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Running head: The Need for Constructivism

Meeting the Need for Constructivism through


Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum
Mary Pat Vargas
California State University Monterey Bay

The Need for Constructivism

Introduction
In the course of his State of the Union Address, President Obama confirmed his
support for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, (STEM) education: I
want Americans to win the race for the kinds of discoveries that unleash new jobs converting sunlight into liquid fuel; creating revolutionary prosthetics, so that a veteran
who gave his arms for his country can play catch with his kid again. Pushing out into
the solar system not just to visit, but to stay (2015). Test score comparisons with
multiple countries provide evidence that our students remain in the middle of the pack in
science and math abilities. In response to this, the Obama Administration has
committed to providing students with the necessary skills to appreciate the benefits of
challenging, high paying and rewarding STEM jobs contribute to the invention of
discovery that will keep Americans competitive in the global market. In November of
2009, the President launched the Educate to Innovate initiative to increase American
student achievement in these subjects. This ten-year program includes the efforts of
not only the Federal Government but that of leading companies, foundations, nonprofits, and science and engineering societies who have come forward to answer the
Presidents call for all-hands-on deck (Educate to Innovate, 2013). The initiative to
increase student achievement in STEM fields must begin in elementary school and it
requires a mindset that diverts the attention from high-stakes testing to an educational
model that promises the introduction of STEM courses through constructivist lessons.
The Presidents call for action requires that educators embrace the constructivist model,
infuse it with creativity and provide opportunities for hands-on explorations to solve realworld problems, encourage productive collaborations that allow for and support

The Need for Constructivism

disagreement and compromise, and initiate experiences with the Next Generation
Science Standards along with engineering models of problem-solving as early as
kindergarten.
History
Precious few descriptions exist from the ancient Egyptians that detail the
engineering utilized to construct the Great Pyramids, yet we continue to be fascinated
by the meticulous feat of the creation of the ancient tombs. (Shaw, 2011). One thing is
certain; the ancient Egyptians did not discover how to build the pyramids by reading a
textbook in a classroom. The Egyptians satisfied their curiosity for innovation by
experimenting, observing, thinking and learning from their failures and successes; it was
constructivism at its best.
When the U.S.S.R. launched a spacecraft in 1957, it also unknowingly helped
launch Americas educational reform. The competition demanded the United States
demonstrate expertise in technology and to accomplish this a look at our education
system was mandatory. The inherited Puritan methods were not exceptional and thus
educational theorists such as Jean Piaget, John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner,
and David Ausubel established themselves among the professionals who contributed to
the theory of constructivism. According to Matthews (2003), While each of these
individuals had their own perspective on human development, they shared a common
belief with Dewey's progressive approach to education, the purpose of which, in regards
to education, is to facilitate the naturally developing tendencies and potential of the
child (p. 54).

The Need for Constructivism

An evaluation of the American testing system is beyond the scope of this paper;
however, it is noted that the constructivist model faces its greatest challenge by those
who counter that the basic tenet of constructivism, which is education should be childdirected allowing the learner an active role in the learning process, generally does not
allow for written proof of an identifiable change in knowledge and it contradicts the
typical model of instruction: teach, memorize facts, assign, practice and assess.
Description
The definition for STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math has been
well established, but choosing or creating curriculum for an elementary classroom, that
satisfy best practices is daunting considering there are over 30 programs that meet
standards. One constant of each program is the use of the engineering design method:
problem definition, research, identify requirements, brainstorm solutions, choose the
best solution, development work, build a prototype, test and redesign. Many visuals
exist to lend clarity to the model as seen in appendix a. A simplified explanation: ask,
explore, model, evaluate and explain illustrated in appendix b seems more closely
related to the goals of an elementary program. Establishing a model for STEM
instruction in the elementary school begins with constructivism and a review of the
principles designed by Jerome Bruner. It also requires understanding of other theories
including: problem solving (Mathematical Problem Solving - Alan Schoenfeld), critical
thinking (Social Behaviorism John Dewey) and project-based or cooperative learning
(Social Learning - Albert Bandura; Social Development - Lev Vygotsky).
The protocol for implementing these learning theories should be deliberate on the
part of the instructor, and although many of the theories share the same descriptors for

The Need for Constructivism

active learning, students should be provided with specific exercises for experience.
Additionally, as twenty-first-century learning skills continue to be developed,
experiences with technology-based instruction will complement the overarching
constructivist theory.
Theories
The interrelationship among the noted learning theories makes it difficult to
define one without involving the other; however, it can be proposed that a welldeveloped STEM program must originate in the constructivist theory. It can further be
extrapolated that a summary of Bruners constructivism when applied to instruction:
experiences and contexts that motivate the student and allow for learning, an organized
structure that can be easily grasped by the student and a design that encourages the
learner to go beyond the information given or what is expected, (Kearsley, 2013),
requires creativity. Defining creativity is perhaps a greater challenge than teaching it.
Simply stated, creative teachers are those, according to Rinkevich (2011), who have a
willingness to push boundaries and take risks. Furthermore, Lily and BramwellRejskin (2004) describe creative teachers as those who possess certain personality
traits such as persistence, self-confidence, being artistic, intuitiveness, independence,
and a sense of humor. As instructors, creative individuals are adept at discovery and
invention, and he or she can support students in doing the same in becoming thinkers,
not simply learners who are capable of repetition (Piaget 1973).
Barell (2007) defines problem-based learning (PBL) as an inquiry process that
resolves questions, curiosities, doubts, and uncertainties about complex phenomena in
life (p 3). Instructionally it replicates the STEM model of inquiry by engaging students

The Need for Constructivism

and fostering motivation by providing real-world problems that require active


participation in investigating, analyzing, and collaborating to solve ill-structured
problems (Trinter, Moon, & Brighton). Furthermore, PBL provides opportunities for
student to engage in research (ask and explore steps in the engineering model of
problem solving) and allows for revision (engineering model of evaluate and explain)
while the teacher facilitates and encourages cooperative learning and appropriate
discussions.
Schoenfelds description of the significance of students acquiring the ability to
recognize that mathematics is really about patterns and not merely about numbers (p
335) provides the impetus to apply this theory to all problems, mathematically based or
not. Furthermore, Shoenfeld (1992) acknowledges that changes in instructional style
and curricular content are needed. Renewed effort, he says, should focus on seeking
solutions, not memorizing procedures, exploring patterns, not just memorizing formulas,
and formulating conjectures, not just doing exercises (p 335). Education has made
great strides in teaching problem solving skills, evidenced by the plethora of texts and
websites describing and providing problems, still Schoenfelds postulations remain
relevant because science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workers
drive our nations innovation and competitiveness by generating new ideas, new
companies and new industries (Langdon, McKittick, Beede, Khan & Doms, 2011).
STEM workers play a key role in our nations growth, and it is critical that students be
able to problem solve. The significance of an instructor willing to allow students to
grapple with problems without providing answers is of utmost importance; however,

The Need for Constructivism

frequently the instructor is conflicted in regards to ensuring students are capable of


reproducing bits of knowledge necessary to prove competence on high-stakes testing.
Students who are skilled at critically thinking are not only capable of questioning
the answer they understand that more than one answer may exist. Although the
routine used for gathering knowledge such as research and memorization may be
routine, it is the use of this knowledge that sets the critical thinking student apart.
According to Synder and Synder, Instruction that supports critical thinking uses
questioning techniques that require students to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate
information to solve problems and make decisions (think) rather than merely to repeat
information (memorize) (p. 91). In his Taxonomy of Cognitive Levels, Benjamin
Bloom, describes these requirements as essential educational objectives.
Dewey provides a solid explanation of thinking, Since the situation in which
thinking occurs is a doubtful one, thinking is a process of inquiry, of looking into things,
of investigating (p 154). Dewey continues his description of thinking by postulating that
all thinking is research and that research belongs to the person who thought of it and it
carries a risk. The thinker may not find the answer (Dewey 1916). The process of
continually searching for answers and the idea that an answer may not be found is
powerful, and the educator should provide continual modeling. However, the risk does
not rest with the thinker; the instructor takes a huge risk by allowing a student to
construct his or her knowledge. What if the learner didnt learn what was expected?
Project based or a cooperative learning activity is also a familiar strategy and
although implementation may not always be practical in the classroom, it can be used to
improve the learning performance of students (Hung, Hwang & Huang, 2011). Project-

The Need for Constructivism

based activities provide development of cooperation, compromise, self-regulated


learning, interpersonal skills and trust as the activities usually involve cooperation with
peers. Furthermore, projects are often seen as motivating especially if the subject is
relevant and highly interesting. It must be acknowledged that learning will occur from
watching others, and the proximity and shared goals of project-based learning are no
exceptions. Banduras Social Learning Theory states: reinforcement primarily serves
informative and incentive functions, although it also has response-strengthening
capabilities (p 3). If we apply Vygotskys Theory of Social Cognitive Development as a
compliment to Banduras, we accept that all learners will acquire some knowledge by
his or her interaction with a group. Vygotsky (1978) reminds us that, Over a decade
even the thinkers never questioned the assumption; they never entertained the notion
that what children can do with the assistance of others might be in some sense even
more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone (p 32). The
basic assumption that a learner will learn from others in a cooperative situation may not
seem as important as being able to regurgitate facts; however, innovation does not
occur without it.
For the present, teachers supportive of the constructivist model will continue to
be conflicted in regards to the frequency problem-based or cooperation learning can be
used it seems as though it is a tradeoff; it is not. However, it should be acknowledged
that constructivism should not be the first choice when rote memorization is necessary,
or when introducing an important concept (although even in this circumstance, it can be
used moderately). In considering the model of constructivism, a well-prepared
instructor remains aware of the following: potential loss of class control, various learner

The Need for Constructivism


preparedness, difficulty in guiding learning, learner needs versus outcome needs,
communication competence of learners and that a few learners may choose joining the
majority opinion view without engaging in the activity.
The greatest advancements in our society from medicine to mechanics have
come from the minds of those interested in or studied in the areas of STEM (Langdon,
et. al., 2011). STEM curriculum must engage students in the engineering process
through teamwork, provide the opportunity to analyze multiple solutions, and allow
students to innovate. Engineering projects typically involve hands-on, creative
exploration and it is something elementary learners enjoy (Jordan & McDaniel 2014).
There are many familiar toys that young learners have used at home, and the
opportunity to continue creating through hands-on constructions provides motivation.
Additionally, project-based learning challenges the cognitive skills of the learner while
providing experience with collaboration and planning. Constructivist educators would
argue for more time to address learning with project-based, cooperative learning;
however, meeting the goal of having the students understanding the entire years
standards may prevail too often there is no time to present all the material expected.
Constructivist educators should continue to embrace the theory; the US government
has provided the impetus to innovate. The opportunity to question, investigate, model,
reflect and explain defines innovation. Where there is reflection there is suspense
(Dewey, 1916).
Lesson
The instructor who wishes to construct a lesson that is creative, motivating,
collaborative, requires critical thinking and problem-solving skills should approach the

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challenge with the same motivation he or she expects from the students. The instructor
should start simple; constructivism is not complicated, introducing students to a kitemaking lesson meets the characteristics as mentioned above.
The inquiry stage, or problem-solving stage of the kite-making project that is
appropriate for middle school students, involves small groups of students researching
and discussing designs for kites. The instructor plans a class discussion regarding flight
and kites and leads the class towards a question regarding the symmetry of a kite. The
question is left unanswered by the instructor: is symmetry important? The instructor
discusses the steps of the engineering process (ask, explore, model, evaluate and
explain) and encourages students to create simple designs that they will enlarge later.
Vocabulary incorporated in the discussion of the engineering process provides students
with their goals: make a scale model, a prototype, and then a final kite (with corrections
to the design based on kite flying evaluation). In summary, students are required to
work collaboratively, use materials in the classroom and design a kite with a span no
wider than two desks. The teacher needs to provide large butcher paper and bamboo
or balsa wood for support.
As the kite project evolves, the students are eager for teacher approval. Will my
kite fly? is a common question that should be left unanswered, as this would take away
the importance of learning from experience. It is acceptable for the teacher to reply that
the answer is a mystery. This answer may provide additional motivation for the students
who may be confused as to why the instructor does not have the answer.
There is no expectation that every collaborative group create a kite that can fly.
The class will venture outside and watch as each team attempts to fly their respective

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kites. As the kites are flying (or not), the teacher should initiate a discussion regarding
the flying of the kites. Students will use their observation skills to deduce what
properties made the kites fly. It is not necessary that the teacher provide any answers,
the students will discover this.
The kite-flying lesson satisfies several standards: geometry and a hands-on
application of the importance of the history of kites in Ancient China. Additionally, the
collaborative problem-solving aspect meets nearly all of the California Standards for
Mathematical Practice including: "Make sense of problems and persevere in solving
them, reason abstractly and quantitatively, construct viable arguments and critique the
reasoning of others, model with mathematics, use appropriate tools strategically and
attend to precision" (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2015).
The conflict between standards-based, traditional, teacher led instruction and
project-based learning need not occur. Collaborative, project-based activities can and
should cover the required standards. Formative assessment is a valuable measure
arising from the use of project-based learning and it does not compete with paper and
pencil tests. The Presidents call for action requires that educators embrace the
constructivist model, infuse it with creativity and provide opportunities for hands-on
explorations to solve real-world problems.
A constructivist lesson provides an exploration with engineering design that
encourages innovation just what the President ordered. A summary of constructivist
lesson tips are as follows and can also be found in a visual in appendix d.

Dont provide answers; allow discovery. Holistically incorporates emotion,


engagement and affect (educates the whole child). (Piaget ,1973)

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Encourage critical thinking by asking leading questions. Higher-order


cognitive outcomes attained when encouraged to formulate conjectures (teaches
how to think rather than rote memorization) (Schoenfeld, 1992)

Utilize cooperative learning to strengthen communication skills, Social and


communication skills are improved because constructivism emphasizes
collaboration. (Vygotsky, 1978)

Model and coach students towards skillful performance. Scientifically


reinforced engaged learning (imagery and language contribute to learning)
(Jerome Bruner, 1964)

Celebrate learning, not project accomplishment. Easy conversion from class


to task application (real world experiences).

Validate all students as they bring their opinions and experiences to the
collaborative task. A child can only learn to behave in the cooperative world by
engaging in joint activities (Dewey, 1916)

Involve students in their own learning. Eliminating the one-size fits all
curriculum allows for differentiation (Bandura, 1971)

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References
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Appendix a

http://www.sciencebuddies.org/engineering-design-process/engineering-designprocess-steps.shtml#theengineeringdesignprocess

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Appendix b

http://www.middleweb.com/4328/12-steps-to-great-stem-lessons/

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Appendix c

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Appendix d
Web sites:
http://www.learning-theories.com/problem-based-learning-pbl.html Problem Based
Learning
http://web.cortland.edu/frieda/id/IDtheories/34.html Collaborative Problem Solving
http://www.wired.com/2014/06/stem-success-starts-critical-thinking-problem-solvingskills/ STEM critical thinking skills