The University of Nottingham - Mahara

Introduction to the Learning Sciences

by Iain Rockley

A blog to discuss material covered in the module

Identify examples that illustrate how your own activities of teaching adopt a constructivist perspective. Identify examples of where they don't. Do you feel you have achieved a good balance between 'telling" and "facilitating" (do you understand this distinction?)

Facilitating and Telling

(I'm pretty sure that this cartoon was also in one of the seminars we've had, but I just love how well it sums up the juxtaposition of constructivism in the classroom)

I am willing to admit that, prior to studying this Masters course, I had no idea what the term Constructivism meant at all.  I was surprised then to learn that constructivist theory was something that I had consciously been applying -or striving to apply- throughout my teaching career over the past 5 years.

I'm a firm believer in not teaching for teaching's sake, ie in trying (where possible) to highlight the real-world application of all new skills and knowledge taught.  The rationale behind this is so that no individual in any lesson I teach can say 'Well what was the point of that?/This has got nothing to do with me...' etc etc.  As a student, I was regrettably guilty of this on numerous occasions, and still wish some of my teachers at secondary school had sometimes worked harder to relate their lessons to the real world - be it through sports, entertainment, career opportunities or anything else that could have made a teenager sit up and listen.  But how does this relate to constuctivism?

Constructivism is fundamentally based around the idea of using one's current knowledge and understanding as a basis for learning.  This can obviously be interpreted schematically, for example, ensuring that a child can name the basic anatomy of a plant before teaching pollination.  Yet this definition of constructivism is less often interpreted as establishing a real-world link between the subject matter and the child prior to teaching, for example, discussing how weeds and grass began growing over that muddy part of the school field without any gardener intervening -before teaching pollination.  It is in this way that I attempt to introduce most new concepts to children - as even primary school children can have a broad perspective on the world, given the wealth of media they are subjected to nowadays.  I try to embrace other aspects of constructivism too, for example allowing children time with apparatus to 'figure out' how to create a scientific investigation on a particular subject already discussed.

But is it always possible to adopt this constructivist approach?  With some lessons, such as say, teaching of the necessity to vary complex sentences, the answer is of course 'not very'.  But there is a concerning trend in primary education for teachers to push for 'quantity of evidence' in children's work.  This has led to many primary schools performing weekly 'book trawls' to ensure students  are producing a satisfactory amount of work on a daily, lesson-by-lesson basis.  This can occasionally result in the omission of discussion and exploration time, being replaced instead by the much speedier dictation or 'telling' approach -a sure-fire way to get ink in books quickly.  Whilst this is an increasing trend in primary schools that I fundamentally disagree with, I have to shamefully admit that in the lead-up to exams I have on occasion been forced to teach some lessons in this manner.  Nevertheless, since before hearing of the terminology, constructivism is an approach that I have always considered essential to teaching a good lesson.

Posted by Iain Rockley on 18 January 2014, 6:11 PM | Comments (21)

Consider just how limited this model is for developing learning through the optimisation of memory. Yet the idea of new knowledge being integrated into understanding through some sort of processes of association seems an attractive one. How might this broad strategy of learning be adopted in a classroom situation - perhaps in a deeper sense than the example given here.
Mastering memory is a skill that, as teachers, we all wish our students inherently grasped.  Seeing a student forget something that they had previously been told is almost as frustrating as when we forget these things ourselves.  In the video linked above, students are taught to associate numbers with rhyming objects, literary characters with real-life counterparts, and sequences with stories.  All of these are great techniques for remembering simple information, as words and numbers on their own can often do little to grab interest and therefore be remembered (indeed, I frequently find myself remembering all kinds of details regarding a new aquaintance's  hobbies and interests, yet embarrasingly forgetting their name).

Many of the techniques mentioned in the video I have found myself employing to a certain extent already - in particular, when learning other languages it's always helpful to make links between new vocabulary and similar-sounding words in one's own language, even when there isn't parity of meaning.  Everyone knows at least a few mnemonics, be they for colours of the rainbow or planets of the solar system.  However despite these techniques being so effective, I rarely employ them for other types of information - and the video has served to highlight how useful they can be when applied to a wider range of circumstances.
Despite the obvious benefits, this model of memory optimisation has a plethora of limitations which aren't really touched upon in the video.  Crucially, it would be hard to see how these associative techniques could be employed to enhance the understanding of concepts, particulary in primary education, when mathematical operations and scientific processes are first introduced.  The aforementioned memory strategies would be initially redundant in the teaching of division or friction, for example, and it is these concepts (mathematical operations in particular) which primary school children so frequently forget.

So, how can these strategies be adopted in the classroom, in a deeper sense than seen in the video?  In my opinion, one of the teachers in the clip expressed it perfectly (at around the 8:50 mark):

"I think if you use these strategies alongside techniques which will enable students to understand the material, [you're] on to a winner"

To me, it would make sense to begin by teaching for understanding - use real-world examples, discussions and visual media to ensure students grasp the why of a concept first.  Then, once an understanding is gained, the memory techniques above could be applied (possibly as a plenary or follow-up activity) to reinforce the how, when or where.

Posted by Iain Rockley on 18 January 2014, 6:11 PM | Comments (6)

From your general knowledge of early childhood - what might be the earliest indication in a child's actions and reactions that they understood that others had a mental life (perceptions, intentions, belief or desires etc)

Lacking intersubjectivity

Having no children or nephews/nieces of my own, I guess the only experiences that I may draw upon here are derived from my teaching Key Stage 1 and Early Years classes.  Having spent the majority of my teaching career as a practitioner in Key Stage 2 classes (ages 7 to 11), my time spent with younger children -to which the term 'early childhood' chiefly applies- has been brief and sporadic.

Generally speaking, I have not witnessed a great deal of empathetic understanding between pupils prior to the age of 7.  That is to say, children can show sympathy towards one another (relating one another's negative experiences to when they themselves have experienced the same), yet rarely display the same level of understanding towards each other when it is related to unfamiliar circumstances (religious events, cultural differences etc).  However, there are of course other less nuanced indicators of intersubjectivity (of which I found a great article here).

When teaching Early Years and Reception (ages 3-5) classes, I've noticed that children chiefly demonstrated intersubjectivity (an awareness of the conscious presence and perceptions of others) through the understanding of ownership.  Most children were aware that they were not allowed to touch the sandwich boxes/coats/work of others, although there usually remained a few individuals who were unaware of this and were being flagged for 'possible autism'.  Perhaps this is the most salient indicator of intersubjectivity in primary school children: when they are of a sufficient age for such a lack of awareness to be considered a signal of autism.

In conclusion, my rather uninformed and very general experience with early childhood in schools has shown that children as young as 3 years old demonstrate a firm but limited form of intersubjectivity through a clear understanding of what belongs to whom, and how one would feel if their possessions were damaged or stolen.  Nevertheless, a more profound empathy still escapes pupils as old as 7 and 8, as I have discovered through varying success with activities such as religious discussion or character hot seating.

Posted by Iain Rockley on 18 January 2014, 6:12 PM | Comments (0)
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