Understanding the connection

One of the things I enjoy about blogging and tweeting are the many thoughtful comments from contributors. It says something about the effort and generosity of spirit of teachers and leaders to contribute to the broader discussion and debate. I took the opportunity recently of inviting Carmel Crevola to write a post on bluyonder.  Carmel is a leading expert on literacy and I am sure you’ll find her contribution insightful and practical.  I hope there is opportunity for others to share their ideas and expertise here.

Recently there has been a resurgence of talk by educators and the community about ‘constructivist theory’ as it applies to ‘play-based’ learning as a way to promote oral language development and thinking skills for those students in the early years of schooling. The terminology is used so loosely at times that it has prompted me to wonder about the depth of understanding of the theory behind the terms ‘constructivist’ and ‘oral language’.

This post outlines some of my personal reflections around the constructivist theory of learning and my own beliefs, research and theory of oral language development and its role in thinking and comprehending.

Constructivism is not a specific pedagogy but a theory of learning developed by Piaget.  According to Wikipedia, constructivism is a theory of learning based on the belief that humans generate knowledge and meaning from an interaction between their experiences and their ideas. Piaget called these systems of knowledge schemata. It has had an impact on learning theories and teaching practice in education for decades and is an underlying theme of many educational reform movements, such as  this recent resurgence of ‘play-based learning’ and ‘enquiry learning‘.

One area of great concern for me over my 37 years as an educator and 23 of those years as a classroom teacher, has been with the false belief that the learner being physically active, or immersed in the learning = learning the skill, knowledge or concept.   It worries me when I see teachers working hard to provide the interesting and relative activities and engaging environments and then believing that by placing the students in these active and dynamic situations that the learning (language development, for example) will happen for all and worse still, at the same rate.  There seems to me to be a lack of understanding that in fact, if the requirements of the concept to be understood exceeds the available processing efficiency and working memory resources and oral language skills to allow the thinking to occur, then the concept is by definition not learnable (see working memory below).

Therefore, no matter how ‘active’ or ‘immersed’ a student is in a learning activity (play, project, discovery process etc), to actually learn, the student must operate in a learning environment that meets the developmental and individual learning constraints that are characteristic for the child’s age and this child’s possible deviations from his/ her age’s norm. If this condition is not met, construction cannot occur.

Herein lies what I believe to be the current educational misconception (not unlike a prescription trap, Breakthrough Chapter 3) in many ‘play-based’ learning environments, just as it was in those classrooms that had static and the same for all learning centres.

I had an experience of this misunderstanding, in a Kindergarten/ Preparatory classroom recently, with a very effective and experienced teacher who was trying to implement a new mathematics program based on ‘enquiry learning’ theory. She had established an inviting learning environment and instigated an engaging problem for the students to explore in pairs and groups. She had grouped the students in a thoughtful manner so as to provide support through the participants in each group. She was very aware of the students for whom mathematics was challenging and had tried to simplify their task, but nevertheless, the task was the same for all students. They had concrete materials to work with, they had concise guidance, they had time allocated and open freedom to talk and move around as needed.  The two little boys who were the most ‘at risk’ in this class were set to work together and with the classroom assistant. For the next 20 minutes the class (well not all, but I was too focused on the two struggling learners to comment fully on the other students) worked in their assigned groups and pairs talking and working to solve their problem.

These two little boys sat in a corner of the room and talked (in fact, that is questionable, but I will come back to this later) and played and were completely off task – mainly because they did not understand what the task was!  The assistant and myself tried to articulate the task again and they tried to understand, but the lack of communication was obvious. The assistant then proceeded to do the problem solving, thinking work for them and laboriously had the boys record her ideas step-by-step and letter-by-letter. They boys were bored, off task, behaving inappropriately and learning absolutely nothing for the entire 20 minutes.  The assistant worked hard- asking the question (leading questions to get the right answer, because there were little options in this case), the boys, reluctantly answered (…sort of) but in fact, the whole experience had no learning or interest connection for them.

Were they unhappy being there? No.

Was the desire to have the students engaging in the ‘enquiry learning’ process wrong? No.

Was the one task that they were set to do a match for ‘all students’ in this class? No – how could it be?

I want you to consider this:  Was it appropriate or not to set the whole class to do the same activity, then encouraging choice by allowing the students to decide how they were going to illustrate and explain their answer? (I will leave this for you to ponder) because I know that this scene is not unfamiliar to many or that this teacher is alone in her struggle to come to terms with what we mean by ‘constructivist learning’ and ‘enquiry based learning’ and ‘play-based learning‘.  How do I know that to be a fact?  I know this to be true because I see it and I am asked consistently by teachers to assist them in  better understanding the connectivity.

What I know about this class and this teacher is that she did know her students starting points, but she failed to use that knowledge to make the ‘enquiry’ ‘personalized’ for all. I know that she believes that it is important to know each student’s strengths and challenges and I know that she wants to personalize the learning, but she was lost in the lack of understanding how. Personalization is not achieved by allowing students to work in pairs or groups and to find answers to problems themselves and thus making it ‘personalized’.

Personalizing the learning means knowing each students starting point and ensuring that the tasks assigned or allocated for choice are in fact aligned to their developmental stage and cognitive and linguistic ability at that point of time…the Zone of Proximal Development [ZPD] in action (Vygotsky).

The two little boys who were most at risk in mathematics were also most at risk in language development, both expressive and receptive. Their teacher knew this, she had spent the time to assess her class and to find their receptive language capacity on entering Kindergarten / Preparatory Grade.  What she did not do was link this knowledge and align with the process of ‘enquiry learning’ and ‘constructivist’ theory.

If a student cannot understand the basic structures used by the adults to explain and set tasks and if they are not confident to try to articulate their thoughts, or even recognize that what is going on in their head is a thought, then how can they be expected to use language to explore their thinking? How can they have the thoughts to know what to say or what questions to ask of themselves or others if they have not come to school with this foundation strongly established?

Will these same students’ thinking and problem solving ability develop by being ‘immersed’ in the complex structures used by my more able peers and the adults assisting them? Let me tell you right here and now – no it will not just develop. The Kindergarten/ Preparatory student who comes to school unable to follow a simple instruction is already at serious risk of failure. Put them in a language based (assumptions) classroom where they are immersed in talk all day long but do not have the specific small group and 1:1 focused instruction in the area of language use (not skill and drill techniques or grammar and phonics), then they are going to slip further and further behind.

The Oral Language developmental level of young learners is critical information that must be part of the repertoire of knowledge that teachers need to have if they are to venture into constructivism and if they are to facilitate powerful learning environments for all students.  The receptive language ability of young students must not be taken for granted, we cannot assume that all those students that arrived in our classrooms this year and who will arrive next year have achieved the same level of language development.

You may say that you are very aware that this is not the case, and I believe that for most you are aware. But then I ask you: How are you making that judgment? Is it based on the expressive or productive language of the students? Or, is it based on their language backgrounds -the fact that they are ELL or ESL or EAL students? Have you taken into account their ability to hear and understand the structures of the language of instruction? Do you know where they are on the developmental continuum for receptive language (listening) as opposed to productive language (speaking)?  Have you explored the area of neurological development that is linked to problem solving and critical thinking: language development. Does the term ‘working memory’ mean anything to you? Do you understand that there is an entire section of receptive language development that is the foundation for problem solving and comprehending? If we are to say that we are working for developing our students to be critical and analytical learners and that the play-based, enquiry approach is the way to allow them to construct meaning, then we must have the knowledge about how language and thinking are connected.

Working Memory‘ is the ability to actively hold information in the mind needed to do complex tasks such as reasoning, comprehension and learning. Working Memory tasks are those that require the goal-oriented active monitoring or manipulation of information or behaviors in the face of interfering processes and distractions.  Think about that in the play-based active learning ‘enquiry-based’ learning classroom. How many of your students are at risk in their receptive language and their ability to question and challenge and clarify?

I wonder why those two little boys in the mathematics session struggled to understand the task and had absolutely no hope of connecting with the learning.  The concept was by definition not learnable.  How many of our students find themselves in this situation day after day, no matter what the content or what the year level?  It is a constant challenge to provide focused instruction in a meaningful and purposeful environment.

Once again, I leave you with my thoughts, rather than providing a silver bullet. I hope you will connect and comment.

This is why I am always so grateful to the teachers who open their classrooms to me and allow me to join their journey, their successes and their challenges. Thank you one and all for giving me so much food for thought.

I look forward to your comments, thoughts and challenges. Isn’t it great to always have something more to learn about?

* Carmel Crevola is an independent international literacy consultant, author and researcher with 23 years of classroom experience. She works extensively in Australia, Canada, the UK, and the USA. Her focus is on helping systems align their assessment processes, instructional practices and instructional leadership at the school, district and system levels, with a particular interest in the role of oral language development on critical thinking and teacher instructional language. Carmel has recently launched her own blog where she writes about and engages in discussions around all aspects of learning. You can also find her on Twitter @carmelcrevola or on her Facebook page.

3 thoughts on “Understanding the connection

  1. At last I am hearing someone else saying the same things that I have been saying over the last 3 years at my school. Oral language development of children is essential for their overall development as a student and as a person able to interact in society. At my school we have recognised a huge need for oral language work. We have been focussing heavily on oral language in the early years to help students experience some success. One student who comes to mind entered Kindergarten last year only able to say the word ‘pizza’. Now he is able to put a simple sentence together through the very hard work of our teachers … but still there is a long way to go. This child is a long way from being able to critically question his own work let alone the work of his peers.

    Carmel’s writing raises so many questions for me as school leader. Among them are the intervention methods/programs that have been heralded for many years as what happens to ‘fix’ students who are unable to read. But hang on a minute … don’t you have to be able to speak i.e: have some level of oral language before you can read. Don’t you need a vocabulary and some experiences to bring to a text before you can decode the words on the page? Not all children come to school with the same vocabulary or the same experiences, and sadly many children will go through primary school only working from the experiences given to them by the school.

    Another question the comes to mind from Carmel’s recount of the Kindergarten class, is that these most vulnerable children are being supported by the least qualified staff. Whilst I never devalue the work of our para-professionals – many of them are extremely talented in their work – but why do we continue to devalue our own profession by not ensuring that these children are working with teachers? Aren’t teachers the ones who have to skills to know when these children are developmentally ready to be challenged in their learning? Aren’t teachers the ones who make the most difference to student outcomes? If we are to be informed by the meta analysis of Viviane Robinson then the answer would be ‘yes’.

    In addition to this, we are also seeing students who are struggling socially because they don’t have the expressive and receptive language skills to ‘read’ the social environment of the playground and the classroom. This leads to confusion and in some cases a misconception that children are being ‘picked on’ by other children. However, when such situations are analysed it becomes obvious that it is language that stands in the way of social success for some children.

    At my school we are beginning to structure ‘play based learning’ by giving students experiences that will help them when they move to a more inquiry type of learning. This is aimed to be highly structured, developmental program in Kindergarten. We have also been toying with the idea of placing greater emphasis on the speaking and listening strand of the syllabus and not as much on the reading and writing strands – particularly in terms of expecting students to individually construct a ‘text type’. However, more thought and discussion needs to be done here.

    Our focus on oral language development over the last two and a half years is reaping benefits for the development of our Year 1 children who are now not only speaking well but are also writing well structured texts. This has come about through the professional development of teachers within the classroom context – action PD!

    I totally agree with Carmel – it is wonderful to have something to learn about especially when it comes to the wonderful little people that make up our (my) school population(s)!

  2. Toni
    Thank you so much for a thoughtful and thought provoking comment to on my blog relating to play based learning,constructivist theory and inquiry/enquiry learning. You raise some points that I would like share some thoughts about.

    The first point you raised regarding interventions for reading and writing and their relationship to the actual oral language capacity/acquisition of the students involved in these interventions, is one that I have a experience in due to my background outside of a classroom teacher K-9 for 23 years is also as a Reading Recovery teacher, tutor and academic. As such I have thought long and hard about the issues you raise here. It is not that we do not want to get our young learners underway with reading and writing as early as we can, some have learned these things before formal school has even begun,but rather that we need to align the process of literacy acquisition which in turns means that we must look closely at the language development of all our learners. I fully support the desire of getting Kindergarten/Preparatory/Reception students underway as readers and writers in that first year of formal schooling. The research evidence from the Australian and international studies over the past 15 years has shown that this is the time to accelerate the learning. But in saying that, I am basing this on the understanding that we find the ‘starting points’ for instruction for each individual student and that we go out from where each student is at the beginning of the academic year. In doing this we find which students do in fact have a language deficit and exactly what that deficit is, we also find those students who are well underway with their formal knowledge as readers and writers and are ready to take on the challenges of reading in the formalized process of Guided Reading and the like. For those students who are identified as ‘at risk’ in the area of language development (oral language)it then becomes a process of ensuring that these students have daily opportunities to work in small groups and one-to-one focused and deliberate sessions, where they have the teacher to guide their interactions and assist their learning in terms of both ‘receptive’ and ‘expressive’ language.
    It is not a time for merely front loading vocabulary or having drill and skill in phonemic awareness and phonics as precursors to decoding the text on the page or reproducing the words to express their ideas. There is no ‘program’ that will provide what these students need, they need time (daily allocations of small group and one-to-one) with skilled teachers to engage in meaningful and engaging dialogue around topics and activities that they can relate to. (If you would like to know more about my thinking on this, contact me via Twitter or my web page). Therefore, I believe that we need to get the interventions in place early ( formal interventions such as Reading Recovery commence in Grade 1)for those students who are not underway withe reading and writing by the end of their first year of school. In preparation for this, we must ensure that the first year provides a solid base of language development as it interconnects with reading and writing and lays the foundations on which students can shift to being emergent readers and writers as they enter Grade1. This is not a message of open play and inquiry.enquiry models of learning, it is message of language based instruction (yes, I am still happy with that word instruction) where the teacher and the supporting staff in the classroom know and acknowledge the starting points for each individual that then allows for differentiated learning that incorporates, play, exploration, inquiry.enquiry and small group focused, explicit instructional sessions with the teacher.

    The second point that you raise regarding who is the person assisting the most needy students, and as you say, it is so often the least qualified person who works most of the time with these students. This is not a putting down of valuable, well meaning and highly effective teacher assistants and early childhood educators, but it is recognizing the professionalism of teachers. Right now educators are looking to Finland as an example of high performing country and acclaiming that it is because they value their teachers and they respect their teachers etc. A close look shows you that to be a teacher in Finland is extremely competitive process and only the highest quality of applicants can be successful, it is one of the hardest professions to gain entry to. This would mean then that they see a teacher as highly qualified, highly specialized and the person best suited to meet the most challenging demands of the classroom instruction and learning. The practice of putting the most needy students with the least qualified person sends out very mixed messages as to who has the most importance in the learning cycle in our classrooms and in fact it says that the assistant and ECE is equally as qualified to make a difference as the teacher. I am sure this is not the practice or belief in Finland! Once again, that is why an intervention such as Reading Recovery insists on rigorous professional learning for the teachers in training, they must have qualified to meet the needs of the most needy students and therefore respect the fact that this requires a great deal of expertise to make a difference to the learning outcomes of these ‘at risk’ students. The common practice of the aide or ECE being the one who takes the instructional time with the most needy is full of contradictions and subliminal messages and also, it leaves the students in a most vulnerable position for their learning.

    So much to think about and so much to continue to learn and reflect upon.
    Thank you for expanding my thinking and pushing me to articulate my understandings.
    I look forward to further dialogue in the future.

  3. I have made a bit of a collective response to the posts on this topic. I agree with most of what has been posted but would like to join the conversation on a few points.

    I agree that the program requires opportunities for explicit instruction and implicit learning. There is place for both and it requires skill to know when. I also agree that the student’s starting point for learning should be the core of instruction and am a firm believer in ZPD. Sometimes we need to refer to past theories as having merit (research based practice is fundamental to success in contemporary education). If we don’t look to research as the basis for our teaching prctice then we are in trouble (in my opinion).

    I think many miss the point about inquiry, play based, constructivist, implicit learning. The teacher needs to be highly skilled at what they are looking for and why they are setting out to do it. In some ways it is about the learners though it is just as importantly about the teacher reflecting on pedagogical processes and learners. Teacher as inquirer is paramount to the success of any implicit or explicit program. The teacher needs to have questions about the learners which need to be answered. Things like am I catering to this student’s learning style, are we still at the point of ZPD or are we moving through to a new ZPD point?, is this child growing why / why not? What early intervention programs need to be put into place? How can I assess if the child has learnt? This may in fact mean differentiating the assessment tool and task we use for learners. Is the student happy? Regardless of the ney sayers, play makes learners happy and more conducive to learning. Play as pedagogy can be a powerful compliment to bringing learning into the student’s direct frame of reference and developing language skills. Play is universal and in effect a child’s work. It is therefore a mediator for language barriers of ESL learners and developmental vulnerabilities.

    In terms of reference to the ECE (Early Childhood Educator) I would like to make the distinction between an Early Childhood Assistant and an Early Childhood Teacher. Early Childhood Teachers are highly specialised in both developmental as well as sociocultural considerations for learners. I do agree though that teachers need to be the ones working with the most vulnerable. Tracy Herron one of our Leading Educators in 2010 in a parent forum podcast made that distinction and also stated that Agile Learning afforded more opportunities for this to occur.

    I would also like to take up the point about Finland. I agree that teachers are held in high esteem in Finland. However, there are also some significant other factors. The first being that in Finland children begin formalised learning at the age of 7! They also have access to high quality government funded Preschool placements prior to formalised learning. This gives us a lot to consider in terms of holistic development and what industrialised countries would term as academic success. We have made some movement here with the EYLF and the draft AC complimenting one another. However, we still have to nationally debate when children should begin school? With all of the research around neurological development and critical brain periods isn’t it high time we looked at the preschool years as critical determinants in future academic success? We must also explore if it is appropriate to have 4 year olds, 5 year olds and 6 year olds accessing curriculum at the same starting point in Kinder.

    The point about language vulnerability and impact on learning is so true. We only need to look at the AEDI results from 2010 for the area I work where 34.8% of learners had vulnerabilities in two or more developmental domains in Kindergarten. We know this from our community snapshot but where is the dialogue around this? I think Carmel’s comments are an excellent starting point for this conversation. We have tried to build an inclusive learning community where children work in small groups and individually through most parts of their day.

    I also take up another point around Reggio Emelia philosophies. Again, although we historically look back we must also acknowledge that the Reggio Emelia post World War 2 and the Reggio Emilia of today are quite different. Philosophically the same yet practically different in incorporating technology and research into the philosophy. The Reggio Emelia schools are very richly language based in the context of using the arts as a medium for deep conceptual thought with both teachers as researchers (about the children and children as researchers (about their learning) What distinguishes Reggio schools is the pedagogical documentation of the processes, which assists in working memory and making connections. This allows teachers to be learners and the children to be learners. Conversations occur around the documentation itself and thus provides learners with opportunities to use metacognitive strategies to extend learning, revisit learning, clarify learning, explain understandings / misunderstandings and allow teachers to collaborate and become better teachers.

    I’ll stop here but love the conversation. Thank you for allowing me to wear my advocacy hat!

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