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
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
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
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.
Hurd tells us that "Learning
to learn is common to all recent reform strategies in all countries,"
and that learning to learn implies that constructing knowledge through
science will help in "resolving personal, social, economic,
and professional needs." (Hurd, 43)
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.
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
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
Society now wants students to
emerge with skills enabling them seek solutions to problems in everyday
life as well as the ability to adapt their knowledge building to new
areas as the world changes. (Hurd, 43) There is a new base for
reform in science for contributing directly to the human environments
in terms of health, energy, quality of life and work, and the natural
environment. (Hurd, 48)
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,
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.
The human capital scenario is
unpopular; the image of students as competitive units in the global
economy is common and vulgar. What does this mean for a student's
education, what is the purpose of a school system?
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.
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,
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
Cognitive development has yielded
to the constructivist view: "Simply stated, findings have
shown that genuine learning--what we call mastery--is deeply subjective
and intensely active." (Thier, 25)
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
The efficacy of small group participation
is an often-untapped resource for both knowledge building and as a resource
for the teacher. The group's arrival at consensus in discovering
through experiments helps them make sense of learning, enabling students
to accept the knowledge into their ways of thinking. (Shapiro,
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."
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
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,
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
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,
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
Project based science works in three phases:
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)
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,
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
Creating a concept Map
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
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
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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