ragamuffin and barefoot

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 13 2008


Last day of the first week of institute and I have so, so, so much to say but not enough sleep in my body to do it (plus I’m testing tomorrow – need to be studying, not writing). But corps members, please, please, please google the learning theory of constructivism v. the learning theory of behaviorism. This is nothing you are going to find in your TFA binders. Everything TFA does is based on the behaviorist model. Please consider the implications of this upon our teaching. The standards and measurable goals ARE NOT everything – the way in which we are teaching has seriously deep implications for how our students view their role in the world and how they interact with it. Google these learning theories and please, please think hard about what we are doing and what it is saying – remember, this is OUR organization. We need to be challenging it. We are its lifeblood, and it is ours to push. Please, please, please consider this. While you’re at it, check out Freire and Dewey and as many other educational philosophers, and learning theories, as you can. It is our responsibility to know fully the implications of what we are doing and how we are doing it – for a number of reasons (time being one of the biggest) TFA is not going to address the ways in which we are NOT teaching. We need to take it upon ourselves to be fully invested in our work, which means going far beyond what we are being spoonfed. Question everything.

Some links to consider –


“The behaviorist theory popularized by B.F. Skinner still drives much of the practice of science education. For more than a quarter century, schools and teachers have been creating behavioral goals and objectives. Curricula have been tightly sequenced according to a belief that the best way to learn is to master small bits of knowledge and then integrate them into major concepts. Assessment practices have tended to focus on measurement of knowledge and skills, with little emphasis on performance and understanding.

Since the late 1980s, however, researchers have been building an understanding of learning that grows out of cognitive and developmental psychology. The key notion in this new “constructivist theory” is that people learn best by actively constructing their own understanding. The fundamental beliefs underlying this new paradigm for learning have been generally summarized as follows:

All knowledge is constructed through a process of reflective abstraction.

Cognitive structures within the learner facilitate the process of learning.

The cognitive structures in individuals are in a process of constant development.

If the notion of constructivist learning is accepted, then the methods of learning and pedagogy must agree.

The constructivist classroom presents the learner with opportunities to build on prior knowledge and understanding to construct new knowledge and understanding from authentic experience. Students are allowed to confront problems full of meaning because of their real-life context. In solving these problems, students are encouraged to explore possibilities, invent alternative solutions, collaborate with other students (or external experts), try out ideas and hypotheses, revise their thinking, and finally present the best solution they can derive.

Contrast this approach with the typical behaviorist classroom, where students are passively involved in receiving all necessary critical information from the teacher and the textbook. Rather than inventing solutions and constructing knowledge in the process, students are taught how to “get the right answer” using the teacher’s method. Students do not even have to “make sense” of the method used to solve problems.”


“In fact, there are many pedagogies that leverage constructivist theory. Most approaches that have grown from constructivism suggest that learning is accomplished best using a hands-on approach. Learners learn by experimentation, and not by being told what will happen. They are left to make their own inferences, discoveries and conclusions. It also emphasizes that learning is not an “all or nothing” process but that students learn the new information that is presented to them by building upon knowledge that they already possess. It is therefore important that teachers constantly assess the knowledge their students have gained to make sure that the students’ perceptions of the new knowledge are what the teacher had intended. Teachers will find that since the students build upon already existing knowledge, when they are called upon to retrieve the new information, they may make errors. It is known as reconstruction error when we fill in the gaps of our understanding with logical, though incorrect, thoughts. Teachers need to catch and try to correct these errors, though it is inevitable that some reconstruction error will continue to occur because of our innate retrieval limitations.

In most pedagogies based on constructivism, the teacher’s role is not only to observe and assess but to also engage with the students while they are completing activities, wondering aloud and posing questions to the students for promotion of reasoning (DeVries et al., 2002). (ex: I wonder why the water does not spill over the edge of the full cup?) Teachers also intervene when there are conflicts that arise; however, they simply facilitate the students’ resolutions and self-regulation, with an emphasis on the conflict being the students’ and that they must figure things out for themselves. For example, promotion of literacy is accomplished by integrating the need to read and write throughout individual activities within print-rich classrooms. The teacher, after reading a story, encourages the students to write or draw stories of their own, or by having the students reenact a story that they may know well, both activities encourage the students to conceive themselves as reader and writers.”

And some more on Freire, who focused particularly (almost exclusively) on the education of the oppressed (see: our students) –


“Paulo Freire contributed a philosophy of education that came not only from the more classical approaches stemming from Plato, but also from modern Marxist and anti-colonialist thinkers. In fact, in many ways his Pedagogy of the Oppressed may be best read as an extension of, or reply to, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, which emphasized the need to provide native populations with an education which was simultaneously new and modern (rather than traditional) and anti-colonial (not simply an extension of the culture of the colonizer).

Freire is best-known for his attack on what he called the “banking” concept of education, in which the student was viewed as an empty account to be filled by the teacher. The basic critique was not new — Rousseau’s conception of the child as an active learner was already a step away from tabula rasa (which is basically the same as the “banking concept”), and thinkers like John Dewey and Alfred North Whitehead were strongly critical of the transmission of mere “facts” as the goal of education. Freire’s work, however, updated the concept and placed it in context with current theories and practices of education, laying the foundation for what is now called critical pedagogy.

More challenging is Freire’s strong aversion to the teacher-student dichotomy. This dichotomy is admitted in Rousseau and constrained in Dewey, but Freire comes close to insisting that it should be completely abolished. This is hard to imagine in absolute terms, since there must be some enactment of the teacher-student relationship in the parent-child relationship, but what Freire suggests is that a deep reciprocity be inserted into our notions of teacher and student. Freire wants us to think in terms of teacher-student and student-teacher; that is, a teacher who learns and a learner who teaches, as the basic roles of classroom participation.

This is one of the few attempts anywhere to implement something like democracy as an educational method and not merely a goal of democratic education. Even Dewey, for whom democracy was a touchstone, did not integrate democratic practices fully into his methods, though this was in part a function of Dewey’s attitudes toward individuality. In its strongest early form this kind of classroom has been criticized on the grounds that it can mask rather than overcome the teacher’s authority.”

One Response

  1. Alison

    Again, second that. Especially as it relates to math instruction/problem solving. For anyone interesting… the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics website is a good place to start. http://illuminations.nctm.org/
    I’ll be interested to hear what approach you take to teaching at institute and how it jives with what you feel is best and what perspective your CMA takes, etc.

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