05 February 2012

my name is jody and I am a constructionist

In chapter 1 of the book “Situating Constructionism,” (Papert & Harel, 1991), the authors drove my thoughts to students and what kind of instruction they were receiving in our classroom. I began to wonder, “Were my students programmers of their own education or were they programmees of my idea of what their education should be?” For that matter, which one should they be? While I would love to say they started at a point and began to drive their own instruction based on what they learned, I will admit there was a significant component of each semester in which I was the “driver of the train” and all of my students were on simply passengers. Isaac Newton once said, “I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” My hope is to become the kind of teacher who will allow every student to find the smoothest shells and prettiest pebbles. (I purposely rearranged the quote to include alliteration; clearly he was not a writer!)

Papert & Harel (1991) allude to an experiment (done by Harel) which gives “statistically hard evidence that constructionist activity—which integrates math with art and design and where the children make the software—enhances the effectiveness of instruction given by a teacher in the same topic.” This gives me a bit of heartburn because I do not know what factors they gauge the “effectiveness of instruction.” The context would indicate student’s engagement as the primary factor. However, can we allow that to be the only factor? Is that even what the author meant? Maybe I am just grasping at straws, but I really need a bit more information.

One of my favorite quotes of the chapter:

“The presence of computers begins to go beyond first impact when it alters the nature of the learning process; for example, if it shifts the balance between transfer of knowledge to students (whether via book, teacher, or tutorial program is essentially irrelevant) and the production of knowledge by students.” Papert & Harel (1991) (emphasis added)

Now they are simply pandering to me. This is the one of my core beliefs about education reform. Teachers have to begin to move from a class of knowledge transfer to knowledge production;  an effective means to do that is through the integration of technology. Wikis are a great example of this kind of reform. iBooks Author will also allow students to publish their artifacts for a much broader audience; one that is beyond the four walls of their classroom. I appreciate that Papert & Harel mentioned computational thinking as a mindset. I wrote a blog post about computational thinking in another class. It is encouraging when reformists make the same kinds of connections to other disciplines, since they expect students to do the same.

The most significant piece of the discussion of Logo and “microworlds” (Sawyer, et. al) was the fact that it was born of one idea, from one person. He saw a radical new way for students to learn and built it into an entire movement in education.

These “learning places” are not quite autonomous, but I get the impression they really are virtual locations/ communities where students can drive their own learning, find their own relevance, create mashups of different subjects, and create thoughts and ideas which previously did not exist. Students walk away from “school” (I don’t think they ever really stop learning if we are doing it right) with an artifact, a picture of what they have learned, something far more valuable than a grade, to show others the kind of thinking he or she is capable of doing.

This artifact component of constructionist learning really resonates within my framework of education. If I see a student’s grades, I can certainly make an inference about the kind of success they might be able to have in a class. However, if that same student brings me a computer simulation they have written, or a kinetic sculpture they have created to show a mathematical principle, or some other original creation, I am able to make my own assessment of their learning and skills. If I see on their transcript that they have all A’s, what does that really mean? In an era of grade inflation, when many students (and parents) expect that he or she will have A’s in every class, what do student’s grades really imply? If we truly want to evaluate a student, we need to see that the student is capable of producing at a certain level. We would like to know that he or she can master, or have already mastered, a specific skill. The student needs to show he or she can make connections between other subjects (this one is near and dear to my heart). I imagine you can see that I am a proponent of some kind of portfolio for students. A place for students to “put” these artifacts, which show what they have learned over time. How can a student’s learning/growth truly be measured if there is not some baseline with which it can be compared? While I do not have the answer to the “where & how” question of portfolios, I do know if my own kids were not let high school early college, I would create a portfolio and start putting their student work on it. Likely, it would be a wiki and the student would have edit rights.

Last year I got to witness the U.K. version of Project-Based-Learning (PBL). I had a day to observe at OldMacher Academy in Aberdeen, Scotland. I attended a science class with some 6th or 7th grade U.S. equivalent students. They were working within a PBL context and their driving question was something like “How can we send a person to another planet?” Honestly, I had a bit of issue with the question, simply because it was one that had already been answered. However, I suspect it was appropriate for this age group. Their driving question had many different areas in which they needed to learn content: Newtonian mechanics, planetary astronomy, chemistry, ethics (we can go, but should we?), human biology, relationships, and the list could go on and on. In reality, I have no doubt a driving question such as this one could take an entire year for students to answer. Even then, there would still be “meat left on the bone”. It has such a far-reaching context, I’m not sure it could even be answered in a single school year.

While I was observing the students at OldMacher, I saw 7th graders (or 8th) engaged in the learning process, asking questions, and making discoveries that were relevant to the topic at hand. I did not observe students who were bored or misbehaving. I do not mean to imply that PBL makes teaching/learning all roses, stars, and unicorns. The teacher was was working even harder than the students. She had no time to visit with me because she was busy asking her own guiding questions and giving gentle nudges, in context, as needed.

No doubt, I had an effect on the class as well. After all, the observer effect is one of the basic tenets in physics. As you observe an object, you change it’s state, simply by observing it. It is entirely possible students were on their behavior because I was in the room. Nevertheless, students, by all appearances, were learning and doing so with some independence and self-direction.

My point in all of this can really be summed up in one sentence: If the Constructionist candidate were running for the Office of Education Reform, I would vote for him or her. Not only would I vote for the candidate, I would knock on doors to campaign for this person. I would tell my friends about the merits of this view of education (I kind of already do this). I would volunteer to work in the campaign. I would do whatever I could to get the Constructionist candidate elected. After the reading last week and this week, I find that I am not a constructivist; instead, I need to register to vote as a constructionist.

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