Schools 'Construct' Education

University of Wisconsin - River Falls

UW-RF, River Falls, Hudson Collaborate on 'Goals'

By Jennifer DeNoma
UW-RF News Bureau

The Hudson and River Falls School Districts, in cooperation with UW-River Falls, are piloting a visionary new program designed to prepare students for the future while making learning more relevant and meaningful.

The program is being launched in selected classrooms in elementary, middle school and high school classrooms. About two dozen teachers from both districts are taking part in the program in the 1996-97 academic year.

The result of a $120,000 federal grant, the program, "It's About Time," was developed and written by UW-RF Dean Kathleen Daly and Professor Sally Standiford of the College of Education & Graduate Studies. Co-writers to the grants are River Falls School District curriculum director Lorraine Davis and Hudson School District director of instruction Charles Sambs. An advisory board of teachers, administrators, parents and business leaders from the Hudson and River Falls school districts and UW-RF faculty assisted with the grant's implementation.

The effort is described as a marriage between an educational philosophy called "constructivism" and the national "Goals 2000" program to improve the quality of K-12 education.

Goals 2000 calls for schools to help children develop the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy. For virtually every child in the United States, that means familiarity with computer technology.

"Traditional teaching philosophies compare students to empty vessels, with the task of the teacher to fill the student with knowledge" says Daly. "Constructivism assumes an entirely different approach to learning."

In traditional classrooms, the teacher is the unquestioned leader who directs and controls the focus of the classroom discussion and curriculum.

In the constructivist classroom, the teacher's role is more of a facilitator, with the students directing and assuming more control of their own learning. The basic premise to constructivism is that knowledge is not something only to be transmitted from one person to another, but also is a construction of personal meaning that students gain by interacting with people, information and objects in their world.

The more directly related those interactions are to real life, or "authentic" and varied the situations in which students interact with new concepts, the more it's likely that students will understand and apply those concepts to other everyday situations.

In traditional classrooms, teachers often find it difficult to assess how well students are applying what they learned. Critics say traditional assessment practices such as multiple choice and true-false tests are not an adequate tool to measure achievement in constructivist classes.

Constructivism relies on a variety of practices to assess if real learning has taken place, including requiring students to demonstrate they have mastered the material by applying it in practical ways.

More of the work is done in project-based small groups, with students working in teams. The cooperative projects are also considered to be valuable because they prepare students more for the world of work, where teamwork skills are imperative.

At the end of projects, students are often asked to create portfolios that showcase their work as part of their assessment.

While the term "constructivism" has been recognized in the educational community for only a few years, the ideas behind constructivism aren't new but date back to Aristotle, Piaget and Dewey.

"This isn't just a new fad or a new 'ism'," says Geoffrey Scheurman, a UW-RF educational psychology professor who is participating in the grant. "It has always been recognized that self-directed learning is more meaningful to students than that which is mandated and controlled by the teacher."

Giving a young child pennies, nickels and dimes to learn counting skills is a simple example of a constructivist teaching practice through a very practical, tangible and life-like medium. Advocates of the constructivist approach believe that information gleaned this way is more likely to be retained and transferred to real life situations than pre-digested information that is merely transmitted from teacher or textbook and absorbed by the student.

Most of the grant program's constructivist approach relies heavily on technology. Standiford, who directs UW-RF Educational Technology Center, explains, "But we do not want to use technology for its own sake. While constructivist teaching does not require technology, the purpose of this grant is to explore technology applications that support and enhance learning in a constructivist classroom. The grant provides teachers with the support they need (software, technical consultations, demonstrations) while they develop their own portfolios of technology-supported projects and activities for their students."

Few school districts or colleges of education throughout the country are piloting this kind of program, says Daly. It will be several years before results of the program will be measurable in terms of improvement in assessments, such standardized tests.

She adds that some of the hoped for outcomes will be difficult to test, such as an improvement in critical-thinking skills, the use of persuasion, and adaptability to the working world.

As the participating teachers implement their new projects throughout the year, the project hopefully will help recruit and train more teachers in constructivist techniques.

Student teachers at UW-RF, who eventually practice teach in school districts throughout the St. Croix Valley, are learning how to develop constructivist lesson plans first-hand from faculty who have conducted research and done extensive training in the techniques.

If the program succeeds, it just might put UW-RF and the Hudson and River Falls School Districts on the map in the world of education.

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