“The single most important factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows.” David Ausubel
A constructivist learning framework is based on the idea that students come into our classrooms with pre-existing knowledge. Our task as teachers is to structure learning experiences capable of drawing out that knowledge, massaging what we find, adding missing elements, and pruning distractions – all to reveal new understandings. I believe this approach is respectful to the learner and teacher, I believe it is rich in possibility, I believe it works.
So what does science in elementary school look like? What should it look like? My adult students wrote of their memories of their own science experiences during these formative years. Here is an attempt to tell that story using their words, words they brought into class, well ahead of time that I might “teach” them anything. (My thanks to the voices of the learners).
For far too many, the memories are few and far between. “Unfortunately, I do not remember much about my experiences with science in the schools growing up.” Some can be chalked up to the passage of time, yet engaging in activity and ideas was able to bring back “some of the distant science memories have found their way out of the recesses of my brain.” Much of the blanks can be attributed to the minimal attention to science or the over-reliance of the old school approach of read the chapter and answer the questions at the end – not an effective way to learn. For many, engaged learning happened outside of school, only to be countered by poor experiences in School. “When I started elementary school, learning became less natural and hands-on. It became more structured and manufactured. I felt bored sitting in the classroom, listening to lectures, memorizing and regurgitating on exams.“
Yet that isn’t what it has to be. Rich learning environments create memorable learning. “As a young child, I raced home from school to recount the day’s activities to my parents. I often told them about the science activities we had carried out on class.” This is where we want to be. “The best science I have experienced have been the ones in which I observed something, questioned it, and done something with it.” Engaging learning activities don’t stop at the end of the period. “These questions linger …” “I found myself craving more scientific knowledge and started to read about science for fun.”
“However, my attitude about science changed when I entered middle school.” Often the case for girls that face a learning environment not designed in ways they prefer to learn. “As my understanding of science became more associated with classroom work and being told how I was supposed to understand science topics in science it began to feel soulless and I stopped trying.“ Effective science instruction puts the learner at the center and respectfully challenges their thinking. “A general feeling I recall having about science is feeling like I was being tricked; that the ‘answer’ would never be what I thought it would be and that I should second guess myself.” It “further validated my belief that I would never be good at science.” Constructivist teaching stands in direct opposition to the image of a teacher in front of the room bestowing all their wisdom and knowledge on the ignorant children at their feet. It is the job of the teacher to join hand in hand in the pursuit of knowledge. “I think elementary science teacher should be … like a lighthouse that helps ships stay on course, science teacher should provide students guidance in their journey of scientific discovery.”
Standards crafted by experts in the field are in place to point the way to be carried out with the tools provided by a good curriculum. It is the teacher’s job to employ their craft with a focus of keeping the student at the center. “The exact way and method each student uses to get there should be determined by students themselves.” The structure is up to the teacher. They serve as guide, providing the critical support to shape student success. “The knowledge necessary to closely explore the world in order to discover something new is not entirely innate. We are curious but may not know how to really look deeply and critically at our environment.” The journey is shared. “The excitement felt when discovering something new is heightened when you are able to share it with others. Henceforth, it is essential to develop skills in communicating your findings, your ideas about those findings, and any questions still lingering in your mind.”
“A metaphor … I think about myself as a science teacher is … a compass. I don’t want to map out everything for my students, but I do want to be the one to point them in the right direction… I want it to be something that they create … Compasses leave room for exploration, but keep you on a general path.”
There is a call for change. We owe it to the world to develop a scientifically literate citizenry. “With the enormous influence science and math are having, it’s more important than ever to engage students and incite their interest in STEM subjects.” “Creating a love for questioning, understanding, and discovery in young children can only benefit us in the future.”
A central message in our class is the permission to move forward without knowing everything. It is OK for student and teacher to learn alongside one another. “I have learned to be a learner as I encourage children to foster their own curiosities about the world around them.” “I will be right there with them excited and curious!”
Perhaps the most important knowledge is to know what you know and know what you don’t know. “Although I don’t know everything I need to now, I am comfortable in that discomfort.” With that comfort a teacher can sincerely say, “I don’t know. Let’s see what we can learn together” – and join the fold of the constructivist teacher.