Constructivism and Structured Academic Controversy
Constructivism is a philosophical view that describes how students and their teacher interact; how classroom time and space are used, and how control within the classroom is in an equilibrium state between teacher and students. Social constructivism emphasizes the importance of dialogic space, where communication is not the transfer of knowledge, but the interpretation of knowledge within a community of learners (Confrey, 1994). "For social constructionists, however, ways of talking are central; we see them as working to constitute what we take our experience to be..." (Shotter, 1994, p. 54). Constructivism assumes that learning is made possible through the dual factors of social interaction and simultaneous exposure to cognitive experiences. Sources of cognitive experiences can be stimulated through the teacher, textbook, three-dimensional objects, computer software, phenomena, or reflection on previous classroom or life experiences. SACs are an ideal format for providing cognitive experiences.
"To guide students' thinking, teachers must also understand how children's ideas about a subject develop, and the connections between their ideas and important ideas in the discipline" (Borko, 2004, p. 6). Constructivism promotes a climate of shared responsibility among teacher and students, and therefore power and control are shared among all members of the classroom community. In a constructivist classroom, students are given necessary structure, voice, time, and space to question, explore, and argue to make sense of phenomena and concepts.
Constructivism is not defined by a set of activities or strategies. Rather, constructivism is a set of beliefs: that students are capable of accepting the responsibility to take charge of their own learning; that students are willing to be responsible and responsive; and that students who are entrusted to learn will develop the essentials of intrinsic motivation and self-confidence to continue as independent learners.
Inquiry is operationally defined as "structured opportunities to experience, firsthand, science... content and process" (Loucks-Horsley, Hewson, Love, & Stiles, 1998, p. 49). Inquiry is characterized as allowing participants to focus on in-depth content knowledge and to fully engage in the habits of mind of the discipline. Inquiry strategies give learners opportunities to explore concepts, manipulate materials, and engage in data collection and analyses through developmentally appropriate activities and materials. Classroom use of SACs promote acquisition of deep content knowledge as students prepare to advocate for a position, require critical thinking patterns of analysis and synthesis of ideas, and encourage students to explore their own beliefs as they begin to understand others' beliefs.
Characteristics of a Constructivist Classroom
1. Interactions between teacher-student and student-student are equally important in the learning process.
2. The roles and responsibilities of student and teacher fluidly pass back and forth between the two parties. While the teacher is ultimately responsible for creating an environment conducive to learning, students also share in the responsibilities associated with creating and responding to a learning environment.
3. Knowledge worth teaching/learning is broadly encompassing of factual, conceptual, and procedural types of knowledge. Prior knowledge of students is acknowledged and actively incorporated into the enacted curriculum. Questions whose answers may or may not be known by the teacher are welcomed and explored, and also become integrated into the instructional dialogue of the classroom.
4. The classroom environment of a constructivist classroom is safe: intellectually, emotionally, and physically. Students look forward to spending time in the classroom because they are known, their idiosyncrasies are accepted, and their interests are important in the dynamics of the classroom.
5. Diverse instructional and assessment strategies are used which focus on conceptual understanding and reinforce the balance between teacher and student dynamics.