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How is knowledge constructed in school?

October 6, 2016

How is knowledge constructed in school?  Sounds like a simple question.  As a former science teacher, and someone who taught in a rather traditional fashion, I would have answered this question this way.  I (teacher) helped my students come to understand chemistry by presenting the ideas, laying out the story, challenging them with problems, asking them questions, structuring lab experiments to experience the concept, and evaluating their ability to retell the story the right way.  My knowledge and thinking of chemistry was passed along intact to them as a learner.  Like the chemistry text they used, I was a “real life, real-time” person they could interact with to learn the chemistry I understood. Without me, they could have learned most of the same chemistry just fine.

However, I now believe that in order for students to learn the chemistry deeply, they must construct new knowledge for themselves.  They need to make sense of the chemistry they are learning  in a way that is personal and meaningful to them.  We are co-constructors of the knowledge, understanding and skills they learn.  I am not simply imparting the knowledge to them, but more importantly, I am “tiling the soil” that is their learning.

One example for how different students construct their own meaning is illustrated in the concept maps shown below.  I gave students, in an online chemistry course I taught a few years ago, an assignment asking them to construct a concept map that demonstrated their understanding of polymer chemistry.  While the concepts maps have some similarities, there are significant differences in how these students made sense of the chemistry we learned.  There minds constructed the knowledge differently and emphasized certain parts more than others.  In addition, they each approached the design aspect of the assignment from a different point-of-view.

dema-emily-copy

mj-map-copy

I have come to see the classroom as a place where teachers must try to see their students as “constructors” of the knowledge, understandings and skills we want them to learn.   They have to make meaning of the ideas for themselves.  I would encourage us to see ourselves as partners with them, not as people who pass knowledge down to them.

Clearly, this topic has many layers of complexity to it.  Having recently finished David Perkins book, Future Wise: Educating our Students for a Changing World, I have come to realize the value in thinking more deeply about what we teach, how we teach, and why we teach.  I would offer these three questions up to you to think about.  Dr. Perkins does a marvelous job of getting the reader to formulate answers to these questions, especially from the perspective of design.

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