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Private Universe Project in Science

Workshop Nine: "A Vision For the Future"

Section 1 - About Workshop Nine:
"A Vision For The Future"


What is the theme of this workshop?
The theme of Workshop Nine is "building an understanding of constructivism."

What problems does this workshop address?
What is our vision for the future of science education? What might the classroom of the future look like? Is constructivism a utopian dream or a possible future reality?

Section 2 - "A Vision For The Future"

A. The Goal for Workshop Nine

The goal of this workshop is to promote discussion among educators and to encourage the implementation of constructivist approaches in the classroom by creating discovery-based lessons, eliciting and understanding students' ideas, and, more generally, by focusing on curriculum development, assessment, national science standards, and professional development.

The movement towards change may meet with obstacles on various levels. Is the constructivist approach worth the struggle?

Workshop Discussion

What are the obstacles teachers might encounter when trying to implement changes in their classroom?
How can educators and education leaders help overcome these obstacles? Discuss these proposed solutions.

B. Challenges

The number of obstacles to implementing constructivist strategies may seem daunting. Teachers are being asked to unlearn traditional models of teaching in which they were trained as well as to develop new proficiencies. In addition, they are asked to overcome a host of social and political pressures working against such change.

Workshop Discussion

Is a constructivist approach to teaching a job only for "Super-Teacher" or can most teachers use this approach?
What commitment will you make to help create change?

Section 3 - Important Ideas in Workshop Nine

A. Personal Definitions of "Constructivism"

If nothing else, "constructivism" is a term very much in vogue in science education circles. Virtually every piece of new teaching material nowadays claims to be "constructivist." One can hardly open a trade journal without tripping across the term.

What is constructivism? How is it related to the research in children's ideas as presented in this series? Is it a philosophy? A theory of knowledge? A theory of learning? A teaching methodology? A way of life? Another word for "hands on" or inquiry learning?

Even though the term constructivism is widely bandied about, its meaning seems very much confused. Ask a dozen educators what they mean by "constructivism" and you're bound to hear a dozen answers, each very different. Just as the term "energy" means something different (and perhaps contradictory) to an aerobics instructor, a physicist, and an astrologer, the term "constructivism" can mean different things to different people, depending on the context of its use and the background of its user.

Whose definition is right? Everyone's and no one's. Words are defined according to popular usage, and the dictionary is full of conflicting definitions that happily co-exist. Nevertheless, there is a sense of the word which is perhaps better suited to the ideas presented in this series of workshops on children's ideas in science.

To identify this meaning, I asked members of the Association for the Education of Teachers in Science (AETS) and of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching (NARST) to complete the thought "Constructivism is..." Nearly 50 people responded to my request.

Take a look at the range of ideas presented among the responses. Then, take a moment to reflect on all you've seen and heard in the course of these workshops, and how your own construction of the term "constructivism" may have been affected by this experience.

Matthew H. Schneps

Director, Private Universe Project

The Challenge

We asked teachers and educators from all over the world to take a few minutes and to send us a sentence or two on how they might complete the following thought:

"Constructivism is..."

We included these definitions of "constructivism" in the print materials accompanying this series. Our feeling was that a collection of such quotes would be both provocative and informative.

The Responses

"Constructivism is a view of learning that honors the evidence that students come to learning situations with existing ideas and reasoning. Learners build new ideas and reasoning strategies (and problem solutions) from these initial pieces when confronted with novel experiences or problems in daily life and in created learning experiences." (Jim Minstrell)

"Constructivism is an epistemology that focuses on knowledge and knowledge construction. It is not a theory! In science education, it is a way of focusing on science knowledge and its construction by people, especially learners. This way of looking at science knowledge assists researchers in obtaining a glimpse of what meaning learners attach to natural phenomena and how they make that meaning." (Mary M. Atwater)

"Constructivism is both a psychological and an epistemological view that recognizes that each person must construct new meanings (concepts, relationships, etc.) in their own idiosyncratic fashion, and that new knowledge is constructed by building upon current knowledge (concepts, principles, theories, methodologies, etc.)." (Joe Novak)

"Constructivism is a theory that holds knowledge to be both personally and socially constructed by humans." (June Trop Zuckerman, State University of New York at New Paltz)

"Constructivism is being able to draw on all your past experiences to help explain a particular phenomenon or situation. Since what we know is always limited, we continue to build our backgrounds of information and continue to refine our explanations." (Carole Kubota)

"Constructivism is a view of learning the major premise of which is that understandings about the world are developed out of our experiences and an effort to make sense of those experiences." (Pete Rubba, Pennsylvania State University)

"Constructivism is recognition of the fact that each human being has to construct their own knowledge about the world. They cannot assimilate presented ideas like a blank slate, but must engage in the intellectual effort to make sense of those ideas and to connect them to what they already know. Constructivism also claims that we can't ever know the world in any absolute sense-our understanding of it is limited by our sensory and intellectual capabilities." (Kathleen Fisher)

"Constructivism, as the term is used by science educators, refers to a set of epistemological assumptions based on the premise that 'reality exists but cannot be known' (von Glasersfeld, 1989). Instead, knowledge about the phenomenal world is an attempt to make meaning of objects and events as we perceive them. Humans are ultimately 'meaning makers' who construct knowledge by forming connections between perceptions and those relevant aspects of prior knowledge stored in long-term memory (Ausubel, 1968). In this view, the purpose of education is to achieve 'shared meaning' (Novak, 1987) and the role of the teacher is to 'negotiate' among meaning makers." (Joel J. Mintzes)

"Constructivism is knowing that what is in your mind cannot be transferred to others. They must learn it themselves." (Phil Sadler)

"May I start my sentence with a closely related but different word, since philosophers are currently in turmoil regarding the philosophical defensibility of constructivism?

" 'Construction' is a powerful metaphor for those involved in teaching and learning because it signals that prior knowledge either limits or supports future learning, and that viable personal knowledge is built up by an active, social, generative, and reflective process for which the learner is ultimately responsible." (Jim Wandersee, Associate Professor of Biology Education, Louisiana State University)

"Constructivism is making sense or coming to know and understand something through individual or group efforts." (Frank E. Crawley, Professor and Chairperson, Department of Science Education, East Carolina University)

"Constructivism is the belief that an understanding of the world and how it works cannot be implanted by external authority into the mind, but must be constructed by the individual from personal experiences." (Hal Coyle)

"Wonderful question! Constructivism is a philosophy that promotes reflection to catalyze the interconnections of cerebral neurons." (Peter Rillero, Ph.D., Arizona State University)

"Constructivism is a term that is now being used to describe a large number of educational efforts. There is no one definition in use and so people who read the term must be careful to analyze how the term is being used. I believe central to any form of constructivism is that learning is an active process, and someone who is a teacher cannot directly impart their understandings to students.

However, the role of the teacher is still central in learning, because learners may not know what or how to think about a specific topic. Thus, even though learners have to do the work of learning for themselves, they require the help of a teacher. Techniques such as lecturing, or designing curriculum materials, do not in themselves provide the kind of help needed. I worry that too often writers ignore the responsibilities and authority of teachers that are required in learning." (Deborah J. Trumbull, Coordinator, Teacher Education in Science and Mathematics (TESM), Cornell University)

"History deals with the past, but this past is the history of the present." (John Dewey)

"Constructivism is a theory of knowing in which each individual and communities of individuals actively make meanings which are used and tested in a functionally adaptive manner." (John Staver)

"Constructivism is an active mental process by which procedural (process) and declarative (product/conceptual) knowledge is related and assembled together to achieve procedural and declarative goals (e.g., conceptual understanding, problem solving) with a resulting change in the cognitive network." (Derrick R. Lavoie, Assistant Professor of Biology and Science Education, University of Northern Iowa)

"Constructivism is the active integration of new knowledge with existing knowledge which results in meaningful learning." (Michael Brody)

"Constructivism is a concept that says each individual human being creates mental structures of knowledge and understanding of reality through their own experiences of collecting sense data." (Dr. Gerald Wm. Foster, Associate Professor of Science Education, DePaul University)

"Constructivism is a way of understanding how people go about making sense of their world. People draw on their personal experiences, prior knowledge and understandings, personal beliefs and values, and emotional reactions to create meaningful understandings. Many parts of these understandings are expressed as metaphors, images, and stories, as well as through more traditional expressions of school-type knowledge. In addition, much of the sense-making process takes place in social situations, as people argue and negotiate understandings. Constructivism is not a way of teaching. However, by understanding how children (and all people) learn and make sense of phenomena, constructivism has many implications for how we should approach instruction in the classroom." (Jeff Bloom, School of Education, Acadia University)

"Constructivism is often thought of too narrowly as attending to children's ideas as the result of an individual's private mental activity-as if an individual were able to generate ideas independent of her or his social and cultural context. If constructivism is to consider children's ideas as more than a starting place for imposing educators' 'right answers'-for instance, as variations within a multiplicity of ways of thinking about the world-then those ideas have to be considered as constructed in interaction with the child's social and cultural context of activities.

"Construction is a religion, currently the dominant one among science educators.

"Constructivism is a tool (say, a lens) for looking at learning processes in science. Like any tool it draws attention to certain features (for example, prior knowledge) at the expense of directing away attention from other features (chaotic social processes in the classroom, teacher realities).

"So I consider theories as lenses to look at reality in order to take a close look at certain features. I like to use different ones at the same time in order to take different features of reality into account. Using different theories simultaneously might not be epistemologically correct, but let others worry about that.

"The problem is that science educators get too much carried away with one theory. In the end that is negative for both the theory concerned and for science education." (Ed van den Berg, Faculty of Physics and Astronomy, Free University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

"Make sure to read Solomon's recent paper on "The Rise and Fall of Constructivism in Studies in Science Education" (1994, published by the University of Leeds). Another interesting paper is the 1993 paper of Jonathan Osborne, which was presented at the Third Conference on Misconceptions, etc. at Cornell University last year. The paper should be available through the conference electronic database. (Ed van den Berg, Faculty of Physics and Astronomy, Free University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

"Constructivism is a philosophical view of learning developed by Kant and later epistemologists who argue that mental processes and experience interact to produce knowledge." (Shawn Glynn) [Quote from Shawn Glynn and Reinders Duit (in press) "Learning science meaningfully: Constructing conceptual models." S. Glynn & R. Duit, eds., Learning science in the schools: Research reforming practice. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.]

"Constructivism is a term used to describe the process individuals engage in when trying to make sense out of this world. This process involves examining current thoughts and beliefs and accepting these ideas or rejecting them in lieu of other ideas." (C. Barman)

"Constructivism is a model of how one learns, not an epistemological theory. It implies the putting together of new ideas by interpreting new experiences in the light of previous experiences and prior knowledge so that the new ideas come to make sense for the learner." (William W. Cobern, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Science Education, Arizona State University West)

"Here's a stab at a definition. My dissertation is grounded in constructivist theory. It's difficult to be concise. What did Mark Twain once say? Something like he would have written a shorter book if he had more time. I reserve the right to come back with a modification of my definition should I construct a better one upon reflection. BTW, A Private Universe is a great video. I use it often when I give workshops and seminars on teaching and learning enhancement and want to address prior knowledge and alternative conceptions.

"Constructivism is a theory of knowledge that emphasizes personal meaning making in learning resulting from the learner's active role in constructing and modifying an individual understanding of the universe through reflective interaction with the physical and social environment." (William F. Burke, Center for Teaching Excellence, University of Hawaii at Manoa)

"Constructivism is a way to think about learning. Just as a carpenter builds a house by connecting boards to beams and joists, so we build understanding by connecting new thoughts with existing ideas.

"A well-built house cannot be built by merely throwing all the boards and beams in a pile. Nor can a well-constructed concept be built in the human mind by merely throwing information at it." (Kenneth J. Schoon, Ph.D., Indiana University Northwest)

"Constructivism is the process by which the learner builds (constructs) new knowledge in his or her own terms upon his or her pre-existing cognitive foundations. Constructivism is achieved through both attempting to make sense of the subject through thinking and sharing what one understands about the subject with others. In this way, each person constructs new knowledge (understanding) upon what they already know.

"I think the key to constructivist teaching is the generation of challenging questions that students work through together in small teams to completion. The teacher's role changes from presenter of information to creator of challenges through which information is discovered (and constructed upon already existing schema in the student's mind). The sharing of thoughts and ideas is important because through shared discourse of the subject, extraneous information is cast off and clearer understandings (and stronger convictions) are developed.

"I utilize this philosophy in my lectures. I present material for only 10 minutes or so at a time, presenting scenarios or problems on the topic of the day that the students work through in small groups of 4. After 5 to 7 minutes

I collect their answers, discuss their conclusions as a class for another 3 to 5 minutes, and then resume my presentation. I find that students are more attentive and interested, and do significantly better on my midterms and finals. I hope this rambling has helped. Good luck with your project. " (Thomas R. Lord, Department of Biology, Indiana University of Pennsylvania)

"Constructivism is a philosophical belief that individuals construct their own learning based on the schema they already possess and any new experience that causes them to change those cognitive structures." (Catherine G. Yeotis, Wichita State University)

"Constructivism is a way of talking about how we make meaning. It reminds us that making meanings is an activity, and that meanings, including what many people call scientific knowledge, get 'made' as part of what happens in these activities-rather than being something outside the world of human activity that imposes itself on us.

"Constructivists disagree a little about the nature of what gets made (meanings, discourses, knowledge, mental representations, dispositions toward action) and also about where and how it gets made (by individuals or by communities; in people's heads or in social activities).

"Constructivists generally agree that knowledge is not something out there waiting for us to find it, or something that we can passively receive and soak up like sponges. It takes work to make it." (Jay Lemke, City University of New York)

"Constructivism is an epistemology. An epistemology asks two questions, 'What is knowledge?' and 'How do we come to know?' This particular epistemology we call constructivism posits that knowledge is constructed by humans in a quest to make sense of the world. Radical constructivists would go further and say that it is impossible to know what ultimate truth might be since all knowledge is constructed by humans. Therefore, if we were to find that singular truth in our quests, we would probably not realize it. The important thing is to find answers to our questions; answers that allow us to make predictions about our world and that have a fairly reliable track record in application of our models of how the world operates.

"As applied to education, constructivism asks us to consider that all of us are busily engaged in constructing models of the world in our attempt to make meaning of our experiences. Therefore none of us come to a learning situation void of the knowledge we have developed over the years. This knowledge has likely served us successfully over time and is an arbiter in the clash between new information we might experience and the old tried and true (up until then). In education we teachers must always be aware that this prior learning is an important factor in the development of knowledge in our students and in ourselves. It also suggests to us that information transmitted toward another person is subject to individual modification on the part of the receiver, since each person is the proud owner of an individualized mental scheme on any given topic. It also suggests to us that if people are going to modify their ideas in light of new information, they must be given both time and opportunity to test the old and the new against the world. Another corollary points out the importance of social interaction in this model and the significance of language and discourse in classrooms. Lastly, constructivism reminds us, by its own definition, that it is itself a construction-one fraught with all of the concerns of any model." (Dick Konicek, University of Massachusetts/Amherst)

"For me constructivism is a philosophy that describes how we can know anything about the universe. The universe of objective reality exists (probably) but each of us constructs our own understanding of it based on the limitations and powers of our senses, our reasoning ability, our assumptions, our cultures, and our instruments. We're the blind men and women and it (reality) is the elephant." (Michael Filisky)

"Constructivism is a theory of knowledge that asserts that knowledge is constructed by individuals through experience." (Moreen Travis)

"Constructivism is a multifaceted concept....A child can develop concepts autonomously by incorporating them into more inclusive concepts already present, or by shakily attaching totally new concepts to any spot on the ideational scaffolding which will support them. Perhaps more important to educators is the construction of knowledge that occurs in the zone of proximal development. It is possible that most of the higher order thinking skills, scientific literacy, etc., develop as a result of interaction with scientifically literate adults. In the present deplorable state of education, where students sit in large classes dully listening to boring lectures, very little of this important child-adult interaction takes place. Perhaps we ought to turn our attention to moving constructivism into the zone of proximal development where it really belongs. It seems obvious that many minds working together should be able to do a better job than each student struggling on his/her own." (Brian Murfin)

"Constructivism is both a theoretical referent and a teaching methodology.

It involves what we know, how we know, what is most important to know, and the source of what we know. Constructivism can be synonymous to inquiry-teaching and learning that is a collection of specified teaching and learning behaviors." (Nate Carnes)

"Constructivism is educational terminology used to describe an instructional strategy. It is based on the premise that learning is enhanced when instruction is delineated or defined by the students' ideas and beliefs." (Marianne Nelson)

"Constructivism is developing strategies that will assist students to reconcile what they are learning with what they 'know.'" (Jim Carter)

"Constructivism is as difficult to define as love or truth, but I think I could describe what I would see in a classroom where "constructivism" was happening. I would see a teacher who values students' prior knowledge; students working in collaborative groups to make sense of their science experiences; active involvement of students in their learning; the teacher and students reflecting on their understanding; a variety of assessment techniques, including writing, presentations, projects, and performance instruments; students using technology and other resources where appropriate; and a classroom climate that fosters discussion and cooperation. I am sure there is more but ..." (Paul Hickman)

"Constructivism is a useful way of thinking about how individuals make sense and learn. The idea (of constructivism) is useful in that it makes sense to me and it provides a referent to use in decisions I make about how best to organize learning environments. Constructivism is also useful for me as a researcher, especially when I attempt to develop an understanding of how teachers think, learn, and act. It might be easier for me to say what it is not because of ways I have seen others interpret it.

"Constructivism is not a method of teaching although there are actions associated with attempts at using constructivism that may be similar. Constructivism is not an absolute: dogmatic constructivism is a contradiction in terms. Constructivism as an epistemology does not consider the motivations that underlie education unless it is combined with critical theory." (Nancy T. Davis, Florida State University)

"Among educators, constructivism is generally understood as the philosophical position that acknowledges that the understanding achieved by a learner is not the same as the information presented by the teacher. It acknowledges that understanding is actively built by the learner and is not passively absorbed without modification. Teaching is not pouring knowledge from a pitcher into a learner sponge who soaks it up. Learning is the active process by which a person selectively receives incoming information, attempts to add parts of that knowledge to his/her present understanding ('assimilation'), judges the fit of the new information to the old understanding, and modifies that understanding as needed ('accommodation'). The student may also reject the new information if it is too incongruent or even attempts to hold two different views that are to be applied in different situations (e.g., in school and out of school). For educators this means that we should no more assume that a student understands a principle because he/she has heard a description of the phenomenon (even if he/she has done his/her best to understand) than that a person who attends an Itzhak Perlman concert should then be able to play the violin." (Mike Smith, Mercer University School of Medicine, Macon, GA)

"Constructivism is an empirically supported theory that explains how we come to know and understand. It details with how knowledge is constructed through the mental action of the individual. Its broad explanatory power provides early childhood teachers the most comprehensive view of how young children learn." (Janet B. Taylor)

"Constructivism is a model of learning that values and respects the learner's existing knowledge base as it influences the assimilation of new experiences by the learner." (Dr. Charles Gale)

"Constructivism is a major way in which students learn by piecing together bits of information and experiences into something that makes sense to them. In essence, they make their own hypotheses and theories from what happens to them, what they observe, and information that seems meaningful. These theories are about every aspect of life. The ones that we science educators are interested in are those that affect students in our classrooms. For example, preconceived theories that deviate from classroom instruction, a feeling of safety in expressing what one really thinks, views of scientific people as peculiar and certainly different from the 'normal' person (related to this is that science doesn't seem like a very feminine activity). Most people view science as an accumulation of facts rather than an activity practiced by humans since ancient times; and related to this is the belief that science cannot really be understood by the average person, so memorize and get out." (Janet Robinson, Decorah H.S., Decorah, Iowa at the Wright Center)

Section 4 - Exercise on Constructivism

Everyone seems to be talking about "constructivism" nowadays, but what does the term really mean? It seems that few people agree on a definition.

Dr. Charles Gale, a fifth grade math and science teacher in the Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Schools, kindly sent us his description of what "constructivism" means to him. He chose to express his ideas in the form of the concept map presented below (used with permission).

Although Dr. Gale presented his ideas as a concept map, feel free to express your definition however you think best: A written essay, an illustration, a video, an anecdote, a poem... whatever you think might help make this concept clear.

Workshop Discussion

What is your definition of "constructivism"? Does it agree with Dr. Gale's, or do you have completely different ideas about what this term might mean?

Section 5 - Resources for Workshop Nine


Companies, publications, and organizations named in this guide represent a cross-section of such entities. We do not endorse any companies, publications, or organizations, nor should any endorsement be inferred from a listing in this guide. Descriptions of such entities are for reference purposes only and have been provided to help locate such materials and information.

A. Related Resources

Teachers may want to explore various organizations that promote research in science education.

NARST (The National Association for Research in Science Teaching), founded in 1928, promotes research in science education at all educational levels and disseminates the findings of research in action, historical, philosophical, ethnographic, experimental, and evaluative studies. Research areas of interest to NARST include curriculum development and organization, evaluation, learning theory, teacher education, programs for the talented and the handicapped, and methods of instruction in science.

Executive Secretary, John Staver
Center for Science Education
244 Bluemont Hall
Kansas State University
Manhattan, KS 66506-5310
Fax: 913-532-7304
E-mail: [email protected]

AETS (Association for the Education of Teachers in Science) AETS is an organization that promotes supportive ways for teaching teachers how to teach science. For information contact:

Joseph Peters, Secretary
University of West Florida
11000 University Parkway
Pensacola, FL 32514

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