Electronic Journal of Science Education
Vol. 2, No. 2 - December 1997 - Editorial



    Recently, Dr. Cannon and I attended a conference in Denver. I don't know how many of you have had the opportunity to fly in or out of Reno, but I must say that it is quite the experience. As you lift off the ground you see the beautiful Sierra-Nevada mountains and depending on which way the plane is taking off you either get a brief view of Lake Tahoe or of Pyramid lake; that is just before the winds kick in and shake you around a bit. You see the mountains protect us from a lot of the weather. We live on the Leeward side of the mountains and therefore are influenced by an orographic effect. In addition to this we suffer from the normal convection currents that occur in high elevation deserts - that is until you get high enough to get into the Jet Stream which often finds itself directly overhead which we see blowing by at high altitudes.  The winds create the "rotor" effect from the mountains which is the main cause of the turbulence which Reno is so well known for. A pilot friend of mine said that it was always an adventure to fly in and out of Reno.

    That rather lengthy background information allows you to understand that those of us who fly frequently in and out of Reno have developed some rituals which seem to help our positive mental attitude about flying, but in reality we just have a stiff drink before flying and tighten the seatbelts as tight as possible. Dr. Cannon's ritual is to buy a package of "good luck" Tums. I tend to put a quarter in the machine to pay homage to the gambling Gods - I figure that if I leave a quarter I must return to claim it someday. I also usually buy a copy of Scientific American which goes unread until we are quite a ways from Reno and my stomach settles down. Scientific American provides a nice overview of what is going on in the science world in language which is easily read, especially on an airplane where your attention is often diverted.

    The November issue of Scientific American (http://www.scientificamerican.com/1197issue/1197currentissue.html) had a few interesting articles. Articles included were pieces on Mercury, parasitic wasps, fighting computer viruses etc. Of particular interest to the Science Education Community was a review of an article published in the American Journal of Physics by Jrene Rahm and Paul Charbonneau on the Draw a Scientist research as applied to more recent mind sets. And a very critical review of constructivism and science education in the Reviews and Commentaries section. You can read it at: (http://www.scientificamerican.com/1197issue/1197review1.html)

    In the Reviews and Commentaries section of Scientific American (November 1997) Douglas R. O. Morrison critiques Alan Cromer's new book entitled Connected Knowledge: Science, Philosophy, and Education, Oxford University Press (1997). Morrison begins by saying:

    Morrison then decided that the problem was in the "new" way of learning and understanding science:
      I always thought that the scientists and the science educators (in many cases the same person) should work together, not wage war against one another. After all we are the ones educating their children. Without making this an us and them issue, I think that science educators need to inform the public and scientists of what constructivism is and why this "new" trend is working its way into schools and universities. However, when a group of science educators gets together and the word "constructivism" is used many people pause for a minute and ask for a clarification of that persons definition of constructivism. Therefore, I will give my very brief overview of constructivism along with some wonderful resources for people to review in order to come to an understanding for themselves and the implications that constructivism may have on their own teaching methodology.

    Surprisingly, Constructivism traces its roots to the same town where Mr. Morrison worked for 38 years at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics: Geneva, Switzerland.

I. Constructivism defined:

    Basically defined, constructivism means that as we experience something new we internalize it through our past experiences or knowledge constructs we have previously established. Resnick (1983) states that "Meaning is constructed by the cognitive apparatus of the learner" (p.477). Saunders (1992) explains and agrees with Watzawick (1984) that "Constructivism can be defined as that philosophical position which holds that any so-called reality is, in the most immediate and concrete sense, the mental construction of those who believe they have discovered and investigated it. In other words, what is supposedly found is an invention whose inventor is unaware of his act of invention and who considers it as something that exists independently of him; the invention then becomes the basis of his world view and actions." These past experiences are also referred to as our world view.

    During the years of childhood, children's ideas evolve as a result of experience and socialization into "common sense" views (Driver, Asoko, Leach, Mortimer, & Scott, 1994). Steffe (1990) explains, "Constructivists view learning as the adaptations children make in their functioning schemes to neutralize perturbations that arise through interactions with our world." Fabricius (1983) modifies Piaget's Schema Theory such that "reality becomes the phenomena we experience through construction." Wheatly (1991) suggests two principles of learning through the constructivist theory:

    Scott (1987) defines a constructivist in science as one who "perceives students as active learners who come to science lessons already holding ideas about natural phenomena, which they use to make sense of everyday experiences. ... Such a process is one in which learners actively make sense of the world by constructing meaning."

    Tobin and Tippins (1993) would add to the definition of the construction of knowledge in science education. They state that the constructed knowledge of science is "viewed as a set of socially negotiated understandings of the events and phenomena that comprise the experienced universe" (p.4). They further explain that in order to have new knowledge, that "knowledge is accepted by the scientific community as viable because of its coherence with other understandings and its fit with experience." An interesting debate stems from this definition of how "new" knowledge then comes about. Tobin and Tippins (1993) continue to explain that "scientific knowledge continues to change over time because goals and problems of society change leading to new experiences; technology provides new ways of experiencing; what is known continues to increase at an exponential rate; and the individuals that comprise the scientific discipline continually change" (p.4).

II. Historical perspective:

Although constructivist theory has reached high popularity in recent years, the idea of constructivism is not new. Aspects of the constructivist theory can be found among the works of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (ranging from 470-320 B.C.) all of which speak of the formation of knowledge. Saint Augustine (mid 300's A.D.) taught that in the search for truth people must depend upon sensory experience. This of course left him out of balance with the church. More recent philosophers such as John Locke (17th to 18th centuries) taught that no man's knowledge can go beyond his experience. Kant (late 18th to early 19th centuries) explained that the "logical analysis of actions and objects lead to the growth of knowledge and the view that one's individual experiences generate new knowledge" (Brooks & Brooks, 1993, p.23.). Although the main philosophy of Constructivism is generally credited to Jean Piaget (1896-1980), Henrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827), also from Switzerland, came to many similar conclusions over a century earlier.

    However, Piaget is regarded as the father of constructivism and provided the foundation for modern day constructivism.
      Constructivist theory in education actually is a branch of neo-Piagetian thought which is rooted in Personal Constructivism (Novak, 1977; von Glasersfeld, 1989). Soloman (1987), Millar (1989), and Cobern (1993) have taken Personal Constructivism and have paved a way for Contextual Constructivism. Contextual Constructivism is defined by how the learner interprets phenomena and internalizes these interpretations in terms of their previous experience and culture. Cobern (1991) explains:
      Constructivism or a constructivist view puts the students, their interests, and previous experiences and knowledge as paramount parts of understanding in designing curriculum. This has a particular impact when exploring the implications of pedagogy and teacher training.

III. Constructivism and its impact on best practices:

    Von Glassersfeld (1990) said, "Knowledge is not a commodity which can be communicated." The philosophy of Constructivism has been discussed and debated by researchers such as Von Glassersfeld, (1981, 1989 & 1990); Tobin, (1993); Cobb, (1994); Cobern, (1993) but these authors are concerned about constructivism as a philosophy and through debate leave the practitioner in the field confused. A while back an entire issue of Educational Researcher (October 1994) was devoted to the philosophical debate with little, if any, resolve to the implications on classroom practice. Other authors have explored the impact of constructivism on pedagogy and even have prescribed certain "best practices" that a "constructivist" teacher should exhibit (Eg. Brooks & Brooks, 1993; Saunders, 1992; Wheatly, 1991), only to find themselves under careful scrutiny and condemnation of the philosophical folk which state that a philosophy has no prescribed methods. Specifically, Tobin & Tippins (1993) warn against reducing constructivism to set of methods and that this would "diminish its power as a set of intellectual referents for making decisions in relation to actions" (p.7).

    What is the practitioner to do? What do we teach and model to our teachers in preparation? The purpose of this section is to explore what "best practices" are associated with a constructivist teacher and how we can use them without relegating them into a set of prescribed methods.

    In 1991 Wheatley proposed a model of constructivist teaching using the problem centered learning approach. Wheatley (1991) quotes Kozmetsky (1980) stating that "each student must be encouraged to build his/her own conceptual constructs that will permit the ordering of knowledge into useful problem solving schema" (p.152). Then Wheatly proposed that the teachers role is to "provide stimulating and motivational experiences through negotiation and act as a guide in the building of personalized schema" (p.14).

    Wheatley's (1991) problem centered learning approach has three components: tasks, groups, and sharing. The model is a simple one to follow. Wheatley (1991) suggests that "in preparation for a class a teacher selects a tasks which have a high probability of being problematical for students - tasks which may cause students to find a problem. Secondly, the students work on these tasks in small groups. During the time the teacher attempts to convey collaborative work as a goal. Finally, the class is convened as a whole for a time of sharing" (p.15). Wheatley (1991) then goes in further detail of the selection of tasks being based upon student beliefs and that the tasks should contain the following 10 attributes:

1. be accessible to everyone at the start.

2. invite students to make decisions.

3. encourage "what if" questions.

4. encourage students to use their own methods.

5. promote discussion and communication.

6. be replete with patterns.

7. lead somewhere.

8. have an element of surprise.

9. be enjoyable.

10. be extendable.

    While the students are working together on the problem, the elements of cooperative learning as outlined by Johnson and Johnson (1987) should be taken into consideration including Positive interdependence, Face to face interaction, individual accountability, and the appropriate use of interpersonal and small group skills. After the children have had an opportunity to explore the problem for about 25 minutes, Wheatley (1991) suggests that the teacher lead the class in a discussion in which each of the groups present their solution methods, inventions, and insights. It is important for the teacher to maintain a neutral stance during this session and to not correct any "wrong" answers, but allowing the students to discuss them. The sharing both models and promotes higher level thinking and reasoning skills and often leads the students to further "conversations" and thinking in their own heads.

    Wheatley's (1991) problem centered approach to learning is a simple and open ended approach to learning which many teachers already use or could adapt current curriculum to fit within. The bonus of Wheatley's model are the metacognitive skills in understanding how one solves problems as compared with others in the classroom. Wheatley's model is also open to any subject or content desired by the practitioner.

    Another approach to pedagogy, but more specifically related to science education is Saunders' (1992) four step approach. Saunders (1992) states that in being a constructivist in science education does have implications and that the implications lead to a certain approach to teaching science. His first step is to organize hands-on investigative labs. These are problem centered and differ from the traditional "recipe" labs in that there are no prescribed methods or procedures to solving the problem or exploring the phenomena. Saunders (1992) sates that in using the inquiry approach, that the students must utilize their own schema to formulate expectations about what is likely to be observed.

    The second implication is that there is active cognitive involvement. This is in contrast to the passive learning that takes place in many teacher "centered" oriented classrooms. Saunders (1992) explains that learning is made meaningful through activities like "thinking out loud, developing alternative explanations, interpreting data, participating in cognitive conflict (constructive arguing about phenomena under study), development of alternative hypothesis, the design of further experiments to test alternative hypothesis, and the selection of plausible hypotheses from among completing explanations" (p.140).

    The third component to Saunders' (1992) model is that students work in small groups. Saunders (1992) explains that "small-group work tends to stimulate a higher level of cognitive activity among larger numbers of students than does listening to lectures and thus provides expanded opportunities for cognitive restructuring.

    The last implication of Saunders' (1992) model is higher level assessment. Although vague to what is really meant for this implication, the literature on alternative assessment is vast. Saunders (1992) explicitly states that by incorporating the above three strategies without assessing the way that was taught that student cognitive activity will remain at a low level. I also agree that the tool should fit the task and reflect the way that learning took place in the classroom. This has real implications for the traditional fill in the blank and multiple choice tests.

    Saunders (1992) has some great advice and relevance to the person who claims to be a constructivist. Although the strategies fit well within the science classroom, they may be easily adapted to fit any subject area and accommodate many different learning styles.

    One of the most reader friendly works entailing best practices for a constructivist classroom is the book written by Brooks and Brooks (1993), A Case for the Constructivist Classroom, published by ASCD. Brooks & Brooks explain that the "constructivist vista. . . is far more panoramic and, therefore elusive. Deep understanding, not imitative behavior, is the goal. . . . We look not for what students can repeat, but for what they can generate, demonstrate, and exhibit" (p.16).

    Brooks and Brooks (1993) have five guiding principles of constructivism. The first using the problems of relevance to students in instruction. The second being the learning is structured around primary concepts. The third valuing students' points of view. The fourth is in adapting curriculum to address students' suppositions. And the fifth is assessing students learning in the context of teaching.

    As with the other models, Brooks and Brooks (1993) also have a model which is conducive to any teaching environment and subject. The above models are not prescribed tasks, but rather "best practices" that constructivist teachers do. All of the models allow for the individual needs and conditions that the teacher may find himself/herself in and accommodate most subjects taught in the schools.

IV. Conclusions & Implications:

    Costa and Liebmann (1995) explain that "with knowledge doubling every five years - every 73 days by the year 2020 - we can no longer attempt to anticipate future information requirements. If students are to keep pace with the rapid increase of knowledge, we cannot continue to organize curriculum in discrete compartments, . . . . the disciplines as we have known them, no longer exist. They are being replaced by human inquiry that draws upon generalized transdisciplinary bodies of knowledge and relationships" (p.23).

    All of the above models and authors would agree that in order to claim that one is a constructivist there are ceratin philosophical implications to the way one teaches. These philosophical implications do indeed lead to best practices in the constructivist teacher's classroom. Some of the practices that were common amongst all of the models were a greater understanding of developmental psychology and learning models, group learning using cooperative learning strategies, active cognitive involvement (hands-on - heads-on), personal input from students regarding relevant information, student centered - not subject centered classroom environments, integration of subject matter to convey connections to the experiential world, interaction, discussion and reflection, and flexibility of teacher in both curriculum and pedagogical strategies.

    What is interesting is the lack of behavioral objectives or specific content related outcomes. It seems that if we are to address the problem of being able to use knowledge,  we must teach our students how to access and use knowledge that is already present, to problem solve, and to understand inquiry skills so that new knowledge can be sought after and obtained. Of course, these skills can only be taught through the content and process of doing science - perhaps in conjunction with our colleagues from other disciplines.

    Well, for an editorial this turned out to be extremely long. Congratulations to those of you who actually finished it. However, the main point still remains, we must inform the public and our peers in other disciplines of what constructivism is and how using this philosophy and instructional best practices associated with it children will become better problem solvers, citizens, and perhaps better scientists. We would encourage your thoughts and ideas about inquiry and constructivism for future publications. (See publication guidelines section).

    We are really excited about this issue. Our guest editorial is by Dr. Lillian McDermott. We had the recent opportunity to have her visit UNR and address our science faculty on these "new" changes in instruction. Her editorial is generously contributed to us by the American Journal of Physics as a republication of a guest commentary that she published there. We encourage you to visit their website at: http://www.aapt.org/pubs_catalog/pubs.html

    To go to the EJSE's December issue's Table of Contents, click here.


    Berger, Kathleen S., (1978). The developing person. New York, NY. Worth Publishers.

    Brooks, J. & Brooks, M. (1993). The case for a constructivist classroom. Alexandria, VA. ASCD.

    Cobb, Paul. (1994). Constructivism in math and science education. Educational Researcher. 23(7). 13-20.

    Cobern, W. W. (1991). Contextual constructivism: The impact of culture on the learning and teaching of science. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching. Lake Geneva, WI. April 7-10.

    Cobern, W. (1993). Contextual constructivism in Tobin, K. (Ed) The Practice of constructivism in science education. . Washington DC. AAAS. p. 51-69

    Costa, A. & Liebmann, R. (1995). Process is as important as content. Educational Leadership. 52(6), 23-24.

    Fabricius, W.V. (1983). Piaget's theory of knowledge: Its philosophical context. Human Development. 26, 325-334

    Johnson, D & Johnson, R. (1987). Learning together & alone: Cooperative, competitive, & individualistic learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Prentice-Hall.

    Kozmetsky, G. (1980). The significant role of problem solving in education. In O. Tuma & Reif (Eds.), Problem solving and education: Issues in teaching and research. Hillsdale , NJ. Laurence Erlbaum Press.

    Millar, R. (Ed.) (1989). Doing Science: Images of Science in Science Education. Philadelphia, PA. Falmer Press.

    Novak, J. (1977). A Theory of education. Ithaca, NY. Cornell University Press.

    Posner, M. I. (1989). Foundations of cognitive science. Cambridge, MA. MIT Press.

    Russell, W. & Campbell, T. (1994). Educational Researcher. 23(7).

    Saunders, W. (1992). The constructivist perspective: Implications and teaching strategies for science. School Science and Mathematics, 92(3), 136-141.

    Scott, Philip. (1987). A Constructivist view of learning and teaching in science. Children's Learning in Science Project, Centre for Studies in Science and Mathematics Education. University of Leeds, England, U.K.

    Soloman, J. (1987). Social influences on the construction of pupil's understanding of science. Studies in Science Education, 14, 63-82.

    Steffe, L. (1990). Overview of the action group A1: Early childhood years. In L. Steffe and T. Wood (Ed.), Transforming early childhood mathematics education: An international perspective. Hillsdale, Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Tobin, K & Tippins, D. (1993) Constructivism as a referent for teaching and learning. In

    Tobin, K. (Ed) The Practice of constructivism in science education.

    Tobin, K. (Ed). (1993). The Practice of constructivism in science education. Washington DC. AAAS.

    Watzawick, P. (Ed). (1984). The inverted reality. New York: W.W. Norton.

    Wheatley, G. H. (1991). Constructivist perspectives on science and mathematics learning. Science Education 75 (1), 9-21.

    von Glasersfeld, E. (1981). The concepts of adaption and viability in a radical theory of knowledge. In I.E. Siegel, D.M. Brodinski, R. M. Golinkoff (eds.) New directions in piagetiean theory and practice. Hillsdale, Erlbaum.

    von Glasersfeld, E. (1987). Constructivism as a scientific method. Pregmon Press

    von Glasersfeld, E. (1989). Cognition, construction of knowledge, and teaching. Synthese, 80(1), 121-140.

    von Glassersfeld, E. (1990). Environment and communication. In L. Steffe & T. Wood (Eds), Transforming early childhood mathematics education: An international perspective. Hillsdale, Erlbaum.