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!!!!

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