Rethinking Thinking: Constructivism in the Science Classroom

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“Tabula rasa.” This is what my teacher used to say to us in my 10th grade drama class. He’d tell us that everything we knew about acting was incorrect, and that everything we had learned was wrong. Tabula rasa translates to “blank slate.” Meaning we were just a tablet for him to inscribe all his wisdom and knowledge onto. This mindset is in direct opposition to constructivism.

Constructivism in education is the philosophy that students come into the classroom with a set of experiences and schemas that must either affirm, reject, or adapt to new knowledge. This idea was championed by Jean Piaget in his work on cognitive development theory, which states that children learn in discreet stages that build on one another. Alan Colburn is a writer for The Science Teacher a journal published by the NSTA. In his column “The Prepared Practitioner” he outlines the benefits of a constructivist approach in the science classroom.

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What Does Constructivism Look Like?

Colburn provides an examples of what constructivism looks like in the classroom. For instance, when students learn about Newton’s First Law of motion- objects in motion stay in motion- they are often met with some cognitive dissonance. Constructivism says that a student will either:

  • incorporate Newton’s Law into their existing schema
  • reject Newton’s Law
  • adapt their schema to fit Newton’s Law

For students, objects do not stay in motion in the real world due to friction, so the teacher has to incorporate the students prior knowledge, and their real world experiences into the lesson. Breaking down misconceptions is a major component of science education and as Colburn points out, constructivism is one way teachers can use these misconceptions to their adavantage. One way constructivism can play out in the classroom is through the 5 E’s Learning Cycle. The first of the 5 E’s is engage. Here a teacher would not even name Newton’s law, instead they may do a demonstration or show a video of the law in action. Through guided questions and open discussion a teacher can asses students prior knowled, and therefore flesh out a lesson plan that builds on what they already know and address the misconceptions they hold.

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From there the learning cycle moves to the explore phase. Here students are given the opportunity to discover more about the topic. Let’s stick with Newton’s First Law, in this stage the students would begin to make more concrete experiences with Newton’s Law, perhaps through their own experimentation. This is also wear cooperative learning can play an integral part, students can work together and build off what was experienced in the engage phase.

The following stage is explain. Here is where teachers and students may finally get into the “nitty-gritty” of a topic. Things like definitions, equations, diagrams, and… explanations can come in to play. Students begin to label concepts like force, motion, friction and so on. Students are starting to see how the pieces of puzzle come together.

Elaborate is the next phase of the learning cycle. In this stage students apply all they have learned so far to a new situation where they are able to exercise their skills. The teacher should assist by guiding students with questions that can challenge existing knowledge in order to solidify the concept. In this case, Newton’s Law can be deliberately experimented with in the real world in a student centered activity.

The final stage is evaluate. Students and teachers can lead evaluations of the entire learning cycle. Hopefully, through this evaluation you are able to move into the next lesson and therefore start the cycle over by working with this new existing knowledge.

Colburn’s Argument for Constructivism

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Alan Colburn

Colburn asserts that learning is an active process, and that changing students preconceived misconceptions of science requires recognizing the deficiencies of students current ways of thinking and providing the alternative. In his article he states that constructivism is the best way to achieve both of these goals, and especially through the 5 E’s learning cycle.

“If you think about learning as occasionally asking students to change
their common sense worldviews
toward a view that is inevitably
more abstract, you can see why true
conceptual change is difficult.”-Alan Colburn

This quote exemplifies the idea of constructivism and how important it is to consider the prior knowledge all of our students posses, but how it isn’t always easy. “The more concrete a problem or scenario, the greater the chance students will have background information to draw upon and the greater the chance that misconceptions will be exposed or challenged.” However, I would say this is where the fun begins, and where you may begin to see real change in your students’ ways of thinking.

Works Cited

Colburn, A. (2007). The Prepared Practitioner: Constructivism and Conceptual Change, Part I. The Science Teacher74(7), 10.

Colburn, A. (2007). The Prepared Practitioner: Constructivism and Conceptual Change, Part 2. The Science Teacher74(8), 14.

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