Constructivist theory and science teaching

Research in cognition has shown that children develop intuitive science concepts before they begin formal education. Many of the concepts children develop on their own are not in accord with accepted scientific theory. These intuitively developed ideas can interfere with formal instruction in school. Walter L. Saunders, Utah State University, reports that considerable research evidence indicates that concepts developed prior to formal science instruction can be highly resistant to change.

Simply being told the “correct” idea is usually not enough to get students to change their thinking, nor are lectures or textbooks likely to be successful. According to Saunders, classroom experiences that enable students to modify these intuitive concepts must be created. The recommendations Saunders makes are based on his belief in “constructivist” theory, which holds that teachers cannot simply give students understanding, students must actively construct their own meaning from the information they receive.

Helping students modify misconceptions

Saunders believes that teachers can help students adopt scientifically correct concepts by creating sensory experiences that challenge their pre-existing ideas. Hands-on, investigative labs can provide students experience with empirical evidence that challenges their intuitive ideas. Saunders warns, however, that even when students are confronted with conflicting empirical evidence, they can choose to ignore this new information and retain their misconceptions.

“Cookbook” type experiments in which each step is laid out for the students, demand only that they follow the directions and will not necessarily help students bring their ideas into line with accepted scientific theory. For conceptual changes to occur, students must be engaged in making predictions, thinking out loud, developing alternative explanations, and interpreting data. Working in small groups stimulates such cognitive activity, allowing students to develop hypotheses, argue together and develop further experiments to test alternative hypotheses. Teachers can further contribute to this process by designing quiz and test questions that demand explanations, interpretations, and conclusions.

“The Constructivist Perspective: Implications and Teaching Strategies for Science” School Science and Mathematics, March 1992, Volume 92, Number 3, pp. 136-141.

Published in ERN May/June 1992 Volume 5 Number 3

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