Friday, June 27, 2014

Easing Students' Transition to Constructivist Learning

I plan to sit down at some point to write about my end-of-year Calculus and Precalc projects, and the Habits of Mind/Math Practices portfolio project that we plan to do for next year. But, for now, a question that has been circling in my mind...

I reflected upon my journey in transitioning to the new school this year and upon the difficulties that I had. I realized that a big part of this is that I bring with me a constructivist approach to learning, which the kids were not at all used to. It helped me to reflect on the fact that learning to learn by yourself is really not easy. Some of the kids ramped up quickly on the new learning mode; some struggled for a while (a good half-year) and eventually acclimated. I won't say that they all fell in love with it by the end, but a significant portion did seem to grow to enjoy it (this was most evident in my Calculus class). From the rest, I had endured major pushback, including a few going to the principal and saying that they felt unsupported in my Precalculus class, that I wasn't teaching effectively, etc. It caused issues in my Precalculus class's social dynamics, and by the time that had happened, it was challenging to dig ourselves out of the hole. Although things definitely got better by the end of the year, I never felt that we built a good learning community, only that I managed to reach them with my varying degrees of personal relationship to each of them. By the end of the year, I was actually SHOCKED when some of those kids came in during the last week of school and said that they would really like to have me again for Calculus, because I had felt largely unsuccessful with them all year.

In the end, my Head of School told me (at the end of the year, during our one-on-one meeting) that he wants me to stay strong in what I do, because teaching via constructivism is more difficult and more worthwhile than teaching by direct instruction all the time, and that it helps kids to build the perseverance, resourcefulness, and communication skills that we talk about teaching besides the content. It also helped that my Head of School's son and his son's buddies were in two of my classes, and that privately they had told each other when he was nearby that they really liked my classes.

Anyhow, this experience has certainly helped me to appreciate how difficult it is for some kids to ramp up on the constructivist approach of learning. In the past, I probably had similar students who felt similarly challenged by the transition, but were simply less vocal about it. Although our school culture definitely breeds kids who are especially vocally reactive, I do see it as an opportunity to challenge myself to ease that transition for the kids next year who will be in the same situation.

Things that I think may be helpful:
* Being explicit about the learning model that we're using and that frustration is considered healthy in this learning process. (State this at the start of the year, but also at the start of tasks that are particularly challenging.)
* Being explicit about how and when to ask for help at the start of the task, and what type of work I would have expected them to already have completed (tables, defining variables, diagrams, asking each other, etc.) before asking for help.
* Being exaggerated in my compliments/celebration of how well they're working in groups and what great strategies I am seeing.
* Doing more "I notice... I wonder..." shareouts in groups and as a class, to lead in to times when I do need to stop the whole class to go over something. Even if they don't get through the whole process, what they are noticing should be celebrated.

Do you have other tips for helping ALL kids transition over from a lecture-based classroom to a constructivist classroom?  I need to do better than just letting them acclimate at their own speeds. I find, by the way, that the unhappiness in the transition is not limited to the students with weaker math skills. One of my least happy/most vocal students is a student who thrives under direct instruction but struggles with ambiguities.


  1. Notice, discuss and demonstrate the learning process. Especially stepping through the constructivist process.
    "What questions can we ask to dig deeper?"
    "This is disequilibrium. What did you do to make sense."
    And you doing think alouds about authentic construction seems crucial.

    Also, reflect on the learning goal, so if the goal is the process, ask reflection questions about the process not the content.

    Love where you're going with this.

    1. Love this post and John's ideas in response. I too have been thinking a lot about being more explicit about the path of productive struggle with my students. As Mr. Dardy says in his comment below, when you're teaching high-stakes courses for ambitious kids, it's hard to get them out of their "press-the-level-and-get-a-food-pellet" mindset. I find that talking about mindset is not as productive as helping them to understand the new learning process we are embarking on. I'm eager to read about your use of learning journals this next year!

      - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  2. Thanks, John! I like your suggestions. Next year I'll be implementing a learner's journal, so it'll help with reflecting about the process!

  3. I have experienced similar 'pushback' and have been fortunate at my current school to have a supportive administration. My experience also supports the idea that those who are most frustrated are often the ones who are 'good at math' - that is, the ones who have been getting the best grades. It's a shock when your strategies seem to suddenly fail you. What I have tried in the recent past is to start the year with more opportunities for grades - both along the lines of asking them to create/synthesize ideas as well as some more standard assessment of skills/facts. I think that this eases the sting of the novel way of thinking that you are expecting them to grow accustomed to and it sends the message that their inexperience with solving some novel problems will not be the death of their ability to earn grades that feel acceptable and lead to a developing sense of confidence in their own ability. To whatever degree you can, urge your colleagues (especially at the Alg II level before your Precalc class) to begin to dip their toes into this way of teaching and thinking. It sounds like part of the problem is that you might be an outlier in your department. Add to the fact that you are teaching high stakes courses for ambitious kids and it is easy to understand their angst.