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Encouraging - and challenging - students' understandings.

In productive constructivism, the teacher's job is to fuse students' knowledge with what experts know, not to favor one over the other.

The notion that people don't simply discover knowledge but make or construct it has strong appeal. So, too, do the related ideas that knowledge results from disequilibrium, emerges from prior knowledge, and grows through exposure and feedback. For these reasons, constructivism is a growing trend; it is beginning to appear in the teaching of literacy, mathematics, science, and other areas. Yet because constructivism often clashes with more traditional practices, introducing it in a school is no easy matter.

Over the past several years, I have been working with teachers as they move toward constructivism. I have found that they encounter several problems. The most formidable is the tension between students' constructions - what students learn from group problem solving, laboratory experiments, and so forth - and the constructions of experts in that field.

Some teachers choose to emphasize students' understandings at the expense of experts' constructions, while others do the opposite, minimizing the importance of what the students learn. Both groups are making a mistake; the teacher's job is to help the students integrate the two.

Experiencing and Revising

As constructivism itself posits, knowledge is not a static phenomenon; it changes as we engage in new experiences that test what we know. These new experiences may cause us to alter or add to our understanding, sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes dramatically. Or the experiences may affirm our understanding until another new experience again causes us to rethink our ideas.

All of us are constantly engaged in this process in our everyday lives, but this is also the process that scholars in every discipline follow. They seek new experiences to test, and they subsequently construct knowledge through inquiry and scholarly dialogue. The results are the revised understanding of the origin of stars, the cause of ulcers, and the reason dinosaurs became extinct.

This is not to say that knowledge of nonexperts is unimportant. It is very important, because in disciplines ranging from history to science to math, the only thing we can know is our own understanding of the knowledge - our own construction of it. (In this sense, all of our constructions are, probably, misconceptions. If they appear to be true, it is only at a particular time and in a particular place.)

This brings us back to the problem teachers encounter. Here is a closer look at the two solutions some teachers adhere to, followed by other - more constructive - approaches to constructivism.

Erring on the Side of Students

Teachers who err on the side of students' constructions often engage students in group activities calling for problem solving, decision making, and invention. The students, either individually or in groups, develop their own understandings, which they then present to the class. The teacher considers these personal constructions as satisfying to the students and adequate for their purpose, knowing that as the students have new experiences, they will continue to develop these concepts.

An example of this type of constructivist teaching is the 4th grade teacher who taught a lesson on insects. She divided her class into groups of four or five and gave each group a box containing models of various insects. She announced that each group would do what scientists do: classify the bugs based on common characteristics - size, color, shape, type of wings and antennas. The groups then presented their schemes to the entire class. The teacher asked the students to discuss the various approaches and demonstrate the efficacy of their own categories. But the lesson ended there. The teacher did not introduce the scheme of distinguishing characteristics that scientists have agreed to use in classifying insects.

Erring on the Side of Scholars Teachers who err on the side of constructions from the various disciplines also may begin the lesson with group activities calling for problem solving and related processes. These activities, however, function more as an introduction to and motivation for the major part of the lesson. The teacher gives the groups only a short time to investigate a problem or perform a task and then report back to the class.

After listening to the reports - often with little discussion - the teacher presents knowledge from the disciplines, viewing it as constructed knowledge rather than as a discovered, stable reality. The message, however, is clear: Students' constructions are trivial and often wrong, and experts' constructions must be accepted. The teacher usually does not discuss the experts' constructions in depth, although he or she does provide examples and pose and respond to questions.

An economics lesson taught to another group of 4th graders exemplifies this approach. The teacher introduced the terms goods, services, natural resources, labor, and capital by defining and providing examples of each. She then organized a scavenger hunt of sorts. Students were to look for examples of natural resources, labor, and capital anywhere in the school, then record their discoveries on a form the teacher provided. After a 20-minute hunt, the students returned and shared their results.

The teacher identified and corrected questionable examples. She then began a lecture on the economics principles underlying the relationship of natural resources, labor, and capital to goods and services. She noted, for example, that people's choices about what goods and services to buy and consume determine how resources will be used, and that people cannot have all the goods and services they want because productive resources are limited. She did not initiate a discussion of these principles, nor did she ask the students to draw conclusions about goods and services based on the examples they had found.

Integrating the Two

If the goal of teaching is to impart conceptual understanding, neither of these constructivist strategies is entirely productive. A teacher does not promote understanding by permitting students' constructions to stand even though they clash with experts' constructions. In fact, it is dangerous to ignore the concepts, conventions, and processes that are essential to the maintenance of our culture or to wait for them to emerge over time through random experiences. As Driver and colleagues (1994, p. 6) point out, "Scientific entities and ideas, which are constructed, validated, and communicated through the cultural institutions of science, are unlikely to be discovered by individuals through their own empirical enquiry."

On the other hand, as Von Glaserfeld (1995, p. 5) reminds us, "Concepts cannot simply be transferred from teacher to students - they must be conceived." Students' experiences influence their perception and processing of new information.

Vygotsky (1986) stresses that both of these types of constructions are essential to understanding. He contends that students' constructions, or what he calls spontaneous concepts, and experts' constructions, or what he calls scientific concepts, develop in reverse directions. A spontaneous concept works its way up until it reaches a level that permits a person to absorb a scientific concept. Scientific concepts work their way down, supplying logic and structures to spontaneous concepts.

Activities in which students engage in problem-solving tasks - as individuals or in small groups - are critical to the growth of student constructions. These activities can also be useful as a way to present experts' knowledge in an indirect way.

What is essential for bringing the two types of constructions together, however, is teacher-student dialogue. As Leinhardt (1992, p. 24) says, when we use the classroom "as a social arena for the public examination of ideas . . . students naturally build on or refute old ideas as they are merged with new knowledge."

In Tobin and Tippins's (1993, p. 11) view, group interaction can "provide a milieu in which students can negotiate differences of opinion and seek consensus." Teachers must examine, discuss, critique, and challenge students' constructions in relation to those of both experts and other students. Conversely, teachers need to critique and discuss experts' constructions in relation to emerging student constructions.

Reconstructing the Lessons

Suppose we apply these recommendations to our two examples. In the lesson on insect characteristics, after the students share their classification schemes, the teacher introduces the experts' approaches to insect identification. She can do this directly or through a discovery activity.

The object is not to conclude the activity with the correct answer, but to extend the discussion. By comparing and contrasting their constructions with the experts' constructions, the students gain insights into both and begin to reconceptualize their constructions in the direction of those of the experts. If the students' original conceptions were viable but different from the expert opinions, they at least become aware that there is an agreed-upon classification scheme that scientists use as a standard convention in studying insects.

In the lesson on economics, the teacher asks her students to critique the economic principles that she has presented. She and other students may then critique the critiques (that is, the constructions), examining them for inadequacies and errors. This type of critical dialogue about knowledge in various disciplines is what Perkinson (1993) has labeled critical teaching.

Nurturing the Process

Some teachers may view the constructions of students and experts as irreconcilable. But, again, in a school setting, the teacher must fuse the two if conceptual understanding is to occur.

To some degree, students' and experts' constructions are already joined, no matter how the teacher organizes his or her lessons. Constructing knowledge is a constant, naturally occurring process as students view new information - such as experts' constructions - in terms of their prior knowledge. Teachers can nurture this process. They can help students negotiate meaning through discussions that bring the understandings of both of these groups together.


Driver, R., H. Asoko, J. Leach, E. Mortimer, and P. Scott. (October 1994). "Constructing Scientific Knowledge in the Classroom." Educational Researcher 23: 5-12.

Leinhardt, G. (April 1992). "What Research on Learning Tells Us About Teaching. "Educational Leadership 49, 7: 20-25.

Perkinson, H. (1993). Teachers Without Goals, Students Without Purposes. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Tobin, K., and D. Tippins (1993). "Constructivism as a Referent for Teaching and Learning." In The Practice of Constructivism In Science Education, edited by K. Tobin. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 3-21.

Von Glaserfeld, E. (1995). "A Constructivist Approach to Teaching." In Constructivism in Education, edited by L. Steffe and J. Gale. Hillsdale, N.J.:

Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 3-15. Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and Language. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

John A. Zahorik is a Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, School of Education, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Enderis Hall, P.O. Box 413, Milwaukee, WI 53201 (e-mail:
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Author:Zahorik, John A.
Publication:Educational Leadership
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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