Constructionism: Learning Through Creating

What is constructionism?

This semester, I was fortunate enough to take a class based on constructionism, a philosophy developed by Seymour Papert. Constructionism builds upon Piaget’s philosophy of constructivism, which proposes that learners do not directly receive knowledge but rather construct knowledge for themselves (Papert, 1993, p. 142). Through constructionism, Papert connects the process of constructing knowledge in the mind with the process of constructing a physical object. He asserts that “the construction that takes place ‘in the head’ often happens especially felicitously when it is supported by construction of a more public sort ‘in the world’ – a sand castle or a cake, a Lego house or a corporation, a computer program, a poem, or a theory of the universe. Part of what I mean by ‘in the world’ is that the product can be shown, discussed, examined, probed, and admired. It is out there” (Papert, 1993, p. 142). It is not surprising, therefore, that the final project in this course based on constructionism was to make something.

What were my experiences with constructionism?

As I developed an idea for my final project, I stated two goals for myself: 1) I wanted to create an object that I could use in my future English classes, and 2) I wanted this object to be something that my students could also create.

These goals led me to think about the relationship between “creating” and “writing.” We do a lot of writing in English classes, and while I view writing as an extremely creative process, I worry that students often do not share this view. I started brainstorming about creative writing projects that would help students understand that an act of writing is an act of creating.

With these thoughts in mind, I decided to write a Choose Your Own Adventure Book (CYOAB) based on Romeo and Juliet. In this genre, the reader gets to direct the story; at the end of each page, the reader has to make a choice in order to find out what page to turn to next. These interactive books are exciting to read because the reader gets to be a part of the story, and I thought that a CYOAB based on Romeo and Juliet could help students become interested in the play. Through this process, I created a classroom resource for myself, and I have learned about the complexities of creating a CYOAB. I am excited about engaging students in the writing process of this genre because it highlights the creative aspect of writing; in addition to writing several story lines, the author has to create an intricate plot structure in which those story lines diverge or converge at different places.

15325833683_482922faf1_oI believe that constructionism can make education more exciting and meaningful because it allows students to create a physical representation of their learning that can be shared with others. My 150-page Choose Your Own Love Story “can be shown, discussed, examined, probed, and admired,” to borrow from Papert’s quote above (1993, p. 142). Not many courses have inspired me to create something that I was so eager to share with my family and friends. Few courses have given me the opportunity to not only learn something but to also make something that will still have significance for me in the future.

When I return to teaching next fall, I want to give my high school students the opportunity to create something meaningful – something that is more than just an essay, just a story, or just a project. Now that I have completed my first semester of graduate school, I am beginning to redesign my philosophy of education. I do not know exactly how constructionism will fit into an English class; having students write CYOABs is only one example of a project inspired by constructionism. Ideally, I would like to give students as much choice as possible in what they create. Though I do not specifically know how I will integrate constructionism into my classes, I do know that my experiences this semester are already influencing my beliefs about education. Just as a CYOAB gives readers more control over the story, constructionism gives students more control over their education. If I provide students with more opportunities to create, then I might be inspired by how adventurous they’re willing to be.

Source: Papert, S. (1993). The children’s machine (Chapter 7, pp. 137-156). New York: Basic Books.

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Defining Success in Education

One of my initial purposes for this blog was to examine the purpose of English education and of education in general. My coursework, discussions, and readings in all of my classes this semester have strengthened my belief that stakeholders in education (including policy makers, administrators, teachers, parents, and students) need to agree upon a clear purpose of teaching and learning before we can successfully reform education.

This lack of a common purpose of education is most clearly reflected in the ways that different groups define success. Too often, a new program or intervention is only deemed successful if it raises students’ test scores. Without this marker of success, these reform efforts may be disregarded, despite other benefits that could have resulted from them.

The following quote, from an article I read for a class about technology and education, demonstrates why this limited definition of success in education frustrates me:

  • “Although there is solid evidence of academic payoffs from school computing, success is by no means assured. Some well-financed interventions have yielded disappointment. The best known among them is Apple Computer’s Classroom of Tomorrow project that initially created computing-intensive environments in five schools. Although students’ attitudes toward learning improved over a five-year period, students’ skills in tests of mathematics, reading, and vocabulary did not (Baker, Gearhart, and Herman 1994)” (Attewell, 2001, p. 256).

What if the last sentence of this quote were written in a different way?

  • “Although students’ skills in tests of mathematics, reading, and vocabulary did not improve, students’ attitudes toward learning did” (my words).

The first statement, as printed in the article, clearly reflects the widely-held view that test scores matter more than students’ attitudes toward learning. If preparing students to be good test takers is the purpose of education, then the intervention mentioned above was indeed a failure. As a classroom teacher, however, I do not believe that preparing students for tests should be my primary goal. I believe that improving students’ attitudes toward learning is an important purpose of education – more important, in fact, than improving test scores. For my purposes of engaging students in the learning process and preparing them to be lifelong learners, the intervention seems more like a success (as reflected in my rewritten statement above). Of course, students’ attitudes about learning are not the only outcomes I am concerned with; I also believe that education should help students develop academic skills, including critical thinking and communication skills, which are not always accurately measured by standardized tests.

I am not intending to criticize this particular article or to take a position on the Apple Computer’s Classroom of Tomorrow project; rather, I point to this as one example of how a limited and controversial purpose of education – to improve test scores – can negatively affect reform efforts that produce positive results beyond the scope of skills-based tests.

Citation: Attewell, P. (2001) Comment: The first and second digital divides. Sociology of Education, 74(July), 252:259.
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Online Discussions: Pros and Cons

This week, I attended an online class session for the first time. My T509 course used Unhangout, a platform created through the MIT Media Lab. This platform allows participants/students to view instructional material as a whole class and then split up into smaller discussion groups. In these smaller groups, of up to ten people, students can video chat with their group. For our class, we recorded our discussion on a Googledoc, and then one student from each discussion group shared our thoughts once we reconvened as an entire class.

Let’s Start with the Cons First

  • The small group video discussion was rather awkward.
    • When communicating through a screen, it is difficult to judge nonverbal cues, so our transitions between speakers were rather slow and, again, slightly awkward.
  • Our discussion was not as efficient or as productive as it would have been in person.
    • Yes, this is a personal opinion, but I did not feel like I participated as fully in this discussion as I do in a regular class.
  • The conventions for a successful small group discussion were not clearly defined.
    • We eventually figured out that keeping our microphones muted while not speaking led to the best audio, but we did not know this at the beginning of the discussion.
  • The video introduction, with the entire class, was not as engaging as an in-person lecture.
    • Again, this is a personal opinion, but I am probably not the only learner to find it more difficult to pay attention in a digital learning environment.

Now On to the Pros

  • The Unhangout platform does help to alleviate one of the main fears about online learning – the fear that students will not have an opportunity to work in small groups and discuss ideas with their peers.
    • As an English teacher, I believe that small group discussions are essential to learning, and it is encouraging to see an online platform that is dedicated to preserving this aspect of education.
  • Though the small group discussion was awkward at the beginning, I felt more comfortable responding to my group members as the discussion progressed.
    • Like any small group working environment, it takes time to build up a rapport and norms for participating. It’s possible that the awkwardness I experienced was the result of being unfamiliar with discussions in this format rather than an inherent problem with the format itself.
  • It was convenient to be able to attend class while in my apartment.

What I Learned From This

While I still do not believe that online courses should replace traditional classes, especially in a high school setting, participating in the Unhangout session did inspire me to consider ways in which online discussions might work in blended learning or during school breaks. For example, a teacher could hold an optional online study group discussion after school. In addition, some schools are implementing online learning during snow days, and having the ability to incorporate small group discussions could be a great asset in those situations. Summer break is also a time when many students become disconnected from school, and having a few online discussions throughout the summer, perhaps related to summer reading, might be a useful experience for students. (All of these examples would require ensuring that all students have access to technology, but that is a topic for another blog post.)  Again, I do not view online discussions as an effective substitute for classroom discussions, but having platforms like Unhangout may be a step forward in helping to extend collaborative educational opportunities beyond the limitations of a traditional school schedule.

These reflections are based on my personal opinions of our online class discussion, and I would love to hear other opinions from my classmates who attended the session!

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Young Adult Literature Review #4

Title: Bomb: The Race to Build – and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon

Author: Steve SheinkinIMG_0753

Reading Level: 6.4 grade level equivalent (according to Scholastic), but definitely most appropriate for high school readers

Synopsis: We all know that this story does not have a happy ending. The race to build an atomic bomb swept us into an era of incomprehensible mass destruction that still haunts our world today. The bleak ending is rendered even more tragic by the noble ideals that sparked this movement: scientists testing the limits of their discoveries in a quest to halt ruthless dictators, politicians making deadly decisions in order to protect the lives of their citizens, and spies committing acts of treason in an effort to ensure stability among global powers. From science to politics to secret networks, Bomb ties together the stories of the people and events that led to one of the most powerful technological advances of the twentieth century.

Context/Themes: Sheinkin proves that nonfiction accounts of history can be every bit as exciting as the most imaginative works of fiction. While covering numerous historical facts, the narrative highlights the personal, national, and global dilemmas that motivated key players during this period. This story is an important one to tell because it forces the reader to confront many of the ethical questions that we continue to face as a society. Do we have a responsibility to limit potentially destructive scientific advancements? When, if ever, is mass destruction justified? Knowing that we have the ability to destroy our entire planet, how can we ensure that doesn’t happen? This book could be used in the classroom in a variety of ways. For example, it could be connected to a unit on Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, which raises similar concerns about science and ethics. It could also serve as the core text in a unit about contemporary controversies related to science and technology. In any case, if you are looking for an engaging, historical version of events leading to the creation of atomic weapons, I highly recommend Sheinkin’s Bomb.

(You can check out other historical books by Steve Sheinkin at his website.)

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Young Adult Literature Review #3

Title: A Wrinkle in Time

Author: Madeleine L’Engle IMG_0723

Reading Level: 5.8 grade level equivalent (according to Scholastic); despite it’s lower reading level, this book includes sophisticated vocabulary and sentence structure variety; though probably best as a middle school book, it could be valuable even for early high school learners who are working to develop their reading comprehension skills

Synopsis: A Wrinkle in Time begins L’Engle’s Time Quintet by introducing Meg Murry, Charles Wallace (her brother), and Calvin O’Keefe (their new-found friend).  From the second page, a mystery evolves; Meg’s father has been missing, and no one knows why.  While the adults in town whisper about him running off with another woman, Meg does not believe the rumors.  Rather than focusing only on one puzzle, the novel uncovers several more mysteries in quick succession; the sudden appearance of three unconventional women in an abandoned house down the road is only the first step in a succession of puzzles that the three children must untangle.  The adventurous tale draws the children through time and space to exotic corners of the universe, and the children’s success in their quest will affect much more than their own lives.

Context/Themes: L’Engle has crafted a book that blends the genres of science fiction, mystery, imaginative fiction, and coming-of-age stories.  Meg is a relatable protagonist, and the reader gets to join Meg in her adolescent experiences as she comes to terms with her own quirks, her lack of self-confidence, her father’s absence, and her responsibilities as a big sister and as a daughter.  L’Engle also presents the theme of good versus evil while subtly exploring religious, political, and dystopian perspectives.  In addition, she includes several allusions to renowned works of literature; while young readers may not understand the full significance of these literary connections, the allusions still expose readers to sophisticated writers and ideas.  This novel offers an exciting plot, an elegant writing style, and complex themes, and I highly recommend it to young readers.  A Wrinkle in Time was my favorite novel as a child, and rereading it as an adult reminded me why I loved reading it many years ago.

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Romeo and Juliet Remix

For one of my courses, I recently had to create a remix, and I was inspired to design something that I could use in the classroom.  Therefore, I decided to create a Romeo and Juliet remix by rewriting Beatles lyrics, recording the new version of the songs, and using it as the soundtrack for a picture slideshow.

What We Can Learn From Remixing

Remixing allows students to take existing media and change it and/or combine it with other media in order to produce something new.  Through creating a remix, students can apply their understanding of a topic or piece of literature and use their remix to highlight important themes.

For example, my Romeo and Juliet remix summarizes the entire play in about three minutes, therefore emphasizing the fleeting nature of the romance.  The contrast between the upbeat, catchy tunes and the tragic storyline questions the sincerity of this love story.  In some ways, Romeo and Juliet is an iconic romance, but we also view love-at-first-sight as a frivolous notion, not to be confused with true love.

Asking students to discuss the themes presented in a remix created by a teacher could be a valuable activity, and it would be even better to have students create their own remixes to present themes that are important to them.  Remixes can come in a variety of forms, and there are several ways for students to create remixes.  Mine was created with GarageBand and iMovie (available on iPads and Macs), but this level of technology is not required for a remix activity.  For example, students could rewrite lyrics to a song and present the new version live, or they could record a video of their presentation with a cellphone.

Creative learning opportunities can deepen students’ understanding of course material, and I am excited to further explore the potential of using remixes to support students’ learning.

Thank you to my guitar player/co-singer for helping me record the remixed songs!

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Spice Up Discussions with Technology

Facilitating a lively, interactive discussion in which all students participate is sometimes challenging in a high school class.  One way to help accomplish that goal is to integrate technology into a discussion.  I have highlighted a few tools below that I have either used as a teacher in high school or as a student in my graduate classes.

TodaysMeet 

Teacher accessibility:Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 3.07.08 PM

  • free and easy to set up
    • pick a name for the “room” for the meeting
    • choose how long to keep the room active (from one hour to one month)
  • teachers can create a free account to manage rooms
    • allows teachers to view a transcript of the comments after students participate

Devices:

  • works better on a tablet/laptop than on a smartphone

Participation features:

  • students can type comments including up to 140 characters
  • the comments are organized with newer comments added to the top of the list

 

Socrative

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  • free and easy to set up an account
  • teachers can create questions, save them to reuse, and see data/records of students’ responses
    • write questions before class and make them “live” during the discussion

Devices:

  • works on computers and mobile devices

Participation features:

  • questions can be multiple choice, true-false, or short answer
  • responses can be displayed in a bar graph or in a text list
  • teacher can choose to show students’ names or make responses anonymous

 

PollEverywhere

Teacher accessibility: Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 4.18.05 PM

  • free and easy to set up an account
  • teachers can create questions and save them to reuse
    • write questions before class and make them “live” during the discussion

Devices:

  • students may respond to the poll by texting or on the website

Participation features:

  • questions can be multiple choice, true-false, or free response
  • responses can be displayed in a bar graph or in a text list
  • responses are anonymous, which may be helpful when discussing sensitive topics
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