Every teacher needs to know this word: constructivism. Why? Because it’s the word that describes how we learn.
When we learn something new, we construct that learning out of what we already know. We do it in one of three main ways: by noting similarities, by noting differences, by combining concepts. Often we do all three at once.
Let’s pretend that you’ve never come across the word pope before. To learn the meaning of this ‘unfamiliar’ word you have to connect it to concepts that you already know, concepts such as:
In fact, without these concepts, it would be impossible to understand the meaning of the word pope – pope, if you like, is the Venn-like combination of the other four concepts.
Now let’s introduce another term and let’s again say it’s something you’ve never come across before (which may well be the case). Here it is: Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. A quick way for you to understand this term (and the brain likes quick ways) is to say that it’s a ‘sort of pope but from the Eastern Orthodox Church’. In other words, using what you already know, you note a similarity (a sort of pope) and a difference (from the Eastern Orthodox Church). And by noting that similarity and difference, you construct new meaning.
The word ‘construct’ is particularly apt because at a neurological level that is literally what happens. When we learn something, the brain makes new connections between brain cells (neurones), linking the new learning to the neural networks that are already in place. The name for that interlinked set of neurones is called a ‘construct’.
Constructivism has implications for teaching. Here’s three:
- The new learning is only as good as the old learning
- The act of construction is prone to errors
- Learning takes time – and the more complex the learning, the longer it takes
Let’s just say you are teaching simultaneous equations. Now, there is no way that your students will be able to do those equations without understanding some algebra. And they won’t be able to do the algebra if they can’t do basic arithmetic. And they won’t be able to do basic arithmetic if they can’t count. The point is this: learning builds on learning, and if that previous learning is missing or muddled, then the new learning will be non-existent or faulty.
Even if the old learning is solidly in place, the process of linking the new material to the old is still prone to errors. Here’s one reason why. Teachers invariably think they are being very clear in what they say. And, indeed, they are – but often only in their own minds. What they’re saying makes perfect sense to them because that ‘perfect sense’ was created by them. It was created from their own previous learning and flavoured by their own life experiences. But the students have different previous learning and different life experiences, so their understanding can’t be a carbon copy of teacher’s. It has to be unique to them. It’s no wonder, then, that mistakes and misunderstandings occur.
But that’s not the end of it. Even if the teacher is crystal clear and even if the student’s prior knowledge is solidly in place, the learning itself will still take time. Let’s go back to the example of simultaneous equations. You teach the equations and you can see from the work that’s produced that the students have understood what you’ve taught them. Problem is, when you return to the topic a few weeks later, you find that the new learning has somehow evaporated. All you get is blank looks and shrugs and assurances that we haven’t studied this yet.
So what’s just happened? Are your students being purposefully difficult? No, it’s the brain again. When you first taught the topic, the students were using their short-term working memory to do the equations. Thing is, for learning to be neurologically embedded, it has to go from working memory into long-term memory. And that process can only happen through a combination of time and repetition.
Here’s another example (perhaps) of that evaporating process in action. Earlier in this article you were given a term which meant ‘sort of pope of the Eastern Orthodox Church’. It was only a few paragraphs ago and probably only a few minutes have passed since you read that term. But can you remember it? Exactly remember it? If you can’t – and you probably can’t – it’s because it’s already exited your working memory. It was there for a matter of seconds and then was gone. And it didn’t go into your long-term memory either. For that to have happened, it would have needed time and repetition. No, just as it was for those struggling maths students, it evaporated.
So what does all of this mean for us as teachers? Well, given that constructivism describes the neurological process of learning, and given that learning is the product of teaching, it’s a theory that every teacher needs to know. If we don’t teach in a constructivist way, we’re making it difficult for our students to build strong and error-free constructs. But if we do, they can. It’s as simple as that.
And to make it even simpler, here’s 13 tips – a brainy brainer’s dozen – to show you how.
Tip one: have a clear goal
If the lesson goal is clear, then students can understand it; and if they can understand it, then can work to it and make those important constructs. A clear lesson goal helps you and the students focus your efforts on what matters most.
Make sure that the goal can be quickly and easily stated – if it can’t, chances are it’s unclear. And even if it can, it still doesn’t mean that the students understand it. So check (tip six).
Tip two: make it challenging
Consider these three ‘learning’ zones:
- the comfortable
- the stretch
- the panic
Many students (many teachers!) want to be in the comfortable zone. In this zone they get to do what they’ve always done, which means they won’t fail. That’s its appeal. Unfortunately, in this zone, learning (deep learning) cannot take place. Hence, the comfortable zone needs to be a no-go zone.
Another no-go zone is the panic zone. Why? Because panic inhibits learning. Panic releases cortisol, our stress hormone, which negatively affects learning, memory storage and memory retrieval.
For learning to happen students need to be in the stretch zone. If students stay in the stretch zone, stay with the doable challenge, their brains will change (new constructs will be made) and learning will have happened. Further, over time, the stretch zone will become the new comfortable zone, and the panic zone, which was once outside the students’ reach, will become the new stretch. Learning, after all, builds on learning.
Tip three: activate prior learning
Before you teach the students anything, you need to activate their prior learning – that is, you need to bring what they know about the topic to their conscious mind. Doing this makes their brains receptive to the new learning. In a sense, you are acting like a neurological gardener, preparing the grey matter so that the new learning will find it easier to take root.
Activating prior learning is also an opportunity to rectify misunderstandings and fill in any gaps in knowledge. Remember: if the old learning is faulty, then the new learning won’t connect properly. Use paired work, small groups, discussions, mind maps, brainstorming. Focus on core concepts and key terminology.
Tip four: map future learning
The students also need to know what direction the learning is going to take. This is not just the learning in the lesson, but the overall topic, the scheme of work, perhaps even the programme of study. Again, you are acting as a neurological gardener, preparing the brain so that the new learning can take hold.
Mapping future learning is a fairly simple thing to do. You can give a visual schematic of what’s to be learnt, and keep adding to that schematic once a topic or subtopic has been covered (the students do the same in their books). You can share a copy (actual or simplified) of the scheme of work and take them through it. You can even get the students to simply flick through the textbook (if you are using one), noting chapter headings and subheadings.
Tip five: tell & show
- tell your students how to do it (explain it)
- show your students how to do it (model it)
Make sure the tell & show relates directly to the lesson goal. Watch out for cognitive overload too; if you have too much information at this stage, the students won’t be able to keep all the elements in their working memory. Better to break the learning into steps. Repeat tell & show as necessary – or once some students have got it get them to do the demonstration (under your watchful eye).
Tip six: check for understanding
You cannot be certain that the students have understood you, which means that you can’t be sure that they’ve understood the material or the task. And if they haven’t, then their learning won’t happen or it’ll be faulty. So check. Get them to explain it to you or get them to explain it to their partner and listen in. The use of mini whiteboards can be very helpful. So too can the use of thumbs (up, down, sideways), but be careful: they might fib to save face.
Tip seven: make learning active and varied
Active learning stimulates the brain, creating interest, attention and engagement. It also generates that most helpful of learning phenomena: mistakes. Mistakes are a learning opportunity that need to be encouraged and embraced. Mistakes provide a feedback loop that says you didn’t get it right, you need to make changes and try again. Neurologically speaking, mistakes shape constructs.
So get them doing something: writing, drawing, constructing, performing, discussing, calculating, summarising, researching, hot seating, quizzing, experimenting, singing, practicing past papers … the list goes on. Go for variety because if you do the same thing all the time, brains get bored and switch off. Variety also helps to create different neural connections which in turn creates deeper understanding and sparks creativity.
However, there’s a couple of caveats. Make sure the active learning:
- links to the lesson goal (tip one)
- is sufficiently challenging (tip two)
- promotes the formation of constructs
If it doesn’t do the above, it’s not learning, it’s just filling time. Remember: brains learn by building on previous learning, principally by noting similarities and differences. So run activities that mirror that process, such as card sorting (matching, grouping, ranking, separating, sequencing); the use of graphical organisers (Venn diagrams, comparison tables, graphs); and discussions and debates (including cooperative learning – tip ten).
Tip eight: provide worked examples
Let the students see lots and lots of worked examples. These are the models that they are going to use to guide their own attempts. This includes you modelling and re-modelling the task (tip five).
Tip nine: get them to take notes and summarise
When you’re notetaking, you are actively engaging with the material being taught. You are taking in what you hear and turning it into a physical product (ink on the page). It’s a form of active learning (tip seven) that helps to create more conceptual links and therefore more neural constructs. It also leads to greater memory retention. Listening, by contrast, is passive. It requires very little of the students and so gets very little back from there. It also tends to make the brain switch off, or at least set it adrift into the world of daydreams.
Summarising achieves the same neural effects as notetaking. In addition, because it happens at an end point (end of sub-topic, topic, lesson, scheme of work) it ties together any remaining conceptual or neurological loose ends. Summarising works best when it is done graphically: mind maps, Venn diagrams, flow diagrams, graphs, comparison tables, schematics. The graphic can, of course, be added to as the learning progresses.
Tip ten: get them working together
You cannot be at every student’s desk, but every student is sat next to another student, so use the power of that. If one student is weaker and one stronger, it doesn’t matter. The weaker student will learn from the stronger one, and the stronger one will learn from the process of helping the weaker student out. It’s a win-win.
A particularly effective ‘get them working together’ approach is called cooperative learning. It’s a term for a range of group strategies that share two characteristics:
- interdependence – the task cannot be contributed unless everyone in the group contributes; roles are often assigned to enhance this interdependence
- individual accountability – the group holds individuals accountable for their contributions
The teacher’s role is not to instruct but to facilitate. In fact, their voice is the least heard during the whole process, though commonly they will bring the learning strands together through a whole class plenary (e.g Q&A PBBB – tip eleven). The cooperative learning task will often finish with an opportunity for the group to analyse how well they worked together, so that the next cooperative learning task can work even better. In other words, they learn how to learn.
Cooperative learning reduces social loafing (letting others do the work); improves social and communication skills; breaks down cliques and ethnic groupings; and – the students report – it’s fun. And, of course, it accelerates the creation of constructs. Examples of cooperative learning tasks include think, pair and share; jigsaw; mountain climbing; numbered heads; three-step interview; academic controversy; and the bigger picture (see https://behaviourbuddy.co.uk/cooperative-learning).
Tip eleven: ask questions
Does this sound familiar?
The teacher asks a question
Some hands shoot up
The teacher chooses a student to answer
The student answers
The teacher comments on that answer
It’s the most common way that teachers ask questions but, alas, also the least effective. Here’s why: the questions tend to be in the comfortable zone (rote or factual), there’s very little thinking time (0.7 seconds on average); most students aren’t actively participating (only one student at a time is involved).
A much better approach is Pose, Pause, Pounce and Bounce. You POSE a deep thinking question. You PAUSE to give thinking time. You POUNCE the question on to a student of your choosing. Finally, you BOUNCE their response to another student to generate discussion. To get even greater depth of thought, you can keep the BOUNCE stage going as long as you want. The teacher only provides the ‘answer’ (or their view of the answer) after the BOUNCE stage. It’s got thinking time, it’s got engagement (the students don’t know who you are going to choose), and it’s got discussion (the bounce and bounce again stage).
Pose, Pause Pounce and Bounce is a great way to run a Q&A. But if you really want to get the students to get their brain working, set questions as collaborative learning tasks (see tip ten), or at the very least make sure there’s a big dollop of discussion.
Tip twelve: provide feedback
Feedback tells the students one of four things:
- what they did right
- what they did wrong
- where they’re at
- how to improve
Each is important, but the last is the most important because it moves your students forward. So make that your main focus.
When giving feedback, restrict your comments to just a few things. Too many and they won’t be able to remember it all. Also, do not interrupt a student who is working it out for themselves; if they can get there on their own, then their learning will be richer. When you give feedback, make sure it’s timely, that is, you give them an opportunity to use the feedback. And lastly invite discussion – just because you understand the feedback, it doesn’t mean that they do; and even if they do understand it, it doesn’t mean they agree.
Don’t forget: feedback is a two-way street. It is vital that you learn from your students. Is your teaching working? Is your lesson goal clear? Have you pitched the difficultly appropriately? Are they getting it? Are they progressing? Is their learning deep learning? Students communicate the answers to these and other questions all the time. They might not tell you directly (though sometimes they might) but they always tell you through their actions, through their engagement, through their body language, through what they produce. So, learn to listen to your students’ feedback to you … and then use it to improve what you do. That is, after all, the purpose of feedback.
Tip thirteen: practice, practice, practice
Provide lots and lots of practice. Practice, after all, makes perfect … or, at least, gets us incrementally closer to that ultimate goal. Make sure you don’t lump all the practice together, but instead space it out over time – over the weeks, the months, the terms. That way, brains will be able to work on the problem behind the scenes. As the neuroscientist David Eagleman says: “When an idea is served up from behind the scenes, the neural circuitry has been working on the problems for hours or days or years, consolidating information and trying out new combinations.”
Bear this in mind too: it does not follow that all students will learn each topic at the same speed. But it does follow – it really does! – that with enough time they can all learn. And to an exceptionally high standard too. So give them enough time.
And that’s it. Thirteen tips to help your students construct their own unique constructs. They are brain friendly, so fit with the neuroscience, and actually they are all supported by scientific research. These are the strategies that have been shown to work.
Petty, G. (2009). Evidenced-Based Teaching: a Practical Approach. Oxford University Press.