Monthly Archives: August 2012

Some Assembly Required – Teaching in a Constructivist Context

This morning, my son Jem walked – arguably for the first time. By this I mean that he confidently took several steps in succession without our intervention. It won’t go down in his baby blog however, because it didn’t meet the exacting standards of ‘first steps’ that stipulate no supporting devices – he pushed his little block cart which provided enough resistance to allow him to walk.

Watching this reminded me that walking is not something we do by ourselves (and I owe a debt here to Andy Clark amongst others). When Jem walked this morning, it was actually an ‘assemblage’ that did the walking;

  • the particularly cute little boy
  • the shoes his grandmother gave him yesterday that have nice, large, flat soles
  • the cart with its handle at just the right height, and
  • the rough, uneven stones in the backyard. Only within the balance of this whole system could ‘walking’ occur.

This was emphasized when we came back inside and the kitchen floor was too smooth, allowing the cart to roll away from him. I took a screwdriver and tightened the wheels until they would not turn, and once again he was able to ‘walk’.

This broader perspective of walking is not only relevant to those of us learning to walk. We all believe we can walk, but how many of us can walk in ice skates, or on top of a moving train. It’s easy to forget that everything we do, we do as part of a larger assemblage of parts that include not only ‘ourselves’, but other objects and other people.

Taking this perspective raises questions about how we should teach. If we (as pure individuals) never do anything, except in association with other elements, how does this change what we should do ‘in the classroom’. Some of the answers are obvious – there are certain partial assemblages that are socially important, such as using a pen or pencil, and we spend time building those connections through rehearsal.

Beyond the purely physical, the idea of assemblage can be extended into social and academic spheres – and here we arrive at something very close to constructivism (which progressive educators since Dewey have been espousing). Our notion of the lone scholar, independent of any external resources, may be exactly what our ‘exam culture’ focuses on – but it is a completely unrealistic depiction of any reality!

The work we do in life – from physical to social to intellectual – is always done as part of an transitory assemblage of heterogenous parts. Just as important as building any ‘internal’ skills within the individual is nurturing our ability to engage and articulate with other people and things in order to create and maintain productive assemblages. This should be a focus for our teaching.

Two simple examples of this are optional resources and project based group work. The former involves setting tasks (often in mathematics) and providing various aids (from physical blocks to drawing apparatus to calculators, as is appropriate) that students are encouraged to access if they wish to. By placing the onus on the student (rather than dictating what tools must be used) students learn to create assemblages that are most suited to arriving at a solution.

The second example involves bringing together small groups (about four students in the case of primary aged students) for defined projects. By doing this repeatedly, students build their understanding of assemblages that include other people. They learn about the kind of people they work well with, and what types of productive output will be created by engaging with different people in different ways.

While these are only two very simple examples, they point to a type of fluid, student-focused classroom that spends less time putting knowledge into kids’ heads, and more time letting them discover, experience and learn from new ways of coming together with other students, tools, and bodies of knowledge. In this process of forming, maintaining and dissolving assemblages, they will be developing critical competencies for existing in our complex, heterogeneous and interdependent world.