Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, Volume 3, Issue 1, Article 1(June, 2002)
Winnie Wing-Mui SO
Constructivist Teaching in Primary Science
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Constructivist teaching in science

"The most conspicuous psychological influence on curriculum thinking in science since 1980 has been the constructivist view of learning." (Fensham, 1992, p.801) Tobin (1993) remarked that as "constructivism has become increasingly popular… in the past ten years…. it represents a paradigm change in science education." (p.ix) Yeany (1991) also argued that "an unification of thinking, research, curriculum development, and teacher education appears to now be occurring under the theme of constructivism." (p.1) Their views were echoed by the words of Scott, Asoko, Driver and Emberton (1994) "science learning, viewed from a constructivist perspective, involves epistemological as well as conceptual development." (p.219)

Constructivism sees learning as a dynamic and social process in which learners actively construct meaning from their experiences in connection with their prior understandings and the social setting (Driver, Asoko, Leach, Mortimer & Scott, 1994). The constructivist view of learning argues that students do not come to the science classroom empty-headed but arrive with lots of strongly formed ideas about how the natural world works. In the view of constructivists, pupils should no longer be passive recipients of knowledge supplied by teachers and teachers should no longer be purveyors of knowledge and classroom managers (Fosnot, 1996). From this perspective, learning is a process of acquiring new knowledge, which is active and complex. This is the result of an active interaction of key cognitive processes (Glynn, Yeany & Britton, 1991). It is also an active interaction between teachers and learners, and learners try to make sense of what is taught by trying to fit these with their own experience.

Constructivist views also emphasize generative learning, questioning or inquiry strategies (Slavin, 1994). An emphasis on constructivism and hands-on inquiry-oriented instruction to promote children's conceptual knowledge by building on prior understanding, active engagement with the subject content, and applications to real world situations has been advocated in science lessons (Stofflett & Stoddart, 1994). And constructivist views emphasizing discovery, experimentation, and open-ended problems have been successfully applied in science (Neale & Smith, 1990). Wildy and Wallace (1995) believed that good science teachers are those who teach for deep understanding: "They use students' ideas about science to guide lessons, providing experiences to test and challenge those ideas to help students arrive at more sophisticated understanding. The classrooms of such teachers are learner-centered places where group discussion, exploration and problem solving are common place." (p.143)

The term 'constructivism' encompasses a variety of theoretical positions (Geelan, 1997) and has mainly been applied to learning theories, focusing on learning as a conceptual change (Driver & Oldham, 1986) and to curriculum development and teaching, mainly in science (Osborne & Wittrock, 1985). It also provides some clear pointers towards teaching strategies that might assist students in conceptual reconstruction (Hodson & Hodson, 1998), such as: 

  1. identifing students' views and ideas;

  2. creating opportunities for students to explore their ideas and to test their robustness in explaining phenomena, accounting for events and making prediction; 

  3. providing stimuli for students to develop, modify and where necessary, change their ideas and views; and, 

  4. supporting their attempts to re-think and reconstruct their ideas and views.

Teaching methods based on constructivist views are very useful to help students' learning. The following are practices derived from cognitive psychology that can help students understand, recall and apply essential information, concepts and skills. They are used to make lessons relevant, activate students' prior knowledge, help elaborate and organize information, and encourage questioning. Important concepts from this perspective are (Slavin, 1994, p.237-239):

  1. Advanced organizers: general statements given before instruction that relate new information to existing knowledge to help students process new information by activating background knowledge, suggesting relevance, and encouraging accommodation;

  2. Analogies: pointing out the similarities between things that are otherwise unlike, to help students learn new information by relating it to concepts they already have; and

  3. Elaboration: the process of thinking about new material in a way that helps to connect it with existing knowledge.

To explicitly build on students' existing knowledge is one of the ways to encourage deep approaches to learning (Biggs, 1995). To achieve this, teachers should have a clear idea of what students have already known and understood so that they can engage students in activities that help them construct new meanings (von Glaserfeld, 1992). Moreover, the opportunities for pupils to talk about their ideas concerning particular concepts or issues are prominent in the learning process. Teachers who employ constructivist teaching try to help pupils to learn meaningfully. They should encourage pupils to accept the invitation to learn and to take action on what they have learnt, and to provide pupils with opportunities to explore, discover and create, as well as to propose explanations and solutions.

One main purpose of using the findings of research into children's preconceptions in science is to help teachers to apply constructivist ideas about learning in the classroom (Peterman, 1991). The collaborative effort among researchers and teachers on constructivist teaching is to encourage teaching which takes account of the prior ideas and understanding of children in the development of specific concepts in science, and to stress the need to provide prospective science teachers with a model for constructivist learning situations. This lays the seeds that help prospective teachers in life-long professional growth as science educators (Anderson & Mitchener, 1994).

Though Wilson (2000) suggested science educators need to look beyond the confines of cognitive psychology in developing pupils' understanding of scientific concepts, the four immediate accessible points she suggested for practicing teachers to consider in teaching concepts to pupils also rooted with constructivist teaching, these were:

  1. recognizing what pupils already know;

  2. teach fewer concepts;

  3. improve continuity across key stages and progression of the development of concepts. Pupils are exposed to scientific concepts at a much earlier stage in their education; and,

  4. acknowledge the diversity of learners.

Current teaching of science

Glynn, Yeany and Britton (1991) stated that school science curricula are commonly placed on a continuum from "textbook-centered" to "teacher-centered" and that the textbook is the vehicle that drives the teaching. The textbook is usually accompanied by a large bulk of resource materials, such as additional information, overhead transparencies, wall charts, cassette tapes, teaching kits, worksheets, exercises, suggested activities and experiments, and the activity cards. Besides this, there are also "very useful" teachers' handbooks prepared by the publishers, which prescribe precisely how a concept should be taught (So, Tang & Ng, 2000).

The problem of the heavy reliance on textbooks during science lessons was addressed in the American Association for the Advancement of Science Report (1989), notingthat the present science textbooks and methods of instruction emphasized the learning of answers more than the exploration of questions, memory at the expense of critical thoughts, bits and pieces of information instead of understanding in context, recitation over argument, reading in lieu of doing.

Morris (1995) in discussing the pedagogy in classrooms claimed that the major resource used by teachers and pupils in Hong Kong is the textbook. It often provides the content of the lesson and many of its learning activities. Further to this, in examining the nature of the more pupil-centered tasks used in the classrooms, such as group work, problem solving and discovery learning, Morris found that these tasks are often characterized by a high degree of teacher control and a low level of pupil involvement.

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