Matthias’ fingers lightly tapped on the shiny black sphere that topped the pawn on the board before him, listening to the hustle nd bustle outside of the tent as it started to die down for the night. His cold, calculating eyes scanned the board for what felt like the millionth time, looking for some scrap of evidence that he could use to try and suppress the panic he felt inside of his heart.
Matthias had only recently been promoted to sergeant, rising through the officer’s ranks quickly for someone so young and inexperienced, although he was beginning to question if this was actually the blessing he originally considered it. When he was summoned to the general’s command tent this morning, he thought that he was going to be reprimanded, but instead he found all of the other officers running around like headless chickens in a state of absolute pandemonium. The Stormshirian army’s original plan was to press through this valley, expecting little to no resistance, but this was not the case. The army was continually assaulted by bands of enemy raiders, always approaching from the flanks during minor skirmishes. These attacks usually resulted in heavy casualties, and by the time the bulk of the army turned itself around to meet the attack, the enemy was gone without a trace.
Now that the army was so deep into the valley, neither retreating nor hoping for reinforcements were options at this point, and with their numbers dwindling, the officers had to figure out what was going on, and fast. All of the scouts that had been sent out to look for bases or hiding spots had returned basically empty handed, and none of the officers could figure out how these raiding parties were able to be so well-equipped and coordinated while still being able to move as quickly as the army without camping somewhere nearby.
Everyone else had already decided that it was time to call it a night, but Matthias just couldn’t calm down. He envied his grandfather’s ability to keep his fear under control back when he ran the apothecary in Javenwood. People would burst in through his shop’s door with open wounds, screaming bloody murder, and he wouldn’t bat an eye as he calmly reached for his potions and tonics, leaping to action. Matthias often found himself missing his time in Javenwood. In the apothecary, he had the chance to learn about all sorts of interesting plants and animals from faraway places. His grandfather used to always show off the crazy abilities that his potions could give people too. Some made you breathe fire, some changed your perception of time, some even allowed you to breathe underwater…
Suddenly, Matthias jumped out of his seat, sending the wicker chair careening to the dirt floor of the officer’s tent. His eyes raced back to the chessboard that he had overlaid on top of the topographical map of this area. His hunch was correct. Every major attack they had suffered from the raiding parties had happened near the river. The army made the fair assumption that the Krelvath empire wouldn’t stoop to using magic because of their superstitious hatred and fear of wizards, however, the species of centipede that Matthias’ grandfather used to use for his aqualung tonics always came in boxes labeled “Imported From Krelvar”. The rebels must have been using these potions to breathe underwater and follow the army from the river! Matthias muttered something under his breath as he turned to leave the tent and alert the commander. “Thanks a lot, Grandpa.” he said with a smile.
I am firmly of the belief that we as humans are a culmination of everything that has ever happened to us. Every sin we’ve committed, every tragic twist of fate that’s ever befallen us, every decision we’ve ever made, all of these things combine to make us into who we are today. The factors of a person’s past influence their personality, decisions, and relationships. For instance, my favorite band of all time is Queen. This most likely wouldn’t be the case if my dad hadn’t been in a Queen cover band for a good portion of my childhood. As a result of hearing my dad play them at a young age, Queen songs hold a powerful and important place in my heart, and they always will.
This can’t help but make you wonder, though. If such an important part of our identities come from our past experiences, why is it that classical public education assumes that we have none? In this blog, we’ve talked about the unhelpful “Listen to teacher, you dumb kids.” mentality that many schools tend to proliferate, shifting power dynamics in the favor of the adults and taking away control and freedom from the students. The assumption that your students have no prior knowledge or experience is closely related to this idea. After all, what do a bunch of kids know? I’m a fully trained, fully educated teacher with a college degree, of course I know more about ecology than this 12-year old sitting in front of me.
The real problem with this mentality, though, comes from the frankly ridiculous assumption that kids know nothing. Sure, they might have never been in an ecology class before, but even the most sheltered kids on the planet know that wolves eat deer and deer eat grass. All of these kids have had a whopping 12 years on this planet, about 80-90 percent of which has occurred outside of formal schooling. They haven’t spent that time just locked inside of an empty room all day. They’ve been going to carnivals, exploring woods, taking baths, and playing video games. The best part is that each kid has a different story to tell, too. That girl sitting in the front row has been racing horses since she was six. That kid in the back’s mom is a mechanic, and he’s been staring at combustion engines for his whole life.
At this point, it’s pretty safe to say that getting kids to care about something is the easy part. Everyone’s passionate about something, after all. The question we have to face is whether or not we as teachers can make use of students’ prior knowledge and experiences to get them to learn. This philosophy is called “Constructivism”.
I recently read an article in the National Science Teacher Association’s appropriately named Journal “The Science Teacher” called “The Prepared Practitioner: Constructivism and Conceptual Change”. This article specifically talked about the use of constructivism to help students understand abstract topics. Of course, the main idea of constructivism is that your students’ learning is much more effective when it’s framed in their own chosen context. Anyone can memorize the equation relating a magnetic field to moving electrical charges, but don’t you think your students would better remember launching a magnetic projectile out of a railgun at 200 miles an hour?
Constructivism focuses more on making important memories and giving students a chance to do things on their own rather than the content itself. When you give a student freedom and responsibility in a project, they can take the content and turn it into something cool, no matter what they’re into. Do you have a student who hates science but loves music? Have them design and build their own musical instrument when you talk about waves and energy. Do you have a student who’s way more into literature? Let her write a short science fiction story where the hero must overcome obstacles using ideas discussed in the content. Is there a kid that only cares about video games and nothing else? Use pixel measurements and torque to test if a normal human could actually wield the Ultra Greatsword from Dark Souls. Like the article in NSTA’s journal mentioned, one of the best ways to help a student build off of their previous knowledge in a subject is to ground that concept in reality with a project or with a well-known example. For instance, the article uses the example of Newton’s laws. Students often have a hard time understanding the third law of motion because they know from their own experiences that objects on Earth come to rest after moving a certain distance. From a constructivist approach, a good teacher could easily work into that law of motion by talking about forces and friction first, or even better, trying to get students to estimate and then calculate how far certain objects move when hit with so much force.
No matter what your students are into, if you let them, they can take charge of the content and bring their learning to the next level. Of course, this is much more easily said than done. Here are some tips that can help you bring a constructivist approach to your own classroom.
- Get to know your students!
Without knowing what your students are passionate about, how are you going to let them bring that to the classroom? Spend some time to learn who your students are and what they stand for, and use that knowledge when planning lessons!
- Listen to feedback!
If you’ve spent all week working on a way to bring this assignment to life and you think it’s going to be super cool, only to have all of your students hate it, then maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board. If students aren’t engaged, they won’t learn anything, so make sure that you’re giving everyone a chance to make the learning their own.
- Everybody, quick! Get creative!
Not only is it your job as a teacher to find creative ways to make your content awesome and engaging, it’s your job to give your students a chance to do the same. Let your students show off their talents and relate their learning to their passions. This means lots of open-ended projects and lots of student freedom.
- Teamwork makes the dream work!
By giving your students the chance to work together, you allow them to bounce ideas off of one another, collaborating and bringing each student’s experiences together to create something greater than the sum of its parts.