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Constructivism in the Elementary Classroom

by Pamela Woods

Traditional elementary teachers present their subjects part by part, and then test on that learning. With constructivism, the elementary classroom becomes a stage ready for learning with engaging props and materials. According to Saskatchewan School Boards Association, the teacher takes notes on activities and acts like a researcher by observing, interviewing and logging behavior and student activities while purposely staying in the background. The teacher coaches the students to find their own answers and to make discoveries.

Constructing Better Knowledge

Constructivist elementary classrooms focus on developmentally appropriate lessons by applying what is called the "three kinds of knowledge" that help learners developing thinking skills. The first is physical learning: understanding, for example, that when a light source is blocked, shadow puppets will show up on the wall. The second focus is social knowledge: sharing and not hitting during playtime, for example. The third is logico-mathematical knowledge: realizing that the steaming hot cocoa that burns your mouth, for instance, is exemplary of all hot liquids.

The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

Peers support each other's learning.

Psychology theorist Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development,” or ZPD, can measure independent skills in elementary students. If Mark can color a circle, but he cannot cut that circle out with scissors, then his ability to color is his lower ZPD -- the current baseline of his abilities -- while cutting an object with scissors is his highest level of ZPD -- just outside his current range of abilities. Using this theory in the constructivist classroom, Mark would be paired with his friend who teaches him paper cutting skills, so Mark can gain new learning he wants and exceed his current ZPD. His skill-set then gives him space for taking on new challenges and sharing what he knows with other students.

Data-Driven Success

An Iowa Academy of Education study in June 2002 by Dr. Rheta Devries found that elementary students in constructivist classrooms performed “significantly higher on standardized tests of mathematics and language” when directly relating to real world mathematics connections. Elementary students in a constructivist classroom can grow their learning through real-world activities like lunch counting, planting flowers and measuring their growth, studying species of trees on an afternoon walk, and collecting leaves from around the playground. All such constructive activities is thought to lead to deeper learning connections and greater understanding of complex ideas.

Mutual Trust and Respect

Trust and respectful relationships support learning.

A constructivist elementary classroom, according to Thirteen Ed Online, offers solid opportunities for peer learning by using language as a tool of inquiry, pushing students beyond their immediate zone of thought, and allowing the teacher to coach students to let them discover their own learning. Setting up the classroom to meet each student’s needs and curiosity is not easy, but it is an essential task. Then both teacher and students develop an ongoing atmosphere of shared respect, trust, and adventure to produce learning experiences.

About the Author

Pamela Woods is a teacher and certified education specialist based in Michigan. She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in studio art from Michigan State University, a Master of Arts in education and a Doctor of Education from Wayne State University. Woods also earned certifications in university teaching, art education, vocational education, infant mental health and gerontology.

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