The "Unstructured Classroom" and other misconceptions about Constructivist Learning


by Christa Flores -

Is Student-Centered Code for Lord of the Flies?


Ask any average kid what his or her favorite part of the school day is and you will probably get the answer lunch or recess. Kids love unstructured time because they have the privacy to fail while taking risks or learning how to be a social primate. At recess, kids have nearly 100% choice over what to do with their bodies, with the safe assumption that in case an injury does occur, an adult on duty will be on the scene in due time. Provide kids with a rich, not necessarily antiseptic space to explore and they teach us a lot about ingenuity, inclusivity and learning through play. Whether passionate about the physics of soccer or the game theory involved in the antics the day of a middle school dance, learning is experiential and self-directed at recess. Regardless of what passion takes over their choice time, we as adults trust them to make safe choices for the most part and we respect their individuality. So why does that trust shift when those same children come into our classrooms?


In the three years that I have been teaching science through the lens of making or inventing and problem solving, I have often heard the iLab, referred to as “unstructured,” by some well meaning adults. This harkens back to the discord between what we know progressive education can be versus what we envision when we think of a “progressive classroom.” When I worked at Calhoun in New York City, we were considered a progressive school and we often had the debate about what we mean by the term “unstructured.” The debate would invariably follow a conversation with a nervous parent that would go something like this, “Its good for some kids maybe, but my son doesn’t do well in an “unstructured” classroom.”

Student-Centered means having access to the tools and knowledge needed to set and reach learning goals. In this simple example, having tools out for a help-your-self community workshop feeling does the trick.


If that child struggles in his or her academic classes they may have an Individualized Learning Plan, which often involves the suggestion to write every instruction down for the child and to be explicit regarding the modes for success in your class.  In other words, the best thing for the student to be and feel successful is to tell the child what and how to learn, as much as possible. While at first glance, this kind of teacher-led structure, which we want to spare high achieving kids from normally, seems like good teaching. We even have the perfect safe sounding term for it, its called scaffolding. My concern is that some scaffolding is tantamount to helmet laws which may be teaching us to be less safe in the end. Having had the gift of watching students learning in a student-centered classroom, however this translates to me, as nothing more than a lack of trust for children’s innate desire to learn what matters to them and an equal instinct to find importance through autonomy and risk taking and helping others. Thankfully, I am not alone in my uncensored trust of children as progressive playgrounds in Europe and Berkeley Ca, are beginning to prove.


By its own existence, a pre-set school curriculum assumes that children can not be held responsible for their own learning. On the one hand we as adults who work with kids, know kids do not always know what they do not know. Learning how to learn means seeing the stepping stones between just an idea and an idea that works. The skills of research and the use of tools for learning in general, are sometimes better taught step by step in the same fashion for most. On the less optimistic hand, cookie cutter curriculum also allows for some ridiculous falsehoods that many adults live in fear of. For instance, most adults worry children would not learn to read, or write, or to do math, left to their own devices and need the structure of school to make those skills materialize. Thank god dire circumstances still allow for disruptive questions to be asked, such as those asked by Dr. Sugata Mitra, allowing for a more diverse picture of who we are as a species, one that engages in learning for the sake of learning.


Here is my response to the claim that a maker classroom is unstructured. There are skills to be gained in any maker style curriculum on a spectrum from totally student driven to totally teacher directed. In my classroom I lean more towards student-directed with a game-like structure. For any given unit, either patterns, structures or systems, I give a simple prompt which allows for the most diverse range of solutions for students to discover. In game like fashion, there are rules about deadlines, teams and rules about when and how long play takes place (thats built into the school day schedule). There are “levels” of achievement and complexity of learning embedded into the system to be mindful of safety, and to allow for a mentoring system so knowledge is democratic and passion-based. Allowing students to chose the complexity with which they want to solve a problem is a side of autonomy that we cross our fingers over, but in the end, even when kids pick hard problems, they are experiencing something of value in that path full of potentially frustrating dead-ends. A list of such values we have all seen in our own ways teaching this kind of learning style. This past weekend at FabLearn, Sylvia Martinez, of Invent To Learn and Constructing Modern Knowledge, put it succinctly when she compared the kind of work kids can do in a fabrication lab environment to little league baseball. The authenticity of the work that kids do in an environment of constructing, allows kids see themselves as real inventors and engineers in the fashion that a little league player can imagine being a professional baseball player. It feels real and its age appropriate.


Making is “Just” Arts and Crafts with a Technology Twist,

It is not Rigorous Enough


Using pedagogical practices that fall under the title of making are subject to the discourse around how to ensure and measure rigor. The usual answer to the problem of rigor (which is code for college readiness) is to have standardized tests. Tests are reassuring data points that allow administration and parents and admissions officers to feel like we are basing policy on logical and scientific measures. Here is where progressive education loses the fight. No matter how student-centered or innovative your curriculum, if you give a letter grade to students at the end of that course you focus attention, and attention is what we value, on product over process. This imbalance in priorities is beginning to not only confuse constructivist educators, but parents as well. Three events this week have got me reflecting on assessment again and how it plays a vital and controversial role in making in educational settings.


The first event that got me pondering assessment tools, was a conversation between two of my students, who spoke on the student panel at FabLearn Saturday afternoon, and audience member and colleague Jaymes Dec. When Jaymes Dec asked my students at the end of their talk how they were graded, there was a pregnant pause. It was at that moment I considered the fact that my students did not have a clear idea of how they were “tested” on their project. Then one of my students said with some reservation, “We were graded on how we got along..” The second student added with a bit more assurance, “We were also graded on a pass or fail. If we got the machine to work we passed, it we didn’t we failed.” In reality, I graded them on a point system likened to the pass/fail concept, but with room for random point loss to make the system look normal. They earned points for their work away from school (homework points) and they got points for meeting benchmarks (reflections on peer critique sessions), as well as turning in video or written essays (self-assessments) defending a grade of pass or fail. In the end I am assessing how well they can make a claim, support it with evidence and tell the most accurate and compelling story of a their education. I am training them to think like scientists and to speak like storytellers. Part of me feels a sense of relief that they don’t know what part of their year gets the final grade, that way they see all the parts as potentially important, not just the behaviors that can affect their letter grade.


The second conversation I had was with two very intelligent people about the style of assessment I have been testing and using for the past two years in a making centered classroom at Hillbrook. It also happened that the conversation was centered around a narrative report I had written regarding their son. In short I found myself defending how I am able to whittle down all of the learning that happens in a unit which consists of single projects that can last two to four months out of a nine month school year. That is a lot of schools hours to defend to a parent paying a premium for those hours, unfortunately I do not have the test scores to rest my laurels on. The assessment my students experience on a daily basis is formative in nature, on-going and extends outside of the boundaries of a classroom. It can not wait for the end of a unit, it must be happening at every moment. Formative assessment that does not get a letter grade also allows students to feel assessed more on their collaboration skills, resilience and ability to gain the knowledge necessary to improve the performance of their inventions, the stuff they think is also important to be learning at their age.


The third event that sparked my imagination this week was listening to all of the dedicated and intelligent offerings at this year’s FabLearn conference, which felt as though it had an emphasis on inclusivity and equity. I learned that making is artistic and it is about craftsmanship, so it is definitely arts and crafts, but that is just semantics. Making is also about gaining mathematical literacy through doing and testing. It is about asking questions and collecting information like a real scientist. Making is also transforming kids’ experiences of school by teaching them how to think, giving them a sense of purpose and competence that can lead to a life long love of learning and problem solving. Finally, FabLearn opening keynote speaker Paula Hooper, senior science educator and learning research scientist at the Exploratorium reminds us how constructivism fosters a sense of equity and inclusion for kids. Hooper tells us a story of identity through agency and technology literacy. “You bring who you are culturally and the experiences of your past. Knowledge, that is not just connected to the mathematical concepts at hand,” Hooper inspires us to dwell on. Making is an outlet for kids to be confident in math, science and technology when they might have felt shut out in a more traditional science and math classroom. Add in the literacy skills needed to tell that rich of a learning journey and you are talking about one of the more engaging, not to mention authentically rigorous, curriculums a school can provide for its students.


But alas...what about the tests? Perhaps Paulo Blikstein said it most wisely, at the close of the short paper share at FabLearn on Sunday. "It takes time to find good metrics to assess (making in education), we still keep doing it in the mean time, and document," encourages Blikstein. So here I am, continuing to document my thoughts on the state of maker education post FabLearn 2014. Thank you to all of those who made it such a game changing event in our pursuit of educational reform.



Sylvia Martinez's picture

Very thoughtful and helpful. I would love to hear more about what you said to those parents.

The baseball metaphor I was using in the FabLearn session is from David Perkin's amazing book "Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education". It's highly recommended. He says that the work of the teacher is to find the appropriate part of the "whole game" in every subject, so that students who are studying history, for example, are doing the work of historians as much as possible, rather than studying "about" history. Finding the appropriate "whole game" for students at different ages is the trick!

Christa Flores's picture

This gives me an idea. Can we do a blog post called What I am reading now? or is that too nerdy? I am sure lots of people would love to know what is going into Sylvia's brain.

Sylvia Martinez's picture

Oh! - everyone must read Stephen Johnson's new book - How We Got to Now.

I'll post some of what's on my Kindle. Should I include EVERYTHING? ;-)

Christa Flores's picture

I am not sure we are ready for everything, but If you were trapped on a desert island of progressive education...what would be in your tool kit right now. 

Erin Riley's picture

Christa- I look forward to reading your posts.  Collectively the experiences you share and your super sharp reflections about democracy in the classroom, student-centered learning, diverse outcomes, process over product, and assessment amount to a bank of wisdom for those of us grappling with the same questions. 

Thanks so much.