Monday, February 18, 2013

Kids Constructing Knowledge

In my experiences I've run into a lot of teachers who fear or disagree with giving kids the opportunity to  construct their own knowledge. I think there are a lot of causes for this:

  • High stakes tests put the pressure on teachers to make sure kids know stuff, and some teachers (and administrators) think that the best way to make sure kids know this stuff is to tell it to them and then give them a test.
  • Some teachers believe that those who allow students opportunities to construct knowledge are lazy. The kids are doing the work and teachers aren't doing anything. 
  • What they've always done has "worked" so some teachers don't see a need or reason to change.
  • Allowing kids to construct knowledge is different from what some teachers have done so they don't know how to plan for it or aren't really interested in changing all of their plans.
  • There are some teachers who want to try it but just don't know where to start. They are afraid the lesson will flop, and who really has time for lessons to flop (see bullet number one) so they think about trying it another day.
  • In some teachers' eyes there are some groups of kids who just aren't smart enough to figure things out on their own. They can't do it so you just need to tell them over and over and over again. These poor kids, bless their souls, still won't get it, but at least you can say you taught it.

I've heard that last bullet discussed in regards to my class frequently this year, and yet during this past week my kids, along with their teammates from across the hall, constructed their own knowledge about pollution. And to my delight and theirs, we did a pretty great job.

I guess what I want to tell you if you're unsure about giving your students the opportunity to construct their own knowledge, you should go for it. But HOW?

First, you need to think about your class and the culture or community that you have established. If your students are not used to working in groups to complete collaborative projects you'll definitely want to take some time to work on the characteristics of successful teams. You may feel like you don't have enough time to do team building or to teach your kids how to work in groups, but really can you afford not to? This is a critical skill our kids will need to be successful as they grow up so I don't think any age is too young to start working together to successfully complete a task.

Once your kids have begun to develop their collaborative skills, you need to decide which unit or lesson to change. Take a look at what you're teaching or what's coming up and see which subject may be a good fit for you. I tend to go for the content areas of science and social studies because I can provide the kids the background instruction in reading, writing, and speaking during our language arts time, and then allow them the opportunity to use those skills and strategies during the content areas. 

Next, think about how you'll activate the prior knowledge the kids already have or help them build a little background knowledge if it's a completely new topic. I love things like Brainpop or BrainpopJr, Safari Montage and Discovery Streaming for videos and movies, but YouTube or TeacherTube may have the resources you need if you don't have subscriptions to the first three. Perhaps a Skype session with an expert or a visit from a parent with a job in the field might be a good fit. Or maybe a quick walk around your school, like we did, will be just what you need to get your kids thinking. Whatever method you use, helping the kids think about or develop a knowledge base is an important key to them moving forward to construct their own ideas about the topic.

Despite what some people think, constructing knowledge is not all about the teacher sitting at their desk or a table while the kids just have a free-for-all. In the science activity my class did, we did whole group discussions and the three of us answered questions for the kids before they moved on to their group work. And while the groups were working, we all walked around asking the kids, "Why?" "Why do you think that?" "Do you have any proof of that?" "Does that make sense?" "What made you say that?" This is the hard part because we didn't do any correcting, we hopefully just asked good questions that would help the students further their discussions and refine their thinking.

Finally, after all the collaborating, you need to give the kids the chance to present their ideas, defend their ideas, and construct a common knowledge base from all that the different groups have created. This may sound like a lot, but honestly, the science lesson you read about took a total of 45 minutes. And that included kids getting coats out of their lockers to go out for our walk. So it didn't take a ton of time, and it didn't require additional planning on my part. What it did require was the restraint to allow the kids to make mistakes, get into some disagreements, and figure things out on their own.

Allowing kids to construct their own knowledge about their learning can be scary for many reasons. But when you really look closely at it, it's not hard to do. And whether its outcome is your desired outcome or not, your students will have had the opportunity to work on developing a variety of important skills.

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