Constructivism and Conceptual Change, Part I

By Colburn, Alan | The Science Teacher, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Constructivism and Conceptual Change, Part I


Colburn, Alan, The Science Teacher


Constructivism is the basis for standards, inquiry-based instruction, and a candidate for buzzword of the decade. But what is constructivism?

The word constructivism can refer to a philosophical view on the nature of reality. Philosophical constructivists say that reality is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, and that there is no surefire way to prove there is such a thing as objective reality. Reality is ultimately personal, relative, and created by the individual. Buddhists who believe that the "real world" is ultimately illusion, and individuals who find the picture of reality in The Matrix film intriguing, might see a certain appeal in this view.

Constructivism can also refer to how people learn. Most science teachers will find constructivism as learning theory more relevant to their professional lives. This begins with the radical notion that human beings have brains, and that learners' experiences affect how they understand science concepts. Students come to class with many ideas about how the world works. Students may be unaware they even have the ideas, and their ideas may differ from those accepted by the scientific community. This point is relevant even when you discuss a topic about which students would be expected to know little or nothing, like a brand new, abstract science concept.

As examples, consider Newton's first law--an object in motion remains in motion, unless acted on by another force--and the biological concept of photosynthesis: plants use light as an energy source for making food. Students often believe that an object in motion comes to rest, unless acted on by another force. That is because just about everywhere in everyday life objects in motion do tend to come to rest. For plants, it is pretty abstract to think in terms of light being a necessary component in making "food." It is more common for students to think of plant food coming only from the soil. I will be writing more about this latter point in a future column.

Constructivist learning theory grew from Piaget's ideas and posits that when you tell students about an idea, they will unconsciously compare what you say with all the rest of their knowledge and experiences. One of three things will happen as a result. First, if the students' knowledge fits pretty well with their beliefs and experiences, then it will be assimilated, find a nice home, be easily recalled and understood, and you'll feel like a successful teacher.

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