Learning to Learn

Sept 12, 2006

Learning to learn is about learning to organize knowledge.  It can also be thought of as knowledge construction: the domain of the constructivists.  Along with learning skills and the use of tools for developing, storing and sharing information, learning to learn means learning to develop knowledge in the community context; an important part of learning to learn is in learning social skills.   

Constructivists center their theories around group, or community, learning.  A single person, they say, especially a youngster, can learn only so much on his own.  Just as children learn from their families, students learn from their peer groups.  They describe learning in terms of a community of learning.  Constructivism is but one approach to the idea of a community learning.  All science, including social science, is builds on the accumulation of existing knowledge; all science is built on science.  "We stand on the shoulders of giants." 

According to teachers I talked to while researching for my papers, the challenge of group learning is getting students to work together productively.  Many of the goals of group learning mirror desires of society.  Group learning encourages students to take responsibility for their own education, and to work well with others; it gives them a sense of ownership over their lives and community; and helps them find topics that interest them that will ultimately help them develop rewarding careers.  By taking responsibility, they gain an important component of responsible citizenship: self-discipline. 

I have had many personal teaching experiences in my life, more than I realized, and I had always experienced success.  My personal focus in teaching is creating enthusiasm for ideas (creating the teachable moment) and developing teamwork in groups ("one for all, all for one," from Dumas).  In 2002, I created a mentoring organization for high school students interested in computer science in New York City from my professional computer club, the Linux Society.  The learning there was purely successful project science, with students having varied roles suited to their interests--some of the roles were purely organizational.  I modeled the group after typical small software corporations.  The star student told me later that life after the Linux Society was disappointing; he felt brow beaten by his professors; he actually became depressed.  But, while he was with the Linux Society, he was a very popular lecturer on system security and he led the technology effort. 

The opinions of the parents of middle school students and the communities they live in are relevant.  I believe that what everybody wants from education, more than anything, is responsibility.  They want the children to develop to be responsible citizens and they want the schools and teachers to be responsible to the children.  Responsibility is a key part of knowledge building; when working in well-guided groups, students, in a sense, "take ownership" of their education.  They develop the responsibilities to guide their own growth, they also develop responsibilities for each other, helping make the entire school system responsible to the community.   

Since learning to learn needs a thesis to focus on, it is that group learning and knowledge building, what I think of as project science, is good for most students: students "at risk" as well as highly successful students.  I provide an overview of the challenges faced by middle school students based on a book by Paul Hurd.  I also attempt to show how the construction of science knowledge in group learning environments can give much of what it expects from educational systems.  All of the learning for this paper was focused to help me write the other paper of this study, Teaching about hurricanes. 

The middle school years 

The obvious development for middle age students is the leap from childhood to the earliest stage of adulthood and responsibility: both social and biological growth.  The excitement of this period is unique; it seems difficult for adults to recall the experience.   

In many respects, the middle school age is ideal; children are finally shedding infancy and have the opportunity to start making a relationship with the world around them, but they have not reached the young adulthood of high school with its stressful responsibilities and social drama.  It is pure excitement; every day appreciably improves over the last. 

Growing up today, is harder than in the past; youth today often feel isolated and that no one cares.  Choices are numerous and difficult, the future is obscure, and there is little help from school curricula.  Children mature physically earlier because in improved nutrition, and mentally earlier as a result of the downpour of experience from society and the Information Society: adolescence is shifting ground: exciting, challenging for everyone, and critically important for society.  (Hurd, 2)   Educators have been committed to meeting the needs of students, but often, those needs are not understood. 

Families today live in an environment more technically advanced than previous generations had; yet, parents today (who are aware) expect to see their children have fewer available resources form them than they had, or their parents had before them. 

Many middle school students coming from families near, or below, the poverty level, have a very hard time.  Besides stresses in the family environment from marginal living, neighborhoods lack true community; often community, for them, is crime based.  They nation is committed to a policy of non-entitlement; just because you are an American, you are not necessarily entitled to the American standard of living. 

Much has been removed from community over the centuries; the guilds that protected workers and held standards high are gone, and most of the finely developed arts have left the workshops and drifted into museums and the past.  This initially occurred with the development of highly capitalized industry.  The new big money of what is often called the Industrial Revolution moved away from the cultural centers to the mountains and forests where the industrial raw materials were exploited.  Eventually, society becomes the servant of industry.  Instead of personal and societal enrichment, the goal is development of capital for the sake of capital.  (Mumford) 

Hurd quotes Margaret Mead when she points out that "families not only often broken horizontally, between parents, but vertically between generations where children are losing the support of grandparents." (Hurd, 17)   The constant mobility of Americans, where motion is often forced by the present economic climate, guarantees continual severing of extended family ties.  A positive constant in children's lives are the high standards of teachers, and their caring for their students. 


It helps to know that all nations seek solutions that happen to parallel suggestions by educators for improving middle school pedagogy to face the new challenges.   

Despite desire for advancement in education by parents, communities, and nations, the US Government, for instance, is not acting proactively to bring about change.  The US is one of only five countries in the world that does not have a national science curriculum.  (Hurd, 41) 

What is hoped for by many educators is the development of pedagogy that ultimately puts responsibility for education more in the hands of students.  Rather than have students sit in front of chalkboards, writing down material to memorize, the students learn to develop their own knowledge, with teacher guidance, with a wide variety of benefits. 

The National Middle School Association sees middle school students ideally learning to happy; personally enriched; living in harmony with humanity and the environment; and for them to be able to enjoy beauty. 


To be able to take on an unsure future, students need to learn resourcefulness, they need to learn decision making; they need to learn to be able to critically analyze changing events around them to be able to discern the best directions for themselves knowing that their decisions will affect those around them.  They need to be responsible for themselves and their environments, wherever they or whatever those may be.  Students need to tell the educators what kind of teaching will make them interested in science, to help educators build science programs, creating more scientists for society.  (Hurd, 1) 

In the sense of local communities, schools need to prepare students for the job market.  Success today in the job market is in the ability to adapt.  Young workers today have to be able perceive economic needs, and act on them.  They also have to think analytically, and they have to be prepared to use information-based systems technology.  

The true values of science and scientific thinking, according to Hurd, are in developing socially scientific thinking for all environments: a truly revolutionary concept.  Making decisions about career, friends, even family, with reasoned accuracy may save students a lot of confusion and misspent time in the long run.  Making choices with the use of inquiry and research paths, likewise, is a crucial skill for getting the best out of life.  While the classic scientific corollary is a valuable experience, socially oriented science provides equally important skills to every student, especially those decidedly not on a science career path.  An example of a socially scientific discovery path that may be ideal for helping many students develop successful careers would be in apprenticing to programs in local healthcare centers.  This type of experience would teach strict procedures rather than utilize open discovery, but it would still be of constructive value for giving students a potential start in the health field. 

Communities benefit from science education, yet communities rarely participate in, or contribute directly to science education.  In an irony, the most successful students in the community, representing some of the biggest investments by the community, go on to college unlikely to return to the community.  The best way to keep the most valued emerging members of the community at home would be to give them their higher education locally, and to create a comfortable environment to support their entry into the work force. 

Students who are more likely to stay in the community are those unlikely to go away to college.  Some of them may not even graduate high school, yet they will fill important trade roles, and fulfill the responsibilities of being parents where their effects are felt into future generations.  Because their futures are very likely close to the community, a meaningful investment in their lives is more important to the community than the investment in students guaranteed to leave.  Also important is the development of their inquiry skills of society itself; they need to be able to participate democratically, if the community is going to be able to determine it's future. 

The reaction by society because of its dissatisfactions with the educational systems has been somewhat punitive; it has been the application of standardized testing programs with consequences for both teachers and students who fail: high stakes testing.  New Jersey, as a better example, has harnessed high stakes testing to implement change-reform designed to introduce problem solving skills to education, rather than the accumulation of factual knowledge, so that students learn to think better making them better qualified for today's competitive climate.  Yet, teachers often resist problem solving teaching strategies; they comply with the superficial characteristics of reform initiatives without grasping problem solving techniques that society wishes children to learn.  Teachers have often been trained to simply execute rote procedures; it is hard to expect them to adapt to conceptual teaching concepts that they have never experienced.  As often as not, students are simply following instructions presented by the teacher, all coming to the results that are predicted and written on the board.  (Firestone, Shorr, Monfils, 31) 

Initially, high stakes testing was created to channel students by test scores into schools were they would be trained specifically to fill predetermined roles in the workforce: the concept of human capital.   

Today, testing is used for this purpose in many places but, increasingly, the tests are used to by states that seek reform and responsibility.  Still, the approach of learning to learn is not being embraced.  Instead, states have adopted a diluted version the problem solving approach with tests that attempt to measure the problem solving abilities of students, and how effectively schools give them these skills.   

The testing has not made changes to the inequities in education between well-funded and poorer districts.  Standards, assessments, whole-school reform programs changed financing, and other actions have had no effect in changing inequalities in American education.  In fact, all across America, these actions have had only slight changes in over all scores. (Firestone, Shorr, Monfils, ix)  Tests are seen as a way to prod poor performers to work harder, and as a way to provide diagnostic information to show which children need assistance and which subjects need more attention.  In reality, test data is released after students have moved to the next grade, and in a format difficult to understand.  In fact, teachers may never see data from high stakes testing results.  (Firestone, Shorr, Monfils, 159)


Initially, laws enforcing public education created shortages of teaching resources as many new students were added to the systems.  Simply attempting to meet the needs and obligations of society, schools were made into factories.  The perception is that "limited resources require optimal order" is necessary.  (Polman, 27)   

The offending epistemologies are called transmissional and didactic.  Poorly funded schools tend cling to these educational theories, as administrators and politicians feel this is the only way they can educate the students with the scant resources they have.  The irony is that poor schools may not be as well funded as affluent schools, but they are still well funded; they are plagued with other problems, some from the community, and some from administrations too conservative to initiate change.  Often administrators sabotage change-initiatives themselves, telling teachers to fake problem solving pedagogies.  (Firestone, Shorr, Monfils, 31)  Also ironic is that teaching genuine problem solving techniques, if education involves the students can be beneficial especially to schools facing fiscal difficulties. 

In the narrow definition, the didactic approach is concerned with getting students to understand scientific meanings.  The criticism is that the student is required to memorize facts and procedures written on the board only to repeat them later during tests; students, viewed as blank slates or empty containers, are filled with knowledge.  In didactic teaching, the student is absent from the development of his knowledge; responsibility for his education is removed from the student. Learning is not connected with real life in any significant way; the information tends to impermanent.  Also the didactic and transmissional methodologies are not fun for most students, especially those with innovative skills, which are useful skills for developing science.  The methodologies tend to dissuade students who would otherwise pursue science on their own, or as a career.  

An initial evolution was to develop a form of inquiry into science to strengthen children's abilities to solve problems, but the methodology teaches by offering problems that have been solved endless times before.  Students learn science but only following the procedures with which science knowledge was originally achieved long ago.  This creates for students a relationship with science that is purely imitative, as students repeat the experiments of great scientists with predictable results, of which they are already aware.  The criticism is that they build no learning or discovery techniques, they discover little, and they develop no personal relationship with Science.  (Hurd, 43) 

Shapiro feels that students come out of the school "learned outcomed," where all the predetermined objectives of the curriculum have been met.  She says that the blank slate analogy graduates students to succeeding levels where they have had no previous experiences.  Students succeed or fail based on their ability to accomplish a certain percentage of objectives.  If they fail to reach minimal objectives for a level, they have to repeat it; they continue doing this until they either pass or drop out. (Shapiro, 9) 

The cognitive approach further advanced teaching.  Cognitive theory is based on perception, or perceptions within areas of knowledge.  Applying the cognitive approach to teaching would be the art of creating these perceptions based on the understandings of scientists, or decisions based on those understandings.  (Rutherford, Roberts, Ostman, 15)  Within the didactic frame theory, the roles of scientists and politicians are separated; politicians make decisions for the community of learners, including ability grouping, based on empirical data from the scientific community.   School knowledge is shaped by the consensus of politicians from underlying scientific disciplines as recommended by educators appointed by politicians. (Rutherford, Roberts, Ostman, 17)   

The most common result of the struggle to move students closer to the mastery of problem solving skills through high stakes testing is a form of backlash called decontextualized learning.  This is problem solving that is divorced from learning, problem solving that is focused entirely on test taking.  It relies on "intense didactic practice."  There is, therefore, no connection between learning and life; the desire by society to add give students skills applicable to their futures has been defeated.  The class is entirely focused on the teacher, and her example problems.  Little emphasis is placed on discussing whether answers are reasonable.  Students are not encouraged to develop problem-solving techniques on their own, and there is no social support in the class.  (Firestone, Shorr, Monfils, 29)   The alternative to the decontextualized teaching practice is embedded test preparation, where teachers mix all the required learning into an curriculum which inquires into the nature of life and phenomena.  (Firestone, Shorr, Monfils, viii)   

Ultimately, high stakes testing fails at fixing problems of inequity in education, and only marginally improves scores over time.  It definitely does not improve the lives of students, or their self-esteem; failure is taken hard.  In my opinion, the only benefits of high stakes testing go to those who promoted high stakes testing in the first place, and companies that provide privatized test-taking services.   

Scientific isolation

According to Hurd, the scientific community has kept itself away from society, only appearing in the form of products and technical innovations.  He describes it as being detached from the real world and implies that the scientific community has promoted ignorance about scientific contributions by isolating itself.  Scientific concepts have been objectified as isolated problems, and science applications for the "common good," such as social science applications, "have been blocked by research scientists for 350 years."    (Hurd, 43-44)     

In recent decades, exceptional social scientists such as Maslow and Rogers helped create humanly oriented social science, and Buckminster Fully blended their synergistic approaches with highly advanced engineering to create spectacular solutions to common problems.  All these scientists advocated technological enhancements for the democratic system.  But still, as Hurd tells us, people have been denied the ability to apply science to their everyday lives.   (Hurd, 44) 

Society is open about its lack of obligation to youth; there is no obligation, "Education is not a right" stated Governor Pataki of New York; he is technically correct.  The concept of an obligation of by government to its people is now usually referred to as entitlement, where Americans should entitled to the benefits of society by being loyal to America.  But, entitlement is usually now referred to in terms of welfare and public support; to many in powerful positions, it appears, children are a burden. 

In the free computing communities of the Information Society, I have felt that software has been deliberately made difficult to use, for no apparent reason, creating blocks to its dissemination.  The free software movement was created to a large degree in MIT labs by people religiously opposed to the monopolies of technology giants, most important of which is now Microsoft.  Yet, they have done nothing to popularize free software by making accessible to the average computer user: the software is apparently built by and for purely scientifically trained users.  I wondered why they want to do this.  The only explanation I have been given that has made sense so far is that many of the programmers in pubic domain community are "monkish," which to me implies something like an "ivory tower" mentality controlling much of public domain programming. 

Society needs scientists; scientific isolation has prevented the US from meeting its needs.  Science is uninteresting to children, and barriers have been placed preventing students from pursing science.  Science is popular among children, but children are not popular as potential contributors among the established scientific community.  Excessive testing needlessly wastes students' talents, forcing them into roles far below their potentials, creating a sense of hopelessness and isolation.   

The relationship between community and society

Needs come at cross-purposes between community and society.   From education, society has two needs: developing exceptional individuals to fill professional and governance roles; and developing groups who are less exceptional to function as human capital components in the globally competitive "race to the bottom" of production costs. 

Community, under these conditions, becomes separate from society.  As society increasingly defines government and control, handing down laws and moral concepts, communities need to gravitate internally towards the grass roots ideals.  The active agents of education in the community are the families, the teachers, and the children: not high-level governmental agencies. 

Communities need exceptional group efforts at school, hopefully to meet higher scholastic expectations; every individual has to be the real focus of the educational system.  The educational-political goal of the community, its democratic purpose with respect to education, is to assure that the accountability system, the high stakes testing suite, should really measure skills communities need to thrive.  Communities need effective group efforts from their citizens to function as a democracy; and they need effective cooperative work groups to thrive economically. 

Bridging communities and science: people want better science learning

In 1997, statistics showed that nearly 50% of American adults read a daily newspaper, 15% read one or more science magazines each month, and 53% watched one or more science television show each month.  Approximately 60% of adults visited a science or natural history museum at least once a year, and 31% reported that they had purchased one or more science books during the preceding year.  (Falk, 100) 

Parents and teachers are seeing how schools are often failing in teaching; they look for alternatives.  Museums are libraries are obvious choices, so is home schooling.  Museums have schools, I attended one experimental school as a child at the Museum of Modern Art; years later, during high school, I exhibited in the Whitney Museum.  There are more than 16 museum schools in the country; they work in conjunction with "art, history, and science museums."  The materials and scientific equipment available to students in museums usually are far better than any school could afford; being a student in a museum school would give students a sense of ownership and continual access to sophisticated equipment.  The popularity of museum activities with both students and parents, and their known success in popularizing science, gives a hint to the efficacy of museum schools.  (Falk, 100) 

Libraries are available to students all the time; a correlation between student success and library use can probably be taken for granted.  Like teachers, librarians are known for their commitment to knowledge, proved by their high professional standards, but they are rewarded by society with low salaries.  Giving libraries scientific educational equipment, out of the scope of the stresses of the school systems, would give students an opportunity to build knowledge skills in a quiet environment.  (Falk, 100) 

Home schooling is a growing phenomenon in the United States, where the majority of states have no minimum requirements for parents wishing to give their children their primary education.  Science can be made available to them through the web.  But, group activity, and access to scientific study is missing for these students.  The same supports for independent study by regular school students can be extended to these children, possibly through museums and libraries, and possibly through networking to find other students wanting to form project groups.  (Falk, 100) 

Traditional community connection with education

For most of America's history, teaching was done in the one room schoolhouse.  I have friends my age and younger who learned in these tiny institutions.  The one-room schoolhouse is gone, but memories of them are still alive.  The connection to the community, especially in rural and frontier areas, was implicit in that the schools directly supported local economies; children were taught to the needs of the community.  The community built the schools, fed the students, put fuel in the stoves, as well as paid the teachers.  Community members visited the school to teach trades. 

Today, this type of community, tightly knit with both its own education and the economy, is nearly extinct in the US.  But, the principles behind the unity, as well as the humanly natural process of learning as it can be applied to education, are being studied and popularized as solutions for community learning, as well as learning through the modern Information Society of the Internet.  While the newly presented approaches are supposedly modern their inception, they are based on the oldest traditions. 

An encompassing irony of cultural modernism is that it often borrows from very ancient, even primitive, cultures.  Cubism, a locus for modern art, is a perfect, and familiar, example.  Socially advanced ideas of expression and interpersonal reconnection have caused a revival of pure tribalism in the cultural fringes.  In the avant guarde of music, futuristic electronic concepts have been continually blended into primal drumbeats for two decades.   

New Teaching Paradigms 

Primarily, new teaching and learning paradigms promote learning in groups, where the new practitioners theorize that learning takes place best in a community setting.  The smallest community learning environment is in the family: the parent-child learning pair.   

When comparing the problems faced by communities with solutions proposed to reweave the community fabric through education, one sees the cyclic struggle between controlling and creative forces.  In this case, the good guys are the community members struggling for cultural and spiritual survival against the high-level forces of the well-heeled and controlling.   

Learning has always existed in the community and in the family.  In the family, recognition comes (ideally) through love; in the community it comes through solidarity.  In highly governed societal structures, all these feelings are considered societal assets to be encouraged only when there is perceived benefit for the structure.  But, as soon as the benefits of community solidarity evolve into a generalized spreading of the benefits of wealth across all of society, there will likely be resistance from the highest levels of the controlling structure.  There may be even a reactionary rebellion disguised as governance to reinforce the top-down didactic control structure, once again fracturing the community fabric. 

While this description is simplistic, it has a romantic and populist appeal.  For the purposes of engaging discussion, there is nothing wrong with romanticism.  And, knowing that education is often the underdog in the capital struggle, a Robin Hood approach is not unfair.  Yet, when discussing education with respect to the community from the perspective of culture and the economy, some the radical ideas for teaching, however beneficial, may need to be diluted somewhat to allow them to be applied within existing societal structures.  Many ideas considered radical, I believe, are based on traditional concepts; their radical-ness only stems from their opposition to the transmissional and didactic approaches, and because truly cohesive community values have been absent for so long making community based learning seem to be new.  Today, in Canada, the Aboriginal Television Channel every day has programs hosted by modern Native philosophers who discuss Native community relationships and traditional Native therapies that would seem radical even to constructivists and humanists; yet, with mild consideration, their efficacy seems obvious. 

In an irony of our capital civilization, the wealthy, who rely on the top-down control of the world's workers for their wealth, seek problem solving and project based curricula for their children.  The poor, regimented by the factory environment (when they can find meaningful work), often seek to promote the top down controls of didactic pedagogy.  The perception, or perhaps excuse, for preserving didactic education is that project based curricula is too expensive-- poor students have to be "platooned" through the factory-like didactic systems.  Why, then, do the wealthy choose problem solving based education for their children, and then attempt to extend it to all of education, as New Jersey government does through its high stakes tests?  Could it be that the socially liberal dream of empowering the poor with the ability to solve their own problems is in our near future?

A "lived curriculum" is one in which students develop a "sense of worth and ownership."  (Hurd, 55) 

In reality, the goal of modern middle school science is to engage the students into their learning, to make them enthusiastic about the prospects of studying and discovering.  The goal is also to help them organize their learning, and to fill the voids in their understandings.   

These voids are often precisely the same learning that is required (and expected) by society when society mandates testing for educational accountability.  As it happens, advanced learning strategies, in particular project based learning, cause dramatic increases in student scores in high stakes testing especially in communities suffering from the systemic low self-esteem caused by poverty.  An important component of learning in groups is ownership; students take direct control over projects there by taking responsibility for their education.  Experiences in group learning environments, such as project based learning, show that the idea of ownership, where the students participate directly in organizing their own education, allows learning, especially required learning, to seep deeper into the workings of young students minds, making the knowledge more available to them as they take the tests.  Students' increased personal confidence, or higher self-esteem, makes them better prepared for the testing process. 

For children to successfully set on these paths of learning and discovery, new responsibilities are necessary for both teachers and students.  If the benefits of learning in workgroups are to be harnessed, students need to be responsible to each other.  Together these responsibilities are the fabric of an advanced community. 

From the common perspective of didactic framing, schools, and often the community, will want to reward success through competition, whereas in group learning environments students benefit from cooperation and collaboration.  Under competitive systems, students not excelling are likely to be ignored by the community; they will probably isolate themselves, and in so doing close off opportunities for future learning.  This is very expensive to society in the long run, as many of these people wind up having to be taken care of. 

In group learning environments, students can readjust their approaches and understandings having seen obvious successes by their group members.  Group learning is not limited to a learner's assigned group.  Many students show networking talent, cross pollinating successful ideas between learning groups: a form of meta-cooperation.  Students have to aware of the value of all the skills.  These values carry through life, not just to the next test; they reinforce social understanding through science understanding. 

The community of learning

Human development occurs on two levels: the biological level, where children learn by making observations and from trial and error; and the cultural level, where children learn to communicate, and with that ability join their thoughts with the collective knowledge of the surrounding community.  (Rutherford, Roberts, Ostman, 41) 

The process of restoring the social and cohesive fabric to the community seems new, because it has been on the wane for so long.  From the perspective of education and learning, the field of community learning is presently being dominated by the followers of the Russian educator of a century ago, Vygotsky.  His primary concept that learning is best achieved in groups.  He credits the community for advancing the individual from the child-like phase of wonder to inclusion into society's groups as a contributing member.  Vygotsky followers have extended his theories to the planetary extension of the Internet. 

While constructivists are best known for their concepts of community learning, the constructivist study most relevant to the middle school student is the idea of passage, as Margaret Mead might put it, from the roles of novice to expert within the community.  Children grow in so many ways that individual growth is personal and difficult to generalize.  But, the transition from childhood innocence to the beginnings of adult responsibility in a social setting is so similar across humanity, and possibly even including much of the natural animal world, it seems to be naturally institutionalized.  An application of Vygotsky's theories is in the not-so-new area of apprenticeship, which tells us that constructivism is important to the community, to the improvement of its economic fabric, and possibly to its restoration.  It also tells us that it is based on traditional teaching concepts. 

Constructivists describe the significant transformation to young adulthood as beginning with quiet watching.  Novices begin to participate in a group when they feel confidence.  When the "risk of disrupting the community starts to ebb," novices begin to take risks by presenting significant ideas to the community.  An important goal in teaching would be an effort to encourage experts to be open to novice's ideas to help make them comfortable in the community. (Prior, Lave, Wenger, Hatano from Daniels, 72-73)  Of course, in the middle school environment, making students feel confidant enough to take scientific risks is a key responsibility of teaching.  In fact, the expert of experts is the teacher; she purposefully brings the novice into to a world of understanding.  The teacher is the source of enlightenment; there is no reason to belittle the significance of the middle school students' successful transition to expert, nor trivialize the role of the middle school teacher in helping this transition. 

A key extension of Vygotsky's epistemology is the idea of scaffolding, where an ideally organized teaching environment can be like a parent teaching a child to ride a bike.  As the child goes through the learning phases, obvious key supports disappear, such as the training wheels, the holding of the bike upright by the parent, and the final shove-off.  Finally the child starts, rides, and stops (hopefully without crashing) on his own.  Commonalties that exist both in successful classrooms and in the parent-as-teacher relationship were developed by Cazden (Daniels, 106): 


Scaffolding, in the classical sense, is meant as a tutoring technique used in one-to-one sessions where a teacher guides a student through a specific difficult learning.  It is really meant to just guide a student to a specific knowledge or skill.  To help build the student's sense of confidence and mastery, the tutor shields the student from the more difficult aspects of learning to allow a student to grasp simpler concepts first.  

If students are confused or overwhelmed by a concept; they get flustered; they may become too frustrated to learn.  By allowing them to grasp simpler concepts first, their increased confidence encourages them to move onto harder topics, possibly by themselves.  If a student gets lost, a tutor can show him a starting point.  If the student is still stuck the tutor can suggest a way to solve the problem, such as using a calculator.  If the student is still stuck the tutor might suggest how to solve the problem by showing him how to use the calculator by setting it up.  Finally, at the greatest point of support, the teacher may have to demonstrate how to solve the problem. (Daniels, p 106) 

There is no reason to be shy about extending constructivist ideas in any way.  In my work in the Information Society, where I try to initiate discussion leading to action in a web community, I use scaffolding to describe the discussion building process.  To initiate discussion, an elaborate community needs to be built; in it, community needs to feel comfortable in self expression.  Discussion is usually linear, or sometimes two-dimensional; but, by using the scaffolding idea, where the scaffold is a temporary support (I compare it to a ship's dry dock) so that the ideas entered into the discussion can be allowed take form, if they have significant underlying meanings.  Or, from another perspective, they can be set free, sort of like a flock of birds, to link-up with similar ideas coming from other sources; the meanings become set free from their context to join the contexts of other, similar, meanings.  The mechanism to facilitate this linking process would use keywords, or tags, to create profiles reflecting the information in the idea, to link textual ideas from different sources that have similar profiles. 

Another important tenet of constructivist epistemology is reciprocal teaching.  Like other constructivist concepts, novice-to-expert and scaffolding, reciprocal teaching sounds very much like what it is.  The idea where the student and teacher share in the learning process as part of learning to learn is simple enough.  In learning in workgroups, reciprocal teaching takes on another dynamic where learning is divided into roles, and the roles are rotated, in a circle, as the group cycles through concepts.  I have seen just such cyclic learning in Bible study groups, where reading and commenting moves rotationally with chapter and verse.  In fact, it seems as if the Bible were structured for reciprocal learning: 


The cycles of reciprocal teaching provide a bridge between prior learning, new learning, and give an idea to future learning.  These skills increase the community abilities of students in a variety of ways: community interaction is increased, making all of the students valued group members.  As the students internalize learning, they gain the ability to anticipate outcomes, creating more mastery and confidence.  Rotating roles and tasks between students working in workgroups is especially important for preparing students for roles in which they are not expert, in tasks they might not assume on their own.  Roles between teacher and student often switch as students develop new ways of solving problems or perceiving concepts. 

Situated learning describes the environment a student experiences as she heads out into the sea of discovery, having been released from the initial community of learning, which is usually made safe with scaffolding.  She is truly at sea; her learnings lead to discoveries which, in turn, create many questions, confusion, frustration, and self-doubt.  The process of mastery in new areas of learning is fraught with risk and difficulty.

Possibly, the ideal work group size for situated learning is two, to provide mutual support.  More than two may result in a desire to turn back into safer areas of learning.  And, a solo learner will have to weather the emotional stress of self-doubt unassisted.  In project science, it is the responsibility of the teacher to help situated students create structures for inquiry, which may, or course, evolve into newly situated confusion.  The teacher would benefit by developing a sense of humor about all this. 

Teachers assist students in their project development by helping them analyze new questions, and mysteries; to help them better design inquiry paths as their situated learning reveals to them questions they never knew existed.  In project science and group learning, the primary goal is building knowledge development skills first, so as to enable the achievement of significant understandings to make contributions to the community of knowledge. 

Students need to make complete connections of ideas to feel confident in their knowledge.  If the new knowledge does not make those connections, they will be in disbelief of accepted science; they will revert to the non-scientific knowledge they initially developed as a child; they will feel personally incomplete. (Shapiro, 153) 

For some students, the incompleteness of concepts gives them a sense of failure.  When discovery creates new questions, concepts they cannot grasp, they may feel inadequate because their knowledge has not been completed.  If their discovery efforts are unrecognized by the teacher and the other students (their learning community), then situated learning will not benefit them.  Despite their being successful, they cannot feel the benefits of their learning successes; in the future, they may not want to continue pursuing science.  (Shapiro, 165) 

Students who are successful in scientific inquiry may actually experience a feeling of failure because their inquiry leads to more questions than conclusions; their successes can, ironically, negatively affect their personal development.  Since the scientific learning framework is, in effect, very well known, the teacher can help by providing for conceptual successes by assisting in bringing the students' learning to specific milestones, giving students a feeling of accomplishment and recognition for their efforts. 

Support during situated learning is described by Pea as transformative communication.  It is an extension of the idea of the zone of proximal development, or ZPD, Vygotsky's topological description for the community of learning. (Poleman, 154)  


When teachers discuss projects and project details with students, communication between the teacher and student provides guidance and resources for the direction of the study.  This suggests that flexibility in the topics of learning promote a continual forward motion, thus achieving the goals of "learning to learn." 

Ideal learner

Constructivism confirms thoughts I had developed as a child wandering the halls of New York's Museum of Natural History: the ways primitive tribal people think is, in many ways, significantly more advanced, and modernistic, than the thinking of the average person walking on the streets of New York City.   

When I read constructivists describing the ideal modern person; a person who looks, learns, adapts to life using life-long learning, I saw the ideal forest dweller.  As described in anthropology and fiction, the ideal forest dweller is continually absorbing the cyclic changes in the environment, adapting to them, and relaying new information about the environment to his extended family in the way that constructivists describe the community of learning.  This agility is sought by every nation in the world as a middle school epistemology to transforming their peoples from sedentary and limited to dynamic and proactive.  This is what is meant by learning to learn. 

The reciprocal extension of this universal desire is the thought-through activity of individuals, who, as genuine members of their communities, develop community knowledge to better understand and share their world: 


With my own experiences, and help from Munenori, author of the Life-Giving Sword (a Zen swordsman's manifesto written in the mid-1600s), I further synthesized ideal characteristics for our age: 


As knowledge is shared through the community, the theories of Synergy developed by Ruth Benedict are extended by constructivism to show that knowledge, like other resources, is better when it is shared.  Widely distributed resources are far more beneficial to than resources shut away commodities--if benefits to the community are a priority.  Accurate knowledge may be difficult to develop, but knowledge-sharing is inexpensive, especially with the sharing technologies of the modern Information Society.  Today's world of knowledge consists not just of information, or information products, but also of information production processes; significant portions of both are already mutually shared through the Internet. 

Just as the scientific community creates a consensus of understanding, tested by the critical analysis of peer review, a community builds knowledge where each building block is tested daily by its members for validity as they make knowledge contributions. 

Constructivists seek to challenge students to accept scientific knowledge by having them act as part of the greater scientific community through their learning and experiments.   They participate in the scientific community by comparing their ideas with each other in their work groups, or in class discussions.  Developing the idea of the students as scientists can only enhance their interest in science, assuming the have one; making them potential scientists.  Virtually all students look forward to science learning, especially experiments and other discovery activities such as field trips and science fairs.  Those students not seeing themselves in a scientific role as they grow will still benefit from the scientific abilities they develop.  They can learn to apply critical methods in their everyday life, helping them make correct decisions both great and small.  Their lives improve in granular, yet significant ways: "building a mountain from pebbles," from the Chinese proverb.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Constructivist Epistemology:


Developing Learning through the Community

Every level of society, including local communities, seeks many things from education.  Because middle school spans such crucial growth period in children, where they become aware of, and initiate, their relationship with the world, these needs all coincide.  The most important development during middle school is the transition from childhood to young adulthood where the development of social interaction skills will determine much of success in life.  Group learning helps to provide these skills allowing students to develop a beneficial relationship with the world. 

Group learning projects require involvement; there are a lot of responsibilities involved in creating successful groups; communities can potentially contribute.  The community benefits from education, yet rarely participates in community learning, beyond parents volunteering to act as teacher's aids during field trips.  The benefits of group learning projects made directly available to the community are the better use of resources, teaching kids to get along--to stay out of trouble, and to be able to provide the community with useful skills.  To a certain degree, the community can encourage the development of needed skills: 


Developing the students' community of learning

Various roles need to be created for students in learning projects so that they can find comfortable areas of learning.   They need to be given realistic opportunities for achievement, and group recognition, so that they will have the confidence to succeed in areas for which they not yet developed skills.  Because middle school students are usually close to their families, they can bring home their accomplishments.  They can help flow learning from the schools into the community, by granting their families a greater role in knowledge building. 

Some of the best tools available to students to help them discover concepts are recent contributions: the Internet, personal computers, and mobility.  Besides a world of knowledge available through the new Information Society, students can now easily travel to learn.   

With these tools and new concepts, schools need to help students prepare for an unsure future; students need to be able to take democratic responsibility in their communities; they need to extend critical inquiry skills to truly understand what is affecting their lives.  To remain adept, they may need to pursue life long learning, and they need to be able to create knowledge applicable directly to the community when higher education is not necessarily in their futures. 

Giving students the ability to achieve all these different goals, by helping them initiate understandings about the world around them, is the development of knowledge organization skills.   Especially important is the computer; children take to computer communication with the ease that they learn language.  Even more important are social organization skills, it is with this knowledge that students can function in groups, accelerating and giving meaning to their learning to meet society's expectations, as well as the needs of their communities. 

Project Based Learning

Project based learning is how schools today implement group learning and project science.  In some schools project based learning is so institutionalized that teachers may no long perceive of the needs that originally prompted them to pioneer the innovations.  Purely project based curricula have existed for a quarter century, so project based science has probably existed in US as partial curricula for much longer. 

Project based learning, or PBL, relies on learning groups where student determine their projects; in so doing, they take full responsibility for their learning. This is what makes project based learning constructivist; they create a community of learning. More important than learning science, is learning to work in a community, taking on social responsibilities. The most significant contributions of project based learning have been in schools languishing in poverty stricken areas.  When students take responsibility, or ownership, for their learning, their self-esteem soars. In standardized tests, languishing schools have been able to raise themselves a full grade level by implementing project based learning. 

After a school has experienced a few project learning cycles, the school culture begins to revolve around the learning groups; success in project science helps determine community status. Status is also achieved by helping less confident students succeed in the projects: Synergy. 

Project based learning is significant to the study of (mis-)conceptions; local concepts and childhood intuitions are hard to replace with accepted science through didactic and transmissional epistemologies. In project based learning, project science is the community culture; the student groups themselves resolve their understandings of phenomena with their own knowledge building.  

Project based learning is a highly successful in several applications.  The Shutesbury, Massachusetts school system has entirely eliminated traditional texts from its curricula; the students there learn from kindergarten through high school from group projects.  The Shutesbury community lives in a rural setting and consists equally of professional and the working class families.  I mention this as background to important information: The Shutesbury community's high stakes test scores are far above the national norms; Shutesbury is nationally and internationally held for its test score achievements.  Keep in mind, though, that the teachers there resent high stakes testing.  There are endless articles written about the Shutesbury school system; Shutesbury connected teachers continually receive grants to help evangelize the project based learning strategy.  (White) 

They prove that teaching to the test is not the best path to meeting educational standards, and that education is an on-going journey.  They show that learning to learn is great for students.  They also show that learning to teach is an on-going responsibility of teachers, as well as students who take on teaching responsibilities in their project groups.  

A teacher from the Shutesbury school, Ron Berger, stated in an interview that students there "would never do the kind of high-quality work they accomplish" if the school "stigmatized them with low grades from the time they were just starting."   (White) 

When trying to approach science education from the community perspective, the hype surrounding project based learning attempts to insert the learning strategy, as a, if not the, key critical component of education, hence this document.  

While project based learning is definitely of value to all students, it may have to be applied in smaller doses in different environments.  Shutesbury may have been so successful with project based science because of an overwhelming desire by the educators and the community to support the projects.  Other communities may be less enthusiastic; thereby deriving poorer returns from project based learning strategies.   

The most notable successes for project based learning have been experienced in the hostile environments of poverty stricken areas.  Studies show a thirty to fifty percent rise in high stakes testing accountability levels when applied in these environments.  While accountability itself does not raise standards, applying the spirit of problem solving in a way supported by the community gives society much of what it expects from public educational systems, students with improved analytic thinking skills.

A five year University of Michigan project report a group of students who worked in project based science.  Known as the Biokids, they showed an over-all full grade increase in their scholastic abilities.  More dramatic was a thirty percent increase in scores for students from poor urban areas when project based learning was applied across the area.  These poor urban students usually have scores half as high as students from the rural and suburban schools.  Presumably these urban students come from the Detroit area: an area hit particularly hard by economic inequity.  The over-all passing rate for students in Michigan was sixty-six percent, though presumably Michigan does not hold back to the previous grade all students who do not pass the high stakes tests.  (Serwach) 

Despite all this educational value, it is difficult to apply project based learning in theoretical terms.  It fits into curricula and contains the pedagogy of student discovery; but, it is not an epistemology, nor is it science.  Many discoveries have occurred before the invention of project based learning; in fact, nearly all discoveries have.  The most innovative contribution to knowledge construction in our time, the Internet, was built by problem solvers who could not have possibly benefited from institutionalized project based learning; they were born too soon. 

It is appropriate to discuss its strategies and components, but the theory behind project based science is more basic and human, it can be applied everywhere in learning.  Many, if not most, environments may not be ready or able to institute projects as their sole or primary teaching paths.  More important, in my opinion, are the community building aspects employed in project based learning; these ideas need to be extended beyond project based learning so that the entire community can be engaged.  Central, of course, to project based learning is the workgroup and techniques for guiding workgroups towards effective knowledge construction.   


Along the way, of course, teachers have to support the process with learning resources, physical materials, and social guidance to assure group cohesion; these are key teacher responsibilities in project based learning. 

In the case of the Shutesbury curriculum, teachers "build everything" themselves and "derive from all kinds of good programs and texts."  They haven't used textbooks for twenty five years, implying they have at least that many years of pure project science experience.   (White) 

Creating Projects

Project based learning is open-ended; it promotes continued inquiry by teaching concepts that go beyond the projects themselves.  Students who are involved in open-ended projects need know that there are no single answers and that their solutions will more likely result in more inquiry than conclusions.  Their projects need be age-appropriate; their inquiries should lead to results that they know they can achieve. 

The types of topics students use to initiate their investigations tackle should provide inquiry into issues that have contemporary meanings and that are preferably relevant in their lives.  A well developed question posed by the teacher can act as a catalyst; it can fuel their interest. As students achieve their study goals, it helps them if they feel like their successes are making a contribution to the world around them.  They may find meaning in solving problems that impact their classrooms and, ideally, the surrounding community.  Students should feel free to go in new directions, within the scope of reasonable areas of study, of course.  

Students need feel a personal connection with projects and their development processes; this is achieved by through the concept of granting ownership; they need to feel that every aspect of the work they do is actually their work.  If the projects developed by the students successfully utilize required curriculum, then an ownership connection with the projects will then bring them closer to their necessary learning, giving them ownership in, hence control over, their own education.  Integrating as many different topics as possible into the projects well help assure a comprehensive inclusion of required learning.   

To prepare topics, teachers need to research building blocks of projects; they will need to help the students obtain materials for experimentation and they will need to be able to help students access resources to increase the sophistication of their projects.  Teachers also need to prepare for student success; as students extend their learning by discovering through new inquiry, teachers have to be there to help them find direction. 

Teacher organization includes scheduling the projects to fit into the over-all curriculum; students may need help understanding time constraints, helping students here is certainly a life building skill, one best learned in the early grades. 

Openness to student inspiration can benefit everyone; students often find insights into problem solving that adults may never imagine. 

Students need to learn collaborative work: the workgroup needs different roles in which the students can feel comfortable and confident so that they can do their best work.  In this way students can develop their talents, and get peer recognition for their work.  Having a significant role in a project helps them with taking personal ownership of the entire project.   To enable growth in many directions, project group members need to cross-pollinate their individual talents.  Students should be supported in tackling roles perceived has having greater difficulty, or greater social status.   

For exemplary project success, better students need to be encouraged to help less successful students in ways that build confidence, both for the group and for the less confident students.  This form of social support in a collaborative work is the most important skill a group member can develop; encouraging this kind of effort creates deeply beneficial leadership; supportive collaborative efforts build the most important human characteristics. 

In the Shutesbury school, students often create the criteria for evaluating projects; these are called rubics.  In the case of story writing, their criteria are simple: stories must be a certain number of pages, be inoffensive to young children, must have correct grammar and spelling, and must have an appropriate cover.  In a sense, the students here preserve societal standards; they meet commonly accepted expectations.  Teachers, interested in promoting deeper learning may want to give credit for the risk taking process that accompanies expert development, allowing for some latitude in formal requirements.  Explaining the intangible criteria of risk in discovery to the students--who set the criteria--may be difficult; they may not yet understand the subtlies of situated learning.  (White) 

The Shutesbury school utilizes long term projects, so, presumably students will be able to rework many of their skills and knowledge constructs increasing their levels of mastery across all the knowledge building skills.  Some of the criteria is for personal project success, some is for team success; according to Shutesbury teachers, team enthusiasm is a strong motivator for bringing up less confident students.  They also mention community enthusiasm that reaches into the scientific community bringing back to the school system truly expert mentors.  (White) 

Scientific theory in the project science

Project science takes science beyond the classical approach, it ties together many different aspects of science in its process.  Key to and core of teaching science is the scientific experience itself: the scientific method.  We gather facts through observation, we create ideas about interrelations in nature that explain what we are seeing, and we experiment to try to prove or disprove our ideas before finalizing the concepts. 

Much research is initiated when scientists find poor explanations for phenomena.  As a result, they may likely cover new theoretical ground, possibly using more sophisticated experimental equipment.  As Isaac Asimov said, "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...' " 

Much of scientific discovery is a more like engineering, and may apply to project science as a kind of craft.  The great early astronomer, Galileo, had to invent the telescope to make his discoveries about science.  Within his development of this key scientific tool, he did much tinkering, repeating the basic scientific corollary countless times in mini-experiments as he worked with the available materials.  He also used the community: glass makers and fine wood workers.  Maybe there was such a thing as an early instrument maker.  

Many students fit well into the classic corollary of the scientific method: they gather facts through observation, create ideas about interrelations in nature that explain what they are seeing, and experiment to try to prove or disprove their ideas.  It is classical, and science teachers try to position students to, usually on their own, experience classic science knowledge building.  (M, Erika)   

In a community science project, however, students may effectively learn in an apprenticeship arrangement more like Galileo's telescope shop.  Working with local trades people creating scientific instrumentation is a way to emulate the accomplishments of early scientists giving a sense of history to projects, creating almost a club atmosphere spanning the ages.  Instead of attempting to force difficult required math while initiating an apprenticeship program, mathematical concepts may be developed during the building process.  Sine, cosine and hyperbolic equivalents can be derived with a splined batten and nails on a scrive board rather than having students arbitrarily rely on uninvolved calculator results.  Then, as newly built instruments reach perfection and data is effectively collected with them, increasingly difficult analyses, probably using computers, will help the groups earn community recognition for their accomplishments (while satisfying learning requirements).  

Epistemologies clash to create cyclic building structures

In a well oiled project science group, with a good distribution of skills among students, and with reliance on both classic science and knowledge building through research, what is needed for project science is a balance between social and analytic aspects of group learning. 

In the real world, social (subjective), and analytic (objective) ideals are separated into opposing arguments.  Similar struggles exist in psychotherapy; all three schools of therapy attempt to promote their concepts over the others: behavioral, cognitive and humanistic.  To me, each of the opposing schools can be applied in different ways; they relate to different parts of the human experience.  The humanist approach seeks healing by confirming life's experiences; humanism benefits someone facing a crisis concerning life itself.  Behaviorism, at the other end of the scale, would be more appropriate for some one struggling with systemic disorders, and is locked away.  The cognitive approach is related to learning from life's experiences as is humanism; but prefers to look at limited mental constructs relevant to specific events. 

As applied to project science, the cognitive approach would imply (for me) learning from observing, whereas the humanistic approach (constructivism) would encourage discussing and mulling-over data.  The behavioral approach may work well with students who are so far behind that rewards for small successes would give them crucial confidence.  Everything has its place. 

All ideas can exist symbiotically in therapy and education, but they clash when it comes to project science.  But, cooperation is essential; project science hinges on scientific inquiry: the scientific method.  When these categories of ideas blend, they form learning cycles.   


I developed this view from the constructivist's linear scale for comparing their epistemology with didactic epistemology; the didactic method is in the first column.  (Daniels 120)   I immediately modified the chart to be an iterative loop for science community knowledge construction. 

Traditional - Rational

Persuade - Inquire

Single  - Multiple

Fixed  - Changeable 

The classical corollary defines success in a scientific study where a conclusion is derived from a hypothetical model.  Rational thinking (traveling down the second, constructivist, column) leads to multiple approaches in a study where the community is encouraged by a flexible approach as part of the development process.  Changeable ideas start to solidify, becoming fixed concepts as understanding is better defined.  The process moves to the bottom of the first column and then continues traveling upward as conclusions developed during the learning process establish themselves into the knowledge base.  Then, others using the established information build upon it: building "on the shoulders of giants." 

In many applications, there may be a learning cycle where concepts start as rational, traveling through a constructive phase, but then conclude, and stop, when they reach success.  This is because some ideas are too difficult to understand by most people, such as the inner workings of a microprocessing chip.  In these cases, learning cycles back to traditional framing epistemologies without creating community understanding simply because the concepts involved are too complex.  

Certain ideas or details may be too difficult for students, or even teachers, to fully absorb, especially in the early phases of science learning.  Difficult specific concepts may have to be taken for granted to a certain degree, they have to be accepted didactically.  In weather studies, the idea that clouds are made of water droplets that stay suspended in the sky may be difficult young learners; understanding that concept may have to wait until later in their learning careers.  There is an associated learning within that suspension, or falling, of drops concept that may cause much of the ferocity of hurricanes.  It may be that the fantastic updrafts generated are caused by the release of the drops in rain; if this is so, proof would be a challenge for any meteorologist to produce in a classroom lab. 

Developing Group Learning

The Shutesbury school district seems to be an unusually fortunate school environment; teachers there, when describing successes, focus on the achievements of the lowest performing students, rather than the school's star performers.  In more difficult environments, it may be necessary to look at all various components of group learning for the young.  In particular, the initial focus should be on the youngest grades in middle school, where skills are first developed for making life decisions, as well as organizing knowledge. 

Bonnie Shapiro's What Children Bring to Light is about a study done two decades ago in a Calgary, Canada school that was then experimenting with project science and group learning.  She finds six students of the class interested in her study and follows their discoveries as they try to resolve some difficult concepts about the physical nature of light.  She provides an excellent anecdote of life in a classroom, and she has kept in touch with the students over the years, reflecting for us their progress through life. 

Her approach is clearly constructivist; she says so in the subtitle.  In the study, the students did not have required learning outcomes (as she likes to describe teaching goals).  They were simply asked to attempt to develop knowledge about the principles of light through group experimentation by students who were, for the most part, at the beginning age for middle school. 

Interestingly, she compares teaching with psychotherapy in several ways.   She quotes Kelly, when he suggests asking a person "what concerns a person;" because "he may just tell you."  She quotes Kelly further: "There is a need for an attitude of credibility, and acceptance of what people say as true, where their ideas are worth listening to, and there will be a significant contribution to understanding as a result of the expression of their ideas."  Children change on their own, not through teaching.  Teaching is similar to therapy in that it is the person, not the counselor, who makes the decision to change things.  (Shapiro, 36-37)  She also quotes Buber when he says, "Dialog between people is a mutual unveiling whereby each person is experienced and confirmed by everyone else."  (Shapiro, 37) 

With respect to teaching in poorer communities where the daily struggles of life erode the educational structure, and in school districts that may have experienced some trauma, working closely with the children to help them gain confidence in their work requires empathy from teachers for the lives of the students.  

In her study, she reveals an important issue: it is entirely possible for students with strong talents to fall behind, never getting credit for their skills, and hence never receiving recognition from the group.  In the constructivist sense, students with strong abilities may never become experts simply because the community doesn't acknowledge their skills.  Because, according to the constructivists, so much of learning is provided through the community, students in this predicament will, themselves, never become aware of their superior abilities, failing to achieve even a fraction of their potential. 

A student she intervened extensively is Melody; Shapiro describes her as a social butterfly having exceptional networking skills.  Melody was enthusiastic about science:  

"I just love science, you get to do so many neat things."  She would go to the forest near her home to collect rocks and study things in the ponds.  "It makes me happy to learn about all the things in Science."  "I like to look at the pretty rocks and flowers around our house.  It all gets me interested in science.  The aesthetic is important for Melody; she loves nature.  She understands the aesthetic link to science.  (Shapiro, 117) 

When all the children are working with simple light experiments to see if they can develop concepts, Melody attempts to experiment within the experiments in a ways that annoy the other students.  But, in the process, she discovers new things that interest the other students.  They investigate her new discoveries, absorb the new knowledge, and then return to the planned experiments.  As she repeats her individual experiments with the equipment, again finding interesting things by using her imagination, she continues to annoy the other students. 

She likes to work with other students, and she gets support from them: "its better when you can work with the other kids in your group," they "can give you help and answers."  "It is better that working alone, because I don't always understand what" the teacher wants.  Melody thinks she "cannot understand science" and that "she needs help from others" (Light, p 120) 

She shows a heightened awareness of other children and their activities; she is able to grasp concepts through the classroom community.  She is also able to conceive of ideas other children missed by playing with the equipment, an activity that annoyed everybody else.  Despite her classmate's annoyance, not to mention the annoyance of the teacher, the students all benefited from her free style of experimentation.  She is able to develop science despite not having the benefit of the written material, or instruction from the teacher, about the topic.  She succeeds despite not having the concentration skills to benefit from either of these resources and she never benefits from her success.  (Shapiro, 128) 

Students complain about Melody as she copied their answers to her worksheets (this is allowed in her class to encourage group work).  Yet, as a social butterfly, her group members rely on her ability to observe other groups, to be open-mined about their activities, and to report on progress all around the class.   (Shapiro, 124) 

The strongest lesson: responsibility is enabling

What Melody didn't realize (nor does the rest of the class, nor the teacher) is that her social skills allowed her to build knowledge through the community of students, the meta-group of the learning groups.  These skills, combined with her appreciation for the aesthetic, allow her to develop the correct concepts; when the class is asked to draw their learning from the experiments; she alone, of all the class, develops the right ideas about the paths of photons. 

When interviewing Melody, Bonnie Shapiro discovered that Melody "did not consider it her responsibility to find out what she was supposed to do in the lessons; she believed that it was the teacher's responsibility to be sure she understood." (Shapiro, 121) 

Aesthetics are crucial to science.  Science is in its building blocks is objective, but the development of ideas, is highly subjective, and requires imagination in the experimental process.  Melody successfully demonstrates those skills, but in so doing she annoys the class.  She further alienates herself from the group by failing to follow teacher directions.  It seems in Shapiro's study that Melody, the star student, achieved success in a way that she could not reflect to the teacher and the class; she had no ability to do the follow-up reports.  As a result she got no recognition from the group, and therefore, was technically unsuccessful.  Shapiro follows up her study with visits to the students during the ten year period before the publishing of her book about the study.  Melody dropped out of school at sixteen to have her first baby. 

It is difficult to say that Melody's relationships in the learning community of her workgroup directly affected her life, but still Melody's story has valuable lessons in it.  When students learn in groups social skills and imagination are valuable; part of group learning understands that.  The documentation process, fill-in forms supplied by the school district in Shapiro's study group, can fail the students when it comes time to reflect their learning.  Very important, also, is teaching students the concepts of responsibility for working in a group learning environment.  Group learning responsibilities, if they are not understood, don't exist.  This goes to the expectations of society; responsibilities in organizing learning extend ultimately to every aspect of life, especially the work place.   

Learning and teaching responsibilities

Students have to understand that learning is their responsibility, and the group's responsibility is to include, and promote the work of every group member.  Students, as learners, have to be aware of the value of considering things in new ways, accepting scientific explanations and approaches; they need to participate in the construction of new meanings that come from their research and experiments.  

Teachers too, have significant responsibilities in group learning and project science; they need to be familiar with students' patterns among the class, and need to seek current, and developing, understandings from research literature.   They also need to learn from the students.   Change-initiatives to introduce problem-solving techniques to teachers have in many cases met with failure.  Teachers unable to grasp required problem-solving epistemologies will often disguise didactic teaching as the problem-solving approach in an effort to comply with the expectations of the community and society.  (Firestone, Shorr, Monfils, 31)   

Learning experiences have to be personally meaningful assure that students are motivated to continually learn; the process of developing learning responsibilities is reciprocal in nature.  Teacher enthusiasm with the learning topics has to be genuine, as does the teacher's reputation in the community to help reinforce meaningfulness and confidence in the classroom.  Students need to enjoy learning science; they need know that science knowledge will benefit their lives.  By understanding different patterns of students' "thoughts, feelings and approaches to science," teachers can focus guidance on students in ways that are meaningful-- giving meaning to teaching as well.  (Shapiro, 182)  Teachers need support in their own learning efforts, because of the complexity of all the different approaches of all their students.  Besides utilizing available research knowledge, they can build their own suite of knowledge organization tools--hopefully sharing their knowledge with other teachers. 

Organizing information and understanding responsibilities in learning are skill areas essential for successful learning; integrating these social kinds of studies can go a long way to make students independent and confident.  They need to learn to be reflective, not only of their own knowledge but also of community knowledge.  Designing activities to help them explore their own interests will help them learn to consider all the possibilities early on in life. 

Students need to be guided to untapping all the potential from every contribution by all the group members, they need to be able to consider all possible solutions and all approaches, if only to reject them, by consensus.  That is part of teaching knowledge organization, best taught through activities. 

Getting Help

However students conceive of getting help, it is essential that students feel confident in assistance from their teachers, and that their teachers be able to accommodate their needs.  For many, asking for help is an admission of failure; it can be "embarrassing, frustrating and alienating."  (Shapiro 167)   Rather than risk the pain of embarrassment some students keep problems to themselves, while other students have no problem getting help in a way that benefits their learning.  Often the students will get help from other students, or wait for a group member to prompt them to get help.   

Often the group effort involves belittlement and ridicule; innocent teasing is part of childhood, but the group needs to be guided to the community of knowledge, especially from the perspective of ownership, which includes being proud of discoveries and achievements.  Everyone has their best roles, and everyone can benefit from each other's roles.  Students have to be accepting of each other; it may be their classmates who annoy them the most who can ultimately provide them with the best knowledge. 

Most questions to the teacher are procedural, relating to one part or another of the school structure.  They may need to know about how to properly fill in documents, or when to take breaks.  To assure learning is the top priority, the school logistics have to be made as efficient as possible; students' adaptation to the daily routine of school life has to be intuitive and cooperative.  Procedural action needs to become habit, so that the focus on learning can be in promoting inquiry.  Creating an efficient school environment will help assure that every student's growth needs are equally accounted for.  Usually this is only possible if the students feel comfortable in approaching the teachers frequently.  Also, group learning for students to the school can be initiated with a buddy system, where successful upper-class mates can guide new comers.  The more experienced students can earn social status by successfully helping less confident students. 

Schools must assure that the students have effective learning tools, meaningful problems to solve, and that the learning experience is organized using language and communication that engages them and the community. 

Providing students with the free use of scientific equipment, such as microscopes, telescopes, and prisms, will get them started with science skills.  Important to the students is ownership of the learning process.  Museums equipped with experimental equipment create enthusiasm for science, but students only carry home the experience, not the equipment.  Group ownership by the students of equipment can work well in the community of knowledge. 

Showing students videos of other student learning groups in action helps teach group learning skills.  By watching other workgroups, possibly groups from other schools, they can see effective interaction from which to develop their own group skills.  Ultimately, the more skilled they become in group learning, the more independent they can be, releasing the teacher to be able to seek problems specifically to challenge students, rather than just reacting to existing problems. 

Working Independently

Many students enjoy working alone, and do so successfully, yet they may not reveal to the teacher their home science activities.  Home projects are especially valuable as they allow research and experimentation purely based on interest.  This allows students to work in a comfortable setting and with topics they can grasp giving them confidence to continue with science.  From the community standpoint, the work can be invaluable; much of their learning will flow to their families, where their families can reinforce, and learn from, the experimentation process.  Awareness by teachers of home activity can enhance it; teacher guidance, just as in developing small groups, can assure that home experimentation truly embraces scientific principles, and that the students embark in a direction that will give them skills and confidence for future studies 

Any process by which students can pursue independent study would be beneficial, even if they have to do it in the absence of family or community support.  Help with research, finding ways of getting credit and recognition from the class or community, and even ways of integrating surprise presentations of individual work efforts into the class curriculum can only help improve the learning process of the solo learners.  Reciprocal efforts, where the class community guides the independent efforts would be helpful, especially if these learners have fallen off the radar.  (Shapiro, 152, 171) 

Aesthetics in Science

Art and Science are almost contradictory concepts; inspiration and implementation are usually opposite job descriptions; social feelings and technology are often at odds.  When understanding the Information Society, which is the relationship of information technology with society, technology always reduces itself to the common denominator of being a tool; how the tool is used is entirely the decision of the tool's user: technology is neutral. 

The development of technology is not neutral, however.  Science, the foundation of technology, requires innovation; innovation is a product of imagination.  Because the relationships of form and function can be represented, or expressed, in so many ways, the link between aesthetics and science is widely discussed.  But, because of the one-sidedness of the scientific community (keeping itself focused on facts), and a similar narrow-mindedness mirrored by art community (where only emotional expression is valid), the relationship between aesthetics and science is discussed from one side or the other.  Scientists who approach development from a meditative perspective are considered radical; likewise, art that expresses scientific concepts is considered ground-breaking.   

This gap between art and science did not exist in Shapiro's group of students; making the gap seem artificial.  In the six-student study, two of the young scientists hinged their science study on art and the appreciation of beauty.  Melody, the most successful student at concept building, showed how nature inspired both her art and her interest in science.  Another student, Pierre, made art the focus of his science studies: dinosaurs were a major interest of his and he kept detailed models of them on his desk.  His science class notebooks were highly illustrated and he recreated all of the class's experiments at home.  He shared his learning with his family, including his cousin.  While he was not as successful as Melody in understanding the physical nature of light, he represents the kind of student society likes: an enthusiastic self-starter.  Melody's inspiration is reminiscent of Darwin, a biologist often linked with aesthetics because of his artwork; Pierre shows the industriousness of Alva Edison.  Like Melody, Pierre worried that he would not succeed in science in future grades. 

Learning to Learn the "New Way"

Webbing and the Concept Map

Graphically, the most common image of constructivist pedagogy is the concept map.  I think of the concept map to symbolically represent new ways of learning, because concept mapping embraces so many of the ideals of knowledge organization and constructivism.  Concept maps, as they appear on the World Wide Web, are beautiful; they demonstrate the aesthetic link to science. 

In younger classes, the activity of concept mapping is referred to as webbing.  Concept maps, or webs, create holistic pictures of the knowledge that the children are building.  They store and reveal facts in relation to the environment: they describe how systems work.  Mapped facts, thus improved by showing their relation to other facts, are thought of as concepts.   

The connections between the facts, or the connecting lines, have descriptive words in them to show the relationships between the facts.  In a sense, concept mapping ideas, when fully utilized, can resemble language.  Many well-developed maps can actually be converted directly into sentences and paragraphs.  For me, this is the most surprising aspect of concept mapping. 

Thanks to Patrick, Defining Taxonomy, Green Chameleon

Building concept maps for earth science

They can be used to give a holistic view of any area of study, sometimes called a general systems theory.  They can be used to show how areas of study interrelate into a view of all the Earth, everything on it, and possibly even space.  A complete map is (at the moment) impossible to build; it would have to include the sum of all science.  But, concept mapping technology can potentially demonstrate many aspects of our universe to children. 

Thanks to Katy, Michelle, Howard, Martin, Sarah, Mark, Bob, and Suzanne


Use of concept maps to build correct knowledge

A major learning challenge facing middle school students is the modification of the often un-scientific views of natural phenomena they bring to school from their families and the community.  Their misconceptions, however, are not a barrier to learning science; students may be wrong because some of the facts they believe may be wrong, but they are not so much wrong as intelligently wrong--assuming their efforts to understand are genuine (Ault from Shapiro, 21).  The misconceptions can springboard inquiry into phenomena, and create enthusiasm for experimentation.  Middle school students, especially the younger ones, will believe each other's views over the say-so of a teacher.  (Stavy, Tirosh, 87)  Therefore, if they can develop the correct conceptual understandings as a group, they will be far more likely to fully absorb accepted explanations of scientific phenomena.  

The value of using inter-networked computers for concept mapping is in the sharing, and storing, the maps.  Students in one location can work on a map; offer it through the web to another group, which in turn would improve it.  Also, as students update their concept maps as they learn more, they can be assured of safe storage for their knowledge, they can return to it, improving it over the years. 

A key characteristic of the concept map, then, is in fact cyclic.  With each learning cycle, information is accessed and used.  If flaws are found they are removed, cyclically improving knowledge by eliminating scientific misconceptions with granular effectiveness.  As the improved information is returned, and new information is added, student groups will eventually get to the real science.  Because they developed the knowledge themselves, with guidance from their teachers, they will believe it and transmit it to other students, their families, and local communities. 

Technology to benefit Learning to Learn 

Goals of project science include reflection, sharing, testing, searching, and cyclic improvement:


Existing technologies and sources are available for students who are building information:


Important considerations when using technology

Information technology is like a car in two respects.  Both information technology and cars can take you places to enhance your awareness; hence the use of the analogy of the information super-highway to describe the Internet.  Also in both, the underlying technologies are not obviously apparent as on, say, a bicycle. 

To successfully use a car, you do not necessarily have to investigate the underlying technology that powers the car; you can easily drive a car without ever raising the hood (until the engine fails from lack of maintenance).   

But, the sophisticated use of information technology is very different than the use of a car's technology.  If you do not understand the underlying technology of the information systems that you use, their technology will tend to drive you.   

Applications will lock you into their methodology of knowledge organization and, in so doing, limit your success in constructing knowledge with the inherit limitations of their underlying technology.  Community knowledge construction, as with any physical community construction, can be limited by existing architectural limitations.  The architecture of the technology, the underlying principles, hence the limits of the technology, can be purely arbitrary. 

Fortunately, anyone using modern languages such as Java, Perl, PHP, or Ruby, can develop new knowledge construction paradigms limited only by their extent of his imagination.   

The result of all this freedom is that the majority of information openly available on the web is on web sites built strictly using pubic-domain software.  The most common paradigm for information sharing is a mixture of software called LAMP: Linux (operating system), Apache (web server), MySQL (database), and PHP (programming language).  Endless tools, called frameworks, are available to assist in technology development; existing public domain software built with these frameworks can easily be customized.   

Added to the list of available technology are the public domain software offerings:


Students are universally enthusiastic about the use of technology.  Many are highly adept to learning programming and system control languages, just as they can easily learn new phonetic languages.  As soon as students develop expertness with computer use, they should be given every opportunity to build their own community of knowledge construction systems. 

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Firestone, W.A., Schorr, R.Y., & Monfils, L. (2004).  The Ambiguity of Teaching to the Test: Standards, Assessment, and Educational Reform.  Mahwah, NJ:  Lawrence Erlbaum & Associates.  

Helm, J. H., Katz, L. (2001). Young investigators: The project approach in the early years. New York: Teachers College Press. 

Hurd, P. D. (2000). Transforming middle school science education. New York: Teachers College Press. 

Polman, J. L. (2000). Designing project-based science: Connecting learners through guided inquiry. New York: Teachers College Press. 

Roberts, Douglas A. ed., and Ostman, Leif ed. (1998). Problems of Meaning in Science Curriculum. New York: Teachers College Press. 

Serwach, J. (2006, Februray 5) U-M program boosts Detroit science test scores. The University Record Online, University of Michigan. Retrieved September 11, 2006 from http://www.umich.edu/~urecord/0506/Feb06_06/01.shtml. 

Shapiro, B. L. (1994). What Children Bring to Light: A Constructivist Perspective on Children's Learning in Science. New York. Teachers College Press. 

Stavy, R., & Tirosh, D. (2000). How Students (Mis-)Understand Science and Mathematics: Intuitive Rules. New York: Teachers College Press. 

Thier, H. D. (2001). Developing Inquiry-based Science Materials: A guide for educators. New York: Teachers College Press. 

White, N. (2000) Project-Based Learning and High Standards at Shutesbury Elementary School. The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Retrieved September 11, 2006 from http://www.edutopia.org/php/article.php?id=Art_182.