Support for an Instructional Methodology based on a Constructivist Learning Theory

Overview of Instruction Related to Learning Theories

Directed, traditional, or conventional instructional teaching is simply a training process that involves telling, confirming and practicing. This includes all direct instructional models and theories. Its limitations are obvious. From a generative learning point of view, it omits the vital activities that involve learner creation, interpretation, elaboration, and expansion required for learning.

A constructivist learning methodology would be one that uses Piaget and Vygotsky's learning theory to attain generative learning.

Central to a constructivist methodology is a need to focus on learners' current ideas and mental organizations which will not be rejected until there is something adequate and reliable to replace it.

To achieve this learners must experience conflict that result when their expectations are not realized - disequilibration. However, these experiences alone do not cause learners to reject or reconstruct their current misconceptions or alternative points of view and reorganize their understanding into ideas that are more accurate when compared with current scientific understanding.

Robert Karplus argued - science learning is a process of self–regulation in which the learner forms new reasoning patterns. This can only occur when learners reflect on their ideas and compare their past experiences with information they are currently exploring. It will most likely result after a period of observation where the learner has control over the manipulation of variables that determine the results and opportunities to compare their understandings with the ideas of other - learners, teachers, and scientists.

Necessary Conditions to Create, Interpret, Elaborate, and Expand Scientific Understanding

  1. Evidence or data is provided to support all knowledge claims so learners have opportunities to learn to see and value explanations as personally constructed in their minds for their purposeful clarification of a situation or idea. Therefore, all knowledge can and must be invented by them.
  2. Many times learners are left with an incomplete construction or none at all. Therefore, the new ideas must be seen as a series of inventions.
  3. Learners often are not able to apply information. Therefore, to demonstrate the value and power of expanding and connecting ideas, a range of activities must be available to build concepts into generalizations and generalizations into more powerful ideas - generative knowledge. Failure to do so causes learners to memorize new ideas at best and not to pay attention at worst.

Rationale for Meeting the Conditions

Karplus was among the first to propose a three–phase instructional learning cycle for teachers to use simultaneously as a learning model and an instructional method. The learning cycle being based on Piaget's learning theory in which - learning involves cognitive accommodation - something different than an initially held misconception or alternative conception.

In the initial phase it is necessary for learners to discover their individual conceptions about the science topics for the purpose of possible modification towards a more current scientific view. To achieve cognitive accommodation, learner's present understanding or their misconceptions must be acknowledged. Ausubel noted

... preconceptions are amazingly tenacious and resistant to extinction. (Ausubel, 1968).

This being true, they often reappear and interfere with the teacher's planned learning outcomes.

Therefore, to achieve accommodation every learner must be aware of his/her own current understandings. This can be achieved with a question, task, or problem which requires an explanation of existing ideas in a way to interpret their understanding as a cause and effect relationship, logical explanation, or model. To achieve this learners need to be encouraged to describe their own views written, verbally, and pictorially, and to state their ideas clearly. This information is useful for them to recognize what they can and cannot explain and what is or is not accurate according to their subsequent observations. Different explanations might be suggested by other learners or the teacher which will help them clarify their current understandings, how they represent what they understand, and what evidence and reasons they used for explanation.

Whether learners are dissatisfied with their existing ideas, or not, is not important at this time. At this point it is most important for them to clarify their present understanding. Later, as a results of their participation in more activities, opportunities might lead to dissatisfaction of their current understanding so that conceptual conflict becomes sufficient for them to recognize limitations to their current less accurate explanations. This recognition can begin a process to seek a more beneficial and hopefully more accurate and complete scientific explanation - accommodation. It is through this recognition learners come to value the new or additional explanation more than their less accurate explanation. Over time numerous such occurrences will lead them to rely on the use of science for understanding their world.

Note for Accommodation - Learning

Accommodation comes from the search for a solution to the conflict of ideas. Therefore, conceptualization (concept learning) is achieved by exposing misconceptions by creating conceptual conflict, and encouraging cognitive accommodation with more reasonable explanations based on additional evidence. This evidence must be observational, new ways of reasoning, or through a view from a different reference point for accommodation to happen - learning.

A note on observational. Observational doesn't mean that they are currently observing what is need to change or accommodate - learn. The observational information can come from prior experiences. However, it needs to be sufficiently strong to provide confidence in using it to move their conceptualization forward. If it is not, then observational - hands on experiences - must be provided. This is where learners with a wealth of experience excel in their learning over learners with less related experiences.

Description of Learning Cycle Steps in a constructivist methodology

1) The first step might include a learner controlled experience to allow the learners to become familiar with as wide a range of ideas related from any intuitive ideas or beliefs to current scientific ideas for the topic (concept, outcome, goal) to be investigated. Experiences need to provide opportunities that include sufficient depth to allow learners to clarify their ideas in a risk free environment where they can feel confident to begin to make predictions and continue to make predictions after some of their initial predictions fail. Predictions based on both their intuitive ideas and scientific ideas.

2) The second step might include discrepant events, problems, or questions, tasks or experiences for the purpose to have unexpected outcomes when the learners' misconceptions or alternative views are put to the test. Cognitive dissonance or a bit of uncertainty is introduced to spark curiosity and a desire to restructure his or her views to achieve more accurate predictions. This is where facilitation from a more experienced person can be most crucial.

To assist in the construction or restructure of the learners' ideas a bridging activity is usually required. Something to be used to help the learners relate observations to some kind of mental manipulation, organization, or understanding to accommodate - learn about the unexpected outcomes. A bridge can provide a way to organize and interpret the data and ideas or to discover patterns and explanations.

Examples that might be used as bridges are patterns, organizations, classification, pictures, charts, Venn diagrams, graphs, analogies, equations, if-then statements, animations, and more. Communication and intervention by more experienced learners is helpful to model how to explore the consequences of a variety of explanations and application of bridges to refine learners' explanations so they are able to construct conceptual understanding and to incorporate any limitations or exceptions for its application as notification to their conceptualization - understanding.

3) The third step is one that has been modified or expanded upon in several ways by different theorists over the years. Some of their ideas have been included in the steps explained above. A major difference of opinion for the final step has been, how should the cycle conclude? With accommodation or continue to structuring and organization of what is learned.

Conventional or traditional lessons often conclude with a summary of what was done or learned. This appears insufficient. If the purpose of learning is for the learner to use the information, then that goal suggests learning should attain at least a level of application (which has been one of the labels used as a final step in some learning cycles). However, a stronger term is required to describe how the conceptual understanding is to be used in a generative manner as a final goal for the instructional cycle. An activity where learners demonstrate their ability to generate new conceptualizations beyond what has been presented or explored previously with the topic. It must go beyond a direct application of the concept as it was used in the previous activities. Making the final step one of authentic generative assessment for learning to include thinking about how what was learned can be structured and organized into mental strategies for understanding the world. Like, where else might this apply or what are the limits of this information?

Let's review this with a more instructional perspective.

Instructional Procedure

The teacher or learners, start with a focus activity that focuses on the topic to provide an opportunity to diagnose the preliminary understanding (possible misconceptions and alternative views) of the learners. When the attention of the class is fully focused on the topic, and their present understandings, the focus moves to exploration, more discussion and experimentation that usually results in the learner's cognitive dissonance with their present understandings and a desire to, get to the bottom of this, and understand it better.

This leads to an invention stage where information from the focus activity is reported back to the class and organized. Communication of information and presentations of explanations are conducted as the groups present their findings to one another. As learners present their information and struggle for better words to describe their ideas, then the teacher can introduce vocabulary. Vocabulary the learners will readily accept, to better communicate the concept they have conceptualized, because it now as greater meaning and value.

These experiences lead to further discussion and continued investigations, in which the learners use their newly refined conceptual understandings in familiar contexts to discover any limitations and provide opportunities to explore the usefulness and expanded application of the concept in different situations. The teacher uses formative assessment throughout all stages to decide how the investigations can best progress. The teacher continually use this assessment information to decide on the fly when it is appropriate to move to different experiences as summative assessment or generative assessment. When the teacher determines learners have the ability to generalize the information successfully, then the final stage, with generative assessment begins. When learners are successful with generative assessment, then it is appropriate to move to a new topic and a new cycle for that topic.

Confrontation between learner's Idea and Scientific Ideas

Outcomes to Assess Understood of Concepts and Skills


Learners need to take a prominent part in the formulation of their own knowledge. To reduce the teacher's perceived control over knowledge, learners should work primarily in small groups. More on groups

Selection of instructional strategies to use within a learning cycle

A learning cycle methodology involves learners in a sequence of activities beginning with exploration of an idea or skill, leading to a more guided explanation or invention of the idea or skill, and culminating in expansion of the idea or skill through additional practice and trials in new settings.

This represents a single sequence on one concept lasting one to several instructional periods. Because of what occurs in each phase, the three parts of the learning cycle might be called: exploration (experience), invention (interpretation), and expansion (elaboration). See chart for learning cycle variations

A teacher has a large number of choices in deciding how to provide instruction for learners. The selection of instructional strategies to use in teaching (e.g. oral presentation, read from a text, visual presentation, demonstration, inquiry, manipulatives, film, groups, questioning strategies, wait time, pair share, etc.) should be determined by the:

1) Type of idea(s) or skill(s) to be taught,
2) Developmental level and specific learning needs of the learner,
3) Part of the learning cycle the teacher is involved with,
4) Form and content of learner’s prior knowledge and the number and kind of instructional activities needed to create conceptual restructuring, and
5) type of knowledge representation required for the idea to be understood.

More comprehensive discussion of learning cycle stages, planning, implementation, and assessment.


Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes
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