Dr. Robert Goodman Explains How Direct Instruction Complements Social Constructivism
Dr. Robert Goodman is the Executive Director of the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning (NJCTL) and founder of the Progressive Science Initiative (PSI) and Progressive Mathematics Initiative (PMI). Bob has developed his science and math courses in a way that blends direct instruction with student-centered methods. The social media conversation often polarizes whole-class and social constructivist learning models, but Bob explains here how the two can coexist.
Before we talk about your perspective on social constructivism, let’s start with constructivism. How do you define it?
- Constructivism in cognitive psychology proposes that for human beings to use information, they have to create an internal model about the information that they can access. You see the world through these internal models that you create. There isn’t anything controversial about that definition.
- Constructivism in education takes from the cognitive psychology model and states that the only way for students to learn is by creating these models themselves. This leads to discovery theories and some people’s explanations of inquiry, where they suggest that in order to construct models we shouldn’t tell students anything – let them figure it all out and construct their own models.
Nothing in the cognitive psychology definition of constructivism suggests how you create the model. It just says you need to create the model. In education it’s become a choice between letting the kids figure it out themselves and telling the kids everything. That’s really not a valid choice – educators need to do both.
Very often there’s a false choice being presented to people where direct instruction is considered bad and social constructivism is considered good. By the same token, formative assessment is good and summative assessment is bad. I think these are false choices.
The reality is we create activities that capture direct instruction and formative assessment in a way that flows into social constructivism and summative assessment. Direct instruction sets up formative assessment. Once you do the formative assessment, the question becomes, “what do I do with the information?” Social constructivism then turns out to be a very effective way to get students socially and emotionally engaged in content and make it memorable.
If you are simply in active listening mode all the time, you won’t be able to create a mental model that you can access and use. You need to actually be able to use it. The math that helps you run a company is the same math that helps you run a science lab or build a bridge. If it’s so abstract though, where do you get to “try it out?” If I’m a student, I listen to the teacher communicate a math problem and I get one answer. The student next to me gets another answer. We’re “trying it out,” right? But that’s still insufficient – now I get formative assessment that says that there are two answers out there but I don’t know which one is correct.
You are going to apply that knowledge by having discussions with your peers. We remember what we discussed or debated more than what we hear someone say. Social constructivism comes about when there is something to talk about and engage with. But you also need some direct instruction to give you the basic tools you will need to set up that discussion.
How do direction instruction and social constructivism play a role in the PSI/PMI model?
The SMART Notebook course files we post to PSI/PMI have ten minutes of direct instruction content and then we have six problems in a row that are simple applications of what we just taught them. We don’t tell them the right answer. They are only provided with multiple choice answers, which they respond to with SMART Response.
- If they get several questions right in a row, we move onto the next topic to keep them in Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development.” (Vygotsky was an originator of social constructivism and advised that people can move as fast as they can move, but no faster.) It was hard to ascertain when it was time to move forward before we started using SMART Response. If they are getting the questions right, we move on so they don’t get bored.
- If the response is mixed, we form groups to debate the right answer for a few minutes to figure it out and then vote again. Kids are sitting around tables and argue with each other about half the time. We ask students with different answers and argue about why they gave a particular answer, and listen to why someone else got their answer. Almost invariably, they arrive on the right answer at that point without the teacher telling them what it is. Logic and reason starts kicking in and students start building this mental model for the correct way to do this problem. They can also build a mental model about how to figure out the best way to tackle a similar problem next time. Additionally, they figure out how to interact with people to learn. That’s a meta-skill that goes beyond that one problem.
- If the majority gets the question wrong, we need to go back to the direct instruction piece and ask where the problem is confusing because the wrong answers have to be related to how we’ve explained it to students. And then you have the kids interact as a group about how to improve the explanation. Our direct instruction pieces also involve student feedback that way.
Dr. Robert Goodman is the Executive Director of the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning (NJCTL), 2006 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year and a teacher of science and engineering at the Bergen County Technical High School in Teterboro, New Jersey, where he founded the Progressive Science Initiative (PSI). Bob has worked since then to expand PSI to include K-12 mathematics, with the launch of the Progressive Mathematics Initiative (PMI). Course content for both PSI and PMI are available at no cost in SMART Notebook software format on the NJCTL website. Bob is a member of the New Jersey Task Force on College and Career Readiness, served on NEA’s Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching and has served as a field reader for the United States Department of Education. Bob’s efforts with PSI/PMI were recently rewarded with a challenge grant from NEA which was matched by the Morgridge Family Foundation and Xcel Energy to enable an expansion of the Center for Teaching and Learning’s work in math and science for Colorado schools.
You can find him on Twitter at @bobgoodman33.