What is Meant by Constructivist Science Teaching and
Will the Science Education Community Stay the Course for Meaningful Reform?


Larry D. Yore
University of Victoria


The opportunities for meaningful international science education reform have never been better! But, I am beginning to sense a waning desire and focus among science educators to capitalize on these opportunities and to make this difference. Some science education researchers appear to have set aside standards, science literacy for all, constructivist teaching, and authentic assessment as yesterday's news or as political plots to centralize control of education (Merrow, 2001). At the same time many science teacher educators do not believe there is consolidated support from their academic institutions, the funding agencies, the teaching field, and the public for the 60-year effort remaining in "Project 2061" (AAAS, 1990).

At a recent seminar a well-published science education researcher questioned why the group was discussing constructivism since it is old hat and everything that is needed to be known about constructivism was already known. This may or may not be true, but knowing does not mean applying! As a reviewer for several science education journals, I am impressed with the increased connections of science education and teacher education research to other fields of inquiry (cognitive psychology, sociology of science, women's studies, etc.), but I also find a lack of explicit foundational links to our basic parentage--science and education. Science educators need to anchor their claims to the context of the nature of science, science education reforms, science teaching and learning, and formal and informal learning environments. Furthermore, 'markers' are needed to improve generalization, replication, and application of procedures, results and recommendations via case-to-case, random samples, or theory-based techniques (Firestone, 1993). These markers might be clearly described theoretical assumptions, well-defined samples, established instruments, and consistent applications of design procedures.

The gap between research findings and implementation of the results into science teacher education programs, curricula, and professional practices is the central focus of this editorial pep talk. I will address one implementation issue that needs to inform future research, teacher education, professional development, and classroom instruction: How views of science, learning, discourse, and classroom dynamics should influence the selection of a constructivist teaching approach. Many of my illustrations are based on elementary school classrooms, but most of the ideas are applicable to middle, secondary, and post-secondary debates.


Teaching, learning, and teacher education research has attracted increased attention in the last decade with the publication of the National Science Education Standards (NSES; NRC, 1996), the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS, 1994), and the Report of the National Commission on Teaching and Americas Future (Darling-Hammond, 1996). These reform documents have gone beyond the normal prescriptions of learning outcomes to reaffirm the importance of teachers, teaching, and hands-on/minds-on learning as primary influences on students thinking, achievement, and science literacy. Collectively, these documents provide strategic visions of what we should teach, how we should teach, and how we should teach teachers to teach. Unfortunately or fortunately, the visions are not in sharp focus or detail.

Science Literacy

An analysis of the reform documents for English language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, and technology revealed several common issues: a focus on all students, literacy as a learning outcome, and constructivism and authentic assessment as pedagogical intentions (Ford, Yore, & Anthony, 1997). These commonalities provide leverage for educational change that reformers have not enjoyed before! Science literacy involves critical thinking, cognitive and megacognitive abilities, and habits-of-mind to construct understanding in the specific disciplines, the big ideas or unifying concepts of the disciplines, and the communications to share these understandings and to persuade others to take informed action. These three components of science literacy are receiving increased attention. Hurd (1998) summarized the central attributes of a science literate person:

  1. distinguishes experts from the uninformed, theory from dogma, data from myth and folklore, science from pseudo-science, evidence from propaganda, facts from fiction, sense from nonsense, and knowledge from opinion;
  2. recognizes the cumulative, tentative, and skeptical nature of science; the limitations of scientific inquiry and causal explanations; the need for sufficient evidence and established knowledge to support or reject claims; the environmental, social, political and economic impact of science and technology; and the influence society has on science and technology; and
  3. knows how to analyze and process data, that some science-related problems in a social and personal context have more than one accepted answer, and that social and personal problems are multidisciplinary having political, judicial, ethical, and moral dimensions.
These attributes are essential for people to cross borders between discourse communities and to take a more active part in the public debate about science, technology, society, and environmental issues (NRC, 1996).

Science Teaching

To date, little attention has been given to developing a concise, clear image of constructivism and associated classroom practices described in the NSES (NRC, 1996, p. 52).

    Less Emphasis on:
    More Emphasis on:
    Treating all students alike and responding to the group as a whole
    Understanding and responding to individual students interests, strengths, experiences, and needs
    Rigidly following curriculum
    Selecting and adapting curriculum
    Focusing on student acquisition of information
    Focusing on student understanding and use of scientific knowledge, ideas, and inquiry processes
    Presenting scientific knowledge through lecture, text, and demonstration
    Guiding students in active and extended scientific inquiry
    Asking for recitation of acquired knowledge
    Providing opportunities for scientific discussion and debate among students
    Testing students for factual information at the end of the unit or chapter
    Continuously assessing student understanding
    Maintaining responsibility and authority
    Sharing responsibility for learning with students
    Supporting competition
    Supporting a classroom community with cooperation, shared responsibility, and respect
    Working alone
    Working with other teachers to enhance the science program

It seems as if everyone claims to be a constructivist teacher, but do their underlying assumptions about science, learning, pedagogy, linguistics, and classroom dynamics support their selected version of constructivism? Like any apparently new technology, users are quick to focus on the "new, improved" aspects of the technology and not compare it to the "older, more established" versions. An analysis of the NSES emphases (NRC, 1996), the Expert Science Teaching Evaluation Model (ESTEEM; Burry-Stock & Oxford, 1994), and the Constructivist Learning Model (CLM; Yager, 1991) led me to realize that my preferred teaching approach would not receive the highest ratings on the ESTEEM or CLM rubrics or be at the far right of the NSES spectrum and that some well-established teaching approaches (guided inquiry, jig-saw cooperative learning, learning cycles, etc.) did not demonstrate some of the desired emphases. More importantly, I believe that I have good theoretical and practical justification for my science teaching approach.

When the full spectrum of changing emphases in science teaching is considered in the context of worldviews, definitions of science and technology, the ontology of science, the epistemology of scientific inquiry, the judgment criteria, the locus of control for learning, the source of pedagogical structure, and the role of language, it becomes apparent that several versions of constructivism could be supported. Table 1 summarizes the underlying ontological, epistemological, psychological, pedagogical, and linguistic assumptions for four faces of constructivism: information processing, interactive-constructivist, social constructivist, and radical constructivist approaches.

Table 1: Four Faces of Constructivism (adapted from Henriques, 1997).

Feature Information Processing Interactive-


Social Constructivist Radical Constructivist

Worldview Mechanistic Hybrid Contextualistic Organistic

Ontological View Realist Naive Realist Idealist Idealist

Epistemic View Absolutist (traditional) Evaluativist (modern) Evaluativist (postmodern) Relativist (postmodern)

Judgment Criteria Nature as Judge Nature

as Judge

Social Agreement as Judge

Self as Judge
Psychological Locus of Mental Activity

Private Public and Private Public Private
Pedagogical Structure

Teacher Shared:

Teacher and


Group Individual
Linguistic Discourse One-Way: Teacher to Student Two-Way: Negotiations to Surface Alternatives and to Clarify

Two-Way: Leading to Consensus One-Way: Individual to Self (inner speech)

Science educators need to share their justification as well as their instructional approach. The following example illustrates how I have attempted to justify my interactive-constructivist teaching approaches of guided inquiry (pre-experience, experience, post-experience, formative evaluation) and the modified learning cycle (engage, explore, consolidate, assess).

In the interactive-constructive model (Shymansky, et al., 1997), knowledge is perceived as individualistic conceptions that have been verified by the epistemic traditions of a community of learners (NRC, 1996, p. 201). This middle-of-the-road interpretation of constructivism recognizes that contemporary science is based on a hybrid worldview of knowing that stresses the importance of interactions with the physical world and the sociocultural context in which interpretations of these experiences reflect the lived experiences and cultural beliefs of the knowers (Prawat & Floden, 1994).

An interactive-constructivist perspective also assumes an epistemological and ontological view of science that recognizes the limitations of people and procedures in attaining an accurate interpretation of the real world and that stresses evaluation of all knowledge claims. This evaluation requires that explanations and interpretations are judged against the available data and canonical theories using evidence from Nature and scientific warrants to justify claims about reality (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997; Kuhn, 1993). The locus of mental activity and construction of understanding in interactive-constructivism involves both a private and public component, unlike social constructivism which defines understanding as group consensus building or radical constructivism which defines understanding as a uniquely individual decision (Hennessey, 1994; Prawat & Floden, 1994). An interactive-constructivist perspective assumes that discourse reveals the variety of alternative interpretations but that consensus need not be reached. It is evidence from nature and canonical science that supports or rejects the interpretations, not sociodemocratic consensus (Fosnot, 1996; Prawat & Floden, 1994). The pedagogical structure for learning in an interactive-constructive model is shared by the learner and the teacher. The basic constructivist assumptions about the role of prior knowledge, the plausibility of alternative ideas, and the resiliency of these ideas are preserved in an interactive-constructivist perspective; but professional wisdom, the accountability of public education, and the priorities of schools mediate decisions about what to teach and how to teach in the science classroom.

It is difficult for me to rationalize the extreme positions of postmodernists, radical constructivists, and multiculturists, knowing the multi-dimensional and practical constraints placed on classroom teachers as agents of the state. I have found few science classroom examples of radical constructivist teaching. Likewise, when 19 university scientists were asked about their views of science, all 19 scientists selected or described a view of science that approximated the modern, evaluativist view (Hand, Prain & Yore, 2001; Yore, Hand & Florence, 2001).

Teacher Education and Reflective Professional Practice

What does this constructivist framework say about designing and evaluating teacher education programs and specifically the science education component of a program? The operant issue is teacher education -- not teacher training. Unfortunately, some programs are still based on the principles of normal schools rather than research-based principles. Clearly, we need to produce beginning teachers who are critical thinkers and reflective practitioners and to help practicing teachers to develop the critical stance and strategies necessary to become reflective practitioners. This involves more than just mimicry, mechanical use, and classroom management of inquiry science teaching.

The development of critical thinking in which preservice teachers and inservice teachers are challenged by pedagogical issues and required to deliberate about the alternative solutions, to reflect and to justify their instructional decisions should be a fundamental part of every teacher education or professional development project. University staffs are frequently disappointed when their preservice teachers quickly adopt the field-based practices of their cooperating teachers, abandoning the constructivist and inquiry teaching strategies promoted in their on-campus courses. If students are so easily convinced to accept an educational innovation, they will be equally convinced to replace it with another idea. It is essential that the on-campus components of a teacher education program present an internally consistent rationale for and expectations of inquiry science teaching (Bright, in progress). Lecturing about the nature of science and constructivist science teaching lacks internal consistency. Likewise, embedding inquiry-oriented science education in a context of traditional chalk-n-talk academic science courses with verification laboratories has little impact on preservice teachers' views of science as inquiry and a tentative, speculative process of knowledge claims augmented with evidence and canonical science ideas. When a misalignment occurs between the images of science teaching promoted in Faculties of Education and real science teachers (academic scientists) and real professionals (classroom teachers), the views of science educators are quickly discounted for lack of validation by scientists and teachers.

Another inconsistency becomes apparent when clinical supervisors do not share the same image of science teaching as the science educators or when an observation or evaluation rubric is utilized that is incompatible with the promoted image of science teaching. This misalignment between rubric and image was encountered during the validation of the interactive-constructivist approach with the ESTEEM (Burry-Stock & Oxford, 1994), CLM (Yager, 1991), and the Local Systemic Change (Horizon Research Inc., 2000) rubrics (Bright, in progress; Henriques, 1997; Yore, Shymansky & Anderson, 2001). We found that these rubrics were either influenced by a postmodern STSE vision or a behaviorist teaching model that required closure for every lesson and that these assumptions did not fully reflect the assumptions of the interactive-constructivist approach. Minor adjustments to some dimensions in the rubrics were necessary to insure a more accurate match with the worldview, ontological, epistemic, psychological, pedagogical, and linguistic assumptions of our desired image of science teaching.

Concluding Remarks

This editorial has grown in length as the discussions of multicultural sciences (Science Education, 2001, Volume 85, Issue 1), divine creation, creationist science and intelligent design, and ontology and epistemology of knowledge have occurred around its development. This attempt is meant to be provocative and to open debate on the interactions of the nature of science, science literacy, constructivist science teaching, science teacher education, and science education reform on several fronts. Please utilize the strengths of this and other electronic journals and their editors' support to promote a quickly diminishing attribute in our science education community: debate about ideas in a civil and respectful manner. I may disagree with your ideas, but I still enjoy your companionship. Do not allow political correctness to get in the way of productive debate. My email address is provided to facilitate access.


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