FOUNDATIONS: Constructivism

It’s the end of my semester teaching at colleges, and I thought it’d be a good time to start writing a series that’s been rolling around in my head for awhile. In teaching adults how to teach young children, there are a handful of concepts and approaches that come up over and over again, and are really core parts of how we understand children, and how we teach them. I’m going to devote some blog posts to brief treatments of these concepts, describing what they mean for children, for teachers, and for families. And I’ll call this series… FOUNDATIONS! (Insert dramatic music cue here.)

foundationsToday’s concept is called constructivism. The dude credited with coming up with the approach was Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist who worked in the early-mid-20th century. He’s sometimes criticized because most of his findings were based on observations of his own two daughters, and he just assumed everyone’s brains worked like theirs—so his ideas in some cases don’t apply as well to children who aren’t, you know, upper-middle-class white Europeans. That said, Piaget observed children’s learning better than almost anyone before him, and his insights shape a lot of the ways we think about children and education today. Piaget was one of the first people to notice that brains develop over time, and that younger children simply are not able to comprehend certain ideas because their brains aren’t structured for it yet. The idea of “ages and stages”—that children develop certain abilities on a roughly consistent time scale—came from him. (Modern standardized testing is a logical but perverted extension of those ideas.) He was a big proponent of learning through play, which I’ll discuss in a future blog post.

But constructivist theory is, to my mind, the most important idea he came up with. The basic idea is this: you can’t actually teach a child anything. (“Tell me about it,” I hear all the parents of toddlers groaning.) All learning happens within the mind of an individual. You acquire a new idea by taking a new piece of information and evaluating for yourself where it fits in relation to other things you know, and either fitting the information nicely into a mental schema you already have (“assimilation”), changing your existing knowledge to fit the new piece of information (“accommodation”), or simply rejecting the new piece of information. The key is that the process all takes place within the mind of the learner.

Furthermore, says Piaget, that learning only works right when it takes place through active, hands-on, trial-and-error experimentation. Have you ever seen a young child building a tower of blocks, and they’ve got the little block on the bottom and they’re trying to put the big block on the top, and you say, “It’s going to tip over!” but the kid doesn’t listen and it falls over and the kid is upset and confused? It’s because TELLING the child doesn’t get them to LEARN it; they have to learn it by TRYING it themselves, over and over, until their brain can make the shift to the new idea (“Big blocks have to go UNDER little blocks”).

The classic example of constructivist learning is known as “conservation of volume.” Imagine you’ve got a tall skinny cup and a short fat cup. If you showed the two cups to a grown-up and asked which one holds more water, the grown-up would squint at them and say, “Looks like about the same.” But if you ask a three-year-old which holds more, they’d say without a moment’s hesitation, “The tall one.” The child’s brain isn’t developed enough to look at both the height and the width of the cup at the same time, so they just look at the height. And if you tell them they’re the same, they won’t believe you. And if you show them, by pouring water from one to the other, they STILL won’t believe you. “The water changed,” they’re likely to think. The only way the child will actually understand is by spending some time (perhaps lots of time) sitting in the bath tub with both cups, pouring water back and forth, until sooner or later the lightbulb goes on: “Wait a second! Both are the same!” In Piaget’s conception of things, a version of this process is how ALL learning works.

The great thing is, this kind of learning is self-motivated. You don’t have to tell the child to go figure stuff out—it naturally feels good to figure stuff out! Can you see the child, spending 30 minutes straight pouring water back and forth? I can. Or think of a 2 year old trying SO HARD to put that last puzzle piece in, pushing and pushing, not realizing it’s turned the wrong way, until they finally get it and immediately dump the puzzle out and start over. Learning is intrinsically motivated.

What does this mean in the early childhood classroom? Well, lots of things. First off, teachers should plan as many hands-on experiences as possible. Kids won’t learn if you tell them or explain to them; they have to learn by touching and doing and trying. Relatedly, you want your classroom to have as much open-ended exploration as possible. Instead of telling the kids what to do with the clay or the paint or the blocks, you let them work themselves, and figure out the ideas that they need to figure out. Part of making that happen is setting up a classroom environment where exploration is encouraged, and where there are lots of things worth exploring. Particularly important are “open-ended” materials, like blocks and clay, where there’s no one right way to play with them. A model of a constructivist curriculum is the Montessori approach, where children are given vast amounts of uninterrupted time to choose their own activities and work out their own ideas.

What does this mean at home? A lot of the things from schools really apply at home—providing lots of time to play with open-ended materials; not trying too hard to TELL your child how to do something, but letting them try it themselves (and encouraging them to try again when they inevitably fail sometimes); encouraging exploration. The last one can be especially fraught at home, when children “get into things” and try out experiments that aren’t necessarily appropriate (“Why did you put jam in the DVD player?!”). But remember that children have natural, healthy urges to experiment and explore, and that if they don’t have an adult-sanctioned way to do it, they’ll find their own ways. So when your child spills a glass of water on the kitchen floor, think about saying, “Oh, I see you’re trying to figure out something about water—but the kitchen is the wrong place for it. After you help me clean it up, I’ll take you to the bathtub, where you can pour all the water you want!”

Constructivism is a way of understanding children that is central to my work—I think about it every single day in the classroom. Next time I’ll talk about an equally important approach that is diametrically opposed to it: social constructivism!


2 thoughts on “FOUNDATIONS: Constructivism

  1. Laury Fischer May 9, 2013 at 6:14 am Reply

    what a wonderful, clear, smart lesson, Jarrod. Elegant and really quite brilliant in the way you take big, tough concepts and make them concrete with everyday details. Very fun to read this.

  2. […] various core concepts of child development and early childhood education. Last week I wrote about constructivism, Jean Piaget’s theory that children are born with brains already structured for […]

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