What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven.
– from “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros
As I sat at a conference recently…
I realized that I was eleven, but I’m also ten, nine, and eight. I am eleven–in this case, a constructivist. I believe that learners learn best when they build their own models for learning. But I am also about direct instruction, in moderation, when necessary. There are situations when it’s important for the instructor to model for a student how they can go about thinking about a subject. This is the conversation that Sandra Cisneros’ character Rachel has with her audience on her birthday in the story “Eleven.” It is, for me, the perfect metaphor for my constructivist beliefs.
I believe that students construct lasting knowledge by immersing themselves in learning and creating diverse ways of exploring a subject or topic. I also believe that there may still be some circumstances where direct instruction (in moderation) is necessary. Over the last month, I have listened to explanations of the positives and negatives of inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, gradual release, and direct instruction. As I have listened to hard-liners on all sides discuss the pros and cons, I heard Rachel’s voice saying, “I’m constructivist today. What they don’t understand about teaching and learning and what they never tell you is that when you’re constructivist, you’re also inquiry-based, and project-based, and gradual release, and direct instruction…”
Jeff C. Marshall (2013) states that “…inquiry-based learning involves learners asking questions about the natural or material world, collecting data to answer those questions, making discoveries and testing those discoveries rigorously” (de Jong 2006a p.532). The National Science Foundation (2008) defines inquiry as “an approach to learning that involves a process of exploring the natural or material world, and that leads to asking questions, making discoveries, and rigorously testing those discoveries in the search for new understanding” (20). I propose that these definitions do not exclude the use of multiple strategies to get students to think and create independently. There isn’t a “one size fits all” strategy for making and doing.
Why is there a need to exist singularly in one of these spaces? Sometimes, as the instructor, I demonstrate how I have learned; other times I ask for students to discuss their own strategies for being metacognitive. Sometimes I do both things–whichever it takes to allow students to understand how they should think about their own thinking.
Is my love of inquiry-based instruction always in conflict with direct instruction? Is it true that if there is a place for the gradual release model, then I must, by definition, not be in favor of inquiry-based learning? There are teaching situations that call for using the gradual release model (I do/demonstrate, we do the work together, you demonstrate the knowledge with scaffolding if needed, and then, you do it alone). As the student goes off to try the work on her own, the environment must be safe for mistakes, growing, and demonstrating learning in some new way that the student has or will discover. I am back to being eleven and constructivist.
Flexibility and the use of effective instructional strategies appropriate for a specific learning situation and student should be applied for the benefit of advancing learning for that student. Up underneath eleven, I am ten, and nine, and eight……
Marcia Bonds is a 6th Grade Math and English Language Arts Teacher at Key School in the Oak Park School District. She has been teaching for 17 years. Marcia is a member of the Core Leadership Team of the Oakland Writing Project and was a co-facilitator of the 2014 Oakland Writing Project Summer Institute. She has facilitated professional development on inquiry-based learning for the Oak Park School District.