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Constructivism, Lesson Planning and Motivation


Constructivism and its approach can be found in the education system of rural England and Scotland. Barns would be opened to children during the day and different lessons and adults would be in different areas. Children moved from area to area at will, no periods, no time limits, and engaged in the lessons there. The adults who maintained the areas were less “sage on stage” and more “guide by the side” as lessons were self-motivated, involved a lot of play, and were interactive. Lessons also had an edge of realism – they were grounded in the reality of day to day life of a rural farm community.

The lessons also required a good amount of creativity, especially when you are operating in a rural impoverished area. But if done well, they are effortless to execute as children were engaged and enjoying themselves. And they were highly effective.

If you were to walk into a modern Montessori school or a constructivist classroom you would see a similar environment –  kids at play. Games, art, interactive lessons, individual research. And a lot of noise. There is no formal seating rows, no “front of the classroom” because there is no real classroom. The games, research, and play would be task focused, with a set of parameters and some guiding information, but the learning occurs during the play and exploration. Adults present are refereeing, monitoring on-task behavior, and answering questions. The learning occurring is not a transfer from wise adult to willing pupil, but internal “Constructed” knowledge gained from performing, doing, and learning.

The motivation comes from the tasks having real world impact or problem solving. Kids don’t learn fractions by memorization, they experience the WHY of fractions and the relationship between percentages and decimals through manipulatives or tasks such as cooking/chemistry or role playing.

One survivor of the Constructivist concept in modern education is the morning meeting or class gathering and discussion. Here is where students share what they have learned, further imbedding their knowledge by taking on the role of teacher – or the sage on stage.

Public education attempted to bring the theory to the United States in the 1970’s. Schools were built with federal money. They’re easy to recognize – large, cavernous interiors with few walls and wide-open spaces. What the federal government failed to realize, and school systems didn’t concern themselves with while pocketing gobs of cash for a free school, is that the theory works when you have a small, enclosed spaces made of wood and filled with hay and other sound absorbing materials. When you build an enormous empty building out of concrete and tile, then fill it with 1,000 children you suddenly have an acoustic nightmare.

The theory was quickly abandoned almost as soon as it started. The teachers, who received little training in constructivist theory, fell back on their traditional methods and walls were built to deal with the noise issues. The buildings became either strange amalgams, were sold off, or torn down completely and rebuilt.

Constructivist Lesson Planning

The problem with constructivism and why modern education has abandoned it is that it can be time intensive to plan if you don’t know the children. It requires pre-interviews with children and parents, dynamic lesson planning covering multiple subject areas, and a level of creativity that’s been long beaten out of modern education.

Parents have a leg up on teachers since they know their children, their interests, and motivations. It’s just a matter of finding lessons combining these three and standing back as the learning happens naturally.

The great thing about constructivism is the low cost. Because it was originally designed to be done in rural farm barns, materials for lessons are literally whatever is lying around and can be creatively applied.

Cooking is a great example of constructivist learning since it has a practical application, is fun, and involves a number of different disciplines such as math (both in shopping and in preparation), chemistry (what works together, when and why) and cultural research (recipe and additional dishes).

Trips to the store should be discussions with children. Don’t treat it as a rush for supplies and fly through aisles piling things into a cart. Start with the children talking about what meals your preparing and the ingredients. Talk about cost and budgeting. Bring the children and talk about what you are buying and why, why you are choosing one product over another one. After a long, dull day at public school this may be a chore, but when you’re home during the day and engaged, it’s a pleasure.

And if it sounds odd, yes a good amount of home schooling can revolve around chores. Cleaning the cat litter box? That involves measuring (3 inches) volume (how many containers of cat litter do we need to fill the box – how long will one box last – how often do we need to purchase a box?) and this is not a one off lesson, either. It’s a repeating lesson until they can operate it on their own. And it can be applied to other areas as well.

Keep in mind that volume in shaped containers (such as a toilet) is a calculus problem. By introducing the concept of calculating volume, you are introducing math concepts that can be referred to later when teaching later on. All knowledge builds.


Three things need to be kept in mind when planning activities:

  1. Intrinsic Motivation,
  2. Self Determination Theory, and
  3. Flow Theory.

Lack of one of these three will explain why your child has suddenly lost interest and you’re struggling to keep them engaged.

Intrinsic Motivation: needs to come from the child – intrinsic motivation means it is coming from the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself. Children read books they like to read, not because they get a pizza coupon for every book read.

Self Determination Theory: The child engages in the lesson with autonomy (doing it for themselves), relatedness (with regard to other people, through relationships such as a parent or sibling), and competence (appropriate challenge for ability level).

Flow Theory: Competence under SDT is critical due to Flow Theory which is found when a person is totally absorbed in an activity to the point of shutting out the world around them. This may be found in creative play, reading, or video games. The activity maintains the balance necessary to keep the challenge to skills ratio appropriate. Challenge above their skill level leads to anxiety while challenge below skill level leads to boredom.

Extrinsic motivation ($20 if you complete the task / loss of electronics if you don’t) is the worst way to motivate any human being and leads to the following:

1) extinguish intrinsic motivation.

2) diminish performance.

3) crush creativity.

4) crowd out good behaviour.

5 encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behaviour.

6) become addictive.

7) foster short-term thinking.

As I prepare and present the lessons for my son Jack, think about your own children, what they are interested in, what they like to do, and how they like to engage. Adapting the lesson plans for your child should be as simple as substituting your knowledge for your own child.