Friday, March 3, 2017

Constructivism Part 3

In my last two bulletin articles, I presented the theory of constructivism: learners construct knowledge via their experiences and not through direct instruction. While the theory is applicable at all levels of education, it is especially essential in the early childhood classroom. Young children must be provided with a multitude of sensory experiences in order to engage with their world, arrive at questions, seek answers to their questions, continue to explore, and then create meaning for themselves. The early childhood teacher’s role in such a classroom is to facilitate, coach, encourage, challenge, and, most importantly, know when not to interfere.

At the Early Childhood Education Conference in December, Rabbi Meir Muller spoke passionately about the theory of constructivism. Near the end of his presentation he acknowledged that some Jewish educators are wary of the theory for three main reasons. He then swiftly refuted each one.

Some educators worry that if children are allowed to construct their own knowledge, they may construct something that is factually wrong; for example, they may construct that pigs are kosher. But Rabbi Muller explained that that simply isn’t likely to happen. The idea that pigs are kosher is so “outside the rules of the game” that it is highly unlikely that children would construct that meaning from their experiences. In the unlikely event that they would, the teacher would simply say, “The Torah says that pigs aren’t kosher.” There’s no judgement there, just a statement of fact. The children will accept that and move on.

Some might argue that constructivism just isn’t the way Jews have traditionally learned, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. The chavruta model, a way Jews have studied the Torah and Talmud for a thousand years, in which two learners sit across from each other, read from a primary source, proceed to question and answer and argue with each other, and then seek to apply the learning to a new situation, is the very definition of constructivism. In chavruta,learners are creating meaning for themselves, they’re not being asked to memorize something and repeat it back later on. It’s the new ideas -- the new perspectives -- that are so highly valued.

Finally, and this one was framed differently than the other two, some Jewish teachers might think they’re teaching a Jewish concept when in fact children are constructing a very different kind of knowledge from the experience the teachers have created. The example he gave was of children attaching small yellow pieces of tissue paper to a chanukiah made out of wooden clothespins. Engaged in that experience, children might be constructing an understanding of one-to-one correspondence, a formative math skill, or practicing their fine motor skills, but they’re really not learning about Chanukah. Teachers need to be careful observers to know what children are actually learning while they’re playing, which is what next month’s column will focus on.

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