Paul Ammon

PAUL AMMON

My name is Paul Ammon. I’m a professor in the graduate school of education at the University of California at Berkeley.

Well, constructionalism is a theory of knowledge and it basically says that our knowledge of the world is never an exact copy of what’s out there in reality. It’s always based on an interpretation and the interpretation is one that we’ve instructed uh using whatever knowledge we already have and whatever sense making tools we have available to us um from our own devising and the tools that we get from others around us. Um, a developmental constructivist approach says that um our sense making systems evolve over time so that the same experience can be interpreted in very different ways depending on where we are in that process of developing our—our sense making uh capacity. That’s—that’s basically what a developmental uh, constructivist approach uh holds about knowledge and about development. And what it means for teaching is that it’s really important to get in touch with how the learner is making sense of things and to try to work with uh what the learner already has going in the way of knowledge and sense making tools and to—to push the learner a little further along toward making um better sense of things uh then uh he or she is already. Um, that’s—that’s the basic idea.

Well, you know, the constructivist approach is usually contrasted with a transmission model of teaching and the transmission model basically says that we have knowledge that we want learners to get and we are going to give it to them. We’re going to tell them and show them the things that we think they should know. And um what we fail to appreciate when we do that is that what they get won’t be what they give them. That it—it will um be transformed in some way, according to their way of—of making sense of things. So, a constructivist proach—approach really stands in contrast to uh that transmission approach, which is still, I think, the dominant way we try to educate people, just by telling them things. And it doesn’t mean that um there are—there’s no point in telling people things that we want them to know. There are—there are lots of reasons why we should uh share information and ideas with—with students but we shouldn’t do it with the expectation that they will automatically understand things the way we understand them and that we need to help them uh come to the kind of understanding that we want them eventually to have and that—that it doesn’t happen just instantaneously, that it may be quite a—a long, gradual process sometimes.

Well, um in our program here where we prepare elementary school teachers, we make the study of child development the core of the program. In fact, it’s called the Developmental Teacher Education Program for that reason. And we want to help teachers understand how kids are likely to interpret the things that we give them in the curriculum, the kind of sense that they are likely to make out of those things. Um, it—it really puts the focus not just on the curriculum, although there is still that focus, but on the learner and what the learner will make of the curriculum, and how to help the learner make uh better sense of the curriculum then might be the case uh to begin with. That’s—I think that’s the basic uh differences that it really—it—it asks teachers to pay close attention to what students do with the ideas and the information that are in the curriculum and to help them make better sense then they might initially.

Well, one of the things that I—I think uh changes uh quite dramatically is that getting the right answer is not the be all and end all uh of what a teacher is trying to accomplish (telephone rings). Um, if—and unfortunately we still tend to, I thin um go overboard in our uh—in the importance that we give to uh the right answer. Um, it means that when children don’t give the right answer, or when adolescents don’t give the right answer uh that they’re usually showing us what kind of understanding they do have and uh—so the important thing to ask is not is this right or wrong, but what’s right about this? What—what sort of partial understanding, what kind of sense making do I see in the answer that I’ve gotten and where can we go with that? What can we do to build on that and work more in a direction of a more complete understanding?

Yeah, and you know, I think one of my—my pet examples of how uncomfortable people are with something other than the right answer is the practice of encouraging children to write with invented spelling because there’s this uh great anxiety over uh the—the use of incorrect spellings and how that’s going to bread bad habits in spelling and make it that much harder for children to learn how to spell. And there’s good evidence that that’s not the case and that, in fact, when children use invented spellings, their spellings over time become more conventional. Uh, and what happens when they—they use inventive spellings is they show us what they already know that the whole um system for spelling in—in English or whatever language uh they’re writing in, and that gives us clues as to what they do and don’t understand about spelling already and—and the way in which we could work with that. Um, and I think part of the problem there is that spelling is thought of as this pretty arbitrary system of conventions. So you just have to kind of memorize the right way to spell um a particular word and um like just about everything else, there really is some logic to it and um—and a good speller understands the underlying logic. And when you are encouraged to write with inventive spellings, you’re—you’re basically coming up with a system and then you have an opportunity to see how your system compares to the one that um people use in the conventional world of writing.

Well, cognitive development is about the process of coming to um, uh more complete understandings and more powerful ways of thinking about things. And it’s a gradual process. It doesn’t just happen instantaneously. Um, and because it’s a gradual process um, it means that kids and adolescents have different—have qualitatively different ways of understanding and thinking about things at different points in development. And uh it’s important for teachers to get in touch with the particular way in which a learner is understanding. Um, having said that it’s important always to go on and say there are lots of variations on the sorts of uh progressions that people go through in the course of cognitive development, both in the timing and—and in other particulars and um the kind of background they come from makes a difference, the kind of particular experiences they have make a difference. So there are lots of variations on some pretty general themes in cognitive development. So it’s important to be aware as a teacher, both of the general themes and of the—all the variations that can happen. And I really think that uh teachers need to be students of what development looks like in the particular context where they’re teaching that um the way development is described by a particular researcher or a particular theorist isn’t necessarily the way it’s going to look in detail um in your classroom. And uh it really is asking a lot of teachers to be um kind of developmental scientists in their own classrooms and yet I think um teachers can do that. Um, it takes a while to—to do it well, uh which is one of the reasons why it’s important for us to um have teachers stay with the profession for a while and not—not come and go quickly. So…

Well, of the theories that have aroused interest among educators, the two big ones are, of course Piershay (?) and Vagodski. And uh interest in—in Piershay really uh waxed very strongly back in the 60’s and 70’s uh and then began to reign around 1980, which happens to be the year in which Piershay died. Um, and interestingly Vagodski cam on very strong then in the 80’s and on into the 90’s and still—still continues. Um, unfortunately those two theorists are often seen as having very different um perspectives and uh disagreeing on many points. I think the differences between them have really been overemphasized. And I think there’s growing interest in synthesizing um ideas from those two theorists and not uh—not treating them as uh mutually exclusive alternative. Uh, in my own thinking I certainly have tried to draw upon both and uh there’s seem—there seems to be uh a growing interest in doing that kind of integration. Uh, but my own background is uh primarily in the Piershay in tradition and I think ideas that we’ve already talked about are uh—are important legacies from that traditions. Such as the idea that there are qualitative changes in the way children understand things uh in the course of development and that they transform what uh they experience and what they hear from others um in ways that, you know, Piershay’s concept of assimilation is not simply that you take inexperience, but that you transform it and kind of make it fit your own way of thinking about things. I think that’s a very important idea from that tradition. I think another one is the idea that we actively construct our way of understanding something and our ways of thinking about things that um we have to be engaged actively as learners. And Piershay actually did write more about education then some people give him credit for and the think that he always stressed was what he called active learning. And it doesn’t necessarily mean uh a lot of hands on physical activity; it means first and foremost, a lot of thinking activity, a lot of sense making activity. And for young kids that frequently is helped by a lot of physical activity in physical doing. But, it also means discussing. I personally believe that discussing is a very important part of learning and teaching and uh—and when you—when you get into talking about discussing, that’s where you can start to integrate ideas from Vagodski who made such a point of how interpersonal processes become the basis for intrapersonal uh understandings of things and uh talked about how our interactions with other peo—others becomes internalized uh to—to in affect become kind of uh internal dialogs that we have with ourselves. Um, I think that’s an important legacy from the Vagodski in tradition, so that gives a little idea of how I see those theories making—making contributions.

Well, let me focus on the social side of development. Um, when we talk about cognitive development, I think another important idea is that understandings and ways of thinking evolve in different domains of knowledge or different domains of experience. And you can think of domains as sort of like the subject areas in the—in the academic curriculum. But you can think of the social world as another domain of experience and so our understandings about things like fairness and what it takes for a group to work well together are also things that evolve over time. So that we can think of another um agenda in the classroom as that of promoting social understandings and ways of thinking about the social world and um the way teachers do business in classroom, the way they manage the classroom, the way they organize things for learning, and so on, is very important in contributing to that um social sort of development, development of social understandings. Um, I think that there’s more at stake there though then just social understandings and social development because the—the social atmosphere that you create in the classroom has a tremendous bearing on academic learning and also on language learning, which is an important part of—of what we’re talking about here that if learners feel that they’re in a safe environment in a—in a community that cares for one another, then they will be willing to take risks that they are not willing to take in a less safe environment. So the social development really is um—really at the heart of what happens in the classroom. Both as an end in itself and has a means to promoting academic development and—and language learning.

Well, one of the things that we’ve talked about is um my—my idea that discussion is an important part of what happens in the classroom. Well, in the context of discussion, you have content that you’re talking about, you have language being used, and you have thinking about um the relative merits of one idea versus another idea and so all of those things, social development, cognitive development, and language development all come together in the context of that one activity. And the same could be said for writing activities, for reading and then talking about things that are read, uh and all of those—and all of those ways. Um, there’s something I’d like to add about social development that I—I didn’t mention before. Where um children live social lives outside the classroom, obviously, and it’s important for us and—and they bring—they bring those lives with them into the classroom. And that’s important for us to acknowledge those lives so that when we talk about issues of uh fairness or when we talk about questions about what it takes for us to live together in a way that feels good and that allows us to be productive, uh it’s important for us to talk those issues as they exist outside the classroom as well. And um I think it’s all the more important when uh one is teaching children who come from linguistic and cultural minority groups because uh, if we’re going to talk about issues of fairness, they uh in their out of the classroom lives experience inequities and—and instances of unfairness um in many ways. And for us not to acknowledge that in the classroom is um in a way either saying that those issues outside of the classroom don’t exist or saying that they are just the sort of inevitable fact of life that um needs to be accepted rather than treating it as a problem for all of us to solve. So, I mean, I’m talking about the kind of think that many people would call critical pedagogy. And I think it’s an important part—it’s an essential part of what happens uh in the classroom because we don’t want the classroom to seem irrelevant to what happens in the rest of the world and because, after all, education is about what happens in the rest of the world.

Well, if interacting with others and being an active participant uh is an important part of academic and social development and of language development. Um, and if a child’s ability to interact with others is inhibited or compromised um by uh—by limits in the child’s uh proficiency in the language that’s being used, um in a particular context, then we have a problem because the child can’t really um, uh take advantage of opportunities that would be there for a child who didn’t have uh language limits. So the challenge for the teacher is to create a situation where um we can work around those limits um effectively and uh, um, um—I’ve lost my train my thought so maybe you should ask another question.

Well, I guess another part of that is um that when children are learning a second language, it’s often unclear whether uh a difficulty we have in understanding in what they have to say is because of the ideas that they’re expressing or because of uh limits on their ability to express it in a new language. And I think the way that teachers need to get around that issue is by being willing to explore interactively with children, what it is that they’re trying to say. I mean that’s something that should happen with all children anyway. But it seems especially important um not simply to hear what a child says and then make some judgment about what that child understands or what that child’s language facility is, but to engage in a more interactive process where you’re giving the child multiple opportunities to express the same idea. You’re giving the child leads on uh how it might be expressed. And basically, I—I guess what I’m describing is that thing that people call scaffolding. That you can scaffold a lot of the interaction in ways that get past the sort of um obstacles that a second language learner might—might run into.

Well, we talk about children bringing their—their uh cultural resources with them into the classroom and um and using them. I mean, if—if we’re constructivists we believe that we all use whatever we know to try to make sense of things and if you come from a cultural that’s different from the—the traditional mainstream culture that is still kind of assumed in many classrooms um, then you bring different sense making tools into the classroom and um—oh, my gosh. I lost my train of thought again. (interruption) OK, now I know where I was going. Um, it’s important for the teacher to be not only a student of the child but also a student of the child’s culture. To understand where the child is coming from. And one of the things that we do in preparing teachers here is we say, “Look, you may have children who come from any number of different cultural backgrounds and we can’t have you prepared at this point, in terms of knowing about all of those multiple cultures. So what we would like to do with you is help you learn how to learn about the backgrounds the children have. What are the issues? What are the—what are the—some of the strategies that you can use to learn more? And of course, one of the strategies you can use is to let children teach you and to let their parents teach you. So, uh in fact, I’ve been thinking recently about um the idea of writing a paper called, “How to teach by learning from you students” um because I really think um it’s an important idea in general for teachers to—to learn from their students.

You know, I don’t feel that I have enough of uh handle on that to say much. I don’t feel comfortable in trying to say that.

I—I—I think I understand the question. I think I’ve probably said something about that already, but I can try it again. Um, it—it seems to me that um knowledge about child development suggest how important it is for teachers not to approach students simply as receptacles of knowledge that they will transmit to them, but as creators of knowledge and—and users of knowledge to create still more knowledge and uh—and to find out how—how students are already thinking about things and to help them move their thinking forward toward um deeper understandings and more powerful ways of thinking.

Well, the problem is that if you look at a single instance of uh—uh, performance on the part of a second language learner, say you look at a piece of writing that a student has done, and you discover that some things are said in—in ways that strike you as—as rather odd or unconventional. Um, it’s not clear immediately whether that is a reflection of a language limitation of whether it happens to be the way somebody is thinking about something. And to—to get those things untangled is really uh a challenge, but it’s really important. Um, our concern when we wrote our paper about hidden resources in bilingual students or second language learners was that um something like uh problems in a writing sample would be interpreted as a lack of understanding about the language itself or about how one does things in uh written English. Let me give an example. Um, in one case a student had written what was suppose to be a story, but it didn’t have any of the sort of uh framing devices that storywriters use. It didn’t uh have a sort of ‘once upon a time’ kind of uh beginning um and so on. And the question was, “Was the writer doing—was the writer not framing the story as a story because she didn’t know that that was what you did when you wrote a story or was there some other reason?” Now in this case, we—we happened also to have samples of her writing stories in her first language, which were Spanish and sure enough one’s she wrote in Spanish she did frame stories in the way that she hadn’t in writing in English. And on further reflection, it didn’t seem that she didn’t have the vocabulary for doing it, it seemed most likely that she didn’t do it because when using English uh in her writing, it was enough of a—of an extra burden for her that she kind of focused on the bear bones of what happened in the story and—and didn’t make use of the knowledge that she had to um frame the story, simply because that was more than she could handle when working in a second language. So, in that case, there was a hidden resource. She knew a lot about how you tell a story and it just didn’t come through in her English writing. And the challenge for a teacher who doesn’t know the child’s first language is to figure out some other way to see what the child might have in the way of a hidden resource other than the insights you get from what the child does in the first language, and again something like scaffolding comes to mind. If the writing sample is just the start for some interaction over well, how can we make this um seem more like the kinds of stories that we’re reading in books that we read, um this child probably would have been able to say, “Oh, I know what I need to do next as I work on this story further. So, uh that’s—that’s what we meant by hidden resources.

Well, at one point uh my wife was also a developmental psychologist and I were interested in how writing was used in the context of science instruction and initially our focus was on the use of writing as a learning activity and writing to learn. Um, and we came um a little later to discover that writing is also a very interesting way of assessing what students already know. Uh, that the particular choices they make with regard to um a word or how a—how an idea is expressed gives you—can—can give you clues as to what the idea behind it is. And the way we run about finding that out was to interview students who had written to get um more deeply into their understanding of the science content that they were writing about. And we found that we could often understand why they said what they said in their writing by exploring their thinking further and we could say, “Well, in fact, that’s an accurate representation of—of what they understand about this um—this science concept or this science phenomenon.” So uh, writing—it—it—it requires uh really close attention uh and again, not just focusing on whether the answer is the right answer or not, but—and well what is the underlying thought here? Uh, what might is be? I think—I think something like writing should be used as a source of clues that you follow up on. It’s not something that you—you a just interpret at face value, but it’s a source of clues to follow up on. And I would say the same for any other way the child expresses his or her understanding that it’s a source of clues that you want to follow up on.

Um, there is a—a way of writing text for beginning readers that is familiar to uh—to many of us that um has come to be called premières. It’s the kind of Dick and Jane language that many of us grew up with uh as beginning readers. And it’s—it’s motivated by good intentions. The idea is to simplify text in ways that will help uh a beginning reader read it and learns to read it and so things like uh—there’s a premium on very short sentences, on using simple words and using them over and over again so that the reader will be assisted. But the result is a very unnatural sort of language that really appears and no place other than uh beginning readers that have tried to control text in this way. Now, if you think about a child who um, say a 1st grader, who already has a lot of experience with language in uh the world outside of beginning reading text, um bringing that knowledge to the task of reading and trying to use it and interpreting a text. And what happens is that the text keeps confounding the child’s expectations about the way things are going to be said because of this sort of artificial simplification that has occurred. Uh, so uh in some work that I did with Herb Simons and Charles Elster, we compared um premières text, test that we got from basal readers uh with re-written versions of the same text to see what would happen if children were given one or the other and what—what kinds of reading miscues would occur under the two kinds of conditions. And what we found was that um one children were given the premières kind of text, because it was not allowing them to use—fully use the knowledge that they had about the way things normally get said uh that they would in affect read one word at a time and when they made miscues, they tended to be based on the letters in the word and not on the meaning or the—the grammatical context of the word. Um, we also tested comprehension of the reading passages and we found that children who were given the premières text did not comprehend what they had read as well and afterward. So, um it—it goes along with kind of reading one word at a time and it seemed to use that it raised real questions about whether um it was helpful or actually kind of productive to give children that kind of text because if mature readers, in fact, draw fully on their world knowledge and their knowledge of how language is use um while reading, then wouldn’t we want to encourage um that to happen in the reading process rather than discourage it by—by giving kids text that um make it uh hard for you to do that where you—you keep being tripped up by the text because it says something that’s different from what you um predicted was going to do there based on—on a knowledge that you have from lots of experience in the—in the real world.

Well, it is a challenge for teachers I think to help parents and—and other teacher understand uh why they um pursue an alternative to the transmission model when they’re trying to be constructivist teachers. I had an experience um myself as a parent that was—that was interesting. I went to a back to school once when my son was in, I think, 2nd grad and the teacher had um desks in the room that—but they were arranged in clusters of four with two desks facing two other desks. And one of the other parents looked at that arrangement and said, “Well, wouldn’t the kids talk to each other all the time if you had them facing each other that way?” And then he thought about it for a minute and he said, “Well, maybe that’s the point. It’s to make it possible for them to talk to each other.” And so, I mean, I felt really good about that because here’s a parent who had the sort of traditional expectation that the desks would all face the teacher and not face each other, and yet he could, on second thought, come up with a reason uh for departing from that traditional way of doing things. So I think parents are quite capable of understanding. I think parents also respond very positively when you show them the kinds of work that they’re children do when you give them the opportunity to make use of the knowledge that they already have and the—the sense making tools that they have at their disposal. Um, teachers who uh do a lot to encourage student writing um have lots of good stuff to share with parents. Um, teachers who encourage kids to be problem solvers in math and not just memorizers have good stuff to share with parents. They can show parents that their kids are using their minds and our coming up with important insights and good ideas and they may not be the right idea initially, but they’re somewhat right. They’re on the right track. They—they show some understanding. They show thinking and not just learning. And I think parents respond to that.