Understanding Constructivism(s): A Primer for Parents and School Board Members

Article excerpt

Introduction: Setting the Stage

While some observers note that there always seems to be a new fad, or a pendular shift, or a passing fancy affecting (and, thus, infecting) our schools (Ellis and Fouts, 1997; Slavin, 1989), there are others who argue that educators are always in search of a better way of doing things, and are by nature, experimenters with their own students (Vermette, 1998). The reform movement spawned in the mid 80's has resulted in numerous policy and programmatic changes offered, debated, and implemented (Ellis and Fouts, 1997), many without clear research support and some appearing to be closely connected to beliefs or practices long out of favor. However, some of the suggested practices are worthy of serious consideration and implementation.

One such innovation, a SET of theories called constructivism (Brooks and Brooks, 1993; Olsen, 1999; Perkins, 1999; Schuerman, 1998), is currently appearing in every conceivable corner of the educational universe. In a clear demonstration of its national importance, constructivism was the cover story of the November 1999 issue of Educational Leadership, arguably the leading journal of the profession. Further evidence of the attention given to constructivism can be found in the over 200 articles published on this topic since January of 1999 (see ERIC and Academic Search Elite databases).

The purpose of this article is two-fold. First, we wish to provide a little background to the recent emergence of the term "constructivism" in the conversations and the deliberations of policy-makers. Secondly, we offer a "primer" detailing 15 elements that are common to most conceptions of constructivism. This "primer" is presented in the form of an old fashioned reader, to emphasize both its offering of fundamental attributes and to pay homage to our educational history.

The Context of the Emergence of the Term "Constructivism"

Contemporary constructivisms (thus emphasizing that there are currently a variety of conceptions in the literature) can be clearly linked to the educational philosophies of John Dewey (1933) and the Progressive movement, an approach to education that lost favor in post WWII America. Misunderstood by politicians, policy makers and by the press, it was popularly regarded as simplistic, less-than-rigorous, and "anything goes" schooling. (Aspects of the movement remained in education, however, often appearing as the highly challenging, creative, and student-centered projects offered to "gifted and talented" students, especially in the sciences.)

In its revival today, constructivism refocuses its Deweyian roots and links them directly to the conceptions of learning offered by such giants as Piaget (1963), Vygotsky (1962), Gardner (1983) and Brunet (1968). However, constructivism's march forward to successful classroom practice has been anything but linear: the past decade has paid witness to the "fits and starts" that accompany the development of any innovation, and this may have led to great confusion and anxiety among parents and school board members who are searching for "best practice" for their children. This uncertainly is further exacerbated by the existence of multiple conceptions of constructivism and the fact that their greatest commonality is that they are the "opposites" of the traditional practice that has been in vogue (and thus supported by policy makers) for twenty years.

The Meaning of Constructivism in Practice

As the potential for constructivist practices becomes more widely accepted, it becomes increasingly important, even imperative, that parents and school board members develop a conceptual understanding of the term and its implications for their children's education. In the primer offered below, the meaning of constructivism is described in terms of its connections or links to 15 other, more universally shared, concepts. Recognizing that important concepts are usually intangible and rely on discourse for clarification (Vermete, 1983; Vygotsky, 1962), we know that our "primer" will not have settled the issue once and for all. …