Creating the Successful Community College Student: Using Behaviorism to Foster Constructivism

Article excerpt

The constructivist view of education, though it may be superior to the behaviorist view in some settings, may not be the best way to educate most community college students. These students, a significant number of whom are at a disadvantage in the college classroom as a result of negative past classroom experiences, tow levels of academic achievement, and/or poor academic self-esteem, may not benefit from the constructivist models of problem-based, or active. learning. A behaviorally-based program, rejected by some constructivists, has assisted community college students by fostering their academic and social integration.

Introduction

After just eight weeks, students who had spent the first eighteen months of their community college careers sitting silently through their classes determined to avoid eye contact with each of their professors were raising their hands and asking and answering multiple questions in every class hour. This observable benefit of their participation in the behaviorally-based Find Your Classroom Voice Program was no doubt accompanied by increases in their self-esteem, in their enjoyment of their educational experiences, and in the likelihood that they would succeed at their community college and, later, when they continue their education at a four-year institution.

The Program's success at Kingsborough Community College was followed by the encouragement of college administrators to involve more and more faculty and to offer the Program to more students. But an occasional response from some faculty members who were invited to participate in the Program's training was "What? That's behaviorism! I can't teach that way! I use superior constructivist methods!"

"Constructivism's central idea is that human learning is constructed, that learners build new knowledge upon the foundation of previous learning. Such a view of learning sharply contrasts with one in which learning is the passive transmission of information from one individual to another, a view in which reception, not construction, is the key" (Hoover, 1996, page 1). Although it is a relatively new term, the word constructivism is appearing with more and more frequency in journal article titles (Mahoney, 2004), for many educators consider it superior to behaviorism as a foundation for the process of educating students.

For constructivists, this building of "new knowledge" occurs through the student's exploration of his or her world, the discovery of knowledge as a direct result of this exploration, the student's reflection upon that knowledge, and his or her critical review of this new knowledge leading to its acceptance or rejection. The educator's job is to monitor and guide these learner-centered processes (Stiggins, 2008) whether they are being carried out by individual students or in small-group collaborations (Bodrova & Leong, 2007). Constructivists believe that requiring students to sit still and learn passively, leaving it to the educator to make the decisions regarding what is or is not appropriate for the students to learn, has been the major problem with the educational system in the United States (Silberman, 2006). They also believe that behaviorist principles completely discourage creative and/or critical thinking (Oakes & Lipton, 2007).

The behaviorist, or teacher-centered, approach is rapidly being considered the "old paradigm" (Ahlfeldt, Mehta, & Sellnow, 2005; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998). Cooper (1993) implies that behaviorism is even older as he describes a paradigm shift that places the educational approach called cognitivism in an intermediary position between constructivism and the "ancient" behaviorism.

There are educators, however, who believe that behaviorism, as it may be applied in classrooms, is neither obsolete nor inferior to constructivism, stating that it can be as valuable as the newer philosophies under certain circumstances (Ertmer & Newby, 1993). …