Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Co-Construct This (with your students)

My husband is currently in school to be a physical therapist, and in our infinite nerdiness, we often share articles that discuss the brain, health and learning. Just last week he shared a blog post by Dr. Pat Davidson about the importance of variety for humans. The article discussed the fact that our lives have become so bland, focusing solely on one thing. For example, “What do we do all day? Sit behind cars and stare straight ahead. Sit at desks typing and staring straight ahead. Sit at our tables and eat monochromatic meals with the same consistency. Sit and watch television” (Davidson, 2014). The article argued that as humans we need to move; we need to be exposed to a plethora of things. Davidson ends his post writing “We don’t live in the world of authentic nature anymore...nature would get us closer to neutrality, and it would feed us variability” (2014).

In many ways, this post articulates some of the core principles of constructivist learning. In “Constructing Knowledge in the Classroom” (1994), the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory argues: “autonomy and initiative are accepted and encouraged.” Outlining some of the most important, underlying beliefs that govern constructivist classrooms, the SEDL argues that we must honor the individuality of each student, seeing this not as a challenge but as a right to be fostered. In doing this, we are embedding the variety necessary for success in our classrooms each day. We are also allowing students to enjoy the variability that they need to become successful.

As all children are taught to become independent, self-inspired learners, they are taught that mindlessly accepting the information others present as truth is dangerous (Teachnology, 2012). This once again highlights the development of an “individual intellectual identity” (Teachnology, 2012).

Conversely, in a traditional classroom, non-construction is key (Hoover, 1996), as students need to be willing to accept information without using their personal experiences, culture and language as lenses.

In this setting, “the constructivist teacher sets up the problems and monitors student exploration, guides the direction of student inquiry and promotes new patterns of thinking” (Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 1995). This paradigms shifts the role of teacher from content expert to learning guide. The role of the teacher becomes two fold: to help pave the road students select--as “social interaction with more knowledgeable others is necessary if younger learners are to acquire, internalize and understand” (Pritchard & Woollard, 2010)--and to create spaces for reflection. The later role especially is often overlooked in assessment, but since learning occurs first between individuals then within an individual (University of California Berkeley, 2014), it is equally important to the learning process.

Traditionally, assessments are created by teachers in a manner that values one form of learning. This hierarchy denies variety, autonomy and independence. It ultimately stifles long-term learning, reinforcing concepts that deny students agency.

Therefore, in order to respect the variety in learning, allow space and time for collaboration with more knowledgeable others, and encourage deep reflection, assessments must be co-constructed expectations with space for reflection.

First, a rubric or checklist with clear expectations can be made by a teacher-student pairing or by a teacher-group cohort. This rubric will be used to guide learning and indicate mastery. The rubric should be flexible, allowing for new skills to be added if they arise during the natural course of learning.

Additionally, the rubric should be used during conference time to establish a common vernacular to articulate success and development. Conference time will also allow peers and teachers to provide more insight, share thoughts, send resources or correct the course if necessary.

The rubric must also value reflective practice, encouraging students to slow down and process what they are doing. The reflective component of the assessment can be demonstrated in several ways--once again allowing for intellectual identity--such as journal entries, video posts, blogs, podcasts or even sketches. This can easily be shaped by each individual learner.

In order to keep all these pieces straight, I would recommend using a classroom website. That way, each student could have a page (or more) to demonstrate her learning process. Individual reflections can also be housed here in order to manage student work in a way that in and of itself allows for additional conferencing and construction.

Finally, the ultimate challenge with the assessment--as with all assessments--is creating a meaningful task. As teachers we need to be forever vigilant, seeking opportunities for deep learning not jumping through hoops. The co-construction of the rubric should allow for close monitoring of student progress; however, it will only be able to function in a classroom where students can work autonomously. This demands a large amount of conferencing time as well as a huge investment in the learning of students. However, its results should pay off.


Davidson, P. (2014, April 21). What’s obvious and more important, how it’s connected. [Blog]. Retrieved from http://www.deltaforcetrainingsystems.com/news/

Hoover, W.A. (1996, August). The practice implications of constructivism. SEDL Letter. 9(3). Retrieved from http://www.sedl.org/pubs/sedletter/v09n03/practice.html

Pritchard, A., & Woollard, J. (2010). Psychology for the classroom: Constructivism and social learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Southwest Educational Development Laboratory. (1994). Constructing knowledge in the classroom. Classroom Compass.1(3). Retrieved from http://www.sedl.org/scimath/compass/v01n03/1.html

Teachnology. (2012). Classroom applications of constructivism. Retrieved from http://www.teach-nology.com/currenttrends/constructivism/classroom_applications/

University of California Berkeley. (2014). Social constructivism. Learning: Theory and Research. Retrieved from http://gsi.berkeley.edu/teachingguide/theories/social.html

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