How Constructivist Are We? Representations of Transmission and Participatory Models of Instruction in the Journal of College Science Teaching
Straits, William, Wilke, Russell, Journal of College Science Teaching
Constructivism has become a widely understood and broadly accepted learning theory. Constructivism contends that each of us makes sense of our world by connecting new experiences to our existing understandings. Learners, as they encounter new situations, attempt to meld incoming information with their existing understandings. Constructivist instructors, in turn, strive to understand students' preexisting understandings (a.k.a. alternative conceptions) and provide learning opportunities that facilitate students' adoption of accepted knowledge (a.k.a. conceptual change). Constructivist instructors do not want students to simply re-state the information offered via in-class lectures and/or textbook readings, but "to be autonomous thinkers, to develop integrated understandings of concepts, and to pose--and seek to answer--important questions" (Grennon-Brooks and Brooks 1993, p. 13).
Many constructivists also acknowledge a social dimension to learning. For social constructivists, a learner's environment, the people in it, and the words they use help shape an individual's understanding; the creation of meaning is not purely individual, but to a large extent shared. In fact, to some, the purpose of learning is for an individual to become better aligned with the community of learners of which he/she is a member. In short, constructivism holds that individuals make their own meaning, given their prior knowledge and the social setting they are immersed in.
The National Science Education Standards contrast constructivist and traditional teaching by describing, "changing emphases" (NRC 1996). These changes in effect urge the shift from traditional to constructivist-driven pedagogy. The recommended changes of the Standards appropriate for postsecondary science education as discussed here are summarized in Table 1.
Models of teaching-Transmission vs. participatory
Much of college science instruction can be described as either a transmission or a participatory approach. The transmission approach has a long history in education and continues to account for much of our teaching. Transmission-based teaching is didactic, in which lecturing is the primary mode of instruction and students are passive in the learning process. This approach is guided by an understanding of learning that is decidedly not constructivist. From the transmission approach, the goal of education, "is to instill in students an accepted body of knowledge of information and skills previously established by others" (Scheurman 1998, p. 31, as cited in Wink and Wink 2004, p. 30). Students are to receive this body of knowledge and accept it directly as their own.
However, the participatory or generative model of teaching and learning paints a very different picture. This model emphasizes the construction of knowledge rather than the memorization of facts. Students come together to integrate new learning with existing knowledge. In these student-centered situations, learners can use their prior knowledge and actively, as well as socially, construct new and improved understandings.
An important idea for college science instructors to keep in mind is that constructivism is a learning theory, not a technique. Any instructional technique can be constructivist, even lecturing. Unlike traditional didactic instruction, the constructivist lecture builds on students' prior knowledge, provides authentic context for understanding, encourages mentally active students, and allows opportunities for social discourse, interaction, and negotiation. In these participatory classrooms, students, manipulatives, and problems are central; whereas in transmission-based classrooms the instructor and his/her words are the focus.
In developing this report, the Journal of College Science Teaching (JCST) was critically evaluated for pictorial representations of these two contrasting teaching models. Specifically, we reviewed all feature articles of 38 issues of JCST printed from 2000-2005. …