Both educators and scientists routinely use technical
jargon which causes mutual frustration and poor
communication. Three often-used (and misused) education
terms, constructivist, inquiry, and assessment
are defined below. Hopefully, this primer will help you
understand "educationese" a little better.
"Constructivist learning...is grounded in four
principles. First, learning is a process of students
constructing their own meaning. Second, learning depends
upon the preconceptions students bring to a subject,
i.e., meaning they have already constructed at a prior
time. Third, learning is dependent upon the context in
which the concepts are encountered. Fourth, meaning is
socially constructed; understanding develops through
interaction between student and teacher and between the
student and other students."
"Instruction that fosters authentic student
learning can take many forms, but whatever its form it
helps students (1) connect the new understanding with
prior knowledge, (2) check for inconsistencies with this
prior knowledge, (3) alter understandings as needed, and
(4) test new understandings in yet additional contexts.
It is an activity for which students must take
responsibility; the teacher is there in the role of coach
to help the students in this endeavor." This
second definition is from Local Leadership For Science
Education Reform, p. 86. See #3 below.
"Inquiry is a set of interrelated processes by
which scientists and students pose questions about the
natural world and investigate phenomena; in doing so,
students acquire knowledge and develop a rich
understanding of concepts, principles, models, and
theories. Inquiry is a critical component of a science
program at all grade levels and in every domain of
science, and designers of curricula and programs must be
sure that the approach to content, as well as the
teaching and assessment strategies, reflect the
acquisition of scientific understanding through inquiry.
Students then will learn science in a way that reflects
how science actually works." part of Program
Standard B National Science Education Standards 1996 .
See also Science As Inquiry in the National Science
Education Content Standards for grades K
- 4 , 5
- 8 , and 9
- 12 .
Simply put, assessment may be a synonym for a
"test", or more generally as the process of
determining what students have learned. In learning about
assessment in science education you will come across many
forms of assessment, so several terms are briefly defined
here. Authentic assessment refers to a
"test" that asks students to apply their
knowledge and skills to a real (authentic) task. When
such an assessment is imbedded it means that the
authentic task is part of ongoing instruction. Students
engaged in an imbedded assessment would appear to
be doing an instructional activity, but the teacher would
use the process and/or product to evaluate each student's
understanding and plan further instruction.
Students are not the only targets of assessment,
science programs are also assessed. In this case assessment
may be synonymous with "program evaluation". Formative
assessments generally refer to feedback used to
improve a program in progress. Summative assessments
refer to a process at a final point when results are
measured against goals.
In assessing both students and programs, a "pre-assessment"
is a test, interview, or set of data that measures where
participants are before instruction or participation.
Conversely a "post-assessment" is a
congruent measurement after instruction or program
Alternative assessment usually refers to
methods of testing other than giving a traditional paper
and pencil test. These alternatives include analysis of a
portfolio of student work, design tasks or
demonstrations, participation in events similar to
scientific poster sessions, or oral presentations.
For more information about assessment
in science education see the National Science
Education Standards, Chapter 5.
- Scientists and engineers recommend this book about
"student-centered" teaching and learning: In
Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist
Classrooms (Brooks & Brooks 1993), available from
the Association for Supervision
and Curriculum Development. From the book cover:
"The activities that transpire within the classroom
either help or hinder students' learning. Any meaningful
discussion of educational reform, therefore, must focus
explicitly and directly on the classroom and on the
teaching and learning that occurs within it. This book
presents a case for the development of classrooms in
which students are encouraged to construct deep
understandings of important concepts."
- RISE published an issue of The
Catalyst newsletter on "What Does Research
Say about The Learner?" . This issue contains an
excerpt on cognitive development written by Larry Lowery,
a renowned speaker and writer on science learning and
teaching, and professor of education at the University of
- Written for school district leaders, Local
Leadership For Science Education Reform by Ronald
Anderson and Harold Pratt (Kendall Hunt, 1995), can give
scientists and engineers 'inside' information about the
scope of responsibilities of local science supervisors.
The contents include valuable strategies about developing
goals for improvement, implementation and maintenance of
an innovative program, developing leadership, and an
illuminating section on barriers and pitfalls.
- A Private Universe videotapes and
professional development materials include a now classic
example of constructivist learning. The original video in
this series begins with tape of Harvard graduates--at
graduation--explaining why summer weather is warmer than
winter or the cause of the moon's phases. The
explanations, usually erroneous, illustrate the
surprisingly common fact that even though students are
"taught" a concept, they didn't necessarily
Later, a bright young lady about 14 years old
demonstrates that although she "knows" how the
earth orbits the sun, her understanding is scientifically
incorrect. More disconcerting, however, is how direct
teaching of the scientific model results in a hybrid
idea--still scientifically incorrect. It is a fascinating
glimpse of conceptual development, which when applied to
classroom practices reminds us not to assume that
students arrive with "no" ideas about how the
natural world works.
A Private Universe is often used in community
presentations to illustrate the need for new methods of
science teaching. These materials are available through
purchase or off-the-air taping. Access the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting / Annenberg Math and Science
Project website for more details.
- See "How Children Learn" (Chapter 2) in Science
for All Children, published by the
National Science Resources Center for a discussion
focusing on elementary students. The full text of
this book is available on line.
- Scientists and engineers curious about measuring
student achievement in science have found the following
book helpful: "Active Assessment for Active
Science raises questions about what
education is all about. It does this by looking honestly
and broadly at the many ways that children can let us
know what they are learning. Here are children seriously
engaged in trying to understand how the material world
functions in all of its diversity. How can a teacher
appreciate their efforts and accomplishment, in order to
decide how to take their learning further?" from the
foreword by Eleanor Duckworth. Information about
obtaining this book by Hein and Price (1994) is available