Teachers' Perspectives on a
Constructivist Learning Design
by George W. Gagnon, Jr. and Michelle Collay
In a previous paper, we presented a theoretical framework
for a Constructivist Learning Design. An
outline version can be referenced in our Constructivist
Learning Design Notes. Our own experiences as teachers, experiences
with preservice teacher education (Collay, 1990), and the work of many
thoughtful researchers about ways to shape the learning environment create
a foundation to our thinking. This study reflects a collaboration with
classroom teachers who share our philosophy. Four experienced teachers
had worked with our constructivist learning design for one to three years.
The teachers in our study described their reasons for moving from a teacher-centered
approach to planning for teaching towards a student-centered design for
learning. They shared these reasons with us in a focus group. The questions
we asked and their responses appear later in this paper. Finally, we offer
insights and recommendations for further study.
We asked several experienced teachers who became interested
in this design to talk with us about their practice. These four teachers
represent primary, intermediate, middle school language arts, and high
school mathematics. RM had three years of teaching experience, and NH over
ten. Each had become familiar with the Constructivist Learning Design in
courses taken with George. We chose five questions for the focus group
and presented each member with a copy of these questions and the latest
version of our Constructivist Learning Design. The focus group lasted an
hour forty minutes, and we videotaped the dialogue with the help of Kay
Peters, a research assistant. We then made a complete transcript of the
dialogue from the videotape. Our analysis of answers directed to each question
is presented in this section.
Question One: What attracted you to this Constructivist
Learning Design (CLD) for organizing your classroom teaching?
Each of the four teachers we interviewed was attracted
to the CLD for different reasons. NH described the inquiry theme of her
second grade classroom, and that this design was a natural fit for her
planning. "What attracted me is that, when I try to have my children construct
meaning, they are engaged in reading and writing, and that's my major focus."
RM began using the Learning Design model as a student teacher, and revisited
it with her current fourth grade team. "Madeline Hunter wasn't quite cutting
it for me. I needed something that worked with kids, and this worked with
kids." JZ described himself as a traditional male, coach-type math teacher
who learned constructive ways of thinking about learning in his graduate
program. The CLD provided similar language for him to carry the kinds of
experiences he had as an adult learner to his math students.
"I hadn't seen anything like this, but that was the way [George]
taught his courses, under this model [CLD]. So really, for the last couple
of years, what I have been trying to do is take these ideas and apply them
to the high school level; I modified [the CLD] to fit what worked
SR was attracted to the CLD partly because of her own experience
as a learner. She felt unsuccessful as a student, and as a teacher, searched
for a better way to engage her students. She read text from a poem to express
her beliefs that students "do not invent, but only repeat." She said:
"What attracted me to this CLD was that it answered a
question I had as a teacher and as a student, going through grade school
and high school . . . so my question I had been asking for a long time
was, 'How then does a teacher become a catalyst for transforming a plagiarist
into the artist? How then do we reach for Picasso, when we are entrenched
in a "paint by number" ideology?'"
These experienced teachers had practiced many of the constructivist
approaches to teaching and learning, but found the learning design offered
a way of organizing what they did.
Question Two: How would you describe one lesson
you taught using this design?
Each of our participants offered examples of constructivist
learning designs they had taught. NH presented a place value unit; RM described
a unit on regions of the United States; JZ offered a unit on compound interest;
and SR discussed a unit on Anne Frank remembered. Common to all the portrayals
of their designs were:
Question Three: How does the language of the six elements
work for you?
They were all teaching familiar lessons but teaching them
in a different way. Each had used these same units in prior years but found
their previous approaches unsatisfactory and tried to do them in a more
constructivist way. These units were usually designed in response to district
outcomes or text objectives.
The engagement of students in learning was central to all
their reports. They described students as actively involved in constructing
their own meaning and displaying it to the class.
The time it took to carry out was much longer than the typical
one period lesson plan. They described taking one to three weeks to complete
in depth studies of unit concepts.
Students taking responsibility for their own learning was
evident in their descriptions. They asked questions, exhibited their learning,
and reflected on their learning process.
When we discussed the language of the six elements, the
group talked about them in groups first and then as separate categories.
The first three were lumped together as central to thinking about setting
up for learning, and the last three were described later as important process
for involving students in their own learning. Materials were linked to
exhibit and also mentioned as a separate
category. The bridge was cited as necessary
to connect with prior learning and life experience. JZ remarked, "I like
that term bridge also. I group it into
setting up the situation. But it really is what it does. You really need
to go from where they are to set it up so they can succeed." NH blended
an inquiry approach with the CLD and had this observation about the situation,
"The situation is a huge piece for
me because that's the exploration stage, that's the part where I'm presenting
a lot of information,...not really giving my comment...but exposing them
to a lot of stuff, and I really have to think that through." SR comments
on reflections, "I think this reflections
step should never be minimized. I don't know about other students,
only about middle school students, but if there is not a connection to
them I am dead in the water...Unless they are connected to it, it's not
going to work." JZ echoes her thoughts, "One of the things you mentioned
is relating it to real life...I always kind of get to that down in five
and six [exhibit and reflections]
when they describe meaning for them."
Question Four: How do you include district and
text objectives or outcomes in your designing for learning?
Sometimes teachers backed into district outcomes because
they were demonstrated by the "basket of questions,
exhibit, and reflections"
produced by students. For example, SR describes an LD student's
portfolio and how she used it to demonstrate accomplishment of IEP outcomes
to the LD teacher. It was artifacts from the learning design process that
provided material for her portfolio, "...you could see the growth of the
child from her first questions, exhibit,
reflections activity to the one we
did at the very end." NH agreed, "Yeah, those are the three things I save
at my level, the questions they come
up with, their exhibit, and reflections
that they keep because they write it down."
This basket of student produced documentation of learning
carried the fruit of appropriate assessment from teachers to parents. RM
described meeting a fourth grade social studies outcome through her team's
"A lesson that I taught really came out of boredom with
the existing social studies curriculum...The other fourth grade teachers
and I sat down and decided we needed to do something that was going to
engage our students, and have them construct the meaning of the regions
of the United States. And of course, part of that was they had to memorize
the fifty states, too. It was real easy to memorize the fifty states when
you're traveling through themÉthey were recording where they went,
they were journaling about where they were going, creating post cards,
all that just fell out."
NH also described her initial response to district-based
"I made my choices for implementing this by looking at
my district outcomes for first grade, at what topic area they wanted me
to cover and had given me a text for. How was I going to do it without
the text?...I look at the product of the writing that I ask them to do,
and I see evidence of these outcomes."
Question Five: What lesson plan model does your district
use to evaluate teachers?
Three of the teachers described a Madeline Hunter evaluation
format that was being used by their districts and principals. The fourth
reported a less formal evaluation visit by his principal. However, all
of them indicated that their respective principals were satisfied when
they were presented with the CLD and observed the engagement of students
in their classrooms. RM commented, "When you're observed and evaluated
what you get back is each piece of Madeline Hunter explained and how you
incorporated that. But quite honestly, I still plan this way [CLD] because
you know it's all going to come out." SR reported, "I was just tenured
last week, so for the last three years I've been evaluated that way [Madeline
Hunter] but I teach this way [CLD] and there's never been any question."
NH added, "My kids are engaged in learning and my parents aren't calling...as
long as you have parents informed and involved in what you are doing in
the classroom, I haven't run into any issues administratively." SR agrees
that it wasn't just similarity of sections like the bridge
and Anticipatory Set, "It could be. The other thing it could
be is that the kids are engaged. He is impressed by that, that somehow
these students are engaged, and where or not there was an Anticipatory
Set, I don't think it matters." The consensus of the group was that it
was difficult to leave this CLD for a substitute because of their uneven
quality and expectations unless you had arranged for a particular sub who
was familiar with the format and process.
Our focus group participants already had a value for this
way of thinking about learning. The CLD provided them with language
and linked to practices they already had. These teachers appreciated the
structure and sequence of the Learning Design because it reflected their
own processes of thinking about how to create a context for learning. NH
related, "When I saw this design, it was a way of organizing my thinking
on topics, but leaving it open enough for my children to direct their own
learning." SR had been studying constructivist learning for her inquiry
project in her master's degree. She said, "This [CLD] gave purpose, and
it happens on purpose all the time. It's just a nice way to sit down and
organize what needs to go next."
These three themes of philosophic fit, building community,
and movement toward constructivism over time appear throughout the dialogue.
In the final section, we present some implications for education derived
from the insights of our participants.
Building a learning community to develop trust and encourage
risk-taking was essential. An environment of learning and a belief
in a community of learners was critical to their success. Our participants
pointed out that such a design could not flourish in a traditional, teacher-centered
classroom. They focused on the importance of creating a safe atmosphere
for risk taking. The kinds of public sharing of thinking which is required
for the construction of knowledge cannot take place in a competitive, one-upping
culture. RM suggested,
"There almost needs to be a cover letter to this design
because, I think for all of us here, we're going by an understanding; that
we set up risk-taking environments, that we do build communities, that
we are continually building those communities, and modeling for our students
what we do if we don't know something."
The same feeling was expressed by SR: "We work very hard
at the beginning of the year developing a community and getting a sense
of trust...A key piece, really, is continually building community. I think
it is one of the most powerful things a teacher can do."
Our participants described moving from a behaviorist approach
to planning for teaching toward a constructivist approach to designing
for learning. Moving from a teacher-centered way of planning, a la
Madeline Hunter or traditional math teaching, was not easy or quick. NH
reflected on her steps from initial training in Madeline Hunter lesson
planning, to a whole language approach, to an inquiry approach to engaging
learners. "I think that inquiry and constructivism are very similar, very
much the same kinds of ideas, or ways of teaching." JZ, the math teacher,
described his evolution in his thinking:
"I had to give up the old ways, in math, it's six-one,
six-two, six-threeÉgive them a test. It was real orderly for me;
it was nice. I had to struggle. It was much easier for me. This [CLD] is
a lot more difficult, at least from the teacher's perspective."
Our participants described older students as resistant to
changes in the way they were being asked to learn. JZ related not only
his own struggle to change his practice, but also the resistance of his
students to change. "By the time they're in the 11th or 12th grade, I had
some real anger from kids who did very well in the traditional role. The
kids with the best grades really revolted against it." SR described one
such student, who "just had his knuckles down on my desk, leaning at me.
Veins were bulging, clenching his teeth, 'Just give me the answer!'" RM
had a similar experience with her 4th graders. "I had some students who
were transfers, or new kids, and it was really hard for them to step up
and read what they had written, or exhibit, or share. And we just kept
working on it, allowing them to pass if they weren't comfortable." Even
NH's second-graders were sometimes reluctant to tackle inquiry. "I have
children very uncomfortable with this initially. They just want to know
how to do this, 'How do I do this, do it for me.'"
The constructivist learning design made sense to these
experienced teachers. They already had a value for learning, inquiry, reflection,
and community, and the CLD was a fit with those values. We don't believe
that any tool or way of thinking about learning can be handed to a professional
without regard for what each already believes about education and schooling.
Each of our participants described a personal, individual
journey of professional development, rather than a response to a school-wide
or district-wide reform initiative. Their own maturity and sophistication
in teaching was evident in their reflections about their growth and change
Prospective and beginning teachers benefit from experiencing
constructivist learning and having the process of designing for learning
made visible by mentors. Inexperienced teachers can be engaged in learning,
community building, inquiry, and reflection before they have the maturity
to move away from planning for teaching and toward designing for learning.
However, if they change their beliefs but don't know how to carry them
out in their teaching then their classroom practice may not change. Systemic
efforts at educational reform discount the important role of the individual
teacher in embracing new practice, and many approaches have moved through
schools as a "fad of the year."
Fosnot (1996) encourages us to understand that changing
beliefs about knowledge is an essential ingredient in educational change.
If there is a key to reinventing our educational system,
it lies in what our teachers believe about the nature of knowing. Without
a reexamination and change in beliefs about the nature of knowing, there
will be no substantial change in the enterprise of education; we will stay
in a vicious cycle. (p. 202)
We would like to contribute the perspective that changing
beliefs is only the first step. These new beliefs must then be incorporated
into our teaching practice, usually one classroom at a time. As we align
our classroom practice with our understanding of constructivist learning,
our teaching reflects what we believe about knowing. Our focus on designing
for learning grows out of experiences in our own classrooms as teacher
educators, our individual efforts to improve our own practice, and our
conversations with colleagues who were struggling with the same transformation.
We have discovered that by sharing our own process of designing for learning
we have found fertile ground in those whose beliefs are moving towards
constructivist learning and were seeking ways of putting these beliefs
into their classroom practice. We became fellow travelers on the journey
to changing planning for teaching to designing for learning.
Collay, Michelle. (1990) Microteaching revisited: through
the looking glass and what Alice found there. Symposium presented at
the American Educational Research Association's annual meetings, Chicago,
Fosnot, Catherine. (1996) Constructivism: Theory, perspectives,
and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.
Constructivist Learning Design Focus Group Questions
June 17, 1996
1. What attracted you to this constructivist learning
design for organizing your classroom teaching?
2. How would you describe one lesson you taught using
3. How does the language of the six elements work for
4. How do you include district and text objectives or
outcomes in your designing for learning?
5. What lesson plan model does your district use to evaluate
For a detailed description of
our Constructivist Learning Design follow this link:
For a simplified version of our
Constructivist Learning Design follow this link:
Learning Design Notes