Category Archives: teaching for understanding

Why is a constructivist approach to teaching so difficult?

I (Clare) am writing with my research team a paper about literacy teacher educators who use a constructivist approach. I found this amazing quote from Virginia Richardson which seems to succinctly sum up the challenge. I thought I would share it with you because it helped clarify some of the issues. 12801662_10156708871645121_4206799058803873009_n

Constructivist teaching as a theory or practice, however, has only received attention for approximately one decade. Current interest and writing in constructivist teaching leave many issues unresolved. These issues relate, in part, to the difficulty in translating a theory of learning into a theory or practice of teaching, a conversion that has always been difficult and less than satisfactory. However, the nature of constructivism as an individual or group meaning-making process renders this conversion remarkably demanding (Richardson, 2003, p. 1623).

Topics and Methods for Class Debates

In previous postings, I (Clive) have recommended debates as a way to give students a voice in university and school classrooms and also introduce some variety into class activities. Of course, the topics have to be interesting to the students if they are to get really involved; and the overly combative tone of traditional debating needs to be avoided so there are no hard feelings.

This term, in my graduate class of 22, I used two debating topics that worked very well. They were: (1) Teaching Values in School and (2) Formal Professional Development for Teachers. In each case we formed 4 groups (by numbering off from 1 to 4 around the class, including myself) and then assigned “positions” to the groups as follows:

Teaching Values in School

Group 1: On the whole, teachers should keep their values to themselves

Group 2: It is often appropriate for teachers to promote the values they believe in

Group 3: On the whole, schools should advocate general “human” values (e.g., treating women and men equally) even if they conflict with the values of the family

Group 4: On the whole, schools should honor and respect the values of the family, even if they conflict with general “human” values

Formal Professional Development for Teachers

Groups 1 & 3: Formal professional development has a very important role to play in teacher learning and school improvement. Examples of effective formal PD include….

Groups 2 & 4: Formal professional development does not play a major role in teacher learning and school improvement. Examples of more important methods and factors are….

Each group spent 20 minutes preparing their case, with each person in the group proposing and outlining an argument and/or example. Then each group in turn presented their case to the whole class, with every member of the group speaking. Finally, we returned to the whole class circle and went around with each individual saying what they thought about the topic (we didn’t have time to go all the way round the class, but this final activity also proved very valuable).

Notice that the “opposing” positions were softened by using phrases such as “on the whole,” “it is often appropriate,” “not a major role” (rather than “not any role”). Also, the emphasis on giving examples to support one’s case was a big success – I hadn’t used this before.

So, this was my experience. If you have a chance to experiment with debates, let us know what topics you used and how it went – we can do a guest blog!



Mary Kennedy on Engaging Student Teachers More Deeply

As I (Clive) have said before, I’m a great fan of Mary Kennedy of Michigan State University. In earlier postings I commented on her complex vision of teaching and her incremental yet radical approach to school reform. Having read a new article of hers in the latest issue of the Journal of Teacher Education (Jan/Feb 2016), I wish to recommend it.

Ever courageous, Kennedy in this piece takes on the currently popular movement for the teaching of “core practices” in teacher education. While an improvement on earlier practice-focused teacher education approaches – in that the practices in question are medium-grained rather than too specific or too general – she believes this approach is (a) too didactic and (b) neglects the purposes of teaching. She proposes instead helping student teachers see that a variety of complex strategies are needed to achieve the purposes of schooling, and constant adjustments on their part are required along the way.

Kennedy is careful to note this is “not an either/or decision. I am not proposing that we abandon specific practices in favor of problem solving strategies. Instead I argue here for (a) less attention to bodies of knowledge, (b) less attention to specific teaching behaviors, and (c) far more attention to the persistent challenges” of achieving the purposes teaching. Her position is that in pre-service (and in-service) education we should “not recite knowledge or dictate practices to teachers, but instead engage teachers in more analysis and exploration of alternatives.” This seems to me to embody the constructivist approach to teaching that – as Kennedy has said elsewhere – most teacher educators advocate.

For those who may see this as an overly idealistic approach that will undermine pupil performance on standardized tests, Kennedy cites the findings of a review that “programs using these alternative pedagogies were generally more effective at raising student achievement than were the didactic programs that focused on either bodies of knowledge or specific teaching practices.”



Parent Research Night

This week I (Clare) attended the Parent Research Night at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Studies (where I am the Director). It was a truly amazing evening because the two presentations demonstrated research that was for teachers and parents, done by teachers, and inspired by teachers. It was such a beautiful form of dissemination of research. The findings are not confined to a peer-reviewed article but were shared with the public.

IMG_1147Dr. Patricia Ganea talked about the importance of shared reading with children. And she shared data on how children respond to images in children’s books – realistic (photos) vs fantastical (comic-like). Interestingly they relate much more to the latter.

Then Dr. Yiola Cleovoulou and 3 teachers (Zoe Honahue, Cindy Halewood, and Chriss Bogert – who is now the VP) from the Lab School IMG_1153presented on their work with the children that was framed by critical literacy with an inquiry focus. They shared student work, read transcripts of actual conversations, and described activism work.

JICS has a tripartite mission: Lab school, teacher education program, and a research centre. Parent Research night truly brought all three together.

After 2 Weeks We Tend to Remember…

I (Pooja) am taking a course at U of T this term which focuses on the practice and theory of teaching in higher education. When discussing approaches to teaching, the professor displayed Edgar Dales’ Cone of Learning graphic. Although this was something I was aware of, it served as a good reminder in how I design my courses and lessons each class.