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.