Constructing Student Knowledge: A Duckworth Approach

The foundation of learning is the construction of one’s own knowledge. This is an instrumental theory in education. Many philosophers have developed their own theories of the way children go through this process, the two most notable theorists are Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. While I am a Vygotsky man myself, I’d like to take a look at another theorist who was a student of Piaget, Elanor Duckworth.

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“As a student of Piaget, I was convinced that people must construct their own knowledge and must assimilate new experiences in ways that make sense to them. I knew that, more often than not, simply telling students what we want them to know leaves them cold.”

Duckworth’s view of learning is summed up in her seminal work The having of wonderful ideas. Through a series of essays, she outlines what is her own interpretation of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development into a beautifully simple idea, which is, the essence of intellectual development is the having of wonderful ideas. I would like to emphasize wonderful because I believe it is a perfect word choice. She is not arguing that children must be creating new knowledge or be approaching problems in a new way, but that they wonder about the world around them. And ask questions.

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So what does Duckworth look like inside of the classroom? The examination of misconceptions in science allows for many of the key components of her work to come to life including

  • building on prior knowledge
  • challenging existing notions
  • asking questions

Students hold many misconceptions about what causes the phases of the moon. Some believe that its the Earth’s shadow, or clouds in the sky. Addressing student misconceptions gets at the core values of Duckworth’s philosophy, which is the uncovering of knowledge, not the covering of content. Through a series of hands-on investigations, like the one in the video below, students can start to uncover what is really going on between the Earth, Sun, and Moon. What is important to keep in mind as the teacher is that students are coming to their own conclusions about what they are observing, and not looking to you for explanations.

Duckworth was also a firm believer in learning by doing. One of the goals of the Next Generation Science Standards is for students to see that science is not just a body of facts, but rather a community of learners who make discoveries through active experimentation. Duckworth would absolutely agree with this principle.

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Teachers can develop this mindset in their students by allowing them to conduct independent research. When students investigate a topic that they are truly invested in it can be an invaluable experience. With assistance, students can build their own knowledge through active experimentation, posing their own questions, and interpreting data based on evidence. All of these skills lead students to develop the necessary habits to be critical scientists, as well as an informed member of society.

“The virtues involved in not knowing are the ones that really count in the long run”

This quote exemplifies what these practices really mean for you and your students. Too much emphasis is placed on getting the right answer. The quickest way to get the “right answer” is to just memorize it. However, we know that this does not lead to the development of robust skills that we wish for our students. The virtues of not knowing and the quest for true comprehension is the essence of intellectual development. It is the act of observing, not knowing, and wondering, “how?”


  1. This is a wonderful post! I love the quote you used in the end it really helped tie it all together. I agree that I hope I can foster an environment in my future classroom where students are encouraged to have their own wonderful ideas!

  2. Awesome post Aaron! I really liked the idea of having a science fair. I remember in 7th grade there was a science class who put on a science fair. Their parents were able to come at night while all the students presented. I remember being so jealous that I wasn’t able to be a part of the fair and investigate something that interested me! This can also get pretty pricy though, so what will you do in situations where students do not have the money to carry out their own investigation?

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