ERIC Identifier: ED426986
Publication Date: 1998-12-00
Author: Abdal-Haqq, Ismat
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Teaching and Teacher Education Washington DC.
Constructivism in Teacher Education: Considerations for Those
Who Would Link Practice to Theory. ERIC Digest.
In recent years, constructivism has received considerable attention in
education scholarship, practitioner preparation, and policy formation (MacKinnon
& Scarff-Seatter, 1997; Richardson, 1997; Teets & Starnes, 1996). It has
been heralded as a more natural, relevant, productive, and empowering framework
for instructing both P-12 and teacher education students (Cannella & Reiff,
1994). This Digest identifies major forms of constructivism and considers issues
and challenges that surface when implementing constructivist approaches to
preservice and inservice teacher education.
WHAT IS CONSTRUCTIVISM?
Constructivism is an epistemology,
a learning or meaning-making theory, that offers an explanation of the nature of
knowledge and how human beings learn. It maintains that individuals create or
construct their own new understandings or knowledge through the interaction of
what they already know and believe and the ideas, events, and activities with
which they come in contact (Cannella & Reiff, 1994; Richardson, 1997).
Knowledge is acquired through involvement with content instead of imitation or
repetition (Kroll & LaBoskey, 1996). Learning activities in constructivist
settings are characterized by active engagement, inquiry, problem solving, and
collaboration with others. Rather than a dispenser of knowledge, the teacher is
a guide, facilitator, and co-explorer who encourages learners to question,
challenge, and formulate their own ideas, opinions, and conclusions. "Correct" answers and single interpretations are de-emphasized.
As an approach to teaching, constructivism may be examined as much for what
it is NOT as for what it is. It challenges what Oldfather, Bonds, and Bray
(1994) characterize as the default mode in education--an empiricist/reductionist
approach to teaching and learning. They cite Freire who considers this approach
to be a "banking" model--the teacher fills students with deposits of information
considered by the teacher to be true knowledge, and the students store these
deposits, intact, until needed. Cannella & Reiff (1994) label these
traditional models didactic, memory-oriented transmission models.
Constructivists generally maintain that when information is acquired through
transmission models, it is not always well integrated with prior knowledge and
is often accessed and articulated only for formal academic occasions such as
exams (Richardson, 1997). Constructivist approaches, in contrast, are regarded
as producing greater internalization and deeper understanding than traditional
While there are commonly accepted attributes of constructivism, there are
also different interpretations of it. Vadeboncoeur (1997) identifies three
significant strands within these interpretations--Piagetian, sociocultural, and
emancipatory constructivism--strands differentiated primarily by (1) the subject
of study, (2) views about how cognitive forms develop, and (3) "the liberatory
power of the pedagogical approaches derived" (p. 22). In general, two broad
interpretations can be found among contemporary educators--psychological
constructivism, most notably articulated by Piaget, and social constructivism,
associated with Vygotsky. Two major issues shape these interpretations: (1)
education for individual development versus education for social transformation
and (2) the degree of influence that social context has on individual cognitive
development (Richardson, 1997; Vadeboncoeur, 1997).
Psychological or Piagetian
constructivists generally regard the purpose of education as educating the
individual child in a fashion that supports the child's interests and needs;
consequently, the child is the subject of study, and individual cognitive
development is the emphasis. Learning is primarily an individualistic
enterprise. This is a child-centered approach that seeks to identify, through
scientific study, the natural path of cognitive development (Vadeboncoeur,
1997). This approach assumes that students come to classrooms with ideas,
beliefs, and opinions that need to be altered or modified by a teacher who
facilitates this alteration by devising tasks and questions that create dilemmas
for students. Knowledge construction occurs as a result of working through these
dilemmas. Characteristic instructional practices include "discovery learning" and hands-on activities, such as using manipulatives; student tasks that
challenge existing concepts and thinking processes; and questioning techniques
that probe students' beliefs and encourage examination and testing of those
beliefs (Richardson, 1997).
To a large extent, this approach assumes that development is an ingrained,
natural, biological process that is pretty much the same for all individuals,
regardless of gender, class, race, or the social or cultural context in which
learning and living take place (Vadeboncoeur, 1997). Internal development is the
focus of the teaching environment, and the social and historical context, as
well as issues of power, authority, and the place of formal knowledge in the
learning environment are not emphasized (Richardson, 1997). It is essentially a
decontextualized approach to learning and teaching. Critics of the psychological
constructivist approach deprecate its lack of attention to "the influence of the
classroom culture and the broader social context" (Vadeboncoeur, 1997), as well
as disregard for power issues, particularly power issues related to knowledge
production (Martin, 1994; Richardson, 1997; Vadeboncoeur, 1997).
Social or Vygotskian constructivism
emphasizes education for social transformation and reflects a theory of human
development that situates the individual within a sociocultural context.
Individual development derives from social interactions within which cultural
meanings are shared by the group and eventually internalized by the individual
(Richardson, 1997). Individuals construct knowledge in transaction with the
environment, and in the process both the individual and the environment are
changed. The subject of study is the dialectical relationship between the
individual and the social and cultural milieu.
Schools are the sociocultural settings where teaching and learning take place
and where "cultural tools," such as reading, writing, mathematics, and certain
modes of discourse are utilized (Richardson, 1997). This approach assumes that
theory and practice do not develop in a vacuum; they are shaped by dominant
cultural assumptions (Martin, 1994; O'Loughlin, 1995). Both formal knowledge,
the subject of instruction, and the manner of its presentation are influenced by
the historical and cultural environment that generated them. To accomplish the
goals of social transformation and reconstruction, the context of education must
be deconstructed, and the cultural assumptions, power relationships, and
historical influences that undergird it must be exposed, critiqued, and, when
necessary, altered (Myers, 1996). Variants of social constructivism include
situated constructivism, social reconstructivism, sociocultural constructivism,
sociohistorical constructivism, and emancipatory constructivism.
CONSTRUCTIVIST FRAMEWORKS IN TEACHER EDUCATION
While it may
inform and influence practice, constructivism is a theory of learning, not a
theory of teaching (Wolffe & McMullen, 1996), and translating theory to
practice is both difficult and imprecise (MacKinnon & Scarf-Seatter, 1997).
However, education literature documents several large- and small-scale efforts
to do so (DeJong & Grooms, 1996; Kaufman, 1996; Richardson, 1997). For
example, as part of a statewide education reform initiative, University of
Louisville faculty, supported by funding from the Kentucky Department of
Education, developed 11 guiding principles and possible indicators of
constructivist teaching (Fischetti, Dittmer, & Kyle, 1996). The venerable
Foxfire Project devised 11 core practices that reflect the constructivist
underpinnings of the Foxfire approach to teaching and professional development,
which has evolved over a 30-year period (Teets & Starnes, 1996).
Constructivist teacher education generally reflects two major traditions--the
developmental and social reconstructionist traditions (Canella & Reiff,
1994). Programs influenced by the developmental tradition attempt to teach
students how to teach in a constructivist, generally Piagetian, manner. They are
typically characterized by substantial direct instruction in theory and
practice, often without complementary opportunities for inquiry, discovery, or
self-examination. This approach can easily become overly prescriptive. If this
occurs, the teacher educator models an approach to teaching that is essentially
antithetical to the approach students are intended to employ in their future
classrooms (Oldfather, Bonds, & Bray, 1994).
Programs influenced by social reconstructionist tradition attempt to help
teacher education students deconstruct their own prior knowledge and attitudes,
comprehend how these understandings evolved, explore the effects they have on
actions and behavior, and consider alternate conceptions and premises that may
be more serviceable in teaching. Critical analysis and structured reflection on
formal course knowledge and everyday practical experience are incorporated.
Richardson (1997) identifies two factors that appear to affect the approach
teachers and teacher educators take in forming constructivist settings--the
extent to which the social is acknowledged as a critical factor in learning and
individual cognitive development and the specific content, subject matter, or
discipline. Some subjects, such as mathematics, are more "bounded" than others
by rules, formulae, and procedures. They are more likely to be regarded by
teachers as producing problems and tasks to which there are "correct" answers.
Individual interpretations and construction of ideas and concepts are less
likely to be encouraged by teachers than in subjects such as literature and
The overarching challenge constructivism
presents to teachers and teacher educators is the formidable task of translating
a learning theory into a theory of teaching (MacKinnon & Scarff-Seatter,
1997), which in turn raises questions about what teachers need to know and be
able to do. For teacher educators, among other tasks, this involves balancing
the need to acknowledge the different discipline-specific requirements of
teaching with the need to model constructivist methods in teacher education
courses and practicums. Richardson (1997) also notes the limits of a perspective
on teaching that values students' understandings at the expense of "right"
answers. Student knowledge becomes idiosyncratic; 30 different students may
arrive at 30 different understandings or interpretations of a concept, all of
which are not equally appropriate. Inappropriately applied, constructivist
approaches may lead to the "abandonment" style of teaching (MacKinnon & Scarff-Seatter, 1997).
Several authors cite the importance of teacher educators' modeling
constructivist approaches that engage students in interdisciplinary exploration,
collaborative activity, and field-based opportunities for experiential learning,
reflection, and self-examination (Kaufman, 1996; Kroll & LaBosky, 1996) if
future teachers are to be able to employ these strategies in schools.
To derive culturally relevant and socially just pedagogy and practice from
constructivist epistemologies, Martin (1994) and Vadeboncoeur (1997) urge
teacher educators to deconstruct and scrutinize cultural assumptions that
underlie various interpretations of constructivism to expose how social beliefs
have influenced the development of theory and practices. Without such scrutiny,
societal inequities and historical forms of oppression may be perpetuated in
supposedly constructivist classrooms, and the very constraints on individual
development constructivists seek to remove or ameliorate will be reinforced.
A final challenge faced by educators is the pitfall of regarding
constructivism as the only viable theoretical framework for teaching and
learning. It is one way of thinking about how knowledge and understanding are
formed, but it is not the only way. Nor are various interpretations of
constructivism necessarily incompatible with one another (MacKinnon &
Scarff-Seatter, 1997; Oldfather, Bonds, & Bray, 1994). Prospective teachers
should be exposed to varying perspectives and given opportunities to develop the
discretion needed to choose most appropriately and the skills to implement their
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