Teachers teach for the “aha” moment. That’s the real payment for teaching. When that student lights up with understanding and says “I get it!” There isn’t much better than that. It is in that moment when the student finally figures out something he or she has been struggling with, but it is more than that. They went from renting a piece of information by memorizing the teacher’s way of understanding it to owning it by constructing, or reconstructing, what it means to fit their understanding of the world around them. “Aha” moments can happen at any time in teaching.
There is a lot of research and talk about “constructivism” in education in the last 20 years. It’s a philosophy. It’s a teaching methodology. It’s a technique. It involves hands-on learning. It involves inquiry. Recently I was talking with my science methods students about the history of “inquiry” and constructivism in science education. They are often intertwined and seen as synonymous.
Here’s the history of inquiry science teaching in a paragraph. In the early 20th century John Dewey criticized science education for an emphasis teaching an accumulation of facts and recommended an increased emphasis on the process of doing science in the classroom. In the mid-20th century Joseph Schwab criticized science texts for science as empirical, literal, and as irrevocable truths. This was during the time of increased understanding of science at the micro level: the atom, the cell, DNA, etc. He wanted science curriculum to reinforce the tentative nature of science and for teachers to again deemphasize accumulated facts and emphasize giving students’ open-ended questions to explore allowing them to inquire about those scientific concepts in a scientific manner. In the 1960s James Rutherford makes the same criticism. Then the AAAS presents Project 2061 that recommends teaching science through investigation and inquiry. National Science Education Standards make the same recommendation in 1996. And again in 2000. We agreed as a class that there seems to be a trend.
The notion of constructivism and inquiry learning is strongest science education. I told my students it is because science educators are the smartest people in the room. They laughed. I’m often the science educator in the room and know I’m usually not the smartest in the room, so their laughter was well timed. However, there is good reason constructivism and inquiry teaching is most prevalent in science classrooms. Science is about asking questions, inquiring, and then constructing new understanding based on those observations. That’s how humans learn. That is why the thinkers of the past (Bacon, Descartes, Hume) developed the “scientific method.” This method can be applied to any subject area, not just science.
Science education is making a shift from teachers telling students about the science others have learned to providing means for students to discover those accumulated facts. But it still doesn’t come out as constructivism. Out of these efforts of the last 80 – 100 years in science education there has been more emphasis on “hands-on” learning instead of inquiry or constructivism. Hands-on is good, but it often looks like this. The teacher tells the student what someone else has discovered. Then, sends them into the lab to see that phenomenon in action. Then, again tells them that they should have seen what someone else has already discovered. It isn’t constructivism because many students are still memorizing someone else’s definition of that term or concept. More students do have that aha moment in these scenarios than in the past, so we have made improvements. However, providing a means for a student to ask questions, then explore them and make observations, and then match that to what they previously thought and to what other scientists have already found is more in line with inquiry, the scientific method, and how the brain constructs knowledge to have that “aha” moment.
As I was presenting this, I admit in a very traditional didactic manner by the way, one of my students got a rather irritated look on his face. If people have been saying this for almost 100 years, then how come most of my classes in high school and college don’t do this? Busted. Well…
Then I had my “aha” moment. Here was my answer. It wasn’t until graduate school that I had a course taught in a constructivist, inquiry manner. And it wasn’t until I experienced it as a student that I began to figure out how to shift my teaching to provide students the most opportunities to construct meaning and have those “aha” moments. I’m still working on it and have miles to go. No matter what we are told, we often teach the way we were taught. Shifting to teaching in a way that removes the teacher from telling answers to facilitating discovery of those answers is something most teachers have not experienced is a tall order. But it doesn’t have to be wholesale change all at once for the teacher. Here’s the question to ask about each lesson. In what way am I providing for my students to do something to have that “aha” moment?
“So, I’m teaching you how to teach this way” I said to him, “so you can teach someone else in this same way.”
“Then we will have to change it one kid at a time when we are teachers” said another in the class.