Saturday, September 8, 2012

Teaching Theory: Constructivism

Teaching Theory: Constructivism.


A major theme in the theoretical framework of Bruner is that learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge. The learner selects and transforms information, constructs hypotheses, and makes decisions, relying on a cognitive structure to do so. Cognitive structure (i.e., schema, mental models) provides meaning and organization to experiences and allows the individual to "go beyond the information given".

As far as instruction is concerned, the instructor should try and encourage students to discover principles by themselves. The instructor and student should engage in an active dialog (i.e., socratic learning). The task of the instructor is to translate information to be learned into a format appropriate to the learner's current state of understanding. Curriculum should be organized in a spiral manner so that the student continually builds upon what they have already learned.

Bruner (1966) states that a theory of instruction should address four major aspects: (1) predisposition towards learning, (2) the ways in which a body of knowledge can be structured so that it can be most readily grasped by the learner, (3) the most effective sequences in which to present material, and (4) the nature and pacing of rewards and punishments. Good methods for structuring knowledge should result in simplifying, generating new propositions, and increasing the manipulation of information.

In his more recent work, Bruner (1986, 1990, 1996) has expanded his theoretical framework to encompass the social and cultural aspects of learning as well as the practice of law.


Bruner's constructivist theory is a general framework for instruction based upon the study of cognition. Much of the theory is linked to child development research (especially Piaget ). The ideas outlined in Bruner (1960) originated from a conference focused on science and math learning. Bruner illustrated his theory in the context of mathematics and social science programs for young children (see Bruner, 1973). The original development of the framework for reasoning processes is described in Bruner, Goodnow & Austin (1951). Bruner (1983) focuses on language learning in young children.

Note that Constructivism is a very broad conceptual framework in philosophy and science and Bruner's theory represents one particular perspective. For an overview of other Constructivist frameworks, see


This example is taken from Bruner (1973):

"The concept of prime numbers appears to be more readily grasped when the child, through construction, discovers that certain handfuls of beans cannot be laid out in completed rows and columns. Such quantities have either to be laid out in a single file or in an incomplete row-column design in which there is always one extra or one too few to fill the pattern. These patterns, the child learns, happen to be called prime. It is easy for the child to go from this step to the recognition that a multiple table , so called, is a record sheet of quantities in completed mutiple rows and columns. Here is factoring, multiplication and primes in a construction that can be visualized."


1. Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that make the student willing and able to learn (readiness).

2. Instruction must be structured so that it can be easily grasped by the student (spiral organization).

3. Instruction should be designed to facilitate extrapolation and or fill in the gaps (going beyond the information given).


Friday, September 7, 2012

The Lizard Project: why scientists and teachers should work together for science outreach

The Lizard Project: why scientists and teachers should work together for science outreach.

My high school students recently did something that rarely happens in a science classroom they did science.

Student Salvador Jahen gets to know a new hatchling.

Although, inquiry based instruction has long been a science education buzz phrase, all too often when kids engage in developing experiments, the answers are in fact already known to science and could be discovered through a quick Google search on the topic. This is not exactly real science. The very nature of science is to ask questions with unknown answers and produce high quality evidence to help us better understand our world. My students took a very specific question with an unknown answer and made a small, but real contribution to what is known about life on our planet.

The results of our work, Maternally chosen nest sites positively affect multiple components of offspring fitness in a lizard appeared in the journal Behavioral Ecology yesterday. This type of science rarely happens at the high school level. It certainly isn t expected to happen in an urban high school like Thomas Kelly High School on Chicago s southwest side, where more than 90% of the students are designated as low income and gang violence is a harsh reality in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Male brown anole in the wild

Although it is extremely rare, it is possible for young students to be a part of real research. Two years ago Blackawton Bees was published in Biology Letters. That paper, which examined how bees use spatial relationships with color to find food, listed 25 elementary school students as coauthors along with neuroscientist Beau Lotto, head teacher David Strudwick and classroom teacher Tina Rodwellyn. This highly publicized work involved a rural British elementary school class in an authentic research process. Students developed the experimental question, carried out the experiment and then students analyzed the results and wrote the discussion in their own words.

That work, published as our experiment was ongoing, helped to give me confidence that what I was trying to do with my students was indeed possible. Like the Blackawton Bees experiment, our research can change perceptions of what is possible in a science classroom and produced results that I feel are relevant to the way that researchers approach outreach and the way that we think about science education in general.

Our experiment, quickly dubbed The Lizard Project by my students, asked the question, How does the choice of an egg laying female s nest site affect the survival of her offspring? This question is the same type of question that is frequently asked by professional researchers like my collaborator Dr. Dan Warner, but it is not the type of question that is typically asked by high school science students. To ask this question we moved 80 lizards into our classroom and started doing science.

Attempting to do a large scale experiment required a shift in the way we did biology class.

High school students were involved in all aspects of the experiment

There would be no scripted set of procedures from the text book. Our question would not be answered neatly inside of two or three 45 minute class periods before we moved on to the next topic. My students and I were forced to improvise. Students got to take part in the process of figuring out the best way to answer our question. Rather than collecting data for a prescribed number of class periods, we collected data until we could reasonably answer our question with the level of confidence required of professional researcher. Although we didn t completely abandon the other topics in biology, we committed to seeing the project through and it took us more than four months to do that.

I made the decision that my students would have the chance to be inspired to learn by diving deep into the process of actually doing science. In practice this meant that strictly teaching to the test would be impossible, but I don t for one minute worry that my students suffered from doing science rather than learning about science. The look of wonder on a student s face was unmistakable when they proudly held a tiny lizard egg in a dirt covered hand after diligently sifting through the potting soil in hundreds of our nesting boxes.

That very same sense of wonder is what drove many of us to be scientists and science educators. Even though the personal love of science that I watched grow in so many of my students throughout the project would be justification enough for learning by doing, I was satisfied to see that despite straying from the prescribed curriculum, my biology students have been shown to score at or above the level of their peers in other classrooms at our school.

Although it is far from guaranteed when engaging in authentic research, my students did find an answer to our research question. The data my students collected showed that female brown anoles are highly sensitive to moisture when choosing a nest site and that this choice of nest can have serious survival consequences for her hatchlings through the first 12 weeks of life. We found that a good choice of nest can lead to as much as a 22% increase in offspring size, when compared to a poor choice.

The results of our NSF supported. classroom research were significant. However, more important is the way I think our project has the potential to change perceptions about the high school science classroom and what is possible for collaborations between researchers and teachers. Our experiment was considerably outside the bounds of typical high school curriculum and the logistics of converting my classroom to a functioning live animal lab was no small hurdle. My students managed more than 100 lizards in 30 controlled enclosures for more than 4 months.

Doing this type of science may be outside the realm of possibility for most teachers working i ndependently. In this case, our experiment was only possible because of a long-term collaboration with Dr. Fred Janzen s evolutionary ecology lab at Iowa State and particularly with Dan Warner (now an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham). This relationship has proven tremendously beneficial to me, my students and Dr. Warner as we all contribute to, and learn from, real science. Completing this project leads me to believe that our work can be a new model for both researchers and classroom teachers. Here are five reasons why I think it is in everyone s best interest when scientists and science teachers work together.

1) Science outreach works best when it is ongoing.

Far too often the model for outreach is a classroom guest lecture from a visiting scientist. The ongoing collaboration, developed over three years, with Dr. Warner and the Fred Janzen Lab at Iowa State allowed for me and my class to tackle a much deeper exploration of the scientific process than ever before.

2) Teachers are experts in communicating science to kids in a way that researchers are not.

Although many researchers are great science communicators, they do not typically have education training that matches that of a typical teacher. Teachers also have existing relationships with students that are vital to motivating student learning. Students benefit when the collaboration leverages the relative strengths of both teacher and researcher.

3) Researchers are in a great position to work with teachers to foster intellectual growth and develop original experiments.

Our entire system of producing PhD scientists is already based on researchers working with motivated college graduates to encourage scholarly growth through independent research. Because of this system, it is very easy for researchers to work in this type of relationship with an interested and motivated science teacher to the benefit of both.

4) The best science learning experiences in schools are big enough to be shared.

Large scale projects offer enough hands on experience to draw students in before they have the opportunity to sink their intellectual teeth into real data analysis. This project was large scale by high school standards. To start with we had 80 lizards in 20 enclosures. By the end we had a total of 30 enclosures and lizards hatching out of the incubator almost daily. Typical public high school teachers have 100 to 150 students at any given moment. All my students got to be thoroughly involved with the experiment precisely because there was so much animal care, data collection, and analysis to be done. A smaller scale project would not have provided as many opportunities for the direct hands-on work of so many students.

5) Outreach doesn t have to take away time from research.

When researchers and teachers take the time to establish true professional collaboration, the lines between outreach and research are blurred. Dr. Warner committed to working with our class in a truly collaborative role. Through his commitment we were able to produce data that advanced his research while having a broader impact of the type that funding agencies like to see. When scientists and science teachers truly collaborate, science happens, everyone benefits and kids everywhere are capable of doing real science.


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Teaching Theory - Cognitive Flexibility

Teaching Theory: Cognitive Flexibility.


Cognitive flexibility theory focuses on the nature of learning in complex and ill-structured domains. Spiro & Jehng (1990, p. 165) state: "By cognitive flexibility, we mean the ability to spontaneously restructure one's knowledge, in many ways, in adaptive response to radically changing situational demands...This is a function of both the way knowledge is represented (e.g., along multiple rather single conceptual dimensions) and the processes that operate on those mental representations (e.g., processes of schema assembly rather than intact schema retrieval)."

The theory is largely concerned with transfer of knowledge and skills beyond their initial learning situation. For this reason, emphasis is placed upon the presentation of information from multiple perspectives and use of many case studies that present diverse examples. The theory also asserts that effective learning is context-dependent, so instruction needs to be very specific. In addition, the theory stresses the importance of constructed knowledge; learners must be given an opportunity to develop their own representations of information in order to properly learn.

Cognitive flexibility theory builds upon other constructivist theories (e.g., Bruner, Ausubel, Piaget) and is related to the work of Salomon in terms of media and learning interaction.


Cognitive flexibility theory is especially formulated to support the use of interactive technology (e.g., videodisc, hypertext). Its primary applications have been literary comprehension, history, biology and medicine.


Jonassen, Ambruso & Olesen (1992) describe an application of cognitive flexibility theory to the design of a hypertext program on transfusion medicine. The program provides a number of different clinical cases which students must diagnose and treat using various sources of information available (including advice from experts). The learning environment presents multiple perspectives on the content, is complex and ill-defined, and emphasizes the construction of knowledge by the learner.


1. Learning activities must provide multiple representations of content.

2. Instructional materials should avoid oversimplifying the content domain and support context-dependent knowledge.

3. Instruction should be case-based and emphasize knowledge construction, not transmission of information.

4. Knowledge sources should be highly interconnected rather than compartmentalized.


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How Will We Read? – The Book Given

How Will We Read? – The Book Given.

On November 26, 1864, Lewis Carroll gave my relative, Alice Pleasance Liddell, a book he had written for her.  He called the book Alice’s Adventures Underground after considering titles such as Alice’s Golden House, Alice Among the Elves, Alice Among the Goblins, and Alice’s Doings In Wonderland.  Carroll had spent over two years writing and illustrating the book for Alice.  It consisted of ninety-two pages covered with his print like writing as well as thirty-seven of his own pen and ink drawings. The book given to Alice Liddell would change her life forever.

It all began (as Carroll reminded his followers on a number of occasions) because of a 10 year-old girl who had encouraged Carroll’s storytelling for years, and in particular a story he told about Alice in Wonderland during a summer day’s picnic on July 4, 1862.  Alice was continuously insistent that Carroll write the story down for her, which he eventually did and ultimately presented to her as an early Christmas gift.  The book would also change Carroll’s life forever, but it might never have happened if a young girl had not inspired the previously unpublished children’s book author to write the greatest children’s book of all time.

There are over 20,000 books, films, operas, plays and video games based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.  It is estimated that over 8 billion people have read or seen presentations of the “Alice” books.  Lewis Carroll is behind only the Bible and Shakespeare in the number of quotations from the “Alice” books that appear in published discourse.  In addition to the new adaptations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Carroll’s and Liddell’s lives continue to inspire numerous new books, works of art, and film projects.  And all because of “a book given.”

If the book given to Alice in 1864 was given today, just imagine the variety of different ways a creative chap like Lewis Carroll might have presented it to his Alice.  Quantum leaps in technology have completely changed the way we write, illustrate, publish, market, promote and consume books.  I find myself  (like Alice) constantly curious and excited about discovering all the new products in the digital books wonderland, while at the same time overwhelmed by all the new found freedoms the technology revolution promises to offer me.  Is the device simple stupid enough for me to connect with quickly in my already complicated life?  Is it time to buy this tablet or this e-reader?  Will I look out of date to my bridge pals when the new updated version is released in 6 months time?   I also wonder whether any of us will recognize the content of yesterday’s  “book” once the revolution settles down.  Will writing for Google become such an integral part of the book marketing culture that creative processes are dramatically changed?

Between you and me, I yearn for some form of consolidation in all the craziness that would enable me to feel I can comment intelligently on what appears to be the longer term trends in the publishing model.  One thing I know for sure:  an entertainment business career which kept me moving through the theatrical, television, video, DVD, pay on demand and pay television formats taught me that we don’t stop watching great movies.  As a passionate movie lover, I would argue that the changing technology enabled me to watch more great and even not so great movies than ever before, since I was able to do it more often thanks to a variety of formats that accommodated my ever-changing hectic lifestyle.  In addition, those great movies that made that unforgettable connection and changed my life forever, I not only watched again and again, but I insisted on owning them in every possible format I could fit onto the living room shelf.

And so I don’t believe that passionate readers, like passionate movie lovers, will ever disappear.  The way readers read will of course continue to evolve and change, but certain things about the cultural experience will not.  For example, everything will still begin with the written word, and if that written word is to survive the test of time and change lives forever (like the book given to my relative in 1864), it will happen because of rare talent and creativity and innovative thinking in an age that is redefining how we shall read.


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Teaching Theory - Cognitive Dissonance

Teaching Theory: Cognitive Dissonance.

According to cognitive dissonance theory, there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance. In the case of a discrepancy between attitudes and behavior, it is most likely that the attitude will change to accommodate the behavior.

Two factors affect the strength of the dissonance: the number of dissonant beliefs, and the importance attached to each belief. There are three ways to eliminate dissonance: (1) reduce the importance of the dissonant beliefs, (2) add more consonant beliefs that outweigh the dissonant beliefs, or (3) change the dissonant beliefs so that they are no longer inconsistent.

Dissonance occurs most often in situations where an individual must choose between two incompatible beliefs or actions. The greatest dissonance is created when the two alternatives are equally attractive. Furthermore, attitude change is more likely in the direction of less incentive since this results in lower dissonance. In this respect, dissonance theory is contradictory to most behavioral theories which would predict greater attitude change with increased incentive (i.e., reinforcement).


Dissonance theory applies to all situations involving attitude formation and change. It is especially relevant to decision-making and problem-solving.


Consider someone who buys an expensive car but discovers that it is not comfortable on long drives. Dissonance exists between their beliefs that they have bought a good car and that a good car should be comfortable. Dissonance could be eliminated by deciding that it does not matter since the car is mainly used for short trips (reducing the importance of the dissonant belief) or focusing on the cars strengths such as safety, appearance, handling (thereby adding more consonant beliefs). The dissonance could also be eliminated by getting rid of the car, but this behavior is a lot harder to achieve than changing beliefs.


1. Dissonance results when an individual must choose between attitudes and behaviors that are contradictory.

2. Dissonance can be eliminated by reducing the importance of the conflicting beliefs, acquiring new beliefs that change the balance, or removing the conflicting attitude or behavior.


Monday, September 3, 2012

Little Sympathy for China’s Struggling College Graduates

Little Sympathy for China’s Struggling College Graduates.

The Chinese media has made much in recent weeks over a study showing nearly 70 percent of recent university graduates earn less than the average monthly income of a migrant worker.

But in spite of the shocking headlines, many commentators say that the situation is completely normal, a natural result of recent changes in China’s employment landscape and a fair deal for overworked laborers and students with diplomas but little real experience.

China Youth Daily noted the rapid expansion of university enrollment in recent years, saying that there has been a transformation from “elite education” to “mass education.”

The official newspaper of the country’s Communist Youth League, China Youth Daily first reported the study last month, but took a measured tone in interpreting its results.

“’Level of education’ is not the only standard for determining how high or low someone’s salary will be.  We must also consider the industry, the position, and other factors.”

“Students and migrant workers are completely different groups,” the article continued, saying that because of the clear difference between mental and physical labor, the two groups “honestly can’t be compared.”

The article went on to say that the belief that migrant workers’ income should be lower than that of new graduates is based upon “society’s long-term discrimination” against migrants.

“Considering their working environment and the difficulty of their jobs, migrant workers’ income should have gone up long ago,” the newspaper said.

Columnist Wang Junrong of the Wuhan Morning Post agreed, declaring himself to be “truly disgusted” by “never-ending” comparisons between students and migrant workers.

At the same time, many commentators listed reasons why recent graduates did not necessarily deserve high salaries.

“They lack real work experience, and most require the help and guidance of seasoned coworkers to be able to finish their work without any problems,” said the Chongqing Morning Post.

“This is why 70 percent of graduates have a salary less than 2,000 yuan.”

Others cautioned that undeservedly high salaries would be harmful to graduates in the long run.

“How many successful people’s first steps were difficult?”  asked the Spring City Evening News. “In those [early] years, the richest man in Asia Li Ka-shing was still just a salesman.”

The newspaper dismissed hand-wringing over graduates’ supposedly low salaries. “This kind of attitude leaves students with no way to quietly contemplate their future career and no way to find their role.”

“The final result is that they can only live obsessing over their salary, and end up losing themselves.”