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.

The 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.

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: 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?

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 groupings, questions, 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 cross-country adventure.

NH also described her initial response to district-based curriculum requirements: 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.

Insights

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.

Implications

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 as teachers.

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.

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.

References

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, April.

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 this design?

3. How does the language of the six elements work for you?

a. Situation

b. Groupings

c. Bridge

d. Questions

e. Exhibit

f. Reflections

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 teachers?

For a detailed description of our Constructivist Learning Design follow this link:

Constructivist Learning Design

For a simplified version of our Constructivist Learning Design follow this link:

Constructivist Learning Design Notes

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