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April 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 7

How To Make Presentations / Insights from Constructivist Learning Theory

    Instructional StrategiesInstructional StrategiesInstructional Strategies
      How we make presentations ought to reflect our beliefs about how people learn. Unfortunately, many books and articles on presentation skills focus more on the strategies of the presenter than the learning processes of participants. In this column we examine constructivist learning theory and how you can apply it when making presentations to adults.
      Constructivists place the learner at the center of the equation; the idea is that the learner constructs knowledge rather than passively absorbs it (Brooks and Brooks 1993). The presenter's task thus goes beyond providing data; he or she must help learners create meaning from frameworks and activities. As Catherine Twomey Fosnot describes it, “Learning is not discovering more, but interpreting through a different scheme or structure” (Brooks and Brooks 1993).
      As presenters, we have long held that our content is not as important as the audience's interaction with our content. Because, like you, we usually have limited presentation time, the first and often most difficult decision we make is which ideas are the most crucial. So we sort major concepts in order of importance. We examine linkages among big ideas. Then we decide which processes and experiences will most likely help participants make meaning. We have been pleased to discover that our own understanding of the subject we're presenting is deepened during this type of planning process.
      Creating a climate for learning is vitally important in the constructivist perspective. In fact, participant-to-participant interactions are as important as presenter-to-participant interactions. The most important interaction, of course, is between participant and content. Structuring meaningful engagement between partners and with trios, table groups, and small groups becomes a key presentation skill, even in relatively brief presentations. Many cooperative learning strategies apply here. Where colleagues stand and when and how participants raise questions are regular considerations in our presentations.
      Good interactive strategies enhance the cognitive, social, and emotional climate. For example, we've been impressed with the depth of learning that occurs with the “Numbered Heads Together” strategy popularized by Spencer Kagan (1990). In this strategy, participants number off in groups of four to six. Each team is also assigned a team number. When the presenter poses a question, team members put their heads together, examine the possibilities, and construct an answer. The presenter then picks a number by drawing a card or rolling a die. The number selected designates the spokesperson for each table group. A second number designates the table group that will respond first. The complexity of the question determines the amount of time teams need to develop their answers.
      Constructivist learning theory also places importance on the learner's point of view. During extended workshops and seminars, we make a point of including participant requests in the design process. To make room for participant input we leave an open time slot in our agenda. Although this can place a burden on presenters to deliver on agenda requests—we've had a few late nights using this pattern—the payback in engagement and learning is always well worth our efforts.
      All participants bring some form of prior knowledge to presentations. These conceptions, and at times misconceptions, should become conceptual organizers or filters for the learning experiences you are trying to create. Because of this, presenters must work to engage prior knowledge at an early stage. Webbing and mind-mapping strategies are visual ways to help participants examine their current theories. Metaphors and synectic strategies are also useful. With synectics, table groups create similes and metaphors by completing phrases like, “Running a classroom is like [sport or recreational activity] because....” Through elaborated metaphors audience members can develop more conscious understandings of their own beliefs.
      To summarize, a learner-centered presentation must include some basic elements. Presenters must provide experiences that allow learners to link prior knowledge to the topic at hand, dispel misconceptions, and enrich their knowledge base. They must design experiences that help participants to consider new information in light of current mental “files” and to sort by creating new files. Finally, presenters must give learners opportunities to integrate and synthesize information from different sources, create categories, and develop frameworks and models (Lipton and Wellman 1993).
      Like us, you have probably been intuitively using constructivist ideas in your work with adults in faculty meetings, committee work, and workshops long before the concept of constructivism was revived. We believe an understanding of constructivism is essential for anyone wishing to maximize adult learning.
      References

      Brooks, J. G., and M. G. Brooks. (1993). In Search of Understanding The Case For Constructivist Classrooms. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

      Kagan, S. (1990). Cooperative Learning Resources For Teachers. San Juan Capistrano, Calif.: Resources for Teachers.

      Lipton, L., and B. Wellman. (1993). A Model For Connection Making: Staff Development Designs For Integration and Transfer. Dallas, Tex.: National Staff Development Council Annual Conference.

      Robert Garmston has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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