Sociocultural Theory of Learning: The Constructivist Classroom

Submitted by Melinda Mathay

From Chapter 3:  Classic Theories of Learning and Cognition

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The sociocultural (or cultural-historical) theory of learning, developed by the Russian intellectual Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896-1934), emphasizes social interaction, historical context, and culture as primary forces in cognitive development.  The most basic premise of this theory is that all cognitive growth in children results from interactions with parents, teachers, and peers within cultural contexts, and the theory continues to impact practices in education at the classroom level today (Bergin & Bergin, 2012).

Imbedded in the tenants of sociocultural theory is the assertion, similar to Piaget’s constructivism, that knowledge is not poured in, but rather built, and children are viewed as active participants in constructing or co-constructing their own knowledge through social interaction, giving rise to the term social constructivism (Bergin & Bergin, 2012).  Adherents of social constructivism then create the constructivist classroom, wherein teaching includes three socially based interactions: scaffolding, reciprocal teaching, and classroom discussion.

Scaffolding involves a mentor, teacher, or text (or, increasingly, computer) assisting a novice or student in mastering new skills and can be indirect, through hints or guiding questions, or direct, by offering sequential or supervised instruction (Bergin & Bergin, 2002; Fisher & Frey, 2007).   This breaking down of skills into smaller units for guidance to a higher level of performance can occur not only cognitively, but also in the social, emotional, or physical realms (Bergin & Bergin, 2012), and is commonly used, as it offers the opportunity for incremental measures of progress and feedback (Fisher & Frey, 2007).

Reciprocal teaching is an application of social constructivism in the classroom in which the student adopts the role of ‘teacher’ in a small group setting, through guided questions (scaffolding) on the part of an expert or teacher (Bergin & Bergin, 2012).   As the student-teacher gains competency, the expert, mindful of student language deficits or shyness, provides feedback, with the eventual goal of leaving the small group members to ‘scaffold’ one another.  Research suggest some efficacy to careful application of this social constructivist method, which is used most often in reading instruction (literature circles, for example), but can be applied to any content area in which a student-teacher can summarize, question, clarify, or predict (Bergin & Bergin, 2012).  However, staunch proponents of traditional teacher-directed instruction, such as E. D. Hirsch, Jr., who believe that children should be taught highly specific curricula to build foundational knowledge, caution that student-led exploration requires astute and proficient teacher supervision, or it is, at best, less effective (Hirsch, 1999).

Classroom discussion creates an environment in which students “think aloud”, allowing co-construction of understanding in their zones of proximal development (the distance between what students can do independently and what requires assistance) and achievement of greater understanding.  When deep discussion occurs, it affords students the opportunity to agree, disagree, and mutually critique reasoning, capitalizing on the social nature of learning (Bergin & Bergin, 2012).  Unfortunately, whole-class discussion can also create an environment of vulnerability (especially for the introvert or those with poor language skills), requiring vigilance on the part of the teacher in order to promote civility during discussion without squelching discourse (Bergin & Bergin, 2012).  One effective discussion method, aligning with the philosophies of both Piaget and Vygotsky, that acknowledges the highly social nature of learning and reduces the potential for teasing, ridicule, and vulnerability is Socratic Seminar (Holden, 2002).  Named for Socrates’ philosophy of inquiry, these seminars prize discussion over debate and questioning over recitation of information (Holden, 2002; Socratic Seminar, 2013).  However, the effectiveness of these seminars in a constructivist classroom lies in the requisite establishment of ground rules for equal participation, justification of thinking, and respectful turn taking; a clear definition of the teacher role as neutral; and a ‘recap’ or assessment of the effectiveness of the discussion.  When conducted correctly, students as young as second grade can learn to listen closely to the comments of others, think critically, question intelligently and civilly, and work cooperatively (Holden, 2002).

Ultimately, the constructivist classroom, which capitalizes on the nature of social learning and utilizes scaffolding, reciprocal teaching, and classroom discussion, can be, when conducted conscientiously by educators, an effective learning environment (Bergin & Bergin, 2002).

References:

 

  • Bergin, C. C., & Bergin, D.A. (2013).  Child and adolescent development in your classroom.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.
  • Fisher, D.,  & Frey, N. (2007).  Scaffolded writing instruction: teaching with a gradual release framework.  New York, NY: Scholastic, Inc.
  • Hirsch, E.C., Jr., (1999).  The schools we need and why we don’t have them. New York, NY: Anchor Books.
  • Holden, J. (2002).  Socratic seminars and inquiry teaching – an overview. Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions in the English Classroom. 471 390, 1-9.
  • Socratic Seminar.  2013. Northwest Association for Biomedical Research.  Retrieved from NWABR.org.  https://www.nwabr.org/sites/default/files/soc.sem.pdf

Discussion Questions:

 

  1. Can you identify potential limitations of implementing the principles of the constructivist classroom model for your age group or subject area, and how would you attenuate these?
  2. In your own practice, how have you utilized reciprocal teaching, allowing students to take the lead in their learning, and what measures have you taken to supervise or monitor students’ exploration of ideas?
  3. What is one example of how you have used scaffolding to elicit a desirable emotional, social, or physical outcome from your students?
  4. What are some ways that you ensure respectful turn taking, justification of thinking, and equal participation when utilizing classroom discussion as a means of constructivist instruction?
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8 Responses to Sociocultural Theory of Learning: The Constructivist Classroom

  1. Brooke says:

    Can you identify potential limitations of implementing the principles of the constructivist classroom model for your age group or subject area, and how would you attenuate these?

    While I think I identify mostly with the constructivist school of thought, I sometimes feel limited by time and resources at my school. A constructivist view of learning states that students that students should be directing their own learning and they should be given the time and resources to explore, collaborate and construct their own meaning. While I agree with these ideas, it is sometimes difficult to implement when you are teaching Reading and Language Arts in on single 60 minute block per day. I feel like students need uninterrupted time to gather their thoughts and really work with the information that is being presented. I also lack consistent computer/internet access for my students as well, which limits some ways to gather information.

    In your own practice, how have you utilized reciprocal teaching, allowing students to take the lead in their learning, and what measures have you taken to supervise or monitor students’ exploration of ideas?

    Second semester I implement student-led literature circles where the students choose their groups, books and the way they work. I usually find that by doing this later in the year, I have already had some time to outline and model my expectations. I monitor these groups by constantly being present. Walking around and keeping proximity to groups as they work together usually cuts out any goofy problems that may arise.

  2. anonymous50 says:

    Sixty minutes per day for both reading and lang arts IS challenging! Do you find that you sometimes have to make a choice between content areas or have to sacrifice depth for exposure? If so, how do you prioritize? I have been fortunate in some positions to have double-blocks and find that even twice a week makes a perceivable difference. Without the extended time, it can feel like I’m rushing the students and always teaching in ‘catch-up’ mode.

  3. Katie Williams says:

    Can you identify potential limitations of implementing the principles of the constructivist classroom model for your age group or subject area, and how would you attenuate these?

    In many ways I see myself as a constructivist teacher. I think the CCSS requires teachers to step back and let students shape their own learning. One of the biggest limitations I have seen is lack of time to truly create a constructivist classroom. Our schedules are so full it that there is little time in the day to fit everything in.
    Another potential limitation is the maturity and ability to monitor individual learning. Students can seem on task but after further observation, they can be going through the activity, never internalizing the information. Likewise, some students are unable to focus on a given task long enough to monitor their own learning. This is where I think teachers need professional development on helping students construct their own learning.

  4. Janet says:

    3.What is one example of how you have used scaffolding to elicit a desirable emotional, social, or physical outcome from your students?

    As a special educator, I use scaffolding on a daily basis. I am always breaking down tasks into smaller steps and using various strategies to assist the student in accomplishing each step toward the target goal. If a student is unable to complete a task independently, we will conduct a task analysis to identify all steps in the process. For example, I might have a student that is unable to order independently at a fast food restaurant. We will start out by watching a video of someone ordering and I will model how to order in the classroom. Then we will roleplay in the classroom setting using real money, cue cards and visual aids. (At first, we may have to use physical (hand over hand) prompting, but will fade the use of prompts as the student accomplishes each step independently.) I will “think aloud” by discussing or explaining each step of the process. We will then take the student to a fast food restaurant in the community, so they can practice generalizing their skills. It has been very effective to use the scaffolding technique when teaching new tasks with multiple steps.

  5. Andrea says:

    3. What is one example of how you have used scaffolding to elicit a desirable emotional, social, or physical outcome from your students?

    The role of the teacher in today’s classrooms is multifaceted. Scaffolding can be applied in a variety of situations. I use scaffolding when teaching a new or more in depth skill. My students are currently working on their graphing skills. The students have come into the 7th grade with a good working knowledge of how to construct a bar graph, but unfortunately they struggle with line graphs and how to set up the x axis. I told my students the goal is that at the end of the year they should be able to use a data table and construct a line graph with all of the required pieces and parts with no assistance. This week they were assessed on graphing. I placed on a the board a very generic graph that showed where the independent and dependent variables should be placed on the graph. Most students utilized the information on the board and made very few mistakes when constructing the graph. I have identified the struggling students and have worked time into the class to reteach the skills necessary for graphing. They will be expected to graph on their next assessment, but will have less guidance. Scaffolding is a technique that I use on a daily basis and has proven to be successful.

    I also use scaffolding when working with students that have behavioral issues. There is a student in one of my classes who constantly blurts and makes noises. After have several discussions with him about the distracting behavior, we have come up with a plan to slowly lower the number of outbursts in the classroom. The first week he is allowed six outbursts/blurts per class period. The second week he will be allowed three. The third week he will be allowed two. He came up with his own consequences if he doesn’t reach his goals. We discussed that people are not perfect and that 1-2 outbursts/blurts per class would be acceptable.

  6. Drew Ibendahl says:

    What are some ways that you ensure respectful turn taking, justification of thinking, and equal participation when utilizing classroom discussion as a means of constructivist instruction?

    As with all classroom procedures and routines, students must be allowed the opportunity to practice constructivist instruction. The teacher must serve as a model through this practice and students need to see examples and non examples of respectful turn taking, justification of thinking, and equal participation. Because many students may come into the classroom without these skills (previous teachers may not use this type of instruction or use it consistently), they need time to learn, just as they would any new content material or procedures. Essentially, as educators, we are not only teaching our students content, but helping them learn how to learn. As educators, we know we should always allow that wait time when asking questions, and ask questions that require students to think deeper, justify their thinking, and build upon the knowledge and thinking of classmates. However, in my classroom, as I know it is in many classrooms, this if often easier said than done. I know I tend to move quickly in my classroom, often asking those simple questions to quickly check for understanding, and move on like my students are in a factory assembly line. If we as educators expect our students to become deeper in their thinking, respectful of their thoughts and the thoughts of others, and confident in themselves, we must allow them opportunities to practice this throughout the entire day. I know as a teacher, I am guilty of hindering my students in this area and I need to make myself and my classroom instruction slow down and allow for constructivist instruction.

  7. Autumn says:

    1.Can you identify potential limitations of implementing the principles of the constructivist classroom model for your age group or subject area, and how would you attenuate these?

    One of the limitations that I often encounter with regard to the constructivist model is the effectiveness of classroom discussions, or more specifically how to inject life into classroom discussions. Although I love the idea of Socratic Seminars, I have never been completely satisfied with the results. I believe that the single biggest obstacle that impedes our progression as a class is the vast range of ability that exists within our group. Though I teach fourth grade, I currently have students who are performing at first grade levels juxtaposed with children who are comfortable with advanced sixth grade concepts (along with everything in between). When I attempt to initiate high caliber discussions, I begin with a general question directed to all of the students, which starts off strong, but usually culminates in a four person conversation among my highest achievers. I try to generate interest with my lower performing students and elicit their opinions, but they become bored very quickly. It is not my desire to water down these topics, or to curtail the meaningful exchanges among my most enthusiastic participants (which are truly fascinating), so it becomes difficult to know how to proceed. It is truly a shame because I strongly feel that these discussions are immensely valuable in unlocking student potential, developing ideas and helping the children adopt a panoptic view of critical issues, but absent a common level of ability, this can prove to be quite a challenge.

    In order to make this a more meaningful experience for everyone, I am considering homogeneously grouping the students (by ability), then posing different questions to each group in accordance with their demonstrated academic skill level. I am hoping that this will help obviate the risk of students becoming lost or disinterested in the topics. I will let you know how it goes…:)

  8. anonymous50 says:

    I have found that homogenous grouping definitely enhances discussion and mitigates, to a degree, the ‘intimidation factor’ for students who are hesitant to voice opinions or ideas in front of peers they consider ‘smarter’ than themselves.

    Also, when conducting Socratic Seminars, we adhere to several ‘rules of order’, if you will, about talking over others, etc. But, the most helpful technique I’ve found to encourage turn taking and participation by all students in these group discussions is one I borrowed from one of my daughter’s teachers. Each seminar begins with a point value of ‘X’ number of points. In order to earn those points, everyone must contribute. To ensure this, I hand out paper-clips to each student (2-3, depending on the type of discussion and length of time allotted). Each time a student contributes, he/she must give up a paperclip. Once one has used all of his/her paperclips, he/she may not contribute again until EVERYONE has used up their paperclips (except to invite comment from the quieter students, with a “So, Jenny, what do you think?”, or something like that). Once all of the paperclips are gone, then anyone can contribute, and by then there is usually enough of an ebb and flow that everyone does. When I have a seminar about once a month or each six-week period, by the second semester, the paperclips are no longer necessary — the students discuss equally on their own.

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