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.
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.
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:
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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
Barr, David. (1990). A solution in search of a problem: the role of technology in educational reform. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 14, 79-95.
Campoy, Renee. (1992, August). The role of technology in the school reform movement. Educational Technology, 32, 17-22.
Collins, Allan. (1991, September). The role of computer technology in restructuring schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 73, 28-36.
Dwyer, David C., Ringstaff, Cathy, & Sandholtz, Judy H. (1991, May). Changes in teachers' beliefs and practices in technology-rich classrooms. Educational Leadership, 48, 45-52.
Goodlad, John. (1984). A Place Called School. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
Hodas, Steven. (1993, September). Technology refusal and the organizational culture of schools. Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 1, [On-line serial]. Available World Wide Web: http://info.asu.edu/asu-cwis/epaa/hodas.html.
Holden, Daniel. (1994, March). Restructuring schools on a service-industry model. T.H.E. Journal, 21, 70-71.
Jonassen, David H. (1991). Evaluating constructivistic learning. Educational Technology, 31, 28-33.
LeBaron, John F. & Bragg, Charles A. (1994). Practicing what we preach: creating distance education models to prepare teachers for the twenty-first century. American Journal of Distance Education, 8, 5-19.
Mann, Christine. (1994, February). New technologies and gifted education. Roeper Review, 16, 172-176.
Senge, Peter (Presenter). (1995). Applying Principles of the Learning Organization, Part II [Teleconference]. (Available from Innovation Associates, Inc., 3 Speen Street, Suite 140, Framingham, MA 01701).
Strommen, Erik F. & Lincoln, Bruce. (1992, August). Constructivism, technology, and the future of classroom learning. Education and Urban Society, 24, 466-476.
Return to PCs for Families home page