Sunday, July 7, 2019

Constructivism and the Museum School Symposium Project

"Mr. Langel. I just sent an email to the principal asking permission to visit the liquor store on Division tomorrow to do an interview for our food access project."

A number of responses come immediately to my mind.
-Student! How many times do we have to remind you to show us the email and CC a teacher before you send?!
-Am I going to get in trouble for this?
-Hmm, isn't this the team that shared research about the YMCA "Healthy Corner Store Initiative"  in a meeting yesterday? Do they want to go to the liquor store and see if they know about the program or are interested? That's actually really compelling...
-Corner store. Not liquor store. Corner store. 
-I wonder if Dr. Hanks is going to say yes to this one. Wait, who am I kidding? With enough clarification in a follow up email the answer will obviously be yes. 

Questions and thought processes like these are a daily phenomena. It's one of the most mentally taxing yet exhilarating aspects of my job. My students "construct" their own learning, experiences, and ideas on a regular basis. They also tend to get themselves (and me) into trouble. Here are a few other student questions along with my first reaction.

"Mr. Langel. Who was that landscape engineering lady we worked with in the River for All project last year? Do you think she would be a guest speaker for our conference session?"
It's been awhile since we've asked a favor of that architect firm...

"Mr. Langel. I emailed our artifact coordinator. We found some really old drug education pamphlets in the archive we want to use for our decriminalization session."
What's next? Actual drug paraphernalia artifacts?
10 minutes later. Oh, dear. 

"Mr. Langel. My mom is mad at you. I got the crickets at the pet store last night and prototyped a recipe."
Inevitably, I will be forced to eat a cricket within the next week. Sigh. 

You get the idea.

Way back in teacher school, I remember the first time I ran into ideas from Vygotsky about constructing meaning through the social process of the learning. My professor was sitting informally on a desk, the rest of the class around in a semi circle, and we did jig saw presentations of some of the big thinkers and ideas in educational psychology. The constructivism notion didn't go away. The 5E inquiry science lesson format made sense in a constructivism frame work. Same with student centered learning. My PBL training for my first teaching job revisited the mindset. Graduate class? "A characteristic common to many approaches to constructivism is the role of authentic tasks and experiences. The experiences that children have in their communities are important contributors to their cognitive development." (O'Donnell, 2012).

The authentic tasks and experiences is a facet of constructivism we spend a lot of time designing at the Museum School. Like most things, fostering a constructivistic learning environment is easier said than done. I am extremely grateful for the opportunities I've had in my career to actually give it a shot. All of the student questions above were from an integrated project at school this past year. Our unifying project theme was power and we studied different facets through deep dives in history, current social issues, and biology/physiology.  Students then chose a specific topic to design a conference session for a public showcase event. Students invited guest speakers, ran simulations, curated museum artifacts, and led excursions to relevant sites downtown. They were the organizers, instigators, and doers of the conference.

My teacher team and I are very proud of the event and our student work, but we are far from having it all figured out. We joke that we are building the curriculum and project planes as we fly them and that metaphor is fitting. We want students to truly build their own understanding, make real connections to people and events and issues in our community, and that involves plenty of risk taking, trial and error, and learning by doing from us as teachers.

O'Donnell, A. (2012). Constructivism. In Constructivsm. Retrieved from'Donnell_Constructivism.pdf?_&d2lSessionVal=OM2xeE5J0cJ5JGcMnBW8HfnZ6&ou=820294

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