Monday, October 6, 2008

Constructivism & Project-Based Learning

Constructing one's own understanding of the world happens every day.  We take in information, judge it, file it, and make sense of the meaning as it pertains to us.  Traditionally, formal education has not allowed students such freedom with their learning.  My experience in elementary school through college was that information was given to me (usually through a teacher or textbook) and then I was required to memorize that information and be able to answer questions on a test pertaining to that information.  A lot of the information was not meaningful to me unless I was interested in it or it applied to my life in some way.  I was very good at memorizing information for the test, then discarding it afterwards.

The classes that had group work, practical application and essay writing, always appealed to me.  I can still recall information from these courses!  One of the reasons I chose Cal Poly SLO for my undergraduate and Masters degrees was because of the "learn by doing" philosophy written into the degree programs.  My lab classes and internship classes provided me with the necessary "troubleshooting" to test some of the textbook theories in the real world.  I gained significant skill sets working with groups of people and being "mentored" by my advisor and internship supervisor. 

Cooperative education was an emerging idea when I was in high school.  I can remember my high school history teacher rearranging our desks for collaboration and communication.  I was excited to experience this change and actually debate and discuss history with my peers.  It didn't last but a few weeks because our principal felt there was too much talking going on and students were "just messing around."   

In sociocultural theory, Vygotsky recognized the role of the teacher (skilled person) as a mentor whose primary responsibility is to draw the learner into his/her zone of development (what one already knows) and then guides him/her through PARTICIPATION to expand their capacity therefore guiding the transition from assistance to independent achievement.  Personal exploration and individual sense-making are key ingredients to this process.  Establishing connections with the learner is vital.  

Having taught some college courses myself, I use this model in my classroom.  I spend time figuring out where the student's knowledge base is, then I build activities to extend beyond that base using their prior knowledge.  The least effective aspect of my class is the weekly quiz in which they answer questions taken straight from their text reading. 

Being a psychology major and studying human behavior, I have always wondered why our educational system chooses to lecture to students (one-way communication).  This delivery system only meets a small percentage of students.  I just figured it was the most cost-effective way to educate since you can pack a large group of students in a lecture hall, hand out multiple-choice tests, and scantrons, then post grades on the computer.

I am very please to be part of a practicum degree program and to have a class that models this style of learning.  Based on our readings this week, the 21st century student, employee, and citizen needs to have multiple intelligences nurtured in his/her education.  Our past memorizing and test taking skill set will not be successful in this 21st century world!

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