Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Make and Learn

Constructionism is just what it sounds like…making something and learning through the making. While I was still teaching there were sometimes projects that were incorporated into the curriculum, and then the projects were shared. We made topographical maps from salt clay to learn about land forms, we wrote books based on field trip experiences and we cooked. All of these ended with artifacts that we shared with parents, other classes and each other. However, most of the time the projects had very clear guidelines and requirements which constricted the flow of learning and guided it in a very specific direction with very specific goals in mind. This week’s readings showed me that to exploit the power of making, teachers must be able to stand back more, and allow students more freedom to explore, reflect, revise and share. The guidance has to be subtle; more like making sure the baby does not fall into the lake than making sure the baby stays on the concrete path. There is so much more to be learned by touching the trees, walking on the grass, picking up the stones and crunching the leaves than by walking carefully in the middle of the sidewalk. As a teacher, I tended to be sure we got where we were going, even if I had to grab the learners’ hands and drag them quickly with me to the goal.

Switching to a more learner-centered classroom practice would be hard, but I think, worth the effort. Allowing students more control over how and what and when they learn would give them the opportunity to develop skills they cannot when the are being led. Walking with a three year old anywhere can be frustrating if the point is to get there fast. Walking with a three year old and noticing what they discover, and listening to the questions they ask can be not only enlightening, but delightful. Giving students the tools to create their own learning can be delightful and enlightening as well, as long as the teacher can provide a clear goal and guidance along the way.(Han & Bhattacharya, 2001) Using technology as a part of the learner-centered classroom, giving students tools to create their learning makes sense for the world our students are living in. Technology opens doors for students, giving them tools that expand not only their access to information, but also breaking down the walls of the classroom and inviting the whole world in as part of the learning space. 

Giving students a problem to solve or a project to create, can certainly fall under the umbrella of constructionism. In order to solve the problem, one that is important to the students and is an authentic task, they have to do all sorts of learning. They need to reflect on the problem from their experience and previous learning and with guidance move from problem to solution. (Laureate Education, Inc, 2011) Along the way they have the opportunity to work together, ask questions, find answers, reflect on their paths, and revise their thoughts. They will undoubtedly have conflicting ideas about where to go and how to get there, but can arrive at an answer through discussion and collaboration and with teacher guidance.

In this week's readings, students were given spreadsheets with data and asked to produce hypotheses about what the data might mean, then asked to use the data to prove or disprove their hypotheses. (Pitler, Hubbell & Kuhn, 2012)  In order to come up with logical and supportable hypotheses, they have to think deeply and critically about the data. This undoubtedly created excellent opportunities for learning and based on Papert's statement that "Learners don't get ideas; they create ideas." this activity can also fall under the contructionist umbrella. (Han & Bhattacharya, 2001). These students are not creating an artifact, but though the problem they are asked to solve may be a limited one, they are coming up with a solution. The authors of  our text also suggest using software that supports brainstorming and using graphic organizers to allow students to put their thoughts into a scaffold to help them come up with hypotheses. This is needed because looking at data and coming up with hypotheses is a high level cognitive task. (Pitler, Hubbell & Kuhn). These technology tools which support student learning and expand their ability to hold and process information are constructionist tools in this case. Students are creating webs of information to help them organize their thoughts so that they can find answers to their questions.

To construct learning, students need tools, and technology provides tools of all sorts that are useful for many skill levels. The tools are many and varied and can be tailored to particular needs. When students have access to many technology tools, they can more easily build from their experience and create ideas that will lead them on to new learning. 


Han, S., and Bhattacharya, K. (2001). Constructionism, Learning by Design, and Project Based Learning. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved September 20, 2013, from

Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2011). Program seven: Constructionist and constructivist learning theories [Video webcast]. Bridging learning theory, instruction and technology. Retrieved from

Pitler, H., Hubbell, E. R., & Kuhn, M. (2012). Using technology with classroom instruction that works (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


  1. Mary,

    I loved your analysis of walking with the three year old, to get there fast, or watching and listening to their discoveries. So often in education we as teachers have an agenda of what we want to cover and work to get that done, irregardless as to whether the students have arrived with us or not. Thanks for calling that to mind. Students can truly learn when given an environment that grows and challenges them; our current educational structure doesn't always foster that approach, however. Important points to keep in mind when planning lessons and units and trying to not worry about test scores.

    Thanks for sharing!


    1. Julie,
      I am no longer in the classroom, but haven't been gone so long that I don't remember the pressure. The idea of PBL and contructionism is very exciting to me in a theoretical way. I would love to have the freedom to actually plan and teach the students in the class instead of teach the curriculum. All of the students in the school I work at are on an IEP, and should have completely individualized learning. Using PBL and some of the other methods mentioned this week would be wonderful, but everything right now is circling the standardized tests. I see teachers under such pressure to complete the curriculum map in the time frame given that there is little time for following a tangent that the students are immediately fascinated with if it doesn't fit on that dang map. Trying not to worry about test scores saps teacher energy almost as much as worrying about them, but being creative is the only way students and teachers will make it through and actually succeed despite the mandates that seem to hinder more than encourage actual education.

  2. Mary,
    I agree with Julie about our current educational structure. The quality of teaching is often judged by test scores. It was nice to hear your perspective on this learning approach. I think that finding a balance between what we know our students need and the many standardized tests teachers and students are measured against is a difficult one. Keeping the constructionist learning theory in mind will help in the planning process. I also agree that technology helps teachers tailor and personalize the learning experience for our students. It makes creating an artifact more efficient and doable, while also giving students freedom and choice.

    1. Jessie-I've been in education since 1979 and have found over the years more and more direction from those who are not in education. Everyone says that education in the US is broken and the way they want to fix it is through accountability. I have no problem being accountable for what I do in the classroom, however, I don't think that the teacher is the only one who has influence on how the student will achieve, and there is no accounting for any other factors. That doesn't make sense to me. It is as if we pretend there is no life outside of school, and everyone knows that is not true. Teachers certainly have a large influence on student achievement, but let's not pretend that we have control over student lives to such an extent that we are the only ones influencing their success or failure.

  3. Mary,
    I agree that it is important as a teacher to be willing to allow our students the space to take control over the projects. I am an art teacher and if I told my students to do and not do everything all I would get in return would be like a cookie cutout art project. We must let our students create and sometimes they have to fail at an attempt in order to learn. It is ok to let our students think for themselves and in return we will learn as well.

    1. John, I agree with you but it is so hard to let students fumble and sometimes fail when we are judged by how well they succeed. We don't seem to have the luxury of time or freedom of decision to choose what students can try and fail at. The classroom seems more and more constricted by curriculum maps, state standards and high stakes testing and it feels like most teachers don't have the option of letting students try something different and letting them fail. Do you think you can let students wander where they will and maybe off the path of your mandated curriculum when they find something that truly interests them?

  4. Mary,

    I love the way you write about teaching!

    I agree, teachers need to let students "stop and smell the roses"! Forcing students to learn something for a test does not inspire the love of learning. The quest for knowledge will create a snowball effect. This can only be seen as a positive.

    Project based learning is something that is very real! I remember you once told me you were in quilter. Would you agree that every quilt you make is is a project based lesson you created for yourself? I have made quilts before, with not much experiences, and I have learned to much along the way! My learning artifacts were pretty neat too!

    Jen Jordan

    1. Jen, Thanks! I think PBL is the answer as well, the huge block is high stakes testing. I think there is a lot of fear in many classrooms about getting through the curriculum and finishing all of the lessons required. Sometimes it takes longer to do what is best, and time is short.

      Yes, every quilt is a PBL, with me totally in charge, and some of them have taken a very long time to complete :^), but I have definitely learned lots along the way, even when I don't like what I come up with.