What makes a lesson constructivist? Engage first, explain later

This is a guest post from Don Mesibov of the The Institute for Learning Centered Education

This post will articulate a major distinction between a lesson based on constructivist theory and a lesson as it has been traditionally planned and taught. The secret lies in the initial activity of the lesson or unit immediately following the bell ringer, launcher, anticipatory set or whatever brief activity a teacher uses at the very beginning of the lesson.

In a traditional lesson, the teacher begins to speak about what he wants the students to learn. It seems logical. I know what I want you to learn so I will tell you what I want you to know, understand or be able to apply. THIS IS WRONG!!!!!

Don’t begin your lesson (following your opening activity) with a lecture. Don’t begin with a Power Point that is the equivalent to a lecture. You can make a few opening comments to introduce the lesson or give directions (two minutes at most). You can post a Power Point if it is to keep directions in front of the students as they work or if it is to highlight something students may need to reference, but DO NOT use a Power Point to replace a lecture. I have sat in the back of a room listening to a teacher try to transmit her information to a student and it doesn’t work. Students don’t pay attention because they can’t grasp the significance of what the teacher is saying. If the nature of the information is complex enough to justify teaching it then it is also difficult for anyone to understand before they have experiences engaging with the information. If students are able to grasp what the teacher is saying it is only to memorize information they can regurgitate on a test for a good grade, but we don’t understand information until and unless we engage with it.


What should an effective teacher do??

Begin your lesson with an activity that engages students with the information you want them to learn. Here are some examples:

  • Prioritize: If you are studying the Bill of Rights ask students (individually, in pairs or small groups) to put the ten amendments in the order of importance to them. They cannot possibly do this without thinking about and studying each of the amendments. If you lecture them on the Bill of Rights, how can you possibly know if they are thinking about what you are saying?
  • Jigsaw: Divide the lesson into four or five parts, create groups and give each group one of the parts of the lesson to study and then teach to the others.
  • Project: Give the students something to do that can only be accomplished by effective use of the information you want them to learn.

Sometimes the lecture (or Power Point) you are tempted to give at the start of the lesson will be much more effective toward the end because, at that time, students have enough knowledge about the information to understand what you are saying. In other words, your lecture can be a good form of review or can generate meaningful reflection. Since we often hear that teachers should become coaches (“Guides on the Side”) this is the way it can happen. A sports coach gives her lecture during or after a practice or a game when there are shared experiences to talk about and reflect upon. Teachers need to create shared experiences BEFORE they lecture so the lecture (like a coach’s chalk talk) can be in reference to something the students have done.

There is one more reason to begin a lesson (immediately after your launcher, bell ringer, ice breaker or anticipatory set) with active engagement with information instead of a lecture: if you launch your lesson effectively then students are beginning to think “Maybe this class will be different; maybe I will actually enjoy this.” When you follow a successful start to a lesson with a lecture it takes all the air out of the balloon. It causes you to lose the positive momentum that you created. It is like a play that grabs the audience at the start with an exciting opening scene and then loses the audience almost immediately when the next scene is a dud.

We call the opening five minutes of a lesson an exploratory activity. But whether you call it a bell ringer, launcher, anticipatory set, ice breaker or something else, don’t follow it with a lecture. ENGAGEMENT MUST PRECEDE EXPLANATION. It’s logical, it’s valuable and, most of all, it’s good pedagogy. Doesn’t a coach begin by throwing the players into a practice and then discussing with them what went well, what needs to be improved, and why????

Please know that your work in the field of education is as meaningful to our society as anything anyone can possibly do. Thank you for caring about the future of our children!!!!

Students teach tech to superintendents

Last month at AASA (the American Association of School Administrators annual conference) in Phoenix, Arizona, several GenYES students from nearby Paradise Valley School District were invited to participate in an Apple itouch/ipod workshop for the attending superintendents.

Apple ipod Conference AASA from Debbie Kovesdy on Vimeo.

GenYES students from elementary, middle and high school presented the devices, circulated through the audience as the superintendents learned about educational uses, and provided help throughout the workshop.

And when you watch this video, notice that these students care deeply that these adults grasp how important using technology is for them. The good news is, there are students like this in every school, just waiting for an opportunity to put their passion about digital communication to good use to improve learning.

These students are part of a district-wide vision in Paradise Valley that students are a crucial part of integrating technology into every classroom. GenYES classes teach students technology, mentoring, and leadership so they can assist teachers and fellow students with technology.

As you can see, Paradise Valley is a leader in student-centered technology. They were the first K12 institution in the world to make content, lessons, and student work available on ITunes U/K12. Their pTUNES portal is now available to schools and districts statewide through a partnership with Apple, Arizona IDEAL, and Arizona State University (ASU). For this innovation, pTUNES was awarded the 2009 Cox Technology in Education Award. More about PTUNES…

Oh, one more thing – the video was (of course) produced by the GenYES team at Shadow Mountain High School in Paradise Valley.

Congratulations to the students, teachers, and administrators at PVUSD!


Teach students that education can change the world

Ferreñafe, Peru

The XO laptop developed by the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization is an “education project, not a laptop project.” I think this would also make a great lesson for students in the developed world about how children live and learn in poor, developing countries.

The OLPC wiki has lots of field diaries, videos, and stories that would be very appropriate to share with students and start a conversation about education around the world. This isn’t a “isn’t it sad how poor they are” lesson, it’s a lesson about how much education means to people even when they seem to have so little. Start here.

Go the next step
OLPC does give you the opportunity to simply donate money, and if your students feel strongly about helping, they could plan a fundraiser. Schools could also get some of the XO computers for themselves in the current Give One Get One program, but there are some caveats I pointed out in this blog post, Should your school participate in the XO G1G1 program. If your students are gung-ho, though, do it!

Kick it up a notch
Many young people around the world have contributed directly to the OLPC effort whether they actually have an XO laptop or not. There are suggestions for participating on the OLPC wiki including offering to answer tech support emails, translating, hosting or participating in local events, developing applications, and more.

  • A student club can help develop new activities and participate in the XO community. People around the world are working on these open source activities, collaborating, and sharing. Teach students what it means to be a global citizen. Programming is NOT hard; it is well within the capability of many high school students and some middle school students. Even if you don’t have an XO, there are emulators that allow you to program for them.
  • Join or start a local XO support group. They already exist in New York, San Francisco and Washington DC.
  • Have a code jam. Perhaps a local Linux users group would help out.
  • Do a presentation or pass out flyers at a local community event. OLPC offers ready made templates for you.
  • Ask students what they would like to do to “change the world” for youth seeking an education in developing countries. Students need to understand that education is not a “zero sum” game, meaning that if other countries get better at educating poor children, we all benefit.

I’d love to hear about what youth have done to help support the OLPC effort!