A constructivist approach to teaching

The vast amounts of knowledge available to mankind have led to changes in teaching patterns and have increased the immensity of syllabi at every level of education. Although this situation has advantages, teaching and learning have devolved into passive traffic of knowledge from teachers to students. This is enough to cancel out the good effects of the enormous knowledge humanity has built up over the centuries. Education is no longer focused on creating bright minds equipped to make discoveries and inventions that will once again change life as we know it today.

For great minds to be created, the focus of the teaching process, like teaching design,  must be shifted from passive sharing of information to fostering the art of learning. A teaching process focused on the learning process is student-centric and gives more importance to the engagement and involvement of students in classrooms. At this juncture, let’s learn and explore the possibilities of a constructive approach in teaching.

What is constructivist teaching?

Constructivist teaching is a part of the constructivist learning theory developed by Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky believed that there is more to education than just passive traffic of knowledge. He based his theory on postulates of social constructivism. Jean Piaget was another constructivist who believed that students are learners in their rights and learn through their experiences. Jerome Bruner put together these ideals in the 1960s. They came to be widely accepted by the masses as a child-centric way of learning that challenged the authoritative didactic learning experience that was prevalent then.

According to constructivist thinking, students are individuals with thinking patterns and methods. The role of teachers is to facilitate learning by guiding their students to use their thinking methods and patterns. While constructivism is against lecturing or didacticism and supports individual thinking and learning, it is also against flipped classrooms or self-learning. The students learn from video lectures in their own time or learn new concepts solely based on their interest in deeper knowledge. Constructivist learning is based on the idea of co-construction of knowledge through active learning and discussions between peers or discussions between educators and learners.

What are the major postulates of constructive teaching?

Constructive teaching or constructive learning is based on four basic principles: working together, active learning, scaffolding learning, and spiral curriculum.

  • Working Together: Working together is an integral part of the constructivist theory of learning. Each student has a unique way of thinking and approaching concepts, making learning easy for one set of students while it may be difficult for another. In a traditional lecture-based class, students who have the proper thought process can grasp things better and perform well, while the others lag and are left behind. Constructive teaching would put these students together to discuss their thoughts with other students. The idea behind this approach is that students can learn a lot more by observing the thought processes of their peers or gaining new insights from the thoughts shared by peers. Sometimes students have ideas and skills that may not be fully developed. A platform to discuss these among their peers would be a helpful tool to polish their skills and ideas.

Another aspect of this is group projects. Teachers could assign topics to groups of students. They could be encouraged to discuss their ideas and thoughts on the topic and co-create knowledge. Sometimes, it could be a numerical problem or a real-world problem. The students would be able to pool their ideas and thoughts to co-create a solution. Everyone involved would end up having more knowledge on the topic than they had previously.

The third facet of learning by working together relates to cultural and social influences on thought processes. A student from one community would have a different view on a given topic when compared to that of another student who is part of another community. Students from varied backgrounds working together would result in a better understanding of their cultures and that of others and how they affect their learning topics. The role of teachers here is to allow students to have platforms to work together, observe and co-create knowledge with their peers. The role of teachers should be that of a moderator who offers guidance and insights or even joins this discussion as an equal.

  • Active learning: Active learning is an essential requisite for constructive teaching. Teachers should facilitate active learning wherein students control the learning process by giving inputs, discussing and sharing ideas, building and evolving new ideas based on this shared knowledge. Active learning does not just mean sitting together in groups and talking. Every student must be encouraged to give inputs. As groups, they should be encouraged to apply their knowledge to create, draw and present their ideas through written or audiovisual media.

3D design technology is within reach of everyone these days. Free design software such as SelfCAD features user-friendly, intuitive tools and interactive tutorials that can help students apply their knowledge in creating new objects or machinery or tools that could solve a problem or give them a better idea about the topic they are meant to learn. Basic features of selfCAD are free, whereas advanced features can be unlocked with the SelfCAD pro license, which comes at a monthly subscription fee of $14.99 or a monthly fee of $11.99 if billed annually. SelfCAD perpetual license, which costs a single payment of $599.00, grants their subscribers lifetime access to all features.

  • Scaffolding Learning: In construction, scaffolding refers to a temporary support structure that holds the main structure until the building can support itself. In constructive teaching, scaffolding learning is a similar tool for support. Educational scaffolding uses constructive learning, which supports students learning new concepts.

Teachers can offer support in word banks, which help students understand technical terminology or abbreviations. Reference materials, reading and writing guides, questioning techniques, and research guidance are all examples of educational scaffolding. As in construction, the scaffolding in constructive teaching is also removed gradually as the learning progresses. Apart from support, educational scaffolding aims at providing prompts and stimuli for students to learn better. Students respond to the introduction of new ideas based on how they are presented to them. In scaffolding learning, teachers should model their instructions for easy grasping and understanding. One way of doing this is by building the instructions for group projects or discussions around experiences or contexts that the learners could easily relate to. Once learners can relate to a topic on a personal or a community level, they can use their experiences and knowledge to co-create more knowledge. This mode of teaching also boosts willingness to learn. A valid example of this could be assigning students from low rainfall regions to projects related to artificial rain or cloud seeding. Students would have some previous knowledge or experience about reasons for low rainfall or its effects. This would help them relate to the topic at hand and increase their willingness to create new knowledge that could improve their lives.

  • Spiral Curriculum: This aspect of the constructivist teaching approach involves reintroducing topics to students as their ability to understand improves. Spiral curriculum initially aims at improving what base knowledge students would have about a particular topic. This would enable the continuous development of knowledge for students. This is done by reintroducing concepts at different stages of the learning process. When base knowledge is sound, students can understand advanced concepts related to topics when they are reintroduced at advanced stages of their learning.

For example, this form of the mathematics curriculum would focus on problems taught in earlier stages of the learning process. In later stages, when the same problem is reintroduced with added advanced concepts, students can use their knowledge to develop and preserve what they know. They can also use their previous knowledge to question these newly introduced concepts and explore them further. This approach helps teachers facilitate learning by encouraging and stimulating ideas instead of transmitting the information.

What are some educational concepts that are often confused as constructive teaching?

Although constructive teaching aims at encouraging students to learn from their own experiences and thoughts, it is often confused with some novel educational concepts or tools.

  • Self-teaching: Self-teaching occurs when students are inspired to learn something deeper by involving themselves in research. This idea does not align with the co-creation ideals of constructivist teaching. Co-experimentation and cooperation between students and teachers are essential foundations of constructive teaching.
  • Flipped Classrooms: Learning experiences that promote students learning on their own using video lectures in their own time and completing exercises during a set class time are known as flipped classrooms. Flipped classrooms are a hybrid involving didacticism, auto-didacticism, and some parts of constructivism. This concept requires the teacher to be an expert on the subject and is expected to impart knowledge to students who are novices. This is against the basic principle of constructive teaching, which considers students with unique thought processes and culturally or socially influenced views on all topics. 
  • Debate: Although it is a form of discussion, it does not align with the ideals of co-construction of knowledge. Debating involves students exchanging facts and logic to defend their views in a structured discussion. Constructive teaching requires students to combine their ability to construct something new.

Are you an educator trying to introduce active learning into your classroom? If yes, navigate to the SelfCAD website and find easy-to-use 3D design and 3D printing resources that your students can utilize to be more actively involved in their learning process.

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