The last several decades in our nation have witnessed growing concerns that our educational system is not adequately preparing all of our citizens to develop the skills and knowledge they need to live and work successfully in today's complex society (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). Calls for change have centered on the need for schools to provide opportunities for students to engage in activities that promote in-depth understanding, critical thinking, creative problem solving, and the ability to use knowledge in real-life settings (Darling-Hammond, 1993).
In response to these concerns school improvement efforts have proliferated, aimed at all aspects of the educational system - school structures, organization, governance, and leadership; family and community involvement; as well as curriculum content, instructional methods, individual and system-wide assessments. While all of these initiatives are important, many have been undertaken leaving some basic assumptions about teaching and learning intact, assumptions that have not been sufficiently informed by current understandings of how students learn.
Many commonly accepted educational practices have been influenced by ideas of teaching from the past, based on traditional behaviorist views that teaching is primarily an act of "telling" - supplying students with facts and information in much the same way that an empty glass is filled. While these practices have been successful at producing proficiency in the lower-order skills measured on many tests, they have generally met with little success in developing the kind of knowledge and abilities that
students need in real-life situations (National Assessment of Education Progress, 1981).
In contrast to this transmission-of-knowledge model of teaching, newer understandings of how people learn present a conception of teaching that focuses on developing "thinking" students who understand and can use what they learn. This conception is termed "constructivist" because it sees learning as a dynamic internal process in which learners actively "construct" knowledge by connecting new information to what they already know, rather than as a process in which learners are passive recipients of information transferred to them from external sources. This newer conception's emphasis is on developing students' capacities for analysis and problem-solving, rather than on having them "cover the curriculum" in the most efficient manner possible. Rooted in the assumption that all human beings have a deep drive to make sense of the world (Carini, 1987), constructivism sees learning as motivated by interest and shaped by individuals' cultural and linguistic backgrounds as well as their different learning styles and strengths (Carini, 1986; Gardner, 1983). From the perspective of the constructivist view, learning is supported by multiple experiences and social interactions, rather than by solitary drill and rote memorization (Dewey, 1916, 1956; Piaget, 1973,1980; Piaget & Inhelder, 1969; Vygotsky, 1978). It is a nonlinear process that requires extended periods of time to visit and revisit ideas until they are organized into coherent, stable, and generalizable understandings (Bruner, 1966; O'Brien, 1987).
Because constructivist principles are based on knowledge of learning, they provide a good starting place for school improvement efforts aimed at supporting students to become better thinkers, creators, and problem-solvers. Without such a focus, reform efforts run the risk of merely "reforming again, again, and again" (Cuban, 1990), focusing on the surface structures of schooling but leaving the central problems untouched.
This article describes constructivist teaching, highlighting some of its essential
elements. It also discusses some of the challenges that constructivist teaching poses for teacher development. It demonstrates how a constructivist approach to teaching calls on teachers to be learners themselves, revealing how, embedded within constructivist teaching experiences, are continual opportunities for teachers to learn about students, about student learning, and about the very nature of the learning process itself.
The constructivist perspective on teaching and learning is increasingly being adopted by teachers across the country. It is informing and influencing their curriculum, instruction, and ways of working. A look at classrooms where this is happening reveals some essential constructivist principles.
Rich Contexts for Learning
Constructivist classrooms operate on the premise that learning in school need not, and should not, be different from the many rich natural forms of learning that students have experienced before they have ever entered the corridors of a school. Real-life situations form the basis for learning and teaching is based on the conviction that in the course of trying to solve practical problems, children have continual opportunities to organize and reorganize their understandings and to develop multiple access routes to their knowledge.
Classrooms guided by constructivist understandings often have a workshop-like atmosphere. They provide opportunities for students to actively explore, inquire, discover, and experiment. They offer a variety of learning situations and instructional formats - projects, trips, readings, reports, discussions, field work, and internships. They challenge students to reason, question, draw connections, communicate, evaluate viewpoints, frame problems, acquire and use evidence, and create new knowledge, understandings, relationships and products.
Building on understandings that social interaction is indispensable to the development of thought, constructivist learning environments are organized to include ample opportunities for students to collaborate and to exchange ideas with peers and adults. Classrooms are set up to include cooperative learning and peer teaching situations so that students can talk together freely as well as question and argue with each other about ideas. These kinds of exchanges enrich, extend, and solidify understandings as well as continually expose students to different perspectives.
To enhance this exposure to different ideas and perspectives constructivist classrooms are structured to include students of different ages and abilities as well as students of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. The more diverse student groupings are - and the more opportunities that are provided for exchange of ideas among this diversity - the better students are prepared to reach beyond their own frames of reference, to appreciate a range of ideas, and to understand the viewpoints of others.
Heterogeneous and multi-age grouping structures provide just this kind of diversity. Classes containing a span of grades take into account students' naturally uneven growth patterns and rates of development. By including students who represent a range of ages and abilities, they provide a flexible environment in which students can find different matches to their varying strengths, interests, learning styles and paces, allowing each individual student to simultaneously be challenged by some and to excel among others.
Exposure to differences - both cognitively and culturally - can often provide just the impetus needed for a student to make the connection that consolidates understanding of a concept or a skill. A student having difficulty with multiplication for example, may find that witnessing another student's approach - using repeated addition rather than the conventional algorithm - may turn out to be the way that works for him and helps him learn how to figure it out.
Providing Time for Deep Understanding
Constructivist classrooms provide ample time for students to go through the uneven, messy process that is part of arriving at deep understanding - a process that often requires a period of weaving in and out of knowing that is "sometimes forward, sometimes in return, sometimes momentarily intense, sometimes bypassing" (Weber, 1991, p. 11 ). This kind of learning fosters thinking things out deeply, strategizing and recognizing the complexities of ideas, extending thought in new, unanticipated ways. It values meaning over speed and efficiency. Its goal is to produce that "AHA!" moment - that flash of "Now I get it!" when connections are made to past understandings and are solidified in new ways.
The process of developing such understandings cannot be completed on a schedule, often progressing unpredictably and taking far longer than originally anticipated. For this reason, constructivist classrooms provide students with flexible schedules and lots of time to explore a variety of issues and topics, allowing them the opportunity, if needed, to temporarily shift their attention and their work to focus on other studies and to return, at later dates, to previously unfinished projects or interests. In this way students are able to work out their own way of piecing together their experiences until personally meaningful understandings take hold.
Integrating the Curriculum Around Big Ideas
Because deep understandings develop in meaningful contexts that transcenddisciplines, the curriculum in constructivist classrooms is generally interdisciplinary in nature. It provides opportunities for students to extend the continuity of their thoughts through inquiry into big ideas organized around generative themes. Themes of study match curriculum content with students' developmental abilities. These are large enough to incorporate many perspectives and many levels of participation, taking differences in learning styles and approaches into account by providing multiple entry points for student involvement.
"Changes Over Time," "How Things Work," "Motion," and "Beginnings" are some examples of these kinds of curricula. While they develop differently depending on the context and age group of different classroom settings, they are open-ended enough to be responsive to individual interests and questions. They allow students to find their own purposes for learning and to integrate ideas and understandings in their own way.
In one fifth/sixth grade classroom that I know, students engaged in a classroom study of "How Things Work" are given a choice of topics they want to pursue. They do not use the same text, do the same activities, or even learn the exact same information. Rather, they each explore a different interest - airplanes, bicycles, elevators, racing cars - during a two hour work period that takes place daily in their classroom's workshop environment. This is a time of active and social learning in which students, individually and in groups, make different kinds of paper airplanes, build racing cars out of mouse traps and junk materials, experiment with pulleys and with gears, or do book research about any of these topics. In the course of pursuing their different explorations, however, they each encounter similar scientific principles such as gravity, friction, balance, motion, speed, and velocity.
Common understandings of these principles are developed by the class with the assistance of the teacher at a group meeting following the work time. During this time the teacher invites the students to share with each other what they have done, the
things they have learned, the thoughts and questions that have arisen in their studies. The teacher records on chart paper what students say, writing in one column the information they already know or have just acquired and in another column the questions they want to pursue. She displays these charts on the classroom walls, using the information contained therein to ask questions that probe and extend student learning and that connect individual ideas to broader understandings she thinks are important for the whole class to know. She helps the students organize the ideas that are emerging from these discussions into the ongoing and other themes of study, crafting both whole group projects as well as opportunities for individuals to continue the pursuit of their questions.
One class meeting, for example, is devoted to discussion of a student's presentation of her recently completed set of paper airplanes. The children articulate what they have learned about flight and what they will do to follow up on these leanings. Some are interested in the history of flight and decide to write a research report about it, while others decide to explore this same interest by making models and drawings of famous planes from the past. Other students are interested in aerodynamics and decide to try making different kinds of planes to compare them for speed and the distance of their flight.
While the starting point of this curriculum is open-ended individual inquiry, it ties individual students' projects and understandings together through the teacher's deliberate efforts to help them extend and frame their ideas into larger, generalizable themes. This kind of curriculum recognizes the complexity, interconnectedness, and highly personal nature of learning, while it also builds group knowledge and creates shared experiences that help the class develop as a cohesive learning community.
Such a conception of integrated curriculum is quite different from the thematic unit, sometimes developed by teachers and textbooks, which parcels out the same set of activities and information to all the students in a class. Even though this kind of curriculum is integrated around a theme and generally consists of more active assignments than paper and pencil types of tasks, the ideas in it are developed and organized by someone other than the student. It still transmits information from the teacher or text to the students in a uniform way, without regard for individuals' past understandings or present modes of learning. In contrast, curricula developed through constructivist teaching are not only driven by learners' pursuits of their own questions but also are built to include opportunities for learners themselves to connect, organize, and integrate their understandings from the information they encounter in the course of their various experiences.
Teacher as Facilitator
The role of the teacher in this process is to give the students center stage in the classroom, providing a setting in which the students play an active, inquiring role in their learning. Teachers act as guides, coaches, mentors, and advisors, building bridges between their students' individual interests and understandings and the common skills and knowledge society expects them to acquire. In order to do this teachers formulate general plans about what they will teach. They avoid fixed recipes and timetables for their lessons and do not feel compelled to have a thorough knowledge of everything that will arise in the course of a study. Rather, they allow themselves to learn along with their students and they try to maintain enough flexibility to let students' responses shift their teaching, alter the content, drive instructional strategies, and generate new leanings.
Questioning is an important part of the role of the teacher in such a constructivist setting. Teachers use questions as a scaffold for learning, asking questions that help their students to become good questioners themselves: Have you seen anything new? What do you think happens if...? Can you find another way? How might we find out? Can you show me where the text supports you? Can you give me an example? How does this relate to our original questions? How does this relate to what we concluded yesterday? Questions like these call for analysis, synthesis, and evaluative judgment. They have no one, obvious right answer. They help students to understand differing perspectives and to differentiate between opinions and facts (Wiggins, 1987). They call attention to the contexts in which other questions arise and suggest still other opportunities to obtain information and to structure experiences in which students can come up against their own thinking so that it is stretched, elaborated and even contradicted until deeper understandings develop.
Mistakes are greatly valued in this process. They not only reveal information about students' thinking but provide important opportunities for students to rethink their ideas. Because mistakes are viewed in this light, students are subsequently less afraid to make errors, enabling them to take the kind of risks that lead to new discoveries and understandings.
Building on Student Interests and Strengths
In order for students to be able to play a central role in charting the course of their learning, they need to know what interests and strengths they can draw upon to support them in their work. Constructivist teachers help students to discover what these strengths and interests are. They then try to incorporate as many as possible of these interests and strengths in their curriculum. They do this because they know that no motivator for learning is as powerful as deep and compelling interest in something (Eisner, 1991; Perrone, 1991).
A study discussed on National Public Radio, released a number of years ago, adds credence to this belief and approach. The study followed high school valedictorians for 20-years after their graduation - through college, graduate school, and beyond. It found that these students, the academic stars of their respective schools, did not achieve anywhere near the professional success of their peers who were less successful academically but who nurtured and pursued a single passion as they proceeded through real-life challenges (Goddard, 1994).
Equally important as an ingredient for learning is building on students' individual strengths. Experiencing success and affirmation greatly enhances the learning process. Yet too many students experience little success in the context of their school lives. Part of the reason for this may be that the focus of many classrooms is almost exclusively on linguistic and logico-mathematical forms of learning and expression, generally excluding other types of knowledge and, as a result, students who have other kinds of strengths. Those who hold interests and who possess strengths that are different from those generally provided for in the mainstream of classroom life often then feel that because there is no room in school for the activities that they value, there is literally no room for them either. By extending the range of what is valued as learning as well as the possibilities for both engaging in and expressing that learning, constructivist teachers help students understand that there is a place for everyone in the classroom and the school. They value the builder as well as the writer, the artist as well as the mathematician. They consciously look for what students can do rather than what students cannot do and they build on these strengths as they develop the learning program for their classrooms.
Assessment that Supports Teaching and Learning
To help them identify students' strengths and interests, constructivist teachers use many kinds of assessments. These also help them to gain insight into students' different strategies for learning and to determine student progress and achievement.
Multiple forms of evidence provide this information. Some teachers keep documented observations of their students as they make things, conduct research, collaborate with others. Some teachers use skills inventories, checklists and developmental scales that provide them with information about what they can appropriately expect from their students at different ages and stages. Other teachers keep portfolio collections of student work that are compiled over time and that include selected "best works," as well as products and processes that reveal the idiosyncrasies of each individual learner. Still other teachers have students present "exhibitions" of completed studies to others. These demonstrate, in a variety of formats, what students know and are able to do. Many teachers also incorporate students' self-assessment of their own learning. Some even involve the families of the students in commenting on and evaluating student work.
These kinds of assessments provide richer information than traditional paper and pencil types of tests. They are flexible enough to recognize and allow for differences in the ways that students demonstrate knowledge. They provide teachers with information that is used to both shape and support instructional strategies. They drive curriculum in ways that help students better attain skills and information as well as gain deeper understandings of their leanings.
Just as students learn through active inquiry, social interaction, and personal reflection that utilizes their interests, builds on their strengths, and helps them to make connections between past and present understandings, teachers learn to teach in a constructivist manner by experiencing constructivist learning themselves. As they apply these leanings with their students, they learn even more about constructivist teaching because the very process of constructivist teaching provides numerous opportunities to gain new knowledge - about students, their learning, and the nature of learning.
In order to provide these kinds of opportunities for teachers, substantial changes need to be made in teacher education and professional development programs - changes in processes, contexts, and content - that model for teachers the same kind of learning they are being asked to provide for their students.
In contrast to the "teaching is telling" format of many teacher education classes and in-service programs, a format which places students in a passive, reactive mode to knowledge being imparted from an "expert," formats that model and engage teachers in the process of constructing their own understandings are a powerful way for them to learn about how to facilitate and support the learning of others. Direct engagement in inquiry learning experiences, participation in collegial conversations and reflective processes, as well as involvement in teacher initiated and conducted research about teaching support this kind of learning.
Learning through Inquiry
When teachers themselves experience a learning environment that helps them formulate and pursue their own questions, find and use resources, collaborate with other colleagues, and continually extend and deepen their thinking, they develop better understandings of the supports that are needed to further the growth of their students. The Workshop Center for Open Education at the City College School of Education in New York City, provides an interesting model for this kind of teacher learning.
Located on the college's Central Harlem campus, the Workshop Center is set up as a classroom for active learning, stocked with plants, animals, aquariums tanks, science equipment, looms, kilns, a variety of art and building supplies, books, computers, as well as countless other materials. The Center offers practicing teachers from New York City public schools an open-ended format for learning that allows their interests, questions and concerns to drive the direction of their learning. Teachers enrolled in courses at the Workshop Center design and execute an inquiry project, studying such topics as snails, household chemistry, African weaving, plant botany, and the structures of bridges. Guided by the Center's faculty - college professors as well as practicing classroom teachers - the teachers who study there receive first-hand experience in active learning as well as considerable opportunities to reflect on their learning process and to discuss its implications for their own students. At the end of the semester, the teachers share with their classmates what they have learned in an oral presentation and a written "Organized Account" - a record of their original questions, the process they have gone through during their study, the information they have gained as a result of their study, the products produced, the understandings developed, the questions that remain for future study, and a detailed discussion of how their leanings can be applied to their own teaching.
Engaging in one's own study in this manner helps teachers to comprehend in a very personalized way how learning is motivated by interest and is based on the ability to make connections within the idiosyncrasies of one's own system of thoughts. Teachers involved In the Center then use their experience as a model for the learning environments that they develop in their own classrooms with their students.
Learning through Collegial Conversations and Reflections about Teaching
Opportunities for teachers to reflect on their work and to regularly engage in conversation with their colleagues help teachers to better understand the teaching process and to develop more effective teaching strategies. As teachers share their ideas and their practices, they act as mirrors for each other, helping each other to see themselves in new ways that provide deeper insights for nurturing student learning (Falk & Darling-Hammond, 1993; Lieberman & Miller, 1992; Little, 1990; Schon, 1983).
The Descriptive Review of a Child (Prospect Archive and Center for Education and Research, 1986) is one way that teachers across the country are sharing their knowledge about student learning. The process consists of a presentation by a
teacher to other colleagues about a specific child. Built on documented observations of students that have been collected over time, it describes the child in great detail, focusing on the child's unique strategies, strengths, and learning dispositions. This description is followed by serious discussion about these observations, aimed at providing the presenting teacher with suggestions and directions for future instruction. The discussion and collaborative problem-solving that takes place during the Descriptive Review process results in learning for all who are involved. By taking an in-depth look at one child, teachers learn more about all children and about the teaching/learning process in general.
In addition to the Descriptive Review, other school structures and processes have been identified that address the fact that teachers, like students, learn in many different ways through a variety of experiences. At the elementary schools affiliated with New York City's Center for Collaborative Education (a consortium of small, alternative schools affiliated with the national Coalition of Essential Schools) teachers have lots of opportunities - both formal and informal - for learning through dialogue and conversation. They visit each others' classrooms, take trips together to other schools, are involved in child study teams and Descriptive Reviews, discuss professional books and articles as well as issues of common concern - curriculum, world events, or special happenings in the community (Lieberman, Falk, and Alexander, 1994). Opportunities for conversation and reflection such as these develop a sense of professional collegiality, collaboration, and community that makes teaching intellectually rewarding and inspiring.
Learning through Research
Teacher initiated and conducted classroom-based research is yet another way for teachers to learn more about student learning and about human thinking processes (Learning from Children, 1988; Lytle & Cochran-Smith, 1992). As teachers formulate questions they want to study, observe their students and the impact of their teaching, analyze and reflect on their data, they expand their own intellectual capacities as well. By engaging in their own serious inquiry about how children come to understand concepts as well as the logic children use in reaching these concepts, they develop a better understanding of how to support such inquiry in their students.
Learning through the Process of Setting Standards
Teachers also gain knowledge about teaching by engaging collaboratively in discussions that formulate standards for their work - for their own professional practice, for the achievement of their students, and for student learning opportunities they believe their institutions should provide. These discussions help them to develop a clearer sense of what they, their schools, and their students should be doing. This not only gives direction to their teaching, but also contributes to a better informed public and influences public policy development.
Across New York State teachers are helping to shape the direction of school reform by participating in the New Compact for Learning policy initiative inviting them to develop a performance-based option to a part of the New York State Regents examinations. Through the process of articulating and developing goals for their students, performance and content standards for their discipline, assessment tasks that provide opportunities for students to demonstrate how they have achieved these standards, criteria that clearly define the skills and competencies embodied in each standard, and benchmarks that provide models of what the various levels of achievement look like, teachers are developing clearer articulations of their purposes and sharper alignments between their goals and their teaching. As they apply this work with their students, they are learning about the variety of ways that students learn and demonstrate what they know and they are subsequently changing their teaching to be more responsive to these differences.
Teacher education and professional development has typically taken place in the context of courses taught in college classrooms, after-school workshops for in service credits, or yearly conferences offered by districts and professional development organizations. Constructivist learning about constructivist teaching however is an ongoing process that is not confined to the context of courses, workshops, or conferences. While these are helpful and affirming at times, constructivist learning most effectively takes place when it is embedded directly within the life of schools, connected to the daily work of teaching, and facilitated by the exchange of ideas with colleagues who share common interests and experiences. This reality has important implications for teacher education and professional development programs.
Learning in the Context of Practicing Schools
Theories about teaching and human development become most useful when they are applied in real-life contexts. Teacher education and professional development programs that frame their studies in the work of schools provide rich opportunities for translating theoretical understandings into practice. This is true for practicing teachers as well as for prospective teachers in teacher education programs.
In the same way that in-school collaborations support the growth of practicing teachers, the learning of prospective teachers is enhanced when schools of education center their programs within the context of schools for children and utilize the knowledge of practicing teacher colleagues. Some teacher education programs do this by: offering university courses at school sites, taught in part or in whole by the schools' teachers and administrators; extending the student teaching component of teacher education programs so that it is more than a shallow glimpse of teaching, developed instead into an in-depth internship that provides continuity and extensive experience in a school; tying the theoretical work of university-based courses more closely to the realities of the classroom through assignments and discussions that call for students to use their newly-acquired knowledge in their teaching; and adding participation in the collegial life of the school - at faculty, parent, and school board meetings - to teacher education requirements so that teachers become knowledgeable not only about teaching but about the whole range of experiences that are part of schooling (Darling-Hammond, 1994).
Placing a significant portion of the education of teachers directly at the school site in these ways gives prospective teachers continual opportunities to learn from the practices taking place around them, to regularly try out new ideas and strategies, and to receive ongoing feedback from other colleagues about their own work. Not only do students of teaching benefit from these arrangements but career practitioners benefit too. Expanding their role beyond teaching children to include the mentoring of novice teachers gives public recognition to practitioners that lends a heightened sense of dignity to what it means to be a teacher.
Learning through Networks of Practicing Colleagues
The power of teacher-to-teacher learning parallels what we know about the power of peer teaching and cooperative learning for students. Humans are by nature social beings and learning is by nature a social process. When individuals articulate and discuss ideas with each other, they develop and consolidate their understandings in a far deeper way than when they try to learn alone. Learning collaboratively is further enhanced when teachers connect to each other on the basis of their common interests and needs. Teacher-initiated networks have provided powerful supports to teacher learning, developing new leaders and new forms of leadership, as well as new kinds of professional knowledge (Lieberman and McLaughlin, 1991). Networks of teachers take a variety of forms, ranging from those that focus on a specific discipline (for example, the various writing projects around the country that are built around whole language principles and use of the process approach to writing), on common teaching and assessment practices (for example, The New York Assessment Network that connects elementary teachers who use authentic assessments such as the Primary Language Record [Barrs et. al, 1988]), or on shared goals for the reform of schools (for example, the Coalition of Essential Schools that advocates the adoption of a set of principles around which comprehensive reform is initiated). The sharing of ideas and information that takes place among the participants in such networks through meetings, writings, on-line communications - not only supports individual teacher growth but also provides the means by which teachers can collectively develop and contribute their leanings to the profession as a whole (Lieberman, 1994).
The Content of Constructivist Learning
Preparation for constructivist teaching not only requires an expansion learning processes and contexts, it also requires that teachers acquire some essential understandings about learning. Teachers need to be clear about their goals and purposes for education, to be knowledgeable about human growth and development, ~ understand and be responsive to the increasingly diverse experiences and backgrounds represented in the student populations of our nation, to be able to articulate and define expectations and standards for student achievement, and they need to be adept at communicating these understandings to families, their communities, and the public at large.
Clarifying Values and Purposes of Teaching
In order for teachers to be clear about what they are teaching and how they are teaching it, they need to be clear about why they are teaching. Practicing teachers as well as students of teaching need to explore their values and ideas about the purposes of education. They need to understand their mission in both an historical and a contemporary context; to be clear philosophically and practically about what they want for their students. Teacher education and professional development programs thus need to provide opportunities for teachers to think about their own values and purposes for education and how their teaching can consciously be expressive of them, to explore their attitudes and assumptions about the students whom they will be teaching, and to learn about differing national trends and perspectives on teaching so that they gain a sense of how their own views fit into the bigger picture.
One way to do this in teacher education classes - for both new and experienced teachers - is to have students prepare an autobiography in which they reflect on a powerful learning experience that they have had at some point in their life. In sharing this assignment with their colleagues, most people find that they recount experiences that have taken place outside of formal schooling - playing basketball, traveling to a foreign country, gardening with a grandparent. They discover that each of these experiences embody an important aspect of learning that they value and want to provide for their students (how interest, in the case of basketball for example, can be a motivation for the hours of practice that is necessary to achieve high standards of performance; or how experiencing a totally new environment when traveling can shake up long-held beliefs or conceptions; or how participating in a real-life chore alongside a more experienced adult can result in learning that stays with one far longer than any lesson assigned from a book). The understandings gained from an exercise like this helps teachers to align their teaching practices with their goals in a clear and consistent manner.
Learning about Human Development and Learning Theory
Teachers who teach in ways that are responsive to the ways that children learn need to have understandings of human development and learning theory. They need to know what learning looks like at places along the developmental continuum - what issues arise for students at different ages and what students can generally be expected to do when. They also need to have a variety of teaching strategies that can be appropriately used with different kinds of students who are at these different stages of development. As teachers learn about these aspects of teaching, they need, most importantly, to understand the theories underlying different teaching methods so that strategies are not adhered to slavishly but can be used flexibly, effectively, and appropriately in a variety of contexts and for a variety of purposes.
Conscious Attention to Issues of Diversity
Inherent in the constructivist conception of teaching is respect for differences - of ideas, of approaches to solving problems, of strategies for learning and styles of thinking. Preparation for constructivist teaching thus needs to include helping teachers learn how to weave respect for differences into the fabric of everyday life in their schools. This entails learning how to create ongoing opportunities for students and teachers to exchange points of view, structure problems and projects that involve open-ended inquiry where there is no one right answer, and develop learning opportunities that utilize a range of talents and abilities.
Respect for difference in the multicultural and multilingual world of today requires that teachers also make deliberate efforts to be attentive to and respectful of students' linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Teachers need to learn to view such differences not as deficits that need to be overcome but rather as "funds of knowledge" (Greenberg, 1989; Moll et. al, 1992) that can be developed to enrich and strengthen student learning. Conscious efforts must be made to incorporate the viewpoints and contributions of the diverse cultures of the students and their communities into the curriculum - to teach about as well as for diversity.
Learning to Assess and Research Student Learning
In order to prepare teachers to be responsive to and supportive of diverse students populations - who have differing starting points for learning and differing needs - teachers need to know how to learn from their students. Teachers gain knowledge of themselves and of teaching through observation of their students at work. Teacher preparation and education programs thus need to help teachers learn how to engage in assessment practices (like those referred to earlier) that reveal students' strengths, provide information about what students actually understand, and give insights into how different socioeconomic, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds influence and shape students' learning.
Learning to Communicate Teacher Knowledge with Families and the Community-at- Large
Developing teachers' capacities to communicate their understandings about the learning process with families and the public is an important part of teacher learning that is often left out of teacher education and professional development programs. Because constructivism in particular represents a major change in thinking about teaching and learning, many ways need to be found to inform people about what it actually entails. Changes in teaching cannot take place without the support of those whom the changes will affect.
Teachers are closest to the learning situation and the ones in the profession who know students best. Because of this they are in the best position to inform discussions about education. Teacher education and professional development programs need to help teachers build their capacities to share their understandings through one-to-one conversations and conferences, curriculum letters, newsletter and journal articles, speeches at conferences and public policy forums - so that they can effectively contribute to public conversations about education.
If our schools are to provide experiences for students that fire their spirits, identify and nurture their capacities as learners, and enable them to be independent thinkers, then new forms of teaching need to be developed that are solidly based on emerging understandings of how human beings engage in learning. These understandings call for changes in the processes, contexts, and content of teacher education and professional development programs - changes guided by a constructivist pedagogy that educate teachers to be learners themselves. Teacher learning for constructivist teaching needs to include many opportunities to engage directly in the struggles of learning, the risk-taking and the thrill of generating new ideas; continually investigate the learning process so that teachers gain ever deeper understandings of how disciplines connect and involve different modes of inquiry; become ever more conscious and responsive to the ways in which differences impact on the learning process; communicate clearly what they know and how they teach to support student growth and development.
Changes such as these in teacher education will support teachers to become powerful thinkers. Powerful thinkers make powerful teachers, and it is this kind of educator that is required to provide the students of our nation with an education that supports them to be powerful themselves, developing the skills and capacities they need to take charge of their thinking and their own lives.
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