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November 1999 | Volume 57 | Number 3
The Constructivist Classroom
Cynthia Richetti and James Sheerin
By learning question-based problem-solving strategies, students become more effective thinkers and learners.
Who are the teachers who have influenced us the most? Perhaps we think of a high school history teacher who forced us to reevaluate a romanticized view of westward migration by reading diaries of pioneers. Or we remember a middle school science teacher who helped us learn all the names of plants and trees as we built a nature trail.
We doubt that these teachers would have described themselves as constructivists. However, they shared a fundamental belief in the potential of a child's mind, in the need to challenge and refine students' thinking, and in their ability to make curriculum come alive. The teaching world is filled with natural constructivists. Yet how do the rest of us—who clearly embrace its ideals—employ constructivism's principles?
The overarching goals of constructivism are commendable and straightforward: helping students become autonomous learners and thinkers, explore important questions, and build and integrate deeper understandings of knowledge. Of course, the challenge lies not in embracing the theory but in implementing it.
Underlying the constructivist theory and its goals is a recognition of the value of the student as thinker. Without an appreciation of and a belief in the capability and value of the student's thinking ability, constructivism would not exist. After all, why would we need to understand the student's point of view if the teacher's view is the only one that matters?
The ability to think—to be a lifelong seeker and integrator of new knowledge—is based on the ability to ask and consider important questions. How else can we gain, analyze, and integrate new information unless we can ask questions that force us to do these things? People are not simply receptacles of information. Indeed, the whole constructivist theory rests on this belief. People gather, organize, and analyze information and then reach conclusions that make sense to them.
Why is being an effective questioner essential to being an effective thinker and learner?
Educators have long recognized the value of asking important questions. However, they are increasingly aware of the importance of asking questions that go beyond recall and that stretch student thinking. Two familiar questioning models and strategies—Socratic questioning and Bloom's taxonomy—have raised the awareness and the ability of teachers to ask a broad range of questions. But most questioning strategies have significant deficiencies.
students attain significantly higher levels of thinking when they are encouraged to develop skill in generating critical and creative questions and when they are provided opportunities for dialogue with classmates about the questions posed and conclusions derived from information they encounter. (Cecil, 1995, p. 36)
We need question-driven problem-solving strategies that are
These strategies need to be sophisticated enough to account for the complexities of a wide range of issues or dilemmas, yet simple enough for all age and ability levels to apply.
Most problem-solving strategies use the same approach for all situations, and they are typically not question-driven. Questions enable us to access and analyze information and draw sound conclusions. In addition, good questions stimulate thinking and creativity.
Different types of situations require different approaches. For example, gathering facts to determine why something has occurred requires a different type of thinking—and a different approach—than projecting into the future to anticipate what might happen. We have identified four types of situations, each with its own characteristics: complex situations, problem situations, decision situations, and implementation situations. Each situation also requires a different path toward resolution. In our work with schools and with the ASCD CompassQuest consortium (see sidebar), we teach four question-based problem-solving strategies, one for each situation. We derived the strategy names from the problem-solving steps: SCAN, FIND, SELECT, and PLAN (fig. 1).
Multifaceted scenarios have multiple variables and opinions.
Understanding of relevant variables, their priorities, and possible action plans
See the issues
Clarify the issues
Name next steps
Something has gone wrong or an unknown cause has produced some undesired effect.
Analysis of relevant data to evaluate possible causes and determine true cause
Focus on the problem
Identify what is and is not
Narrow possible causes
Determine true cause
One course of action or solution must be selected from among several possible options.
Selection of the best possible option after evaluating options against criteria and then considering risks
State the decision
Establish and classify objectives
Trust your work—pick a winner!
Upcoming plans, changes, and actions will be implemented.
Indentification of actions needed for successful implementation after identifying potential problems and how to handle them
Predict potential problems
List likely causes
Agree on preventive actions
Note contingent actions
Corporations from around the world have used these strategies for more than 40 years.
Some of these companies and others are sharing these skills with students through their involvement with ASCD's CompassQuest consortium. In the consortium, a company representative who is skilled in applying these strategies in the workplace pairs up with a team from a local middle school. These teams implement the strategies with students. The following projects are the result of this collaboration.
The 12 schools in the CompassQuest consortium are working to infuse into their curriculums decision-making and problem-solving skills that are based on proven and successful corporate models.
Begun in 1998, the consortium is a three-year collaboration among four groups. The Tregoe Education Forum provides and teaches problem-solving strategies to school teams. The school teams create classroom-based lessons and models that enable their middle school students to use rational decision-making and problem-solving techniques and strategies.
Corporate partners, who are trained in the Kepner-Tregoe methods and use them in their own corporate operations, coach the school teams throughout the three years. ASCD provides the logistical support for the consortium and, with the help of consortium team members, is developing resources that will enable the wider education community to use these skills in their own school settings.
These strategies have been successfully used in other classrooms around the country. Two examples illustrate how teachers apply these strategies in the classroom.
Tara Anderson's 1st grade class at Pyles Elementary School in Anaheim, California, is reading Franklin Wants a Pet (Bourgeois & Clark, 1995). After Franklin the turtle finally convinces his parents to get him a pet, he needs to decide what kind.
Ms. Anderson uses this opportunity to apply the SELECT questioning strategy, which is appropriate for a decision-making situation. Because her students are young, she focuses only on key steps. First, she has the class think about objectives by asking, "What are some things that you would like in a pet?" She writes their responses in a matrix. This graphic organizer helps validate student responses by making them visible.
Next she elicits alternatives: "What kinds of pets could Franklin get?" She lists these across the top of the matrix. Using student input, Ms. Anderson fills in the cells with information about each type of pet and how it meets a given objective (fig. 2). She has students consider risks by asking, "What could go wrong if Franklin got a snake? What could go wrong if he got a tiger?" With this technique, she uncovers student suppositions about the pets and their care requirements.
Easy to take care of
Feed once a week
Needs cage and a lot of food
Feed each day—clean tank
Feed and walk twice a day
Can learn tricks
Yes, like at circus
Fit in apartment
Baby tigers are cute
Maybe certain ones are
Can bite; Can scare someone
Looks scary; Might go wild
First graders evaluate the characteristics of potential pets
By the end of the lesson, the students have shared their experiences of pets and thought about things to consider in choosing a pet. Although Franklin chooses a goldfish, the 1st graders have used the objectives and risks that they identified to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of each pet.
Tom Purdy's 8th graders at Thurston Middle School in Laguna Beach, California, are studying the end of the Civil War. Mr. Purdy has struggled in the past to help students understand the enormous implications of Reconstruction, especially the challenges to specific groups. Because the situation is complex, he decides to apply the SCAN strategy and to have the class work in small groups. Mr. Purdy sets the stage by reviewing Reconstruction in the South, the Homestead Act of 1862, and the industrialization of the North. He reminds the class of the profound impact that the end of the war had on four groups: Southern soldiers, Northern soldiers, Southern women, and freed blacks. After separating the class into four teams to represent the groups, he asks each team to picture its members as part of the population at the end of the Civil War. Each team uses the SCAN strategy:
The teams record their answers on easel paper and present their work to the class. By the end of the exercise, the students have considered and experienced in some way life at the time of Reconstruction. They have seen how the needs of different groups varied. The lesson provides a basis for understanding some of the actions and societal changes that followed the Civil War. In this complex situation, the SCAN process is a framework to guide questioning and problem-solving efforts.
The classroom examples demonstrate that these question-based approaches help implement constructivist theory in the following ways:
It puts the students in a position to recognize that when they leave school as young adults, they are going to face many situations that they will have to sort through. No one is going to be there with the right answers—if there even is a right answer. They are going to have to make a decision or formulate an action plan on the basis of the best information available.
The process reinforces that everything said is important. And that brings dignity and respect into the discussion. It doesn't matter if the participants are students or faculty; the mutual respect that the process builds enables everyone to participate and listen.
The central problem that Constructivist educators face is not a [lack of] guiding theory, but concrete strategies and tools for institutionalizing these theoretical and practical understandings into more inclusive classrooms. (Hyerle, 1996, p. 15)
As brain studies and other research continue to accumulate support for the constructivist perspective, educators must equip teachers and students with the skills that will make these worthy principles a reality in more classrooms. One way is through teaching students the questioning approaches that will allow them to
The constructivist toolbox needs many tools, but surely one is a systematic approach that helps students ask important questions to successfully assess or resolve a difficult issue or problem. Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, proclaimed, "An educated person today is someone who knows the right question to ask" (Fiske, 1995, p. 65). By helping our children learn how to ask—as well as to answer—important questions, we help ensure that they have an education for life.
Bourgeois, P., & Clark, B. (1995). Franklin wants a pet. New York: Scholastic.
Cecil, N. (1995). The art of inquiry: Questioning strategies for K–6 classrooms. Winnipeg, Canada: Peguis.
Fiske, E. (1991). Smart schools, smart kids: Why do some schools work? New York: Touchstone.
Hyerle, D. (1996). Visual tools for constructing knowledge. Alexandria VA: ASCD.
Rubenstein, R. (1998, March 18). Invest in brains. Electronics Weekly, p. 17.
Cynthia Richetti (e-mail: Crichetti@aol.com) is Vice-President and James Sheerin, a former school superintendent, is a consultant for Tregoe Education Forum, ASCD CompassQuest Consortium, P.O. Box 289, Research Rd., Princeton, NJ 08542.
Copyright © 1999 by
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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