended to carry out their responsibilities without informing other people on what they did. During the second period, the students became more acquainted with their project peers. They worked more closely together and informed other people on what they did. Moreover, they also asked their peers for comments.

Finally, the gain size for "systems thinking" increased from 0.79 to 0.89. It was observed that students started working with only sketchy planning, and they hardly followed the plans. Moreover, they seldom checked for the completeness of the products after work. In the second period, however, student plans were more detailed and most students worked by following the plans. They also checked for the completeness of the products after work as suggested by the teachers. It was noted that the gain sizes (or effect sizes) were generally larger for the academic than for desirable characteristics (non-academic) outcomes, and larger during the second period than the first. The average gain size for mathematics and Thai combined in the first period was only 0.77, but that in the second period was 1.14. The average gain size for the five desirable characteristics in the first period was only 0.53, but that in the second period was 0.85.

Discussion

In the present study, students were taught how to select appropriate products to include in the portfolios (products that best fit project objectives) and they quickly learned and became more proficient as the project progressed. (See details in the Procedure section.) This continuous increase in product selection proficiency on the part of the students might account for the fact that the raw score means in all aspects of learning increased from the first three weeks to the second three weeks and from the second three weeks to the third three weeks. Pair-wise analysis (time 1 vs. 2, time 2 vs. 3) indicated significant differences in a majority of pairs. It is interesting to observe that the Bonferroni tests indicated more significant differences at time period 2-3 assessment than at time period 1-2, and that the effect sizes of gains were also generally larger in the time period 2-3 compared with the time period 1-2. This might indicate that (a) teachers became more effective towards the end of the student project-based learning, or (b) students had more products and therefore were more likely to select better products in the portfolio to be evaluated towards the end of the project.

In the effect size analysis, it was found that effect sizes on academic achievements (mathematics and Thai combined) were higher than those on desirable characteristics (5 disciplines combined) both in the first and the second time periods. Thus, gain in academic achievement seemed easier to obtain than gain in non-academic desirable personal characteristics. This should not be surprising considering similar findings from other researchers. For example, it was found that pre-post gains in tests that have clearly identifiable content such as language, reading and arithmetic were larger than in standardized IQ test (Bereiter & Engelmann, 1966, 1968). In general, change in academic achievement is more likely to occur than change in personality.

An interesting observation in the present study was that the teacher student ratio is 1:2 at Darunsikkhalai School, as opposed to about 1:30 in a typical school in Thailand. The 1:2 teacher student ratio allows teachers to spending more time with individual students. Also, Darunsikkhalai School tends to attract students whose families support constructionist learning. These factors may have accounted for the relatively large improvement in virtually all student outcomes investigated in the present study.

Further Considerations

The entire Darunsikkhalai School is experimenting with the instructional approach of total constructionism. There is not a comparable group of students in this school that can be randomly assigned to a "control" group using a "traditional or typical" instructional approach to compare with the experimental group. Therefore, the "true" effect of constructionism is yet to be determined. Nevertheless, the gains in both academic achievements and desirable student characteristics shown in the present exploratory study were impressive. Comparison with other "typical" schools in Thailand may be forthcoming. All students in Thailand, now, have to take a national test to assess their academic achievement every three years (grade three, grade six, grade nine, and grade twelve). Results of the national test from schools with similar student background could then be compared with those from Darunsikkhalai School. That comparison is now being planned.

[1] Part of doctoral dissertation supported by the Royal Golden Jubilee Program of Thailand Research Fund

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Kamonwan Tangdhanakanond, Chulalongkorn University Somwung Pitiyanuwat, Chulalongkorn University Teara Archwamety, University of Nebraska at Kearney

Tangdhanakanond is a measurement and evaluation Doctoral student [1] at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. Pitiyanuwat, Ph.D., is Director of the Office for National Education Standards and Quality Assessment, Thailand, and Professor of Educational Research at Chulalongkorn University. Archwamety, Ph.D., is Professor of Counseling and School Psychology, University of Nebraska at Kearney.
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