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Letting Go in the Classroom

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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When we consider constructivist teaching, or a constructivist approach to learning, what comes to mind? For me, I see Socrates standing not in the center, but to the side of his students.

I imagine him pondering their comments and questions, and carefully crafting questions of his own, which he contributes -- selectively. Most importantly, he doesn't lead, but follows the line of questioning of the students.

That's really what it's all about: being an questioner, an investigator side-by-side with your students. That doesn't mean we shouldn't have a solid lesson plan ready to go each day, but we should be ready -- and willing -- for the students to take the class into unchartered waters.

Let me give you an example from my own teaching experience. In an American Literature class I taught a while back, we had made our way through transcendentalism, stopping off at Henry Thoreau. Here, I had a few lessons on civil disobedience planned.

Day one, we watched a video excerpt on Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, and read a passage from the play, "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail." We created a class definition for civil disobedience and then we began to brainstorm times in history when people had defied a law -- or should have -- for the sake of what was right and fair. My plan was for all this to lead to group projects and individual papers on specific historical acts of civil disobedience in the U.S.

Then, the students began talking about racial profiling and wouldn't move on. I asked questions to clarify. I asked more questions. At this point, I abandoned the list I had assumed students would brainstorm (the right answers), and jumped on board with the direction they were heading.

Mostly African-American and Latino, my students began sharing stories of racial profiling from their own lives, and the lives of their families and friends. My eleventh grade class, the one right before lunch, made it very clear that day that they wanted to learn more about their rights and protecting themselves the next time the police pulled them over for questioning for no clear reason.

Constructivist teaching relies on the learners bringing prior knowledge, or schema, to the table. I could have stopped the conversation and said, "Let's move on," (code for, "Let's keep going where I think we should go") but then I would have lost them. Every time I have white-knuckled it and pushed my agenda, the students respond like this: a heavy, collective sigh, and slumping of the shoulders. In essence, they give up and give in. Can you relate?

Teaching students in urban schools has an added challenge. Many students from families struggling economically have few college grads in their neighborhoods and families to represent the benefits of education. So, they often are hungry to know why exactly they are learning something and how it is relevant to their own lives.

Let's go back to that class before lunch. After we cleared away all the misnomers around what the police can and cannot do, we read, analyzed, and discussed the Fourth Amendment and habeas corpus, looked at national statistics on racial profiling, and turned to the ACLU for their expertise.

We ended those couple of weeks with a culminating project where students grouped themselves according to interest. One group made a brochure titled, "How to Protect Yourself When DWB (Driving While Black/Brown)." Another group created a presentation poster on the history and statistics of racial profiling. My favorite project was an instructional video for police officers on how to build trust with the community.

Need I say it? I was a learner along with my students during those weeks. The students schooled me. When was time when you let go and let the students guide the learning? Please teach us!

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Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Scripted lessons can serve as nice examples, but when it is expected that they be followed verbatim, this insults both teacher and student. In my work, when I see one of these being pushed to be followed "with fidelity," I always think of the saying, "The devil is in the details." Basically, this resource --one often developed by a team of veteran teachers-- gets misinterpreted and mandated to be used more like a script than a guide. It's a shame, but the good news is that I am seeing more teachers push back on this by publicly questioning the validity and effectiveness of a scripted lesson. Thank you for your comment and doing great things for your students every day!

Stephanie Gage's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently in a preservice program to become a high school English teacher (preferably 11th grade!) and I was curious as to whether you've used this approach with other literary works? Do you use alot of discussion in your classroom? I would think that's a pretty sure way to let students guide their learning, yes?

Stephanie Gage's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm glad to have read this final post because I was reading through them wondering how teachers reconcile the often strict demands of state and national standards with a constructivist approach. It doesn't sound easy, but at these posts offer some hope! I'm currently preservice so I have yet to grapple with this yet.

Yvette 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It amazes me how education has the tendency to cycle around. I remember when I was in my bachelor's program there was a lot of talk of constructivism versus direct instruction. It seems this has been a topic of discussion for sometime. Personally, I think there needs to be a combination of both. I do not think there is a scared percent of either; rather, as professionals we need to be able to decipher when to use what technique and when. I once had a principal that truly believed direct instuction should take at least ninety percent of instruction time. However, I felt ninety percent was far too much for most of my classes. This approach teaches students to regurgitate what has been taught, and it does not teach students to think for themselves.

At the time when I was encouraged teach from this approach, I was in my first Master's program. This program took a very unorthodoxed approach to education. Almost all we did was in a constructivistic manor. I had never experienced education in such a way; yet, I was very impressed and I learned more than I could have ever imagined. Still, through the program I learned two very important things. First, in order to teach from a constructivist approach one must understand the subject matter very well. Even though it appreared as though my professors allowed the class to guide instruction, it was obvious at the end that they were the master minds and they really were guiding us all along. Secondly but equally important, some students are not capable of a constructivist approach to learning. I have learned through personal experience some students are not ready for a student guided evironment--either because they have behavior issues or because they do not have the background knowledge necessary.

The unfortunate piece is that although I think many approaches to learning are beneficial, educators are influenced to directly guide instruction. This is obvious in our students inability to think for themselves. Most students expect teachers to spoon feed information. This is why so many children have a difficult time thinking for themselves. Would I like to teach from a constructivist approach more often? Absolutely! Do I commend you for beginning this discussion and sharing your insight. Yes! Hopefully, this will allow other teachers to find a need to use this approach more often in their classroom or to at least learn more about it.

Master Student
Walden University

LaurenH's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too, agree that a constructivist approach can be very beneficial for students. I am currently teaching 3rd grade and it is my 4th year. I will admit, that I was very nervous to sit back and let things like this "happen" my first year of teaching. As I become more experienced and familiar with the curriculum, I find it much easier to be able to guide my students through discussions and love seeing that once taught how to, even 3rd graders can have meaningful discussions with one another. According to an article I read called "Becoming Expert Teachers" by Robert Garmston, having a deep knowledge of your content, a strong repertoire of teaching skills, and knowing how your students learn best are just three characteristics of becoming an expert teacher.

Leslie Jones's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I am a sixth grade teacher in a school district that is largely working class as well. I, too, have found that even at this young age, students do not have the desire to "learn for learning's sake." My students talk about finishing high school and going to college to get a job and help out the family.

Often in class, I do step away from the standards and textbook scripts to see where the path takes us. The subject matter has more impact when I relate it back to their lives and experiences. However, this constructivist approach can be challenging and is frequently frowned upon in my school. My principal would prefer that our focus be on raising test scores.

Jess Andruch-Lindblade's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Rebecca, What a great post! "That's really what it's all about: being a questioner, an investigator side-by-side with your students. That doesn't mean we shouldn't have a solid lesson plan ready to go each day, but we should be ready -- and willing -- for the students to take the class into unchartered waters." All I can say is, YES, YES, YES!

Jennifer, Your statement, "This is why teachers are highly qualified, so that we are prepared to make good choices for our students. We are not just well trained monkeys who read from a script--or are we?" really hit home for me.

I feel that my strength is teaching reading and that I have always had an ability to choose literature that really connected with my students and was well matched to the strategies they need to learn to become good readers. Recently, we have adopted a new literacy series which I am required to teach from. I feel much less effective when I teach and use the scripts and texts provided to me just as you mentioned. I feel my district mandated the use of the series in all buildings because there were teachers who did not know how to teach reading effectively or were just plain not teaching. Instead of providing these teachers with professional development they implemented this cookie-cutter reading program. While I do follow the district's policy of using this "core program" I also have found ways to work around it in an attempt to broaden my students' thinking and to cater to their interests. While I don't broadcast the fact that I find opportunities to work around the program, I feel that I have enough expertise and research behind me to argue my case if I should ever be questioned. The proof is in my students' engagement and the higher level thinking they use.

Carey Cappel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I completely agree with your ideas in regards to letting students take over some of the teaching in the classroom. This, I think, gives them a voice in the room. It also gets them involved and more interested in what is being taught.

I used to teach second grade in an urban school and have encountered similar experiences. It is true what you said- that the students are looking for curriculum that applies to them. This way they can relate their lives with the material. It makes them feel parallel to the things they learn and it also helps them understand better.

I too have had many instances where I have made plans that I think will be very relevant to my students and their lives. When we start the lesson, it goes as planned but then it always gets sidetracked. I think that this is not an obstacle but a "life jacket" in education. It allows students to feel safe talking (especially if they are more shy) about their lives and it lets them have a voice. It also gets them to participate, which is a plus, even if this is not what the teacher had in mind for the lesson. Allowing all students to express themselves and share ideas opens them up, and in a lot of instances it leads to great work. You said that in your class the students ended up doing some great projects. Without you letting them "teach" they never would have done the work so voluntarily, and because they did feel so involved, they will remember the material better.

Mark P. Fazioli's picture

All good points. Constructivism is not just for the young learners, either. Many students enjoy working through problems and puzzles together, trying to wrap their minds around a new topic and figuring out how to incorporate the new knowledge with their current ideas. As an advocate for technology integration, I think recent developments in technology only serve to strengthen constructivism and make it a global experience.

Odelle Kinder-Wells's picture

It is interesting to me that what has been taking place for many years in preschool and other early learning environments is now coming to be recognized as best practice in older grades. Of course the most effective learning takes place when it is based on the student's own interests and experiences. In the early grades, this is embraced while children learn about themselves and then the world around them. In the later grades, what the children know or want to know is considered secondary to what we "need" them to know. As behavior specialists, we know that innate rewards are far more effective than external rewards, which lose impact over time. Thus, it can be assumed that internal interests would far outweigh external instruction in effectiveness.

More teachers would benefit from considering the fundamentals of the Reggio Emilia approach to education:
* Children must have some control over the direction of their learning;
* Children must be able to learn through experiences of touching, moving, listening, seeing, and hearing;
* Children have a relationship with other children and with material items in the world that children must be allowed to explore and
* Children must have endless ways and opportunities to express themselves.
While based on the education of young children, these fundamentals are adaptable and appropriate for all students.
"Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel" -Socrates

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