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Constructivism and classroom teachers: What canearly childhood teacher educators do to support theconstructivist journey?Julie A. Ray aa Southeast Missouri State University , One University Plaza Mail Stop 5575, Cape Girardeau, MO,63701, USA Phone: +15736512444 E-mail:Published online: 25 Apr 2008.
To cite this article: Julie A. Ray (2002) Constructivism and classroom teachers: What can early childhood teachereducators do to support the constructivist journey?, Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 23:4, 319-325, DOI:10.1080/1090102020230404
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Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education 23 (2002) 319-325
Constructivism and classroom teachers: what can earlychildhood teacher educators do to support
the constructivist journey?
Julie A. Ray*Southeast Missouri State University, One University Plaza Mail Stop 5575, Cape Girardeau, MO 63701, USA
Received 10 July 2001; received in revised form 5 December 2001; accepted 18 July 2002
Constructivism is a theory of learning that has become increasingly accepted by educators. Yet translatinga theory of learning into practical instructional strategies has proven to be quite difficult for teachers. A qual-itative study was recently completed that examined primary grade teachers' understanding of constructivismand its influence upon their teaching practices. Analysis indicated that the teachers had several misconceptionsof constructivism and were at varying levels of understanding, based upon their experience and professionaldevelopment in constructivist education. This study has implications for the teacher education field, and earlychildhood teacher educators can play an important role in helping preservice and inservice teachers gain a deeperunderstanding of constructivism and implement teaching practices based upon this understanding. Suggestionsfor colleges of education are given. 2002 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights reserved.
Since the mid-1980s, constructivism, a theorybased upon the work of Dewey, Piaget, Vygotskyand others has increasingly gained acceptance as aviable theory of how children learn or gain knowl-edge (Clements, 1997; Fogarty, 1999; Forman, 1993;Walker & Lambert, 1995). Constructivists believethat learning occurs when children encounter newexperiences and concepts and seek to assimilate theseinto their existing cognitive structures or adjust theseschemas to accommodate the new information. Thislearning experience is personal, and schemas are"formed and reformed based on experiences, beliefs,values, sociocultural histories, and prior perceptions"(Walker & Lambert, 1995, p. 1). Knowledge cannot
*Tel.:+1-573-651-2444.E-mail address: email@example.com (J.A. Ray).
be given directly to a student, but exists within thelearner as a result of cognitive conflict or disequi-librium. Because the quest for understanding andequilibration is inherent to our species, children seekto resolve this dissonance and develop a new under-standing or construct. Learning, then, is the processof resolving "inner cognitive conflicts" that childrenexperience as a result of experiences, collaborativediscourse and reflection (Brooks & Brooks, 1993;Forman, 1993). The constructivist view of learninghas implications for what role teachers can play infacilitating this cognitive reordering, with a primaryinference being that teachers and students shareresponsibility for initiating and guiding learning ef-forts (Dolk, Uittenbogaard, & Fosnot, 1996; Good& Brophy, 1994). While there are many different in-terpretations of constructivism, regular references toit in educational journals, teachers' manuals of text-book series, state education department curriculum
1090-1027/02/$ - see front matter 2002 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights reserved.PII:S1090-1027(02)00168-X
320 JA. Ray /Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education 23 (2002) 319-325
frameworks and education reform literature demon-strate the current dominance of this theory (Bransford,Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Brooks & Brooks, 1999;Chafel & Reifel, 1996; Holloway, 1999; Steffy,Wolfe, Pasch, & Enz, 2000; Von Glasersfeld,1995).
Studies have found constructivist education tohave a positive impact upon student achievement(Bransford et al., 2000). For example, Schattgen(1997) documented kindergarten children had higherlevels of achievement in classrooms of teachers whowere implementing practices based upon their un-derstanding of constructivism than students whoseteachers used more traditional practices. Studieswithin mathematics education have found childrenconstructed a range of problem-solving strategies,used them flexibly over time, and were able to makesense of new problems using their past experiencesin classrooms where teachers were basing instructionupon constructivist principles (Cobb et al., 1991;Kamii & Housman, 2000; Whitenack, Knipping,Novinger, & Underwood, 2001).
For teachers, the overarching challenge of con-structivism is translating a theory of knowing andlearning into a theory of teaching (Abdal-Haqq,1998). Instruction that aligns with constructivismplaces special demands upon teachers. Teachers musthave a wide repertoire of teaching and assessmentstrategies, an ability to adjust those strategies andscaffold learning based upon students' responses,provide students with opportunities for choice in theirlearning, and continually reflect upon their teachingpractices (Windschitl, 1997). Several studies havenoted the challenge teachers face in applying thiscomplex theory of learning to their teaching prac-tices (Borko, Davinroy, Bliem, & Cumbo, 2000;Goldstein, 1997; Phillippi, 1998).
With the current acceptance of constructivism, be-ginning and experienced teachers are presented withthe formidable task of thinking about the learningand teaching process in ways they may not have ex-perienced themselves. Higher education faculty canbe a support for teachers in understanding how youngchildren construct knowledge and what teachingpractices can facilitate this process. The purpose ofthis study was to examine what understanding earlychildhood teachers had about constructivism, how itinfluenced their teaching practices and what implica-tions these findings had for early childhood teachereducators.
2. The study
While studies have looked at the teacher careercycle in general (Fessler, 1995; Huberman, 1995;
Sluss & Thompson, 1998; Steffy et al., 2000), fewhave studied teachers* professional development inconstructivist education. This qualitative researchproject examined early childhood teachers' under-standing and implementation of constructivism inprimary grade classrooms. Because the goal wasin-depth knowledge of teachers' beliefs and prac-tices, a trade-off in breadth of knowledge was madefor depth. A small sample size of eight teacherswas used, and the case studies of these teach-ers yielded rich data about the research questions.There were four kindergarten, one first grade andthree second grade teachers, and six of the teach-ers were White,, and two were African-American.The teachers taught in rural and urban school dis-tricts and ranged in years teaching experience from3 to 24 years. These teachers were chosen throughpurposeful sampling, to yield "information-richcases" (Patton, 1990). All teachers in the studywere chosen based upon .recommendations by oth-ers in the field of early childhood education, suchas college professors, administrators, and the stateconstructivist education institute personnel. Theteachers in this study were recommended as "good"teachers who were familiar with the constructivisttheory.
This study involved 73 h of observations andinterviews in seven different schools and five dif-ferent school districts located in a 275-mile area.Consistent with qualitative inquiry, this study wentthrough several phases to first clarify the focus ofthe inquiry, study this area of interest, and check fortrustworthiness of those findings (Lincoln & Guba,1985). The first phase involved initial interviews andclassroom observations to choose the participants,followed by the primary "focused exploration" phaseof study (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). This phase in-cluded ongoing interviews and observations in theclassrooms, as well as observations of each schoolbuilding, community, conversations with teachingcolleagues and interviews with administrators andother school personnel, such as curriculum spe-cialists, consultants and university professional de-velopment partners. Written data about the schoolsettings and communities were also obtained. Dataanalysis was done through a constant comparisonmethod, with an ongoing analysis of the field notes,researcher's journal and interview transcriptions, andthese findings led the direction of the study. A finaldata analysis and "member check" phase (Lincoln& Guba, 1985) was done to determine the trustwor-thiness of the findings. Each teacher was given theopportunity to give feedback on the study results,and none of the teachers disputed the study's sum-maries of the findings about their teaching beliefs andpractices.
JA. Ray /Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education 23 (2002) 319-325 321
3.1. What understanding did the teachers haveabout constructivism?
For the teachers in this study, constructivism wasprimarily a theory of teaching or an instructionalmethodology, rather than a theory of learning. Themajority of the participants described constructivismin terms of the instructional practices they used, suchas learning centers, projects, child-chosen themes oremergent literacy strategies. None of the teachersstated that children construct knowledge all of thetime, regardless of the teaching practices used. Theteachers saw constructivism as being dichotomousto "traditional" practices and did not think theywere implementing constructivism if they used cer-tain teaching practices, such as direct instruction orskills-based worksheets. However, the teachers whohad professional development relating to construc-tivism, support within the setting, and experience inimplementing this theory were committed to growingas constructivists and were shifting their focus fromconstructivism as a form of teaching to a theory ofhow children learn. This understanding of construc-tivism as a theory of learning is crucial, because theimplementation of practices perceived as construc-tivist, without an in-depth understanding of learning,will reduce constructivism to "little more than theacquisition of recipes for the teacher to use" (Blasi& Enge, 1998, p. 298). As Dolk et al. (1996) wrote,"Our present reform initiatives will be critiquedjustifiably and will once again fail, if we interpretconstructivst teaching simply as pedagogical strate-gies and do not take seriously constructivism as acognitive learning theory" (p. 14).
3.2. How did this understanding of constructivisminfluence the teachers' classroom practices?
In examining the teachers' understandings andimplementation of constructivism, there were threedifferent levels on which they seemed to be func-tioning. Those with a beginning understanding ofconstructivism made surface changes in their class-rooms, like room arrangement or the use of integratedthemes. At this level, the teachers' concentrationseemed to be on procedures, such as how to direct thechildren in the learning centers or how to present anidea, rather than on the children's needs. The secondlevel was the activities-centered level, where teacherscontinued to implement practices noted by teachersin the first level, but they also began to leave text-book series and chose activities that fit their themes,the children's interests or curriculum requirements.Some child choice and shared authority for learning
was seen, but most of the teachers in this level stillattempted to control the children's behaviors. Theteachers at the highest level of understanding and im-plementation of constructivism moved from choosingactivities that seemed to be "fun" or "cute" for thechildren, and instead looked at the children's learningor thinking processes, in addition to the curriculumguide standards, and made instructional decisionsbased upon that knowledge. The teachers in thislevel had much support and encouragement in theirimplementation of constructivism, several years' ex-perience in supportive environments and the personalmotivation to grow as constructivist teachers.
4. Discussion of results
This study supports DeVries and Kohlberg's(1990), Ammon and Levin's (1993) and Schifter andFosnot's (1993) findings that teachers may progressthrough levels of understanding and implementa-tion in their growth as constructivists, moving froma focus on the teachers' needs, to interest givento activities, to attention given to the individuallearner. This...