According to Elliot Eisner: “teaching is an art and the creations of theteacher in producing an engaging stimulating and insightful lesson are theresult of using many different skills but these are influenced by qualitiesand contingencies that are unpredictable’ but all teachers do operate withtheory where theory is ‘a general set of ideas through which we make senseof the world”And according to Peel (1967):”psychology may be defines as the scienceof behaviour and experience”In my essay, I will attempt to describe those theories underlying theconstructivist approach. As is noted by Driver (1988), pupils can oftenpass through the education system still holding to false or inaccurateviews despite the instruction they receive in the sciences at school.’Meaningful learning’ can be said to occur when knowledge is ‘internalised’by the learner, in other words, when it is adopted into their everydaythinking by relating it to what they already know (Kyriacou, 1997) Thedegree of this ‘assimilation’ and ‘accommodation’ which is described byPiaget can be judged by assessing the learner’s ability to transfer thislearning, i.e. to apply acquired knowledge and skills to new tasks andsituations. If the measure of the effectiveness of a teaching approach istaken as being the achievement of meaningful learning (Kyriacou), it seemsthat the educational strategies employed by science teachers are fallingshort of attaining the desired outcomeIn the context of meaningful learning, recent research would appear tosupport the conviction that the key factor in the learning process is themotivational impetus of the pupil. Relevance to real life experiences andstimulation of interest are of central importance, with the pupil taking anactive role in the learning process.
Achievement of this end necessitatesadopting an inductive or discovery approach to teaching and learningwhereby investigatory and constructivist methods are employed.In my discourse, I willattempttodescribetheframeworkofconstructivism, it being a multifaceted philosophy, with many proponents,based on the tenet that meaning is not something which can be given, but isconstructed by us in our own way based on our current understanding(Duckworth, 1997). It is a framework greatly influenced by Piagetianepistemology while also encompassing various contrasting theoretical andpractical perspectives on how children learn.
Prevalent amongtheseperspectives are the theories of Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner, whileGardner’s theory of multiple intelligences also musters an impact.The TheoristsPiaget: Theory of Genetic EpistemologyPiaget’s theory focuses on the various reconstructions that a childsthinking goes through in the course of cognitive development. In terms oflong-term memory he argues (Piaget + Inheld, 1969) that the cognitivestructure of the memory is made up of various ‘schema’. According toKyriacou, each schema is an organisation of information, or a pattern ofaction used to interpret phenomena. The modification and reorganisation ofthese schema is an ongoing process, which involves ‘assimilation’ and’accommodation’ of new information through the child’s interaction with theenvironment. Assimilation is described as the process by which the childuses their preconceived notions to interpret experiences. Conversely,accommodation involves adjusting or revising their existing schema toincorporate new experiences and make sense of the environment.
Piaget begins with the relatively simple behaviour of the infant and tracesits progression to more and more complex levels of cognition and activityperceiving this development as proceeding in a given sequence of phases.These four phases of cognitive growth are catalogued as1: sensory-motor (0-2) where intelligence takes the form of physicalactions only. The child does not realise that objects can exist apart fromthem.
2: the preoperational phase (2-7), which is often subdivided into pre-conceptual and intuitive, is signalled by the child’s beginning to developconcepts, but solely in an egocentric way, being unable to comprehend anyviewpoint but their own. Preoperational children have a tendency to make upexplanations in order to describe confusing experience.3: in the concrete operational phase (7-11) logical thinking beginsto emerge. Piaget describes operations as actions which can be internalisedand reversed. The child begins to use mental operations and think aboutactions and can classify objects by characteristics, arranging them byquantitative measurement. The most important progressions in this phase arethe emergence of ‘conservation’ and reversibility.
The chid develops theability to distinguish between quantity and physical appearance, but onlyin a concrete manner. As of yet, there are no formulations of objectivereality.4: Formal operations (11-16) is the phase which, as a teacher ofsecondary level, I am most concerned. In this stage the child becomesindependent of concrete reality, leading to abstract thinking and deductivereasoning. The child can now reason by hypothesis, manipulate relations andframe generalized systems.Piaget (1962) emphasises the active role of play and imitation in thegrowth of intelligence.
He asserts that the child learns by doing. Usingsymbolism or representation of absent objects provides children with ameans by which to build knowledge abut the world. In the context ofimitation, the pivotal role of the teacher becomes apparent.Vygotsky: Social Development TheoryVygotsky’s framework explains consciousness as theendproductofsocialisation. He emphasised the importance of tools of development anddistinguished between psychological tools which direct mind and behaviour(such as language, signs and symbols etc.), and technical tools whichmerely produce changes in objects (Vygotsky, 1981).
It is through acquiringthese psychological tools that the child develops, however it is not thetools themselves which are important, but the meaning encoded in them (Knoxand Stevens pg 26 intro, 1993).In his 1978 treatise, Vygotsky explains his idea of the fundamental role ofsocial interaction in the development of cognition. He contends that highermental functions emerge out of the social processes (Daniels, 1996) andthat every function in the Child’s development appears twice, first on thesocial level and later on the individual level (Vygotsky, 1978). He studiedthe development of concepts and determined that only through interactionwith adults do children infer the sense of a concept (Laird, 1986). He madea distinction between two kinds of concept: spontaneous or everydayconcepts and scientific concepts defined by the presence or absence of asystem (McElwee, 2002).The investigations of Vygotsky and Shif in comparing causal and adversativerelations led to the belief that the development of scientific conceptsprecedes that of everyday concepts (Daniels, 1996). This indicates that’instruction in scientific concepts plays a decisive role.
.. as scientificconcepts restructure and raise spontaneous concepts to a higher level”(Vygotsky, 1987).
The acquiring of these scientific concepts takes placethrough social interaction (either with more advanced peers or with adults)by means of psychological tools, the most important of which being speech.Vygotsky believed that the words used in teacher-pupil interactions shapedthe characteristics of the scientific concepts (Minick, 1985), which arethen used to build up or modify everyday views. Given the indisputable linkof culture, society and language, this theory binds the process ofcognitive development inexorably to culture. The child’sconceptionsprogress from a social interaction/verbal situation (interpsychological) toan internalisation (intrapsychological) by which the concept can be adaptedand utilised by the child.
Another aspect of Vygotsky’s theory involves the idea of the Zone ofProximal Development, whereby the interpsychological and intrapsychologicalmix. The ZPD defines ‘the range within which the instruction of adults islikely to be most effective’ (Schaffer, 1996). The potential for cognitivedevelopment is limited to a certain time span, with its optimum achievementbeing dependant on social interaction. This potential, the ZPD, is definedby Vygotsky (1978) as:”the distance between the actual developmental level as determined byindividual problem solving and the level of potential development asdetermined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaborationwith more capable peers”BrunerThe principle theme of Bruner’s theorising is his notion of the nature orpattern of intellectual growth. He believes that growth is characterised byincreasing independence of response from the immediate nature of stimuli, acapacity to report on actions (past or future) by means of words or symbols(such as language or mathematics) and the capacity to deal with severalalternatives simultaneously and allocate time and attentions in a mannerappropriate to these multiple demands (Bruner, course of cog dev).
Hepostulates the dependence of this growth on; the internalisation of eventsinto a model of the environment which can be used to make predictions andinferences and interaction of a systematic and dependant nature with a moreknowledgeable or advanced tutor. He also expounds the importance oflanguage in bringing order to the world, both as a medium for exchange andan instrument for the learner. (Bruner, 1966)He suggests that the progress of the childs cognitive development isdescribed in the notion of ‘representation’: the translating of experienceinto a model of the world. The first stage of this representation isthrough action alone the enactive mode, based simply on learning responses.
Secondly, the iconic representation, which is based on knowledge derivedfrom building and organising mental images (Kyriacou, 1997) in a highlyconcrete visual way. Finally comessymbolicrepresentation-the”translation of experience into language whereby observed events can beencoded” (Bruner, 1966) and symbolic systems can be constructed. Bruneralso noted that intellectual development ‘runs the course of these threesystems of representation until the human being is able to command allthree’.It is apparent from his work that Bruner incorporates the theories of,among others, both Piaget and Vygotsky. He describes the growth ofintellect in terms of modes, or phases, but in describing these phases,correlates them not only with the physical world of Piaget, but also withthe social constructions of Vygotsky. Bruner is also responsible for theintroduction of the metaphorical term ‘scaffolding’ in reference to teachersupport, particularly of the kind envisioned by Vygotsky in regard to hisnotion of the ZPD.
In this context it is a process by which a teacherprovides students with temporary frameworks for learning. This framework isthen gradually withdrawn until such point as the pupil can achieve thedesired outcomes independently.Kyriacou affirms that the importance of scaffolding lies in the fact thatit revolves around pupil based activity. The pupil does the work, with theteacher ‘simply helping to direct the pupils cognitive process’. Theteacher adopts the role of a facilitator of learning, rather than animparter of information.Howard Gardner: Multiple Intelligence TheoryHoward Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences arose through his workwith children and brain damaged adults. He was impressed by the fact thatpeople demonstrate a wide range of capabilities and can have greatstrengths in specific areas and none in others (Gardner, 1990).
This ledhim to the conviction that traditional views on intelligence, measured bystandardised IQ tests, were falling short of accurate assessment in so faras they only took in to account two particular aspectsofhumancapabilities – namely logical and linguistic ability.Inquiries into the nature of intelligence led him to the advancement of abroader, pluralistic, way of understanding intellect (Gardner and Walters,1993). The prevalent conception (influenced strongly byPiagetandVygotsky) of intelligence was being the ability to ‘provide succinctanswers speedily to problems of language and logistics” (Gardner, 1993).
Gardner proposed that intelligence is, in fact, the ability to solveproblems that are significant in a particular cultural setting (Gardner andHatch, 1989). The traditionally valued logical and linguistic talents areonly two of many problem solving skills. He suggested a prerequisite ofintellectual competence as being the potential for finding or creatingproblems, thus initiating a process of acquiring new knowledge (Gardner,1993).In his 1983 Frames of Mind, Gardner describes eight criteria, or ‘signs’,of intelligence: Potential isolation by brain damage; the existence ofexceptionalindividuals;identifiablecoreoperations;distinctivedevelopmental history; evolutionary history and plausibility; experimentalsupport; support from psychometric findings; susceptibility to encoding.
Only intelligences that satisfied a range of criteria were accepted as bonafide and they must also enable the individual to ‘solve genuine problems ordifficulties’ (Gardner, 1983). From beginning with problems that peoplesolve and working back as to how the must be solved (Gardner, 1999) Gardneridentified seven intelligences describing them as: logico/mathematical,linguistic, musical, spatial,bodily-kinaesthetic,interpersonalandintrapersonal. In addition Gardner, at a later date, has added what heterms ‘naturalist intelligence’ describing it as ‘the ability to recognise,categorise and draw upon certain features in the environment’ (Gardner,1999). In the context of the eight specified criteria there is speculationover the merits of three further categories – ‘spiritual’, ‘existential’and ‘moral’, but he deems these difficult to define and notes a lack ofempirical evidence to support them.ConstructivismConstructivism is an umbrella term that encompasses and incorporates all ofthe outlined theories. The first origins of the constructivist viewpointcan be traced to Immanuel Kant (McElwee, 2002). Amongst developmentalpsychologists, and the educational community in general, a consensus hasbeen emerging that places weight on the value of seeing the child asactively constructing their knowledge and concepts through interaction withthe environment, both physical and socio-cultural.
(Hawkins and Pea, 1987).In Piagetian theory, the material world should serve as the starting pointof learning (Piaget, 1973). Through their physical negotiation of puzzlingor ‘discrepant’ events (Appleton, 1997), pupils can be placed in positionsof ‘cognitive conflict’ that results in ‘disequilibrium between schematapresent and discrepant sensory information’ (McElwee, 2002). Children arethus guided towards constructing an understanding of natural phenomena anddeveloping frames for deciphering natural and social events.
(Hawkins andPea, 1997).Vygotsky (1978) in his social constructivism argues that the development ofconstructs takes place by means of social experiences. The pupil, throughteacher-student and peer interactions, learns to make independent use oftechniques,skillsandconcepts.Bruner’s’scaffolding’approachencompasses these views of Vygotskys. He advocates that teachers set uplearning processes whereby the student, through activity and interaction,gradually builds up representations. As students continue to engage insituations, they begin to take over the processes, which aretheninternalised and transferred ads teacher support is withdrawn.
He arguesthat “deep understanding does not simply arise fromacquiringnewinformation, but from relinquishing or reconfirming some other way ofconceiving phenomena” (Bruner, 1962). Understanding is developed by way ofengaging with the world, or the approximations thereof set up by theteacher to advance the learning process.What is the ultimate goal of the science teacher? According to ElliotEisner:’teaching is an art and the creations of the teacher in producing anengaging stimulating and insightful lesson are the result of using manydifferent skills but these are influenced by qualities and contingenciesthat are unpredictable’ but all teachers do operate with theory wheretheory is ‘a general set of ideas through which we make sense of theworld’.The implications, which I attempt to describe, of constructivist theory forthe science classroom are huge.
The most important consideration for thescience teacher in adopting any teaching methods or practices is theinfluence of the pupils’ pre-learned misconceptions on their scientificoutlook. Ausubel (1968) contended thatthemostimportantfactorinfluencing learning is what the learner already knows.The basic principle behind the constructivist view is that scientifictheories are human constructs which are developed to provide explanationsfor how the world works. As Albert Einstein (1938) put it”Science is not just a collection of laws, a catalogue of facts, it is acreation of the human mind with its freely invented ideas and concepts.Physical theories try to form a picture of reality and to establish itsconnections in the wide world of sensory impressions”.Each of us has our own set of personal constructs or preconceptions basedon our experiences, which do not always agree with the scientific theory.
Because these constructs or ‘alternative frameworks’ (Duit and Treagust,)have developed over time through our sensory interactions, it can be verydifficult to change or replace them. My role of the teacher in this contextis as a facilitator in a process by which pupils take some control overtheir own learning. I have observed many unique interpretations of theworld based on the personal experiences of my students.Scientificexplanations are not always the ones that spring to mind, and often defy’common sense’. For example, in teaching second years about atoms andmolecules, even as a qualified physicist, I found myself at momentsthinking that the particulate theory of matter does sound a bit farfetched.
According to Ausubel (1968) “… preconceptions are amazingly tenacious andresistant to extinction…
the unlearning of preconceptions might wellprove to be the most determinative single factor in the acquisition andretention of subject-matter knowledge”According to P McElwee, The discovery or investigatory method of teachingscience is ‘the setting up of an experiment which the pupil is asked towork on and solve for himself on the premise that if he does so he willboth understand it better and remember it longer’. Pupils are introduced tothe process of scientific method: the design and implementation of aninvestigation through which a scientific theory may be tested. Pupils getto explore the validity of their ideas. Teachers facilitate the process of”implanting ideas in receptive young minds and allowing them to developthere by a process of germination” Knox (1961).
Wittrock (…) maintainsthat learning by discovery is its own reward and that it enables pupils to’produce rather than reproduce’ and hence knowledge transfers itself to newsituations. The currently prevalent deductive approach fails to harnessthis extremely valuable motivational factor.
The pupils own views andtheories have no role to play and, as is pointed out by Nickerson (1985),there is a danger to “educational approaches that treat students as merelylacking in information rather then taking into account possible strongpreconceptions and misconceptions”.I have attempted through practicals and demonstrations to set up situationsinvolving cognitive conflict, presenting pupilswithevidencethatcontradicts their current thinking in thehopeofshakingtheirmisconceptions and allowing them to integrate the new views into theirintellectual structures and allowing pupils to use a wide variety of skillsand strengths. A ‘POE’ strategy is used in which pupils are asked to make aprediction and then observe and explaining the actual outcomes (UESCO.
As Hawkins and Pea state in their 1987 paper “what everyday and formalscientific thinking have in common is the essential bridge between them:the concept of explanation”. This approach,intended to challenge andalter pupils’ misconceptions by having them provide explanations for thecontradictions thus giving them a deeper understanding of scientificconcepts, has in my view yielded the desired results. By means of pre- andpost-tests does indeed give pupils a deeper understanding of difficultconcepts. For example, I found that pupils had great difficulty in makingthe distinction between the air and oxygen. I set up a variety of learningactivities which allowed pupils to experience and explore the differencesand build up to the scientific distinctions for themselves. The subjectoxygen is one in which pupils have a considerable amount of foreknowledge,not all of which is necessarily accurate or complete. The POE approach tothe topicBurbles and Linn in their 1988 paper on understanding stated, “learnersselectively incorporate information and modify their beliefs depending onhow the information fits with their prelearned beliefs”.
An importantconsideration in ascertaining and challenging these ideas is the role ofdiscussion. A practical that takes place without any discussion losesmeaning. It is important that pupils explore theories, their own and thoseof their classmates, before and after undertaking the ascribed tasks. Thisencourages pupils to think about what they are doing and why they are doingit and they then have reasoning behind their predictions.
They haveinvested in the outcome of the tasks, which makes it stimulating andrelevant for them. It is obvious from practicals that pupils do not alwayssee what we want them to see. Awareness of the experiences of their peersand the questioning and prompting of the teacher are essential factors inguiding the observations of the pupils, and these things can only beproperly employed by discussion. It also enables pupils to reflect on theirmistakes and errors, recognise their significance in a laboratory situationand incorporate them into the learning process.