School Reform: What Role can Technology Play in a Constructivist Setting?

Melissa N. Matusevich
Montgomery County Public Schools
May, 1995


The author examines the long-neglected theory of constructivist learning and how modern technology will bring it to the fore. Several examples of constructivism, technology, and their joint application in Montgomery County Public Schools are presented. Also considered are the implications for assessment in a technology-rich constructivist environment. The author demonstrates how the combination of technology and constructivist theory will revolutionize school reform.

Constructivism as a theory of learning has existed for over one hundred years but has not been widely accepted or applied in public schools. Modern technology is significantly impacting society and our daily lives. Public schools have and will continue to reflect societal change. There is a strong link between effective use of modern technology and the theory of constructivism, as this paper will demonstrate. This link is so strong that it will cause a fundamental shift away from didactic techniques to a unifying constructivist framework.

In this paper I first explain constructivism. Next, I give examples of the applications of constructivism in Montgomery County Public Schools. I then focus on appropriate classroom applications of emerging technologies and how I view these being used in Montgomery County Public Schools. I follow by drawing together the threads of technology and constructivism. I discuss the implication for constructivist theory as a direct result of the integration of technology in classrooms and demonstrate that future assessment must reflect this theory. Finally, I show how these theories are being applied in my daily work.


Technology has always impacted education; the printing press allowed textbooks to be developed, and the replacement of slates and chalk by pencil and paper permitted a permanent record of one's writing to be preserved. In the late 1950s and 1960s television was utilized as a means of teaching large groups of students, albeit ineffectively. Today, a new wave of technology is beginning to cause repercussions in schools that will forever change how students are taught. Is this change a positive one? To gain insight into this dilemma, one must first look at how children learn.

Many theories of learning have been proposed in the last century. Until recently, behavioral psychology has influenced education in this country to such a startling degree that it had a virtual stranglehold on how textbooks were defined and how teachers planned and implemented lessons. To date most statewide testing programs reflect this philosophy. Of late, however, the constructivist theory of learning has, again, come to the forefront.

Constructivism isn't new; John Dewey advocated it at the turn of the century. Maria Montessori based her educational model on constructivism as did Joseph Bruner, and more recently, Vygotsky (Collins, 1991). Constructivism as a theory of learning is juxtaposed to behavioral theory. Constructivism is child-centered; it "proposes that learning environments should support multiple perspectives or interpretations of reality, knowledge construction, context-rich, experience-based activities" (Jonassen, 1991, p. 28). Constructivism focuses on knowledge construction, not knowledge reproduction.

It is a belief that one constructs knowledge from one's experiences, mental structures, and beliefs that are used to interpret objects and events. Jonassen (1991) stated, "The mind is instrumental and essential in interpreting events, objects, and perspectives on the base that is personal and individualistic" (p. 29). Our view of the external world differs from others because of our unique set of experiences. Senge (1995) put it this way: "We don't describe the world we see; we see the world we can describe."

An important component of constructivist theory is to focus a child's education on authentic tasks. These are tasks which have "real-world relevance and utility, that integrate those tasks across the curriculum, that provide appropriate levels of difficulty or involvement" (Jonassen, 1991, p. 29). It would be impossible for us all to become masters of all content areas, so "instruction is anchored in some meaningful, real-world context" (Jonassen, 1991, p. 29).

According to constructivist theory, children learn whole to part, not incrementally. The ideas and interests of children drive the learning process. Teachers are flexible; sometimes they are the giver of knowledge, but often are the facilitator (Strommen and Lincoln, 1992). Holden (1994) states that learning must become the constant and time the variable in a constructivist setting. Dwyer (1991) asserts that this approach is child centered rather than curriculum centered, while Bagley and Hunter (1992) state that learning becomes a dynamic process. Bagley and Hunter (1992) go on to say that active learning leads to greater retention and higher level thinking. And as knowledge continues to double every two years, and since it also has a shelf life, students must learn to access information; there is now far too much information to memorize.

The Application of Constructivism in Montgomery County Public Schools

The impact constructivist theory has had on education in Montgomery County Public Schools in the last ten years is great. Here are phrases used to describe what is happening in constructivist classrooms in Montgomery County Schools:

In Montgomery County, much has been accomplished as evidenced by the above list of phrases. The change in philosophy which I have witnessed in my school division during the last ten years has been bottom-up. It began slowly as does most change. A few teachers learned about constructivist theory and began advocating restructuring of curriculum and instructional practice. Word spread. More teachers began attending conferences and workshops. As interest grew, retraining sessions were conducted. Teachers made great changes because they wanted to, not because they were required to do so.

Resistance to Constructivism and its Acceptance in Public Schools

What problems exist for constructivist classrooms? The general public is often suspicious of educational practices which differ from what they experienced. State-wide assessment is not in alignment. Students are required to perform on standardized tests which do not assess what they are learning. The standard report card with letter grades also causes problems for both teachers and students. And the structure of the school day causes most classes to be fragmented. The clock rules!

The Role of Emerging Technologies

Education is being partially transformed by new technologies. At one time students could learn a small, but fixed body of knowledge. However, today, the enormous amount of available information, coupled with the fact that the amount of knowledge in the world continues to double at an increasingly quick rate, requires a transformative approach to education. It is imperative that the student of today learns how to be an information manager, rather than in information regurgitator (Mann, 1994).

In a technology-rich environment one must remember that the educational focus is on learning and instructional goals instead of the technology itself, because technology are merely tools or vehicles for delivering instruction (Campoy, 1992). It is not what equipment is used, but how the equipment is used which makes it relevant to a constructivist classroom (Strommen and Lincoln, 1992).

Studies show that in technology rich classrooms there are many observable changes:

  1. There is a shift from whole class to small group instruction.
  2. Coaching occurs rather than lecture and recitation.
  3. Teachers work with weaker students more often rather than focusing attention on brighter students as in traditional settings.
  4. Students are more actively engaged.
  5. Students become more cooperative and less competitive.
  6. Students learn different things instead of all students learning the same thing.
  7. There is an integration of both visual and verbal thinking instead of the primacy of verbal thinking (Collins, 1991).
In one study, student self-esteem and motivation in a technology-rich environment was measured and found to be strong. In addition, student attendance was up and discipline problems were reduced. Students were also coming in on their own time--lunch, recess, after school--to work on their projects. Students shifted from being competitive to collaborating on projects (Dwyer et al., 1991).

Technology Meets Constructivsm

Collins (1991) states, "So, inadvertently, technology seems to be coming down on the side of constructivists, who have been trying--unsuccessfully to date--to change the prevailing societal view of education" (p. 31). Why? Because computers undermine the didactic, lecture methodology, and, instead promote the student as a self-directed learner. "And just as a change in practices with respect to racial integration led eventually to a change in racial attitudes, so a change in practices will slowly lead to a change in the educational beliefs of society. Using computers entails active learning, and this change in practice will eventually foster a shift in society's beliefs toward a more constructivist view of education" (Collins, 1991, p. 33).

According to Mann (1994), the use of new technologies in an educational setting has caused the theory of learning, constructivism, to receive new attention. Students in these settings become empowered by gaining access to real data and work on authentic problems. Often, roles are reversed as teacher and student learn from one another.

Strommen and Lincoln (1992) make the point that it is not what equipment is used, but how it is used that makes the difference. "The key to success lies in finding the appropriate points for integrating technology into a new pedagogical practice, so that it supports the deeper, more reflective self-directed activity children must use if they are to be competent adults in the future" (Strommen and Lincoln, 1992, p. 473). In other words, computers and other technology should not be viewed as "add ons," but as tools which are an integral part of a child's learning experience.

It has been suggested by LeBaron and Bragg (1994) that the role of technology in education is so important, that it will force the issue of didactic versus constructivist teaching. Teachers will no longer have a choice but will be compelled to use a constructivist approach in a technology-rich environment.

How can technology be appropriately used, and how can it be misused? There are many software packages available which are little more than electronic worksheets focusing on skill and drill. Compoy (1992) states, "To promote the wholesale use of technology-based systems for [the teaching of] mechanical skills, means that schools would settle for the lowest level of instruction to the exclusion or extinction of higher level skills. If the present system is failing to produce the type of educated students that the nation needs, then automating those same processes will not change the educational outcomes. Having students learn superficial information faster will not improve education" (p. 19).

Technology, can, however, be used effectively in many ways, some of which are described in this paper. Barr's (1990) five goals essential to meaningful educational reform apply here. He states that learning should be more:

  1. independent
  2. individualized
  3. interactive
  4. interdisciplinary, and
  5. intuitive.

Appropriate use of technology in the classroom naturally meets these five goals.

Barr (1990) states that resources in a typical school library are usually quite limited and "often impose artificial restrictions which limit the potential for genuine exploration and discovery" (p. 81). In addition, with current knowledge having a shelf life of approximately one and a half years, many library materials are out of date or incomplete. Available resources via technology now include electronic data bases with current information and other independent research tools available what used to be accessible by only the most sophisticated research environments. Barr (1990) goes on to say, "If we wish to prepare students for life-long learning, we must begin to introduce them to the tools which they will use in the careers they pursue after their formal education is completed" (p. 84).

Perhaps the most useful pieces of available technology for students are hypertext and hypermedia which allow students to browse information in a nonlinear fashion. These data bases contain hyperlinks which give the decision making power as to what to explore next. This type of interactive learning also allows the student to create his or her own nonlinear data bases! "Interactive learning in this context means learning in which inquiry, feedback and ongoing collaboration play important roles" (Barr, 1990, p. 86).

One commercially available hypermedia application is Hyper-card. In a Hyper-card environment the focus is on single, complex projects which require students to "conceive of and execute an entire program which presents them with a rich, open-ended, self- directed tasks in which they can explore the various procedures and how they interact rather than simply learn them in isolation from one another, in rote fashion" (Strommen and Lincoln, 1992, p. 471). Students select their own project content, but in reality actively collaborate with other students. Thus, without prompting, the students' projects become a group effort as they tutor each other in new procedures and review each other's work and make suggestions for improvement or revision (Strommen and Lincoln, 1992). In addition, students use more resources, seem to enjoy learning more and generate higher level reasoning strategies as well as demonstrating a greater diversity of ideas and procedures (Bagley and Hunter, 1992).

The Application of Technology in Montgomery County Public Schools

In Montgomery County Public Schools I have witnessed great changes in how students are being taught in technology-rich classrooms. I have observed students naturally collaborating and taking charge of their own learning. In one Hyper-card class at Auburn Middle School, students were coming in on their own time, during lunch, to work. In addition, many chose to stay until five o'clock in the afternoon and had to be shooed from the building! As I work with and train more and more teachers, I see these teachers unconsciously making the shift to using constructivist methodology.

Much work has been ongoing, particularly at the secondary level. Charles Jervis's students at Auburn High School are creating HTML documents so that their work can be posted on the World Wide Web for peer review. Suzan Mauney and Donna Swenson at Blacksburg Middle School work with eighth graders who are creating a multimedia magazine which will be highlighted on a web page. Mark Freeman at Blacksburg High School has posted his physics students' work on the web. Each of Mark's students researched a topic from opposing views. Both views are posted on Blacksburg High's web page. A form for feedback is provided. This allows each student to get feedback from members of a real world audience who vote for the view with which they agree, based on the persuasiveness of the student's argument.

In all of the classroom projects highlighted in this paper, I have been tangentially involved as part of my job. As a facilitator for the NSF planning grant, it has been part of my job to assist with these projects upon request. In addition, I have created web pages for three schools and regularly post student work for real-world feedback. I have witnessed first hand the positive impact this has on students.

Resistance to Technology and its Acceptance in Public Schools

Overall, however, problems do continue to exist. Lack of funding and no clear vision keep systemic change from occurring as rapidly as the evolution in technology. Most elementary schools in Montgomery County are lucky to have old Apple IIe computers which are out of date and cannot support software such as Netscape or Blue Skies. When new technology is purchased, it is generally bought for secondary schools. Donations made to the schools are not new technology, but old computer equipment incapable of handling the rich world of the internet, particularly the World Wide Web. In addition, too many teachers are unaware of much of what is available, so awareness sessions must be held.

While Montgomery County has a technology plan, budget cuts have reduced the possibility of its implementation. This plan also does not address curricular issues. What is greatly needed is a major paradigm shift.

To prepare for this paradigm shift, teachers need to be trained and to think about why they do what they do. Acculturation in the schools must take place, but this is a slow process. Elementary teachers often use a constructivist approach, but most secondary teachers continue to teach in a didactic manner. Thus, even though students come to us from a technology-enriched environment where they control information flow, they are expected to fit into an educational institution unchanged by the technology which has swept through society (Strommen and Lincoln, 1992).

Another problem concerns student teachers who regularly come into classrooms having never turned on a computer! Strommen and Lincoln (1992) chastise teacher training programs by stating that because of a lack of training in the uses of technology, student teachers are "more like their predecessors who graduated decades earlier than they are like today's children" (p. 467). The result, according to Strommen and Lincoln (1992), is that there exists an estrangement of schools from both society in general and from the children who attend these schools.

Appropriate Assessment in a Constructivist Setting

Appropriate assessment must be considered, if briefly. Jonassen (1991) states, "Perhaps the thorniest issue yet to be resolved regarding the implications of constructivism for learning is how to evaluate the learning that emerges from those environments. If constructivism is a valid perspective for delivering instruction, then it should also provide a valid set of criteria for evaluating the outcomes of that instruction. That is, the assumptions of constructivism should be applied to evaluation" (p. 32). Jonassen (1991) makes twelve points about appropriate assessment and constructivism:
  1. Technology can and will force the issue of constructivism.
  2. Assessment will have to be outcome based and student centered.
  3. Assessment techniques must be developed which reflect instructional outcomes.
  4. "Grades" must be contracted where grades are required.
  5. There must be non-graded options and portfolio assessment.
  6. There must be self and peer evaluation as well as teacher assessment.
  7. Performance standards must be developed.
  8. A grading system must be developed which provides meaningful feedback.
  9. Technology will be used to facilitate communication with parents.
  10. Students will be videotaped as they work as part of their portfolio.
  11. The focus must be on originality rather than regurgitation; it is important to evaluate how the learner goes about constructing his or her own knowledge rather than the product.
  12. Assessment is context dependent.
Because of the growing dependence and importance of technology in society, technology will become increasingly important in schools as problem-solving tools. In fact, the potential of new technologies has been generally unrealized by many educators (Mann, 1994). "Many educators, as well as members of the general community, are naive about the ramifications of technology implementation, and proceed without a clear understanding of both the role of technology in schools and what are reasonable expectations" (Campoy, 1992, p. 17).

Personal Application of Constructivism and Technology

As I continue to research this topic, I find that I am actively using what I learn. I'm applying this knowledge in a way I never envisioned possible. For many years I have worked with a small, but enlightened group of individuals who have spent many, many hours discussing ways to effect positive change in Montgomery County Public Schools. This dedicated group developed curriculum, provided staff development, acquired appropriate instructional materials, and lent support to teachers striving to make their classrooms more child centered.

Now this small group of which I am a part is undertaking a major project. We are in the process of writing a multi-million dollar grant which will not only impact Montgomery County Schools, but could also be of national significance. We began by looking at the results of the National Science Foundation planning grant which comes to a close in August. We came to the stark realization that systemic change is all but impossible within existing structures. We discerned that to try to restructure education at an existing site would be an undertaking with little chance of success. Thus, we have proposed a "key school" as John Goodlad (1984) calls it. Our key school would serve as an exemplar or model which could be replicated. We envision this to be a school of the future.

As we set out to write this grant we began by looking at how children learn. We also looked at what Steve Hodas (1993) calls technology refusal. These two issues are the driving force for our proposal. When I met last week with the National Science Foundation site review team, the reviewers were quite intrigued by our approach. They asked many, many questions and made several good suggestions. I am at this time working on the revisions which must be finished in time for the June 2nd deadline. This initial grant will be first submitted to the National Challenge Grant project, and next year will be submitted to the National Science Foundation. If funded, education in Montgomery County Public Schools will undergo a major paradigm shift. We will begin preparing students for the world of the twenty-first century.


Constructivism as a theory will be forced into play by emerging technologies because it is impossible for a teacher to use didactic methodology in a technology-rich classroom. Appropriate assessment will naturally follow as school reform incorporates technology into the curriculum.


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