Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Constructivism and Constructionism - How do we build knowledge?

Constructivism and constructionism both have their places in our classrooms, and recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of each theory can assist in helping our students learn and retain knowledge. Technology, when incorporated with either approach, can facilitate the learning to higher levels that would otherwise be unobtainable.
Each person relates to new knowledge by actively constructing their own meaning based on prior experiences. Dr. Michael Orey uses the example of a chair (Laureate, 2011); specifically, how each of us has had different experiences with a chair. Since our experiences are different, therefore, our detailed definitions of that chair will be varied. Recognizing these differences in our students' prior learning can be used to our advantage if we can learn, recognize, and adapt our classrooms to the prior knowledge. For example, since I teach mathematics, my students have learned to multiply. However, they are split, about in thirds, to the method in which they learned to multiply. Some have used the traditional column method, some have used partial products, and others have used the lattice method. Each method has its own strengths and weaknesses, but if they are examined closely, each is really just putting the numerical place order in a different location. The students cling to their own methods, so I put them in groupings to teach their method to the other students who have a different method. By doing a compare and contrast exercise, they quickly discover the similarities between all three. Some students actually are angry that the methods are so similar, because they believed their way to be the best.
With constructionism, the students best learn when they build an external artifact or something they can share with others (Laureate, 2011). An example of this creation and expansion is given in Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (Pitler, Hubbell, Kuhn, & Malenoski, 2007); specifically an exercise that gathers and compares the pH of various water sources. The students gather data, which is eased and facilitated by using a pH probe hooked to a computer. The data is then entered, sorted, and graphed using a spreadsheet. The graphs allow an easy comparison of rain water, stream water, distilled water, and tap water. The students created the charts, so they had a real investment in the presentation and comparison of the data. The spreadsheet allowed the students to create the graphs in a reasonable time, so the effort and knowledge was spent on the analysis of the graph as opposed to the creation of the graph. The students are then judged on their analysis as opposed to the drawing. This comparison is the higher level knowledge skill, so the time is better spent.
I am lucky enough to incorporate several constructionist projects during my school year. One such project where my students can build something they can share with others is to spend a virtual million dollars creating their home of their future. The students use a spreadsheet to build a table which adds, subtotals, taxes, and then totals the prices of the items the students buy in their home. There are eight categories, including  a house, transportation, electronics, food, clothing, and miscellaneous items. The students must spend as close to one million dollars without going over. The spreadsheet facilitates the learning by eliminating the tedious repetition of multiplying, subtotals, and adding to get a total. The students add in hyperlinks to websites to prove the prices of their items, and at the conclusion of their project, must present their new house and its items to the class. When I am introducing the project, the students are more affected by the presentation portion. When they realize their work is going to be shared, the quality of their work improves. This gives the student a sense of accomplishment and pride, while showing the current beliefs and understandings to those around them. The students also construct a collage of their purchased items, along with their total. These collages, along with a printed copy of their spreadsheet, get displayed.
The use of the spreadsheet helps to overcome many challenges, both from the student and from the teacher. By using a spreadsheet, the need to check for correct arithmetic is eliminated. As long as the cell formulas are set up correctly, the totals will sum correctly. The students can then concentrate on finding items that meet the categories. The first pass through the items rarely comes within several hundred-thousand dollars of the million, so the students need to change items, prices, quantities, or a combination of them. Instead of being a boring addition exercise, the students concentrate on correct hyperlinks, ranging the prices to more closely meet the million. Within a few iterations, many students can even get within one dollar. After a little teamwork and brainstorming, a few students find a way to add a sticker, which costs a penny, to get the exact amount. Using the Internet for locating items expands their choices far beyond any newspaper or catalog. Besides allowing the students to find an item with the prices they are looking for, their choices allow me as a teacher an insight to their world, their wishes, and dreams. It is a project that is fun, assimilating the learning into the project.
I would like to take full credit for this project, but I cannot. One of my fellow teachers and I swapped a lesson idea, so I totally stole this from her. Because I stole it, I am duty-bound to share the rubric and a sample spreadsheet with anyone who wants it, as long as they keep paying it forward. The project I shared with the other teacher also uses presentation and collaboration. The students must construct a scale model of a famous landmark, such as the Eiffel Tower or the Space Needle in Seattle. The students do a web-quest to find pictures and dimensions of their building, and then they use scale factors to size their models. We use the Smartboard to project the image of the real landmark onto the scale model to judge the accuracy of the model. The comparison of the models is usually pretty close. The calculator and Internet allow the students to concentrate on the construction of the models rather than computing the dimensions.
Todd Deschaine

Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2011). Program seven: Constructionist and constructivist learning theories [Video webcast]. Bridging learning theory, instruction and technology. Retrieved from
Pitler, H., Hubbell, E., Kuhn, M., & Malenoski, K. (2007). Using technology with classroom instruction that works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


  1. Todd,
    I like how you have students share their multiplication methods with other students to build a firm understanding of multiplication. I believe this activity would show students how the concept of multiplication stays the same regardless of what method they choose to manipulate the numbers. It seems like this activity would open the minds of students to begin thinking about the actual concept rather than just plugging the numbers into a formula.
    Your Million Dollar project also sound cool!! What a great way to have students participate in an authentic learning experience that encompasses research, reading, math and technology skills. After reading about how teachers are integrating spreadsheets into their classes, I am beginning to wonder why more teachers in my building are not using this tool within their instructional framework. I currently teach a digital technology class, and we always cover spreadsheets and how to enter and manipulate data, and It always surprises me how little experience students have had with these types of activities. Technology within our building is limited, so I think that may be an issue, but I also think that many teachers have not has a lot of experiences using spreadsheets therefore they tend to shy away from these activities.
    I am curious as to what program you use to then present your data? I currently use (an interactive poster) for students to create final presentations of various research. Within this program students can embed pictures, video, sounds, and links to other documents. My students get really excited about personalizing their posters and the final products is a true collection of various multimedia tools they used to collect their information.
    Your landmark activity also sounds great. I was thinking that this could be a cool project to incorporate Google Earth. I am not sure about how the mathematics would work, but you could give your students a 3D tour of the landmark to give them an idea of what it looks like as well as where it is located.
    I really enjoyed reading your post. It sounds like you are doing amazing things in your classroom!

    Katie Dorr

  2. Todd,
    I think the million dollar house project sounds like an excellent way to get the students involved. Although you say you cannot take full credit, isn't collaboration what we are trying to teach our kids as well? Some of the greatest ideas come out of collaboration and/or an improvement made upon an existing idea.
    I have to admit, I do not tend to utilize spreadsheets as much as I could. As many of the other students in this course have stated they use them for multiple purposes, I may have to give it a try. As a history teacher, I tend to not collect "traditional" date, yet I am certain they could be useful for population, statistics, demographics, etc. So, thank you for sparking the idea--I am interested to see where I can take it!
    I enjoyed your post! Jenn

  3. To Katie -
    After years of using spreadsheets during my business career, I know just how important they can be. I agree with you about the lack of use in our schools, and how helpful they could be if taught, implemented, and used correctly. I never thought I was a "power-user" of Excel, but many others would come to me for help. I know I barely scratched the surface of the program. I do not think anyone really comes to use any of the Microsoft Office products to their full potential, except maybe Bill Gates.
    I had used Google Earth to show the three dimensional image of the buildings. It is sort of like a miniature virtual field trip. The math comes in during a unit we do on scale factors. The students usually use maps, which they can see the utilization. When the scale factors change, the students had difficulty grasping the concept, or picturing the images. That is how the project started. I have to admit it is a nice break from textbooks and slideshows.
    Thanks for the read. I will look into glogster as a presentation tool. Right now, that is lacking in my classroom, because I just have the students use whatever program they used to create to present.


  4. To Jennifer -
    Thanks for the kind thoughts, and for reading my blog. I hope my input to your blog is as useful and helpful to you as yours is to me. I always thought collaboration was necessary in order to improve, no matter what field or profession. When I came to change careers to teaching, I was amazed how many teachers do not share ideas, keeping their best lessons and ideas under wraps. What is strange is that any other teacher can pretty much replicate the lessons, more than likely improving upon what has already been done. I cannot enforce the "paying it forward" mentality, but I hope it happens.

    I can imagine lots of applications for spreadsheets in history, and how effective they would be in finding out key dates and events. Instead of students doing mathematics in history class, they could look to key times. How about a discussion of the popular vote compared to the electoral college? The students could use Excel to set up the numbers, or you could set them up first. Then they could see the differences using percentages, of the various election years. I see many graphs in history texts, like population growth, crop production, industrial power, etc. All those graphs could be reproduced using Excel.

    Thanks again for following and for your input.

  5. Jason's Response to Todd

    The constructivist learning theory is one that I identify with more strongly than many of the other theories because I have used it with success myself in the classroom. Since I started teaching in elementary school, I have tried to explain material by accessing knowledge that students already have. This may be an experience that we had as a group, something that students have done in their own personal life, or simply comparing concepts to television shows and video games. It seems that connecting new material to ideas and concepts that the students have already experienced goes a long way toward creating new connections to the content.
    One of the concepts that you touched on is a weak area for me. Having students self evaluate is something that I have not done a lot of in my own classroom. Upon further reflection, I think having students look at their own work and critique it honestly could go a long way toward helping them to really master the material and create a connection with it that will last.