Constructivist Learning and Teaching
Dr. Vickie Harry

Research Overview
The constructivist approach to learning and teaching in science engages learners and teachers in the active construction of knowledge. Learners make sense of new ideas and concepts in terms of their existing ideas as they apply understanding to novel situations (a learner-centered approach). In contrast, passive learning that is received from an outside source limits the ability of the learner to comprehend the fundamental concepts (a teacher-centered approach).

Brooks and Brooks (1993) present a basic proposition about initiating changes toward more constructivist, learner-centered classrooms. Barbara Talbert Jackson, in her foreword to the Brooks and Brooks book, explains the proposition in this manner “... in order for learning to take place in schools, teachers must become constructivist, that is, in the classroom, they must provide a learning environment where students search for meaning, appreciate uncertainty, and inquire responsibly” (Brooks & Brooks, 1993, p. v). Constructivism stands in contrast to typical classrooms where students mimic information presented by the teacher. In constructivism, teachers look for what learners can generate, demonstrate, and exhibit.

Ideas about the construction of knowledge have existed since the pre-Socratic time of Parmenides. Socrates’ dialectic was a means for constructing knowledge for the learners of his time. Great thinkers since Socrates including Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, Chomsky, Bruner, and Fosnot continued to build on the foundational work about the relationships among meaningful learning experiences, cognitive development, and the construction of knowledge and understanding.

Fosnot (1989) cites four principles of constructivism: 1) knowledge consists of past constructions, 2) constructions come about through assimilation and accommodation, 3) learning is an organic process of invention, rather than a mechanical process of accumulation, 4) meaningful learning occurs through reflection and resolution of cognitive conflict and thus serves to negate earlier incomplete levels of understanding. The Piagetian terms of assimilation and accommodation are comprised in the second principle. The terms suggest fitting new information into existing schema or altering/creating schema in response to new information to achieve equilibrium. Fosnot’s fourth principle suggests that meaningful learning occurs after cognitive dissonance or disequilibrium. Inquiry is a means for resolving disequilibrium. As learners design investigations to solve problems, analyze discrepant events, or interpret anomalies, they explore periods of disequilibrium as they develop knowledge and understanding about evidence and explanations.

Brooks and Brooks (1993) specify some guiding principles of constructivism: 1) posing problems of emerging relevance to students, 2) structuring learning around primary concepts, 3) seeking and valuing students’ points of view, adapting curriculum to address students’ suppositions, 4) assessing student learning in the context of teaching. Constructivist classrooms implementing the guiding principles rely heavily on primary sources of data and manipulative materials; view students as thinkers with emerging theories about the world; seek students’ points of view in order to understand students’ present conceptions; and involve students in group work. “Constructivist teachers encourage student inquiry by asking thoughtful, open-ended questions and encouraging students to ask questions of each other” (Brooks & Brooks, 1993, p. 110).

Through the implementation of the National Science Education Standards (1996), a changing conception about learning and teaching in science can emerge in classrooms where Science as Inquiry is the process for achieving scientific literacy. Through careful support from skilled teachers, communities of learners construct a vision of the optimal class environment for science learning. Constructivist teachers who model wonder, curiosity, and respect toward nature reinforce positive attitudes toward science as they engage in their own learning. Teachers of science make investigations meaningful for students through active involvement, cognitive and manipulative skills, and sources for topics highlighted by actual science and technology-related problems.

Exposure to constructivist frameworks and approaches such as manipulative mathematics, hands-on science, cooperative learning, and interactive/flexible grouping designs helps teachers understand and practice constructivist methodologies. The process of inquiring about the practice of constructivist teaching poses questions and investigates classroom phenomena about the acquisition of scientific understanding. As teachers begin to build teams of learners in the science classroom, the goals for the science team that emerge are: to investigate, question, predict, analyze, create, and think. Learners in schools construct knowledge about ideas and concepts in science while doing the work of scientists. Who knows what they may discover!

Changing traditional science classrooms into constructivist learning environments where the National Science Education Standards are practiced can be a reality for all classrooms. The first step toward the goal of constructivist learning and teaching challenges teachers and administrators to address Professional Development Standard A. (Professional development for teachers of science requires learning essential science content through the perspectives and methods of inquiry.) Staff development programs engaging teachers as active learners of science in which the discovery approach to science is modeled through the learning cycle, the generative learning model of teaching, or other constructivist approaches to the teaching and learning of science is a good beginning.
Classroom Examples
Preliminary and/or Engage Phases of Learning
In constructivist learning and teaching, young children are actively engaged in constructing knowledge about a topic or theme chosen by the teacher or generated by a class discussion about what student would like to study. For example, if the children and/or the teacher select the earth science theme of rocks to study, the first task for the teacher is to find out what children already know about the topic to identify their existing ideas. There are many ways for a teacher to access children’s prior knowledge about rocks. One example is to ask the children to bring their favorite rocks to school on the first day of the unit. (It may be a good idea to limit the size of the rock to the size of the fist.) Individually or in small groups, the children share stories about the rocks that they brought to school. This activity provides the teacher with a tremendous amount of information about what the children already know about rocks.
Focus and/or Explore Phases of Learning
Exploration and discovery are two important elements of constructivism. In a unit about rocks, during the focus or explore phase of learning and teaching, the teacher provides motivating experiences and discrepant events to engage learners; while at the same time, modeling certain attitudes such as wonder, curiosity, and respect toward nature. An example of a motivating experience for children studying rocks is reading the book, Everybody Needs a Rock, by Byrd Baylor (ISBN 0-689-71051-8). This book describes rules about a perfect rock and encourages children to think about how the rules apply to their rocks. An example of a discrepant event during the study of rocks is to ask children if rocks sink or float. After collecting data about their predictions, provide children with pieces of pumice and provide the materials for them to test their predictions. During this phase of learning, the children become familiar with rocks as they make discoveries about rocks think about the ideas presented by the teacher, and listen to the views shared by the other children in the class.

Challenge, Explain, and/or Elaborate Phases of Learning
After engaging children in experiences to accomplish the objectives of the unit or lesson, the teacher provides experiences to confirm the scientist’s view of properties of rocks. Children compare their discoveries about properties of rocks to the tests scientists do to classify and sort rocks. Books and Internet resources that identify and describe the properties of rocks can help provide additional information for children’s questions. One example of an information book about rocks is, Usborne Spotter's Guides Rocks and Minerals, by Alan Wooley (ISBN # 0-590-73870). Children compare their discoveries about rocks to the scientist’s view of rocks and construct knowledge about their explorations and discoveries. They also test the validity of the views of other children in the class by seeking evidence about the ideas.
Application and/or Evaluation Phase of Learning
In constructivism, the final phase of learning happens when the newly constructed knowledge is applied to a new problem or situation. After constructing knowledge about the experiences with rocks during the focus and challenge phases of learning, the children apply content knowledge and science process skills to novel situations and evaluate the outcome of the solutions. One example of a new problem is asking the children to use sequencing to sort rocks. Using seriation, children apply what they learned about the properties of rocks to arrange them from lightest to heaviest, smallest to largest, or lightest to darkest (color). An additional assessment of knowledge and skills of identifying properties of rocks is to ask children to create the sequence and then ask another children to identify the attribute(s) used to seriate the rocks.
Another Example of Constructivist Teaching - Discovering Density

Ascertains students’ views about density. This can be accomplished via concept interviews, concept maps, small group discussions, whole class discussions, journals entries, surveys, etc.
Students participate in activities designed by the teacher to ascertain what students know about density.
Establishes a context for learning. The teacher provides students with opportunities to manipulate materials; enabling them to express and clarify ideas about which objects sink or float. The teacher assembles a kit of materials for students to manipulate and test.
Students explore the objects in the kits, make predictions about which objects will sink or float, develop personal theories about why things sink or float, and test personal theories about sinking and floating. Students ask questions to clarify their views of the concept and present their views to a group or the class.
Facilitate the exchange of views and present the scientist’s view of density. Provide additional float and sink experiences for students whose personal theories conflicts with the scientist’s view. For example, engage students in the activity, Floating Fruit (Spring into Math & Science, (1984). Fresno, CA: Project AIMS to test their theories.
Students discuss differing views presented by classmates, discover the merits and defects in the theories, and come to a consensus about a theory for floating and sinking. Compare the scientist’s view of density to the class theory. Come to agreement on the validity of the scientist’s view after additional experiences (Floating Fruit).
Present a new density problem to students requiring the use of the accepted view of why object sink or float. For example, Barge Building (Elementary Science Olympiad Coaches Manual and Rules, (1989). Rochester, MI: Science Olympiad, Inc.) asks students to apply their knowledge about density to a new problem.
Student solve a practical problem (Barge Building) using the concept of density. Student share solutions with classmates and discuss the merits and difficulties of various solutions.

Brooks, J. G. & Brooks, B. G. (1993). The case for constructivist classrooms. Alexandria, VI: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Fosnot, C.T. (1989). Enquiring teachers, enquiring learners: A constructivist approach for teaching. New York: Teachers College Press.

National Research Council. (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press.
Internet Links
Constructivism in Science Education
On this website, you will find links to other sites on Constructivists (such as Piaget and Vygotsky) and Constructivism essays/articles.

Miami Museum of Science - The pH Factor - Constructivism and the Five E's
This site deals with Constructivism and the 5 E’s: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate. Also provided are links to the rationale behind each of the 5 E’s.

Essays on Constructivism and Education
A list of links to essays on Constructivism and Education.

A Constructivist View of Science Education
This site provides a constructivist view of education.

Constructivist Teaching in Primary Science
This website gives insight into constructivist teaching in primary science.

Inquiry Learning and Teaching
Dr. Vickie Harry

Inquiry Overview
The National Science Education Standards (1996) call for dramatic changes throughout school systems. The organization of the Standards outlines a set of outcomes for learning, teaching, professional development, and science education programs where inquiry is central to science learning. What is inquiry? What are the strategies, skills, and attitudes required of science teachers for the implementation of the standards? The following standards require inquiry learning and teaching. Teaching Standard A: Teachers of science plan an inquiry-based program for their students; Professional Development Standard A: Professional Development for teachers of science requires learning essential science content through the perspectives and methods of inquiry; Science Content Standard A: (K - 12) Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry, understanding about scientific inquiry; and Program Standard B: The program of study in science for all students should be developmentally appropriate, interesting, and relevant to students’ lives; emphasize student understanding through inquiry; and be connected with other school subjects.

Inquiry is a multifaceted activity. The reader of the Standards easily perceives its importance. Is inquiry dominant in science classrooms? Are students of science collaborating, thinking critically and logically, or proposing and answering questions? There are small pockets of exemplary science programs in classrooms where learners and teachers are engaged in inquiry. There are many other places where students sit in traditional rows, read the science textbook, memorize vocabulary, and answer the questions at the end of the chapter.

The National Science Education Standards (NSES) are a call to action. In inquiry-based classrooms, learners (including the teacher) are engaged in doing science. They are making observations; posing questions; examining resources; planning investigations; reviewing what is already known; gathering, analyzing, and interpreting data; proposing answers, explanations, and predictions; and communicating the results. The learners build and construct knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas as well as an understanding of how scientists work.

The NSES (1996) describe scientific inquiry in the following manner. “Scientific inquiry refers to the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. Inquiry also refers to the activities of students in which they develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world.” Inquiry also involves making observations; posing questions; examining books and other sources of information to see what is already known; planning investigations; reviewing what is already known in light of experimental evidence; using tools to gather, analyze, and interpret data; proposing answers, explanations, and predictions; and communicating results. Inquiry requires identification of assumptions, use of critical and logical thinking, and consideration of alternative explanations.

Additionally, the NSES (1996) further explain inquiry in this way. “Inquiry is a set of interrelated processes by which scientists and students pose questions about the natural world and investigate phenomena; in doing so, students acquire knowledge and develop a rich understanding of concepts, principles, models, and theories. Inquiry is a critical component of a science program at all grade levels and in every domain of science and designers of curricula and programs must be sure that the approach to content, as well as the teaching and assessment strategies reflects the acquisition of scientific understanding through inquiry. Students then will learn science in a way that reflects how science actually works.”

Young children are natural theory builders. All the objects around children provide invitations for inquiry as they observe and interact with the environment. Children make sense of their observations for themselves and form answers to their investigations based on their experience, comprehension, evidence, and reasoning. First-hand learning in the here-and-now world, child-initiated learning, and age-appropriate learning experience and content are the responsibilities of the teacher of young children. The teacher asks a question, provides a tool, or suggests a course of action to the learner to move the child forward in his or her thinking (Seefeldt, C. & Galper, A., 2002).

Inquiry experiences in science begin with questions about phenomena that are interesting and familiar to learners. Productive questions develop children’s curiosity, broaden children’s thinking skills, and increase children’s knowledge. As children collect and organize data to answer questions, they construct knowledge, new concepts, and skills. The process of inquiry-based science encourages children to observe, collect, handle, describe, become puzzled by, and ask questions during active learning that is guided and facilitated by the teacher. As learners actively build and construct knowledge and theories about the world, teachers do not tell them about science concepts. Instead, inquiry into authentic questions asked as a result of real-world experiences generates scientific thinking using the science process skills.
Classroom Examples of Inquiry: Learning and Teaching
Preliminary and/or Engage Phases of Learning
During the preliminary phase of learning and teaching in science, learners and teachers actively engage in inquiry. Teacher pose questions about what children know about the concept to be studied. For example, children love rocks and they build theories about the rocks they observe and collect. When children bring rocks to school or go rock hounding to find some rocks to study, the teacher and the children ask questions about the rocks. The answers to the questions provide information about what the learners already know about the properties of rocks. Asking productive questions assists the teacher with this process. For example, the teacher asks, “What do you notice about your rock?” or “Where did you find your rock?” These questions require children to generate answers by engaging in firsthand experiences and/or by thinking about prior experiences.
Focus and/or Explore Phases of Learning
Exploration and discovery require the use of the science process skills. In a unit about rocks, the teacher identifies the goals and objectives for the learners, based on the information he or she learned about what the children already know about the concept. When studying the properties of rocks, children use the science process skills to discover the physical properties and attributes of rocks. Inquiry in science means studying the natural world and then proposing explanations about the discoveries made based on the data collected. Young children use the science process skills of observing, classifying, comparing and contrasting, measuring, collecting and recording data, and generalizing when studying the properties of rocks. The teacher designs learning activities to engage the learners in using simple equipment and tools to gather data and to extend the senses. Simple instruments such as hand lenses, rulers, tape measures, and balances provide more information than learners obtain using only their senses. As learners gather, analyze, and interpret the data, they build and construct knowledge about the properties of rocks. They become familiar with the materials, think about what is happening, ask questions, clarify their views, and share their ideas with classmates.

Challenge, Explain, and/or Elaborate Phases of Learning
During the challenge phase of inquiry learning and teaching, the learner solves practical problems using the newly constructed knowledge and skills about the concept. While actively engaged in using science process skills to learn about properties of rocks, children observed, classified, compared and contrasted, measured, collected and recorded data, and generalized about the attributes of rocks required for sorting and grouping. The questions generated and answered throughout the process of addressing the objectives for the lesson raise new questions. For example, after establishing their own attributes and categories for sorting and grouping rocks, learners may ask how geologists sort and classify rocks. This inquiry requires a new investigation where learners discover, using books or Internet resources, the tests scientists use for classifying rocks. Asking children to use the scientist’s classification system is a performance assessment of the science process skills children learned while using their own classification systems.
National Research Council. (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press.

Seefeldt, C. & Galper A. (2002). Active Experiences for Active Children Science. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.
Internet Links
Education Resource Information Center
The Educational Research Information Center (ERIC) is a well-established and extensive resource on topics of interest to science educators: topics including inquiry, science investigations, technology, questioning, assessment, and many more.

Constructivism as a Referent for Science Teaching
An essay on Constructivism as a Referent for Science Teaching. Talks about the constructivist epistemology and constructivist oriented teaching.

Center for Inquiry-Based Learning
The Center for Inquiry-Based Learning is a group of scientists and science educators who are developing exercises and training teachers in the use of multidisciplinary, hands-on, minds-on, discovery methods for teaching science.

Inquiry-Based Learning
Provided on this site are links to Classroom Applications of Inquiry, Curriculum, and Professional Literature on Inquiry as well as other websites dealing with inquiry in learning & teaching.

Fermilab LInC Project Examples
The Fermilab LInC program develops teams of educators (all grades and subjects) to integrate technology in the classroom to support inquiry-based student-directed investigations on real-world issues. Technology empowers students to reach beyond the classroom walls to collaborate with experts and students in other locations, and to publish original work to a world-wide audience. LInC can be offered in face-to-face, partial-online, or full-online formats. Each course is highly-interactive as educators design and use technology-supported engaged learning curriculum units and publish their work on the Web. Classroom teachers, technology coordinators, staff developers and library media specialists can take LInC courses, typically offered for 2-6 graduate credits. A LInC Facilitators' Academy is also available to help teams develop knowledge, materials and strategies for facilitating staff development in their own school or district.

Smithsonian Education - Educators Home Page
Smithsonian lesson plans emphasize inquiry-based learning using primary sources and museum collections. Each plan is print-friendly and provides you with all the materials you need—photographs, reproductions, handouts, activities, suggested strategies, standards information, and additional online resources.

Science Learning Network Inquiry Resources
Links to many different scientific topics are included. Reference activities are included on many of the individual sites.

The Lesson Plans Page - Science Lesson Plans
Lesson plans for all age groups are provided on this site.

Starbase Atlantis Pittsburgh
Starbase Atlantis Pittsburgh is an excellent web site for inquiry, investigation, and design technology. Extensive, eclectic, and a bit eccentric like its developer, Uncle Earl, the site is a goldmine of outstanding resources for teachers. Be sure to explore the boxes for Resources for Teachers, Parents, and Kids and the Big, Big Categorized Resource Collection. See especially the references on Science Inquiry, Standards, Curriculum.

Productive Questions
Dr. Vickie Harry

Children, even at a very young age, formulate theories and ideas for just about everything, and these ideas play a role in the learning experience. Through the use of appropriate questions at the right time, teachers can elicit these ideas and facilitate the learning process in a meaningful way. Questions that assist teachers with gaining information about children’s concepts and ideas and at the same time promote the formation of children’s understanding are productive questions (Jos, 1985).

Productive questions promote science as a way of doing and encourage activity while constructing knowledge. The answers generated by productive questions are derived from first-hand experiences involving practical actions with materials. In addition, productive questions encourage an awareness of the possibility of more than one correct answer to the question. Children answer on their own developmental levels and the teacher views achievement as what is learned through the process of arriving at the answer. All children have success answering productive questions.

Unproductive questions promote science as information and derive answers from secondary sources by talking and reading. Questions that do not promote children’s thinking ask about knowledge of words, or repetition of words given earlier by the teacher or found in a book. Verbally fluent children who have confidence and proficiency with words most typically achieve success in answering unproductive questions with the correct end product (right answer). Often times, unproductive questions require a simple yes or no answer.

1) Attention-Focusing Questions:
The simplest form of productive questions is the straightforward “Have you seen?” or “What do you notice?” type of question. These questions are indispensable for fixing children’s attention on using their senses and for encouraging children to use the science process skills of observing and communicating during the exploration phase of an investigation or experiment. Additional examples of attention-focusing productive question starters are: “What are they doing….?” and “How does it feel/sound/look?”

2) Measuring and Counting Questions:
Quantitative questions encourage sharper observations and communications. Carefully phrased measuring and counting questions help children organize their thinking and unify similar concepts or ideas through the use of grouping or sets. Children use the science process skills of measuring and classifying as they check accuracy and use new instruments. Examples of measuring and counting questions include: “How many…?”, “How often…?”, “How long…?”, and “How much…?”.

3) Comparison Questions:
Comparison questions ask children to identify number relationships, develop concepts of alike and different, quantify the number of ways things are alike or different, and describe how things fit together. The science processes of observing, measuring, classifying, and communicating are used by children as they answer comparison questions. Comparison question starters include: “How do…fit together?”, “How are…different?”, “In how many ways are…alike?”, and “In how many ways do…differ?”

4) Action Questions:
Action questions involve children in the science process skills of predicting, investigating, and experimenting. Finding the answers to “What happens if…?” and “What would happen if you…?” engages children the process of inquiry to discover an answer through investigation and experimentation. Asking children to make predictions about the outcomes of investigations or experiments stimulates thinking about variables, hypotheses, and conclusions affecting the investigation before it begins.

5) Problem-Posing Questions:
“Can you find a way to…?” and “Can you figure out how to…?” questions pose problems to children and encourage children to devise methods for testing hypotheses and formulating conclusions. When answering problem-posing questions, children do science as they utilize the science process skills to discover the answer to the question. Before asking problem-posing questions, children need exploration time to provide time to discover the materials, possibilities, and impossibilities.

6) Reasoning Questions:
In science, the question, “How does this work?” can be very intimidating to children. Encouraging children to think about how things work or questioning children about how something happens, requires the use of productive reasoning questions . Answering productive reasoning questions engages children in the science process skills of interpreting data, defining operationally, evaluating, and formulating conclusions. “What are some reasons to explain…” and “How would you explain…” are examples of reasoning questions that invite children to answer without fear of being wrong. Asking why? in science can also be intimidating. A carefully timed, “Why do you think?” question can be an appropriate productive reasoning question.

Productive questions offer children opportunities to use the science process skills to discover multiple answers to questions posed by the teacher. Children ascertain that there is often more than one answer to productive questions. More importantly, productive questions cannot be answered by using a simple yes or no response. Productive questions require children to apply attention, focus, measuring or counting, comparison, action, problem solving, or reasoning before responding. Meaningful science inquiry begins as children ask themselves or their classmates productive questions about the circumstances of their lives and the events of their classroom environment.
Jos, E. (1985). The right question at the right time. In Wynne Harlan (Ed.), Primary Science… Taking the Plunge. Oxford: Heinemann.
Internet Links
Questioning and Science Talks
This is a post by a college professor dealing with Questioning and Science Talks. He provides a real life example, using the situations his students are in.

Helping Your Child Learn Science
This site gives a way to help students gain interest in science and to begin asking questions in order to find answers.

Science Teaching Strategies - Classroom Questioning
This site discusses why questions are central to science. Helpful hints when asking questions to students are provided. Also, guide questions are listed.