A Science Teacher’s Take on Constructivism & Constructionism

Fellow

by Christa Flores -

In response to a literal call for #HELP on Twitter, I pulled together the following three blogs from various resources. This was not as easy of a task as I was hoping, but I continue to model the use of constructionism with materials like words to force me to better understand, aka construct my own knowledge on the topics of making in schools and the two learning theories constructivism and constructionism. I hope that the intended audience finds these blogs useful. If not, references are at the bottom of each blog so the reader can construct her own interpretation of constructivism and constructionism using the historical evidence.

Construct-a-what?

One of the beautifully ironic traits of the pedagogical theories constructivism and constructionism is that a deep understanding of either is impossible from just reading this, or any text. Nevertheless, try this metaphor; if constructivism was a backpacking trip into the Alaskan wilderness on a shoestring budget armed with a “good plan,” then traditional teacher led models are more like an all inclusive, family friendly, low risk Alaskan cruise - look but don’t touch.

Having that “ah ha! I get constructivism” moment is often visceral before you can put it into words. Understanding constructivism authentically, requires you, the learner to experience learning in a self-directed environment to get a good “feel” for the discovery versus consumption path to new knowledge. You must allow yourself or others to play, explore and expand their own umwelt while problem solving or reaching a learning goal.

In the image to the right, we see a great example of how we can use hands on projects such as making models of architecture to learn ideas in math such as measurement and scale from a constructivist and constructionist lens. 

Applying constructivism is a source of great joy and inspiration, but how do we know what we are learning? Growth in the accumulation of knowledge from a constructivist approach (a term used by a learning theorist in the 1960’s) can be hard to measure. You have to rely very heavily on a learner’s communication skills, such as speaking, drawing and writing. The most highly prized form of evidence of learning we have in traditional settings is test scores, despite the fact that tests are designed by teachers for efficiency and can be really badly designed from a learner’s perspective. Constructivism is the discovery approach to learning. Bottom line, provide learners with the tools they need to ask questions and to invent and they can and will drive their own learning. Helpful adult facilitators design the prompts and provocations, but the learner is allowed to discover new ideas independently through her tests and her creations.

Constructionism (a term coined in the 1980’s by the maker of the first programming language for children), is accumulation and application of knowledge, through measuring, making and diagnosing to make something. Learning through constructionism shows evidence of possessing and comprehending new knowledge. When a learner has created an artifact from a template, other objects, or from scratch materials, the growth of new knowledge can be modeled to all observers, perhaps even engaging all the senses using the artifacts and documentation. The existence of the artifact, a line of code, a fat free muffin, a photograph, a rubber band gun, is evidence of learning and knowledge, specific to the challenges faced to make the individual artifact.

Not convinced? Try making something you have never made before, without a recipe or kit. You will learn a lot through trial and error or by seeking out reliable how-to videos to apply new skills to a unique situation. While making your object, you are learning through constructionism. The creation of the artifact will drive your learning using all of your senses and nearly every part of your brain. This is a concept that author David Perkins calls “making learning whole.” More on constructionism in a bit. Next, how does real science model real constructivism?

 

  1. Perkins, David N. (2009). Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

  2. Pulaski, M. A. S. (1971). Understanding Piaget: an introduction to children's cognitive development. New York: Harper & Row.

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