Saturday, October 11, 2008

Constructivist Learning in the Age of Accountability

Constructivism makes sense.  In the article from EdWeb, the analogy of learning to ride a bike vs. reading a book about riding bikes is the perfect illustration of this...  Learning is active, not passive; learners of all ages need to be engaged for their brains to connect and engage with the concepts.  If we know this about ourselves, surely we recognize that it is counter-intuitive to suggest it would not be true of the students we serve.
Quiet classrooms where diligent students are completing projects that check for understanding following a structured lesson have long been thought to be evidence that an effective instructional model is in place.  The emphasis on classroom control is key in this scenario; student behaviors are linear, predictable, and monitored by a sequence of activities that repeat itself throughout the day (K-12) and term (post-secondary).  In a standards-driven world, this structure may feel necessary because it tempers student behaviors, allows for systematic dissemination of information, and implies that a system of accountability is in place.  Effort is followed by production and the accuracy and value of the product can easily be measured.
Constructive learning is active and engaging by definition.  Within this model, students are building their own knowledge and understanding.  Students that are asking questions, testing hypotheses, and challenging boundaries are learning by doing.  As they dig progressively deeper to gain understanding and uncover solutions, their energy is everywhere.  This classroom is not quiet... Nor should it be!
Can constructivism and an accountability-driven machine coexist?  Indeed, there is a delicate balance.  But it lies with us to be counter weights in the midst of the broader community that looks to test scores as the sole measure of success.  Those among us that feel handcuffed by the expectations of an accountability system that quiets classrooms and the learning that should take place in them need to strive for ways to rise above these perceived restrictions.  
It can be done.  In this class while there are not "standards" in the traditional way that we think of them, there are specific benchmarks that we are being given opportunities to achieve.  Building this blog is among them.  For me, the supportive, encouraging attitude coupled with just enough information to inspire me to begin encouraged me to take the risk.  By digging in and attempting it - taking the plunge in safe territory - I learned more than if I had simply read about it.  
There are challenges and risks of providing constructive opportunities for learning.  But anything having is worth working for.  Educators may feel that they have lost control when the noise level rises and learning takes its own shape as it is built.  They may even feel threatened by students that have learned more than they themselves know.  The energized, electric, active atmosphere is worth taking a step out on a ledge for.  It is felt acutely when students say, "I get it" in their recognition of real life applications and confidence in their competence.

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