Blogging the string in the labyrinth of Crete

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Constructivism, Holism, and teaching

For some people, thinking in linear logical sequences is natural. They can traipse unerringly along a trail of reason, easily dissociating irrational or extraneous cues on their path to a goal. These people may also be blessed with terrific abstract spatial or mechanical abilities, be able to wield abstract concepts effectively, and have great memory for details. We might say these people are reductionistic thinkers. Superboy is like this.

CharmerBoy, my second son, is not blessed with any of these abilities (sleeping on the beach in the pic; kids often seem orthogonally opposed, don't they?). For a long time, my wife thought he was "kind of stupid". At four, he still only really speaks one language, and barely knows the 56-character Japanese alphabet. It's often difficult for him to follow sequential instructions, even though he is quiet earnest in attempting to do so. Math is beyond him. However, he understands people and emotions. I've seen him cheerfully lead children in playground activities and reduce children to sobbing in arguments while knowing virtually no English, understanding them without understanding their words. He can nearly instantly separate similar and dissimilar images without focusing on details. Somehow he seems to intuitively discern certain relationships far more quickly than Superboy, like the connection between the tv remote and the tv. He loves the rain, putting his face in the snow, and pretending to be different types of animals. CharmerBoy is a holistic thinker.

Swimming is a holistic activity, particularly when compared to the land-based analog, walking. Swimming depends on harmony between the body and the water. Walking is a reductionistic, largely nonintegrated activity -- when walking, one can twist their upper body, twirl their arms, or even engage in complex tasks such as writing or playing a musical instrument with virtually no effect on walking. These activities done while swimming would greatly alter the ability to swim, potentially dangerously. Even how deeply or evenly one breathes has an effect on buoyancy and the ability to swim. Walking is done along two-dimensional planes, while swimming is in three-dimensional space. Swimming leaves trails of ripples emanating outwards, while walking often leaves no sign of passage. Further, many people enjoy swimming as a leisure activity and find it improves their bodies.

The constructivist argument regarding whole language is that because language is a holistic activity, it should be taught contextually and holistically, with the focus on the learner constructing their own meaning. They argue that this produces the best learning.

A child's constructivist swimming lesson would be easy enough to devise. First, you would give a demonstration, either swimming yourself or showing videos of swimming. This would probably include various strokes with clear visual features, such as the butterfly stroke, the crawl, or the backstroke. You could then put the children into the deep end of the pool -- oh, wait, it should be an authentic environment, like a lake or the ocean -- and call out tips to them for staying afloat. Of course, you wouldn't necessarily anticipate all the children would be successful right away, so you'd continue to do this day after day. During this, you would try to stress how much fun it is being in the water.

Teaching them skills separately in a reductionistic fashion would be antithetical to this approach. You would not engage in the "drill-and-kill" of first teaching them to kick by holding onto the dock in a calm environment and having them just kick their feet, making sure they did that correctly. You wouldn't have them move their arms and hands in a swimming manner while standing in the water, correcting their hand position or stroke and making sure their fingers were together rather than splayed. That wouldn't be allowing them to construct their own method of swimming. You would call this method "inhumane" and "dehumanizing" when compared to the first method, regardless of efficacy.

I need not point out how most swimming instruction is actually done today, though it is worth noting that people have in the past advocated the first method. You'll sometimes hear people speak about it as a badge of honor that their parents taught them to swim by just throwing them into the lake. I don't recall anyone mentioning how enjoyable it was to learn that way, however, nor how dehumanized they felt with a direct instruction method. For that matter, I haven't heard advocates of instant immersion touting their spectacular teaching skills, and haven't heard anyone complain of the direct instructors following a rote script and not "teaching". The fact is, whether the type of activity is a highly compartmentalized, reductionistic one or a very interconnected, holistic one has little bearing on the proper way to teach. One may be able to think holistically, but teaching holistically has not been shown to work.

A few weeks ago, we walked into the bathroom, where CharmerBoy was staring contemplatively up at the ceiling, floating effortlessly on his back in the tub with a slight smile playing on his lips, completely at peace with his surroundings.

Parenting is a lot of fun.



Blogger ms-teacher said...

I just wanted to say that the photo of your little one is adorable.

4:34 PM  

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