Explanation in Science Education from a Constructivist Perspective

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:01 pm

When a teacher explains a concept to a student… and, before I continue I should note that the people in those roles may not be in them formally. Parent explaining to child, foreman explaining to new employee, doctor explaining to patient. These ideas are relevant to a very wide range of human activities.

Explanations in science education are different from everyday explanations in a number of features, but that’s probably not something we need to go into in great detail here. We would avoid explanations such as that the contrails of jets are really ‘chemtrails’ of drugs to pacify the populace, not so much because they are not scientific (they aren’t) but because the best available evidence doesn’t support them. It’s an interesting question whether a fallacious ‘explanation’ is an explanation at all, but that might be another post for another time.

OK, digressions aside, I’ll start again: When a teacher explains a concept to a student, that process was historically considered to be what we educational theorists might call ‘transmissive’. The metaphor is like a radio or TV transmission, where the signal that is sent is the same as the signal that is received. The concept is moved intact from the teacher’s mind to that of the student.

There’s a fair bit of evidence, argument and experience to suggest that that’s not … I was about to say ‘what really happens’, but a better way to put it is ‘an effective way to think about it’.

Rather, we tend to have a ‘constructivist’ image of learning 1. In brief, this means that students construct their own knowledge based on their experiences. Those experiences include, but by no means are limited to, the explanations and other experiences offered by their teachers. These in-school experiences are joined with the life experience of the phenomena being discussed: riding bicycles for physics, observing living things – and being living things themselves – for biology and so on.

From a constructivist perspective, then, there is no such thing as the ‘perfect explanation’ of a scientific concept, as a thing unto itself. An explanation is part of the process of explaining (see a post from a couple of days ago on the distinction) that occurs between teacher and student. The explanation provides structured experiences which are the ‘building materials’ from which the student actively constructs understanding.

The importance of the dynamic interaction – and the relationship which forms its context – is that each student is building on different conceptual ‘foundations’. Each has a different set of experiences, and each has made different meanings of them. By listening, drawing on feedback, giving feedback and re-constructing the explanation, the teacher ensures that the explanation offers the best possible materials for that particular student to use in constructing an understanding of the specific scientific concept to be learned.

  1. There are definitely a number of older posts about constructivism on this blog if you’re interested. The Search box on the right side of the page (scroll down a bit) will enable you to find them.

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