Transitioning into Constructivism: A Vignette of a Fifth Grade Teacher
Kenneth L. Shaw and Mia Lena Etchberger
Jessica, a self-contained fifth grade teacher, is considered by her district to be a successful elementary teacher. She received the District Science Council's Outstanding Elementary School Science Teacher Award in 1990 and the Teacher of the Year Award from her school for the 1988-1989 school year. Yet, while the awards were encouraging, Jessica realized something was lacking in the students' abilities to conceptualize or formulate knowledge. During the 1989-1990 school year, she realized she and her students were but playing a "game" and calling it school. She contemplated her past two years of teaching and realized she taught quite traditionally; she felt she was no different from the ordinary teacher. She became aware of a disturbing pattern emerging in her students. They would memorize certain bits of information, sets of facts, or operational procedures and algorithms, and repeat them back on a test. When she asked her students what meaning they had for the information, sets of facts, or operational procedures and algorithms, most were unable to adequately explain what they had learned. With few exceptions, a few weeks or months later, they were unable to converse about a previously studied concept. They could not or would not relate that information and use it in any meaningful way. The game essentially was as follows: teacher dispenses information; student receives information; student transmits information back to the teacher. Most students played the game well, as evidenced by their grades, but Jessica began asking the question, "Were they learning?"
Jessica was very perplexed by what was taking place in her classroom and by what was taking place in classrooms within her school and county. What could she do to make a difference? This perplexity was heightened because of her colleagues' perceptions that she was a successful teacher. This chapter will endeavor to capture the epistemological and methodological struggles of Jessica and will describe the resulting reconceptualizations of how she made sense of her own instruction and her students' learning as she came to understand constructivism.