Thursday’s (Constructivism) Tip: Flip it!

Teacher and students in classroom, circa 1990s
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When I started working with eMINTS, I struggled to convey to my teachers what a constructivist lesson might look like. It’s one thing to plan one or use a tried and true method, but it’s another thing to give a simple and concise example to demonstrate something as complex as constructivism. Luckily, I have coworkers who figure out these sort of quandaries.

Fellow eIS Angie Esser was working on getting the teachers in her training cohort to plan and implement constructivist lessons. One teacher was excited to show Angie what she had created. The teacher was teaching her students about figures of speech, like metaphors or similes. She gave the class the definition of the figure of speech and had the students highlight all the figures of speech in pre-selected poems.

How was this constructivist? (Hint: It wasn’t.)

Angie made a suggestion to flip the lesson. In other words, the teacher could give the students a poem or passage that utilized a particular figure of speech. The students would be guided to look for techniques the author or poet used to describe the subject. After the students find the figures of speech and even define what they found, the teacher would help name what they discovered.

The basic idea in this example is to show the students examples of what they will be studying or defining. Allow the identify the desired characteristics. Defining these characteristics is how they construct their own knowledge on the topic. Students will grasp onto their own explanations of phenomena more so than whatever definitions we provide for them.

The teacher guides this lesson in a few important ways. First, she provides examples that clearly demonstrate the concept. This could be in excerpts, experiments, or various media that exhibit the point the teacher is trying to get across to her students. This process of constructing knowledge falls apart if the example or examples are not of high quality.

Second, the teacher asks questions about the example that guide the students to making the desired discoveries without leading them. Open-ended questions work best such as “What do you notice about this poem?”, “What did you observe when you added the vinegar to the baking soda?”, or ” What do you predict will happen to the slope of the line when we increase the first number in the equation?”

Third, after students make their observations and define what they’ve discovered, the teacher can name it for them or provide the “official” definition. This is the moment when students will connect what they have learned to the content. Knowledge has been constructed in order to give them a way to anchor the content with their own experiences.

This strategy works best when working with the vocabulary necessary to understand a subject area’s content. There are ways in which one could set up experiences for students to discover processes, but this might require a different amount of teacher guidance. Either way, the idea of flipping one’s lessons from content first to student constructed meaning first is the overall goal.

What other ways could you see this strategy working in your classroom? How could you flip a lesson in another subject area or topic? What would be the challenge of using this strategy for other subjects or topics?

Zac Early trains teachers to utilize technology in an inquiry-based environment for an organization that provides enhanced instructional techniques and networking among a community of teachers primarily in the state of Missouri. How would you define his title?