Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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  Workshop 3: Public Policy & the Federal Budget  
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Essential Readings

From Behaviorist to Constructivist Teaching
by Geoffrey Scheurman

Constructivism refers to a set of related theories that deal with the nature of knowledge. The common denominator linking these theories is a belief that knowledge is created by people and influenced by their values and culture. In contrast to this view is the behaviorist belief that knowledge exists outside of people and independently of them, and that the major goal of a good education is to instill in students an accepted body of information and skills previously established by others.

When the constructivist view is applied to teaching and learning in the social studies, the goal of a good education includes the development of (1) deep understanding of social studies problems and procedures, and (2) rigorously defensible beliefs about important disciplinary issues. This developmental process is enhanced when students learn to view problems and issues from different angles and to identify multiple perspectives within and outside the field of study. Ultimately, knowledge is constructed when students form their own interpretations of evidence submitted to them for review.

The constructivist perspective has important implications for teaching and learning in the social studies. Much of social education has been directed toward the simple transmission of information and techniques for processing information. Constructivism has a natural affinity with approaches to teaching that are directed toward open-ended inquiry, and that encourage creative reflection on objects, events and cultural experience.

Constructivism, like other approaches, comes in varying shades. As one author stated, "the particular version of constructivism one adopts. . . has important implications for classroom practices, for the definition of knowledge, for the relative emphasis on individual versus social learning, for the role of the teacher, and for the definition of successful instruction."1

This introductory article provides a frame of reference for the special section on constructivism [in Social Education Vol. 62, No. 1, January 1998, entitled “Constructing Knowledge in Social Studies”], and for the debate about constructivism in social studies that appears imminent.

One way to examine constructivist approaches to social studies teaching is to contrast them to other world views on teaching and learning. I have designed a matrix around four hypothetical teacher roles (Table 1, row one), each derived from a philosophical view about the nature of knowledge (row two). These views reflect a theoretical background derived from psychological research (row three). They also imply a metaphorical view of learners (row four).

The categories in this matrix are neither exclusive (a teacher probably engages students in multiple ways within a lesson or unit), nor judgmental (different roles may facilitate important, albeit different, educational objectives). Nevertheless, it is possible to classify the nature of classroom activity when a teacher adopts a specific epistemology, or view of knowledge (rows five and six).

Teacher as Transmitter
According to the behaviorist view, reality exists independently of learners and knowledge is received exclusively through the senses. Learning functions like a switchboard, occurring when one person transmits the universal characteristics of reality to another. According to B. F. Skinner, knowledge is acquired when the bond between stimulus and response is strengthened by means of a reinforcer. The teacher's primary function is to break information and skills into small increments, present them part-to-whole in an organized fashion, and then reward student behaviors that mirror the reality presented by teachers and texts.

For the teacher as transmitter, classroom activity might include responding to questions in a chapter, taking notes from a lecture, or responding to cues provided by a computer. For example, students may use information they receive during a lecture on events leading up to the American Revolution to place activities challenging British rule on a continuum called "Degrees of Disagreement," whose categories range from "dissent" and "civil disobedience" through "insurrection" and "rebellion.” This and other class activities are described in more detail in [“Revisiting Lexington Green,” Social Education, Vol. 62, No. 1, 1998.]

The skills of classification that students practice in such an activity are important, but the questions require responses that can be termed right or wrong rather than interpretations that are justified on the basis of critically-examined evidence.

Teacher as Manager
The behaviorist paradigm has undergone a dramatic shift over the past several decades. A major challenge to behaviorism in the field of linguistics was launched by Noam Chomsky, who argued that children possess an innate capacity to acquire language, and that their minds should not be considered passive receptacles into which knowledge about language is transmitted.

With the help of computers, cognitive scientists have fueled a “revolution" in the psychology of learning by modeling how learners' prior knowledge (stored in clusters called schemata) not only filters, but actually modifies, sensory activity as it is experienced.2

Given that pre-existing memory structures influence the learner's interaction with stimuli, an important function of teaching, in this view, is to help students become aware of their prior knowledge and conceptions, and then to provide them with increasingly expert methods for dealing with an information-rich environment. The teacher as manager might model strategies for "chunking" information, encourage students to build connections using advance organizers and concept maps, and eventually help students acquire techniques for regulating their own thinking processes.

In a unit on the American Revolution, for example, the teacher could have students practice critical reading using a heuristic for engaging in the evaluation of historical accounts. This heuristic involves remembering what a historian actually says about events (the literal reading of the account), examining what a historian may have implied by his or her narrative (reading between the lines), and evaluating what biases or values may be reflected in a historian's record of events (generalizing beyond the lines). By managing an environment in which students gain experience at consuming information and asking questions about it, teachers help students develop their own independent abilities to review historical materials.

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