Academic Research

Integrating Constructivist Practices into the EFL Classroom

Ismail Patel 

For many years, educators have been facing an everlasting dilemma between their professional practice and the systems that they operate within. At the heart of the problem is the schooling system that dominates the world today. This is a system designed along a factory-inspired model, in the context of the Industrial Revolution, that was primarily concerned with creating a workforce with standardized skills (Andreotti & Ahenakew, p. 2, 2013). Although many things have changed since the Industrial Revolution, the fundamental structure of this schooling system remains today. Yet, educational research continues to show that the traditional methods of teaching that this system was designed for, do not lead students to achieve the desired competency levels for learners to communicate effectively in a second language (Ozverir, Osam & Herrington, 2017, p.262). However, what has been found is that a constructivist approach to teaching that elicits prior knowledge, creates cognitive dissonance, uses feedback to guide learning and has students reflect upon their learning (Baviskar, Hartle & Whitney, 2009, p. 543-544) has been shown to outperform didactic methods in the language learning classroom (Ozverir et al., 2017, p.263). Yet, many English Language Teachers (ELTs) continue to rely on a heavily didactic approach to teaching that aligns with the methods used in the traditional ‘Fordist’ schooling system. This short paper seeks to outline some elements integral to the constructivist approach as well as examples of how to integrate this approach into the EFL classroom.

I. Salient Concepts

a) Knowledge

Before educators can understand why a constructivist approach to teaching is important to the success of their students, there are some foundational elements of learning that teachers need to be aware of. One of primary importance is knowledge.

The classical definition of knowledge is justified true belief (Pritchard, 2014, p. 23). However, philosophical debate still exists as to what the defining characteristics, or criteria, for knowledge (Pritchard, 2014, p. 23), and even truth (Pritchard, 2014, p. 183-184), are. What we have come to understand is that there is no real ‘gatekeeper’ of knowledge. As much as educators rely on the Western ideal of scientific knowledge as the most objective, empirical, and rational way of knowing (Aikenhead, 2001, p. 337), further investigation suggests that this perspective offers us incomplete insight into human knowledge about the world and our conception of truth. “Knowledge does not exist outside a person’s mind” (von Glasersfeld, 2005, p. 17), and educators must understand that the ‘right’ answers, based on scientific inquiry, are always debatable since scientific knowledge is considered to be tentative and falsifiable (Pritchard, 2014, p. 117). What we believe is scientific fact today, may be proven incorrect tomorrow, and so we must respect other ways of knowing. Therefore, we must learn to integrate cultural negotiations into our teaching where knowledge comes from participatory learning and incorporates different ways of knowing (Aikenhead, 2001, p. 339). Teachers must understand that the “task of the educator is not to dispense knowledge, but to provide students with opportunities and incentives to build it up” (von Glasersfeld, 2005, p. 19).

b) Constructivism

i) Socio-cultural Constructivism

For ELTs, constructivist learning and teaching strategies have been shown to improve language development (Munoz-Luna, 2014, p. 172). From a socio-cultural constructivist perspective, actively participating in culturally organized practices plays a crucial role in learning and development (Cobb, 2005, p. 46). Too often ESL/EFL is taught using materials that are focussed on linguistic components, functions, trivial topics with decontextualized and sentence level presentation, inauthentic communicative situations, and pedagogically simplified texts (Barrot, 2013, p. 441). This leaves learners feeling frustrated and disconnected from the learning process. Using a socio-cultural constructivist approach to teaching a new language puts the emphasis on the importance of the social dimensions of learning. Here, language learning has been found to occur when students engage in social participation, social interaction and social action (Barrot, 2013, p. 442).

ii) Scaffolding

Another important element of constructivist teaching that has been found to improve language acquisition is scaffolding, specifically when it comes to developing writing skills. Through scaffolding, learners interact with their instructor and participate in the development of their own skills, and eventually reach a higher competency (McKinley, 2015, p. 192).

iii) Elements of Constructivism

Baviskar, Hartle and Whitney (2009) have outlined four critical elements that must be addressed to initiate constructivist learning:

  • eliciting prior knowledge
  • creating cognitive dissonance
  • the application of knowledge with feedback
  • reflecting on learning (p. 543-544).

Effective language acquisition teaching utilizes these four elements to help improve the capabilities of language learners. What is also notable in the constructivist approach to teaching, is the idea that dialogue be incorporated into all of the constructivist elements, as “dialogue within a community engenders further thinking” (Fosnot & Perry, 2005, p. 40). Cowey (2005) demonstrates how dialogue in a language classroom between students and teacher, as well as between students themselves, helps learners recall prior knowledge, investigate topics that they didn’t understand previously, allows the teacher to provide relevant feedback and provides a social opportunity for reflection. Cowey (2005) also reveals how effective this can be in transforming the writing abilities of her students (p. 166-178). 

II. Constructivist Pedagogy and Designs 

As an ELT teacher, there are many different activities that can be initiated in the classroom setting that provide opportunities for constructivist learning to occur. Noted below are three pedagogical designs that have been found to enhance constructivist language learning.

a) Task Based Language Teaching (TBLT)

One approach that has been identified as a way to stimulate constructivist learning is TBLT. TBLT is a pedagogical approach to teaching that incorporates a number of principles and models such as collaborative learning, the interactionist hypothesis and information processing theories, and there has been agreement on its effectiveness to develop learners’ knowledge and skills in a foreign language (Barrot, 2013, p. 436). TBLT can be described as a meaning-focused approach that gives leaners communicative competency as they use the target language for meaningful communication. Learners are asked to address real problems and connect what they have learned to real world experiences. These tasks are relevant to the everyday lives of the leaners and should parallel the real world as closely as possible. As authentic activities, tasks should provide an opportunity for authentic learning that situates students in meaningful contexts. Through TBLT, learners have the opportunity to participate in authentic activities that use the target language in complex and purposeful ways (Ozverir et al., 2017, p. 261).

b) Digital Storytelling

Through digital storytelling, English Language Learners (ELLs) learn to build their literacy skills across a number of mediums by bringing together the traditions of oral storytelling with images, audio and music, and at the same time incorporating their own personal voice. Digital storytelling is also highly interactive and can be very motivating and personalized, making it an ideal activity for ELLs (Green, 2013, p. 27-28). Digital storytelling has been found to build student confidence as it gives ELLs the ability to practice their pronunciation and grammar a number of times before they record their scenes and allows teachers to provide continuous feedback throughout the construction process. It also helps students develop social skills as they interact with their peers in an informal manner (Green, 2013, p. 28). Digital storytelling can also lower the levels of embarrassment and anxiety amongst ELLs as they have the opportunity to edit out language mistakes which minimizes negative feelings that they may have towards preforming in their new language (Green, 2013, p. 29).

c) Vidcasting

Vidcasting has grown out of video podcasting and features podcasts that include visual information like videos, images or animations, and places high importance on setting, cues, powerful images, context and representational gestures. Like digital storytelling, studies have found that students become so integrated into their vidcasting projects that they unnoticeably use authentic and pervasive language to exchange information (Green, Inan & Maushak, 2014, p. 298). Vidcasting allows students to move away from the traditional focus of drills to practice language acquisition, and utilizes language in tasks that require communication in a relevant context (Green et al., 2014, p. 299). Vidcasting also creates an added element of accountability as students know that their work will be viewed by external audiences on the internet. This causes them to prepare and revise their work more carefully and use the feedback that they receive to improve their work in subsequent assignments (Green et al., 2014, p. 318-319). Furthermore, the creative freedom afforded to students when creating a vidcast can be a major motivating factor which allows students to showcase their unique abilities and talents (Green et al., 2014, p. 319).

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Moving further into the twenty-first century, with all of the complexities and technological changes that this will entail, education systems in general, and second language teaching in particular, will need to evolve away from the Fordist educational model at some point in time. As many ELTs will attest to, there is a constant struggle to compete for their students’ attention as these students are increasingly engaged with a wide array of attention-grabbing devices and highly captivating information delivery systems. As we move forward, it seems like the didactic model of the past will continue to wane in its effectiveness. To ensure that ELTs are truly reaching all students effectively, a transition to a constructivist approach to teaching and designing lessons will be integral as students become less enamoured with traditional methods of teaching.

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