An example of 'constructionism'

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The science labs in my former headship school commanded a wonderful close-up view over the shipyard and in particular the dock where many Royal Navy ships such as 'Invincible' and 'Ocean' were moored and fitted out at various times.

However for me the permanent star of the view was always the giant yellow shipyard crane. This stood on a four-legged platform tower that could run on rails alongside the dock. I believe HMS Ocean was the last ship to be fitted out under this crane. The rotating crane part (jib) was mounted on a turntable on top of the tower. Alas this much loved local landmark was dismantled for scrap a few years ago. An almost identical one still stands beside the River Clyde in Glasgow and frequently features in views of that city.

Although the GCSE science syllabus barely touched on 'structures and statics' there was just sufficient for an excuse to get my class to use the crane as a model to demonstrate principles of rigidity. I never forgot my childhood tinkerings with Meccano, but today's students have not been so fortunate so this seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

The labs on the top two floors with the best view were also blessed with large outside balconies (frequently sunny - honest) from which the splendid scene could be observed even more clearly than through the lab windows.

I mention all this because it provided for a profound insight and confirmation of the learning theory of constructionism/constructivism that is particularly associated with Piaget.

My students were each given a drawing board and a sheet of A3 paper and after some preliminary class discussion about the structural principles on which the crane was based, were asked to illustrate these principles by means of a sketch of the crane. I stressed that the sketch did not need to be accurate in detail but the outcome should be an illustration of a structure that looked as if it would stand up.

The results were always powerfully diagnostic in Piagetian terms of the cognitive level of each student. The most successful sketches were made by the students that could operate at the formal level of cognition. Success had little to do with skill in the mechanics of drawing. The students that struggled most with the task tried to directly copy what they saw, the result usually being something that incorporated vitally flawed errors of principle, while often being rich in unimportant details.

The students that succeeded did not try to copy what they saw at all. Instead, they observed it in order to work out the principles by which it supported itself. They then constructed an image in the mind of a structure based on these principles. They then reconstructed this mental image in the form of their sketch.

Piaget believed that learning is like this. It is not primarily 'remembering' or 'copying', which are passive activities. For success, the process has to be 'active' and 'creative'. The crane is observed in order to come to an understanding based on a mental concept of how such a structure can be strong and rigid enough to support itself and the loads imposed upon it.

Not only is this a vital insight into how children learn science, I believe it transfers into all subjects. The brain is not a passive receptor of experiences from the senses, but an active participant in a process of constructing mental models and concepts. Further learning involves reinventing and refining these mental models and if necessary abandoning them in favour of new ones when they are found not to work.

Although I have no qualifications in the subject I will risk suggesting history teaching as another example of the same Piagetian principle. The concrete stage in history is founded in 'what happened where and when', even though establishing this often presents its own problems. The formal stage is like understanding how my crane supports itself. It is necessary for the learner to create competing hypotheses (models) in the mind, then to construct them into historical 'explanations' for which evidence can then be assessed. The difficult job of the teacher is to support this process. When students can do this they can evaluate competing explanations. Peer to peer discussion is a powerful learning tactic. Have I got this right historians?

What about Vygotsky? His contribution was to set out how social interaction, especially on a peer to peer basis can lead to a shared critical review of ideas so as to promote concept development to ever higher levels of power and sophistication.

Good schools are places that are set up and designed for these active and creative learning processes to take place.
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