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If any of you caught President Obama’s State of the Union speech last month, you might have noticed some common themes to my January TC blog “Teaching for America.” The president talked about how the world has changed, how international competitors has gotten stronger, how countries like China and India are adjusting to these changes, and how America also needs to adjust in order to “win the future.” He spoke of the need to educate our kids to meet the challenges of the 21st century where nearly half of all new jobs will require an education that goes beyond a high school diploma, and he spoke of the need for new, bold, and innovative ways to establish and meet high expectations and high performance.
In my December blog, I encouraged readers, during the holiday break, to think of ways to help your students excel in the classroom. While doing some of my own investigation, I came across the theory of constructivism. As you probably already know, constructivism is an educational theory that says students construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world. When they encounter new information, they need to reconcile it with our previous ideas and experience, changing what they believe or maybe even rejecting the new information, but doing so through thorough analysis and critical thinking. Constructivism holds the belief that people create their own knowledge by asking questions, exploring information, and assessing what they know. All information is holistic and integrated and students are encouraged to set their own goals for learning.
This differs greatly from more traditional methods of instruction and learning where students are viewed as “blank slates” and information is poured into their heads. This information is a fixed set of competencies and standards that can’t be deviated from and there’s no time for exploration in depth or breadth let alone an individual student’s interest. We assess this learning with timed tests that ask students to spill out this information onto a Scantron test sheet so that learning can be measured in simplified ways that meet political agendas.
Of course, we also know that the real world of education you and I live in is somewhere between these two extremes. We have curricula that adhere to state and national standards, but these are a place to start and not only what we teach. We encourage students to bring in their previous learning and experiences to add to they’re learning. We constantly struggle with the clock and the calendar to give students the time they need to explore what’s important and relevant to them. And we evaluate student learning through a multitude of assessment tools including standardized tests.
There is a lot of talk about education reform in these politically charged times. Most of it surrounds money: How much should be spent…or not? How can we teachers better prepare to prepare students for the future? How can we compensate the good teacher and we hold all teachers more accountable for the salaries they’re paid? President Obama spoke about not just pouring money into a system that’s not working but to be innovative, more flexible and begin reform at the local teacher, administration, and school board level. What oftentimes is missing in these conversations is the way education should reform. Those of you who know and use constructivist education materials like INTERACT simulations, should be part of this conversation. It is important that education reform is real reform that will truly help students win the future.