The Power of Theory in Social Constructivism
One of my roles as an Education Integrator is to work with students and teachers to catalyze open research and use of materials. Learning flows two ways, and for my part, I am prepared to
Listen to children, and invite them to describe the problems they encounter,
Respect children’s time to come up with their own solutions,
Talk with children about what is working, and what is not working,
Offer ideas if frustrations arise.
Consider the explorations of a four year old at Lakewood Avenue Children’s School whose chosen resources are a flower from home, her own theories, her classmates’ wonderings, and the rich environment of her school.
Oh no! It’s not a tulip anymore.
The pink leaves (petals) opened up.
They opened far, so it’s not a tulip.
Now it’s just a flower.
At first, the change upsets her.
She centers at a bowl full of soupy chocolate chip cookie dough.
A classmate and I listen as she stirs and thinks aloud.
If we put it in some water, it will grow back into a tulip.
Do you have any vases?
She hums an upbeat tune, and carries the vase around the yard. When some friends show interest, she puts the vase in a mixing bowl so they can touch the flower without tipping over the vase.
Everyone agrees, “It’s so soft.”
One friend adds,
It’s soft like a wolf. I have never touched one,
but I know it is soft. I want to see a wolf with my daddy.
We walk in the pasture to look for them.
Each person in the group takes in the idea of the wolf - some with a knowing nod, and others by continuing what they were doing before the flower arrived on the scene.
The child most concerned with the botanical transformation is not convinced that putting the flower in a vase of water will tighten its form. She plants the stem in the dirt, and showers it generously.
When planting the flower in the dirt does not fold in its petals, she tries burying it several inches underground, like a seed in the nearby vegetable garden.
She returns to stirring her soupy chocolate chip cookie dough, and keeps a close eye on the patch of dirt from which the tulip might sprout. She holds this theory with the same level of sincerity and possibility as the previous theories of the morning.
As I sit next to her, my mind wanders to the mythological phoenix that is born of its own ashes. I, too, watch with belief.
Just before we go indoors, she unearths the tattered flower, and tries another idea.
As she plucks the pink petals one by one, she says with certainty,
We take apart all the things,
and then collect them together.
I ask, “How do we collect them together?”
Her approach to making sense of the tulip is an intrinsic process that acknowledges multiple constructions and embraces complexity. She fully claims her research, and remains open to unfolding discoveries that, essentially, pose more questions that draw her to pursue more theories. She is creating a map to engage the unknown with unfettered curiosity, keen insight, her own experiences, the knowledge of others, materials of choice, and the school’s rich environment.
I think her mindset and engagement are kindred with scientists who research at contemporary, innovative labs, such as
The Material Design Lab at Copenhagen School of Design & Technology
Materfad Materials Center in Barcelona, Spain
Biomimicry Institute in Missoula, Montana
Genspace in Brooklyn, New York
Wonderings on behalf of young learners:
How might narrow, curricular goals affect their reach toward the broad purposes of learning such as self knowledge, development of identity, and belief that they can affect positive change in the world?
How do our adult theories about what constitutes knowledge impact the ways that we partner with children? How does this shape their experience of learning?
How do open research and use of materials invite us to consider and nourish the myriad of relationships in an environment?
I’ll close with a nugget of wisdom from Dr. Penny Oldfather, co-author of Learning Through Children's Eyes: Social Constructivism and the Desire to Learn:
Social constructivist teachers are likely to focus their efforts
on helping their students find their passions,
discover what they care about,
create their own learning agendas, and most importantly,
connect who they are to what they do in school.