Amy Potthast | Instructional Coach & Designer | Learning Design Studios

Tonight I chatted with Peggy Kelter, a 1978 graduate of Kirkland College in Clinton, NY. Kirkland was women’s college with a constructivist approach.

Peggy said that though she came from a traditional family background (parents educated at Amherst and Smith, e.g.), she thrived at Kirkland because she wasn’t a linear thinker. The professors at Kirkland encouraged students to see the interconnectedness of all they were learning, and she felt that her blinders were taken off when she arrived.

Her final painting project (in lieu of an undergraduate thesis; she was an art major) she designed herself. Initially she had wanted to paint spaces that represented where inside and outside meet, such as windows and doorways. But she said the paintings were just awful. In a rare act of passionate rebellion, she tore up her canvass and found that the small bits of painting were actually good, so she spent the next six months creating full size paintings modelled after the scraps of canvass.

She said that some students at Kirkland struggled. She said they were not self-directed, and some or most eventually came around through the support of the faculty. She said some dropped out because the learning approach was not for them, not structured enough.

She is also a 2003 graduate of the M.A.T. program at Lewis & Clark and now teaches kindergarten in Hood River. She says that in her classroom a constructivist design would not be possible. First, she has 30 children in her room, with no assistance. Furthermore, the children come to school without any experience in school or literacy. Their parents are well intentioned but do not give their children any foundation in reading, for example, by teaching them about the alphabet or reading with them. She says that if you put them in a truly constructivist situation, there would be complete chaos. She says that if you had only 10 of them in a room, a constructivist approach might be possible.

From this interview, I can take away the following insights from Peggy’s perspective:

Students who succeed within a constructivist approach are

  • self-directed
  • systems thinkers
  • not “traditional”
  • have some experience with the context (school) or subject matter (concepts in literacy)

Students who struggle with constructivist design need

  • support from faculty (she couldn’t remember exactly what)

Environments conducive to constructivism include

  • small teacher-student ratio
  • faculty encourage students to see connections
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