FROM THE FIELD: Introducing ideas and activities from ACT Members in the field

Contributed by: Jennifer Strange, Pedagogista, Adjunct Professor at Webster University, NAREA Board Member, and Early Childhood Consultant, St. Louis, MO; Julie Albertson, Director and Pedagogical Coordinator for Community Day School and Christian School for the Young Years, Cape Girardeau, MO.

Documentation as a Tool to Increase the Visibility of Children with Special Rights


Mother of children in our story with the classroom teacher

How can visible documentation support each child as capable, powerful and full of potential – especially children who may be dealing with social, emotional, cognitive and/or physical issues?  This was one of the questions Jennifer Strange, an early childhood pedagogista and professor, encouraged Julie Albertson, an intern in the Graduate Certificate for Pedagogical Coordination in the Reggio Emilia Approach Program, to consider with her and other teachers during Julie’s year-long internship at the Maplewood Richmond Heights Early Childhood Center in St. Louis, MO.  Jennifer Strange is an early childhood consultant and professor experienced in constructivist practice and in the Reggio Approach to education.  Jennifer serves as a pedagogical coordinator or, pedagogista, at the MRH ECC, a diverse urban school for children ages three through eight years old.  Along with Brenda Fyfe, Webster University Dean of Education, Jennifer has been involved in developing a graduate certificate regarding the role of the pedagogista in a partnership that includes Webster University (St. Louis, MO), Reggio Children and the Municipal Infant-Toddler and Preschools (Reggio Emilia, Italy), and Maplewood Richmond Heights School District (St. Louis, MO).  Julie Albertson was the first person to receive this graduate certificate.  Julie is a pedagogical coordinator for two early childhood centers in Cape Girardeau, MO, which her family has owned and operated for 40 years.  The schools provide year round, full day programs for children birth through 5 years of age.  They currently serve over 200 families in their community.  The teachers at the schools have been studying the Reggio Approach for the past 20 years and have been in dialogue with Jennifer for the past six years.   

The courses and internship for completing this certificate concerning the role of the pedagogista focuses on social constructivism, negotiated learning, creation of aesthetic and inspiring educational environments, expressive languages of communication, applied research and visible documentation.


“At school, I can fly high to the sky.” Piper, age 3, diagnosed hard-of-hearing/deaf from birth, flourishes in a constructivist language rich environment.  


While these were all significant topics of learning for Julie, during her studies and particularly during her year as Jennifer’s intern, the issue of visibility in regards to children with special rights became of particular importance to both intern and pedagogista.  Jennifer had already been working with teachers in creating visible documentation of children with special rights and strongly believes this can support greater understanding in and respect for the potential and capability of each child.  As Julie discussed the experiences of children with special rights from her own early childhood center in Cape Girardeau, Jennifer suggested they collaborate on a visible presentation to share with a larger audience.  The objectives for such a presentation were to create a dialogue regarding the value of visible documentation in relation to the learning experiences of children with special rights/needs; to promote inclusion of children with special rights/needs and their families; and to help construct a new image of the child through carful observation and analysis of visible documentation.  These stories concerned children experiencing a range of challenges including autism, deafness, behavior issues, and speech development.

Close observation, reflection, and dialogue about each of these children resulted in documentation of children’s struggles, relationships, capabilities and successes.  In presenting their work to colleagues, Julie and Jennifer noticed people visibly moved by these children and their stories, creating a powerfully thoughtful and active dialogue between them and the participants.  In fact, many participants made connections to their own personal experiences in working with all children.  As a result, Jennifer and Julie are now collaborating on further research and resultant writing concerning the importance of visibility for children of special rights.


“Elijah has become a leader in our classroom. He is drawn towards building–whether it is building marble tracks with a small group or building with the natural materials such as sticks, rocks, and tree blocks. His oral language skills have amazed us–on a recent walk through the woods he told an elaborate story about deer, their tracks and where they go.  He not only captivated his peers but also us as his educators.”  


In the recently published third edition of The Hundred Languages of Children by Carolyn Edwards, Lella Gandini and George Forman, the chapter “The Inclusive Community” by Ivana Soncini has proved be particularly valuable to Julie and Jennifer in their collaborative work regarding children with special rights.  In this chapter, Soncini—a member of the Pedagogical Coordinating Team of the Intuzione Preschools and Infant-Toddler Centers of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia, Italy– explains the value and importance of documenting and sharing observations of the child with special rights:

It is extremely important that we document what happens at school for the children with special needs and share observations with their families.  We need to produce photographs of the children in the educational context, images of how the other children relate with their child.  Very often, there are certain things the parents are afraid to ask the teachers about their child—for example, how the other children view their child.  Yet they are imagining what goes on and how the other children deal with their child.  Very often they imagine a negative situation, and this is why they are afraid to ask. Our goal is to give the families the possibility to construct a new image of their child.
Rheta DeVries, a leader in the constructivist education movement, said that the first principle of constructivist teaching is “to think about how children are thinking and feeling.”  Jennifer and Julie are continuing to deeply consider how all children are thinking, feeling and learning but, in particular, they are committed to making visible the thoughts, feelings and learning of children who are too often invisible.  Soncini supports this idea of observation and documentation that can also result in visible documentation

Work with a child who has special rights is considered to be a shared educational task involving the parents, the child’s classroom teachers and the pedagogista. This means that, like all our work with children, we begin with observation and documentation.  Observation and documentation are always fundamental, but they are of particular benefit with regard to children with special rights (The Hundred Languages of Children, Third Edition).
Through this shared work, Julie and Jennifer have experienced the use of visible documentation of children with special rights in developing the support of:

  • Belief in the potential and capability of each child
  • Valuing careful observation and documentation to honor each child through the practice of teacher as researcher
  • Honoring a wide variety of children’s expressions as an important means of communication
  •  Recognizing the individual within the group experience as well as recognizing the groups understanding concerning each child
  •  Participation of the child, family and teachers – “Participation gives value to and makes use of the hundred languages of children and of human beings.  Participation generates and nurtures the feelings and culture of solidarity, responsibility and inclusion” (from Indications Preschools and Infant Toddler Centres of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia).

Finally, Ivana Soncini says this about constructivism, documentation, and children with special rights:

 I believe that children with disabilities have the right to live in a school that allows them to intersubjectively construct a positive representation of self—a representation that is in continuous evolution.  When we refer to the philosophy of observation, to the process of documentation, we also refer to constructivism, in which knowledge is built through interaction with others.

The Story of Piper and Elijah

The story of Piper and her brother, Elijah, both of whom were diagnosed hard of hearing/deaf from birth, was one of several stories made visible in their presentation.  Elijah and Piper’s mother, Rachel, had been driving the children two hours a day each way for two years to attend a private school for the deaf.  After two years of this lifestyle the family was feeling tired and stressed.  The children started seeing a local speech therapist, LSLS Cert AVT/SLP, who was adamant that children with hearing loss needed good hearing/speaking peers in order to flourish.  She introduced the family to Community Day school and the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. After much research and visiting the school, Rachel, enrolled both children in the school.  There was a strong collaboration and commitment between the mother, teachers, speech therapist and director to support the children in this new environment. 

Classroom teacher Jessica Job said, “At first we didn’t know what to expect, we never had a child with hearing loss in our classroom before. We were unsure of how the children would adjust to one another, not only Elijah and Piper but also our other children. When they first joined our class they seemed shy and unsure of our environment and expectations.  They entered the classroom rigid, expecting a very structured routine.  At first Elijah was very protective of Piper. He was constantly checking on her and not leaving her sight–Piper was Elijah’s security. After a while they began to branch off from one another. Elijah and Piper have become their own people.”

After six months in the classroom Rachel noticed a drastic improvement in their speech, language, and all around ability to communicate.  She said, “Learning to listen in noise is a challenge for Elijah and Piper, but it is also a part of life.  They are learning to really key in on their environment, social and emotional cues of others, and develop lasting friendships along the way.  Because of the Reggio Emilia approach, they are learning to be self-sufficient, which is what I wanted for them from the start.  The school is their tool and the children are the driving force to their enrichment.

Rachel and Jessica collaborated with Julie and Jennifer to include this story in their presentation. In presenting this work to colleagues, people were visibly moved by these children and their stories, creating a powerfully thoughtful and active dialogue between them and the participants.

Jennifer and Julie appreciated the opportunity to share their work on visible documentation at the 2012 ACT Conference.



The drawings are self portraits the children made of themselves.




A quote from Jessica, the classroom teacher, “Piper has become more independent in the classroom, not relying on Elijah’s help. She is intrigued by various expressive languages, such as painting and working with clay. She is also beginning to talk openly and freely with both peers and adults.” 







Posted in From the Field | Tagged | 1 Comment

Update from ACT President – Jim Pelech

Greetings Fellow Constructivists!

            The weather is not the only thing that is heating up—this organization is heating up! Let me discuss one activity that has a lot to do with my excitement. Our 2013 fall conference, to be held October 18th and 19th in New York City, will take us to the “next level”.  Joanne Falinski and Jacqueline Grennon Brooks have created a tremendous conference agenda. The conference will be held at the Museum of Mathematics (MoMath). A new platform like the museum offers many exciting opportunities. We will have a total of 56 sessions; these sessions will include traditional break- out sessions, as well as “museum expeditions.” Museum expeditions will be sessions using museum exhibits as part of the presentation. These expeditions provide great opportunities for experiencing practical applications of Constructivist theory. Adding to these great opportunities are the two key note speeches. One key note speaker will be John Adam, Professor of Mathematics at Old Dominion. John has authored some very successful books. Our other key note speaker will be Cathy Fosnot, an internationally known educator, researcher, and speaker.

            I am encouraging each and every one of you to register for the conference and to make your hotel reservations now. Please go to our web site for registration and hotel information or feel free to contact me at The two hotels for the conference, the Carlton and the Ace, are offering discount rates to conference participants. Please go to our website for more information. October is a very busy time in New York, so please get those reservations now, and don’t forget to bring a friend.

            A conference such as this requires a great deal of support so we are asking for your support. If you can find sponsors for the conference, such as your university or a publisher, that would be greatly appreciated. Please contact myself, Joanne or Jane.

            This conference is just one of several opportunities offered by our organization, and I will be addressing these in following months. I always remind myself that enthusiasm is like a disease (a good one in this case), so let’s start an epidemic!


Jim Pelech

President, Association for Constructivist Teaching


Posted in ACT updates | Tagged | Leave a comment

Join us for the 2013 Conference in New York City

The 30th annual conference, will be held Oct 18-19, 2013, at the National Museum of Mathematics, New York City.

The theme is: Constructivism, Creativity, and the Common Core: Responding to the 3C’s of Education in the 21st Century.

The conference program and registration information will be posted on the website when the details are set.

See you there.

Posted in ACT updates | Tagged | Leave a comment

From the Field

This gallery contains 5 photos.

A Constructivist Educator in a Standards-Driven World: An Interview with Marita White L. Kathryn Sharp, Ed.D, East Tennessee State University  In a busy, highly-productive first grade classroom in a Title I Memphis Tennessee school, first grade teacher Marita White skillfully … Continue reading

Gallery | Leave a comment

Linda Kroll, Board Member Interview

Interview with Linda Kroll, Professor of Education, Mills College, Mary and Richard Holland Chair, Oakland, CA

Contributed by Jane Tingle Broderick, ACT President


JTB:  Can you share a bit about your background and what led you into your chosen profession?

LK:   During my senior year in college I started working in a school with children who had emotional disturbances.  This inspired me to go to UCLA, and then UC Berkeley to get a teaching credential.  At that time in California, there weren’t any teaching jobs, but, luckily for me, the town of Vallejo had just passed a local tax override that would allow schools to hire teachers.

Things happen serendipitously! The principal I worked with at Loma Vista School in Vallejo was interested in the British open classroom.  He encouraged us to try mixed age grouping and open planning for teaching.  I taught at this school for 6 years, all but the first year in mixed age groups.  I taught third grade, 2-3, and K-3. It was very exciting.  The Loma Vista School was a Title I school with mostly poor African American, Filipino, and White children integrated.  The principal encouraged us to try things and brought in people to support us.  I worked with a wonderful, collegial faculty. When I think back, I was very lucky to have my first position in this school.

Having a good leader was so important for my development as a teacher and teacher researcher.  My teacher education had been very eclectic, since I transferred from UCLA to UCB in the middle of my program.  I got to work with Madeleine Hunter while at UCLA—she of objectives in teaching notoriety, Gary Fenstermacher, Charlotte Crabtree.  At Berkeley I worked with mostly adjunct faculty, all of who were great teachers and had an effect on my practice.  I remember very fondly Mark Lucas who taught our arts curriculum class.  I still have the pottery cat that I made in that class over 40 years ago.

My principal at Loma Vista School was a visionary.  He introduced William Glasser and reality therapy to us.  He brought Margaret Smart, an educational psychologist from USC to the Loma Vista School to demonstrate Piagetian tasks to our school faculty.  While I had studied educational psychology as part of my credential program, I had never seen the tasks performed with children and I simply didn’t believe what I was seeing!  I had always been interested in what my students were thinking, but my interest in constructivist theory was sparked then.

Over the next 6 years I continued to investigate Piaget’s ideas.  One summer I participated in a seven-week course at UC Berkeley entitled Piaget in the Classroom.  Another year, I spent time with a colleague identifying science curriculum that was appropriate for children at different levels of Piagetian development.  I used a collection of homemade Piagetian conservation and logic tasks to assess my students at the beginning and end of every school year. Most of this activity was based on my own readings and ideas; I still had relatively little experience with the actual writings of either Piaget or Vygotsky.  After teaching for six years, I took a sabbatical leave to return to graduate school at UC Berkeley where I determined I would study these ideas in a more systematic way.  At the same time I was very interested in children’s writing and was one of the first elementary teachers involved with Bay Area Writing Project, part of the National Writing Project, which fundamentally changed the teaching of writing in elementary school from “handwriting” to learning to write a variety of genres and which encouraged children and young people to discover their writer’s voice.   My dissertation was a neo-Piagetian analysis of children’s story writing.  My advisor was Paul Ammon.  My strong interest in human development and literacy development dates from that period and is still a strong interest of mine.  I remained a classroom teacher for another two years, experimenting with curriculum in writing and science based on what I was learning in graduate school.

While I was at UC Berkeley I was fortunate to work with Paul Ammon, the founder of the Developmental Teacher Education program, and to be privileged to assist in the development of this elementary teacher education program that based teacher learning in developmental theory. When I left classroom teaching I taught first as a graduate instructor and later as a lecturer in the School of Education at UC Berkeley from 1980-1988. My work with DTE was very important in framing my ideas about teacher education and the application of theory, particularly constructivist theory, both in my own teaching and in teacher learning.

JTB:  In my doctoral course on constructivist inquiry I use your book, Teaching with principled practice: Managing complexity for social justice, that you wrote with your Mills College colleagues. Can you share how you came to develop and use the constructivist principles in this book?

Six principles for practice:

  • Teaching is a moral act based on an ethic of care
  • Teaching is a collegial act
  • Teaching is an act of inquiry and reflection.
  • Learning is a constructivist and developmental process.
  • The acquisition of content knowledge and subject matter is essential.
  • Teaching is essentially a political act.

LK:  I came to Mills College in 1988. The faculty grew over a few years. Together we started developing what it is that we believed and practiced into a set of principles. We began with 4 “pillars”—constructivist developmental theory, reflective practice, teaching as a moral act based on an ethic of care, and colleagiality—all under the umbrella of achieving social justice and excellent outcomes for all students.  As our faculty grew and we worked together we refined and broadened our scope to include and make explicit first the political aspect of teaching and finally the importance of subject matter.  In the mid 90’s,we had the opportunity to write our own standards for the state to evaluate our program.  We used the principles to develop our teacher education program While this opportunity to write experimental standards lasted only five years and the many current changes in education surrounding state and national standards have forced our program to alter its stricter focus on these six principles, the essence of this program still forms the basis of what we do at Mills. We write our success by how many of our graduates stay in the field.  We have an excellent record—a recent survey found about 95% of graduates in the last 15 years still in education.

JTB:  Can you share about your research focus?

LK:   I have several areas in which I do research.  My dissertation was on children’s writing development.  I am still interested in this and in how we teach children to write.  Currently I am working on a project that investigates how teachers starting with the youngest children (infants and toddlers) through elementary school think about the teaching of writing with regard to voice, content and conventions.  Earlier, I examined children’s writing development in how they learned to write in different genres and how they constructed their idea of different genres (Kroll, L.  (1998).  Cognitive Principles Applied to the Development of Literacy.  In McCombs, B. & Lambert, N. (eds.), How students learn:  Reforming schools through learner-centered education.  Washington DC:  American Psychological Association). This work focused on the use of Piagetian and constructivist theory in understanding children’s writing development.

A second area of research interest for me is teacher learning and development.  I first heard about the schools in Reggio Emilia at my first ACT conference in 1991 in Northhampton, Massachusetts. The Hundred Languages of Children exhibit came to Mills College for 18 months, and then in 2000 I had my first opportunity to accompany other Mills faculty on a trip to Reggio Emilia, to the schools and research center.  While there are many amazing things to learn from these schools, I was primarily interested in how they supported the teachers in their own development and their own research.  The use of documentation and visual representation to reflect on one’s own practice and learning for both children and teachers became a vital part of my own teaching and my own research.  (Kroll, L. R. & Breuer, F. (2006, July and August). Learning to Teach Reading:  Preparing Teachers for Urban Contexts.  In L. M. Fitzgerald, M. L. Heston, D. L. Tidwell (eds.) Collaboration and Community:  Pushing Boundaries through Self-Study. Sixth International Conference on Self-Study of Teacher Education Practices.  Pp. 161-164.)

Related to teacher development and research, I also became involved in self-study (Self-study of Teacher Education Practices).  I just completed a book about self-study practice, which focuses on different ways to help student teachers and teachers take a look at their practice. Everything I teach, even in my development class, is about looking at children to see how they understand what it is we are trying to teach them.

In my teaching and writing I was always interested in Early Childhood, then K-3, and I have now have gotten interested in the use of play in preschool to promote self-regulation.  I am currently working with a colleague helping teachers work through the ways to help children with self-regulation.  It is still focuses on how teachers think about these things.

JTB:  Can you tell us about the ways you have been involved in service?

LK:              I was the ACT President from 2001-2003.  I was the President of the Special Interest Group (SIG) in the American Educational Research Association (AERA) for five years. I review articles for many journals. I was Dean at my college for two years and now I’m chair of the Early Childhood Program and will be Associate Dean in the upcoming academic year.  These roles don’t define me, but they are service, and each time I take on new roles I learn new perspectives.  I work closely with the laboratory school at Mills College, serving as an advisor in a multiplicity of ways.

JTB:  Anything else you would like to add?

LK:    A new area of teaching and professional development that I have been exploring and presented on at ACT recently, is the integration of art into Teacher Education. That is, using art to help pre-service teachers become better teachers by using art in their classrooms and practice. This ties in with teaching visual literacy, arts, and education.


Kroll, L. R. (2012). Self-study and inquiry into practice: Learning to teach for equity and social justice in the elementary school classroom. Oxford, UK: Routledge.

Kroll, L. R. (2007). Constructing and reconstructing the concepts of development and learning: the central nature of theory in my practice. In Russell, T. and Loughran, J. (eds.), Enacting a Pedagogy of Teacher Education: Values, relationship and practices. New York: Routledge. Pp. 95-106.

Laboskey, V. K. and Kroll, L.R. (2007). Principles-Based Teacher Education: A Liberal Arts Contribution. In Bjork, C., Johnston, D. K, & Ross, H. (eds.) Taking teaching seriously: How liberal arts colleges repare teachers to meet today’s educational challenges in schools. London: Paradigm Publishers. 119-131.

Kroll, L. R. & Breuer, F. (2006, July and August). Learning to Teach Reading: Preparing Teachers for Urban Contexts. In L. M. Fitzgerald, M. L. Heston, D. L. Tidwell (eds.) Collaboration and Community: Pushing Boundaries through Self-Study. Sixth International Conference on Self-Study of Teacher Education Practices. Pp. 161-164.

Kroll, L. R. (2006). Learning to address issues of equity and access through inquiry in a student teaching seminar: A self-study. In D. Tidwell and L. Fitzgerald (eds.) Self-study and diversity. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers. 133-152.

Kroll, L. R. (2005, November). Making inquiry a habit of mind: Learning to use inquiry to understand and improve practice. Studying Teacher Education: A Journal of Self-Study Teacher Education Practices. 1, 2. 179-194.

Kroll, L. R., Cossey, R., Donahue, D. M., Galguera, T., Laboskey, V. K., Richert, A. E., Tucher, P. (2005). Teaching as Principled Practice. Managing Complexity for Social Justice. Sage Publications.

Kroll, L.R. (2005). Constructivism in Teacher Education: Rethinking How We Teach Teachers. In Kroll, Cossey, Donahue, Galguera, LaBoskey and Richert. Principled Practice in Teacher Education. Sage Publications.

Kroll, L.R. and Galguera, T. (2005). Introduction to Principled Practice. In Donahue, Galguera, Kroll, LaBoskey and Richert In Kroll, Cossey, Donahue, Galguera, LaBoskey and Richert. Principled Practice in Teacher Education. Sage Publications.

Laboskey, V. K., Richert, A. E., Kroll, L. R. (2005). Principled practice in a world of standards: Some concluding thoughts. In Kroll, Cossey, Donahue, Galguera, LaBoskey and Richert. Principled Practice in Teacher Education. Sage Publications.

Kroll, L. R. (June, 2004). Using Inquiry as Pedagogy to Understand and Address Equity in Student Teaching Classrooms: A Self-Study in How Well it Works. In D.L. Tidwell, L.M. Fitzgerald, M.L. Heston (eds). Journeys of Hope: risking Self-Study in a Diverse World. The Fifth International Conference on Self-Study of Teacher Education Practices. Cedar Falls, Iowa: University of Northern Iowa. Pp. 170-173.

Kroll, L.R. (2004, April). Constructing constructivism: How student teachers construct ideas of development, knowledge, learning, and teaching. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 10 (2) pp. 199-221.

Kroll, L.R. and Ammon, P.R. (2002) Constructivism and teacher education: A vision, an overview and seven dimensions. Rainer, J. (ed.) (2002). Reframing teacher education: Dimensions of a constructivist approach. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt Publishers.

Ammon, P. R. and Kroll, L.R. (2002). Learning and development in constructivist teacher education. Rainer, J. (ed.) (2002). Reframing teacher education: Dimensions of a constructivist approach. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt Publishers.

Kroll, L. (1998). Cognitive Principles Applied to the Development of Literacy. In McCombs, B. & Lambert, N. (eds.), How students learn: Reforming schools through learner-centered education. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Kroll, L. and Halaby, M. (1997, May). Writing to learn mathematics in the primary school. Young Children. 52 (4) (54-60).

Kroll, L. R., Bowyer, J.B., Rutherford, M., and Hauben, M. (Winter, 1997). The effect of a school-university partnership on the student teaching experience. Teacher Education Quarterly. 24 (1) (37-52).

Kroll, L. R. and LaBoskey, V.K. (1996, summer). Practicing what we preach: Constructivism in a teacher education program. Action in Teacher Education. Vol. XVIII, (2). (63-72).

Kroll, L. and Black, A. (1993) Developmental Theory and Teaching Methods: A Pilot Study of a Teacher Education program. Elementary School Journal, 93 (4). (417-441).

Kroll, L.R., and Black, A. (1989). Developmental Principles and Organization of Instruction for Literacy: Observations of Experienced Teachers. Genetic Epistemologist, XVII, 4.

Black, A., Ammon, P., and Kroll, L. (1987). Development, literacy and the social construction of knowledge. Genetic Epistemologist, XV, 3-4.

Bye, T., Kroll, L. et al (1991). Planning Guide for English/Language Arts. 2nd edition. Vallejo City Unified School District.

Contributing author to Developmental Studies Center (1997). Blueprints for a collaborative classroom. Oakland, CA: Developmental Studies Center.

Posted in Board Member Interviews | Leave a comment

Dialog, representation, materialization, and all that

This is going to get a bit technical.

I have a problem and would like to open it up to the group. It has to do with me bringing my teaching experience into the world of Early Childhood. Most readers of this blog are early childhood people, I know, but take a look at this paragraph from a college beginning physics text (Tippler & Mosca, 2008):

Figure 1

What does this have to do with Early Childhood Education (ECE)? Figure 1 shows a very dense text and a very dense use of symbols. But look, a high school AP physics teacher is expected to get her students to interpret this and use it to solve problems. The 9th and 10th grade algebra teachers are expected to get them ready for AP physics. Middle school gets them ready for algebra, and on down the line. From preschool to kindergarten, elementary school, and on up, the theory is that many students can be made ready to read, interpret, and apply this dense and abstract stuff. This is one of our targets.

Scaffolding—or materialization—dialog, and collegiality 

Figure 2

I think every step of the way is mostly failing to do this, but I think ECE is building the solutions. Let me give you an example. A college physics student—a smart young woman—came to me at the end of her semester, failing, but hoping to turn it around in the last two weeks. We looked at the text above and she just stammered. I asked her to draw a picture of “the situation”. She did something like Figure 2. So, what did she do? She drew a picture of a thermometer—from her world. She saw the word in that dense paragraph and that’s what she started with. This gave us something to talk about. I said, “Great! Now, what are the lines for? Why is the bottom darker? What are the P’s?” and we began a conversation. The lines were degree markers; the dark part is where the liquid is; the P’s? They were in the description so she wrote them down. I said, “Let’s take a look at that paragraph again and look at your drawing. See where it says, ‘constant-volume gas thermometer.’ Where’s the gas? What volume is constant?” She couldn’t say, but offered, “Maybe the gas is up in the light part.”

“Excellent,” I said. “but you’re guessing, right?” She admitted, “Yeah, I don’t really know what I am doing.”

This is a very delicate point. You can position yourself as a judger, or a colleague and a “knowledgable other.” I said, “What you’re doing is good. You’re groping around, trying to make sense of this. What you’re doing is very intelligent, trying to fit what what you know to this thing, trying to make sense of it.” Then I said, “The problem is, they’re talking about something different,” and I drew a sketch and she got to watch me draw it (Figure 3).

Figure 3

As I began, I said, “This is what they are talking about, like a big cylinder or can, that doesn’t expand.” I went on, “You know how you shouldn’t throw a paint can in a fire. Why?” She said because it would blow up. “Right, the pressure gets too high as it heats up.” I kept drawing, “In this thing, they put a little sensor on the side (dark patch) and run a wire from it to a pressure gauge (arrow) so they can measure the pressure inside. Now, where’s the gas? Where’s the constant volume?”

She guessed: “The gas is inside the tank and the tank keeps the volume constant.”

“So, how do they measure temperature with this?” She shrugged.


“How did you measure temperature with yours?” I asked, and she looked at her first sketch for about 20 seconds (a long time in one-on-one work) and then said something like, “I don’t know. I guess when the black part gets higher it shows temperature.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right.” I said, “Your thermometer doesn’t really measure temperature, it measures something else. What does it measure?” She thought a few seconds, and answered, “I don’t know. Height?”

“Nice,” I said, “The height is showing how the liquid is swelling. Your’s is not a constant-volume thermometer; I’d call it a ‘constant-pressure’ thermometor, I think. You were right, really. There is a gas above the black part, but it’s almost a vacuum, and as the liquid swells, the gas pressure doesn’t change much at all. Your’s is pretty much a constant-pressure thermometer, but the liquid is the important part and its volume changes as its temperature changes.”

We need to make the hidden thinking visible

I could go on. What did I do? If you are a ‘Brunarian’, I scaffolded (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976); if you are a ‘Vygotskian’, I acted as a knowledgeable other and helped her materialize her thinking (Bodrova & Leong, 1998); if you are ‘Reggio-inspired’, I co-created knowledge with her as she represented her experience (Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 1998); if you are a ‘Formanian’, I engaged in a high-level dialog about her theories of the world (Forman & Hall, 2005).

Figure 4

In any case, this took less than five minutes, but it was absolutely essential for her to be able to interpret this text. We went on together, building to where she could interpret the equation and the accompanying diagram (Figure 4), which is much more complicated than my simple picture.

I intend to revisit this experience in future posts, but I want to make a point here: I feel that one of my essential functions in helping people interpret science texts is to make the hidden thinking behind the formal presentations visible and then to help people bring their native intelligence to the problem. For example, to make the equation presented in the text meaningful, you have to a) see it as a predictor of the real world; b) realize that important parts have been left out; c) think of it as a pretend model, not reality; and d) relate it to simple mathematical ideas like triangles, slopes, and ratios.

Like most students I’ve known, my student would have done none of this on her own and would have left the engagement feeling stupid and hopeless. I relate this back to high school, middle school, elementary school, and even early childhood education: it at first seems that this problem requires some academic pyrotechniques to approach, something only a few people have. It does require very abstract thinking, but also it requires certain habits of mind in the student: exploring, representing, naming, revisiting and adjusting, pretending; and requires certain teaching practices: representation, observation, speculation, dialog, provocations, collegiality, and respect. The work of actual scientists, I believe, is full of all of these things, but the formal science and math teaching in school hides it away. My problem is how to point to the essential hidden thinking in science and math problems like the one above and how to bring them into science classrooms up and down schooling.

The constructivist leaders in ECE are devoted to using and developing all these practices outside of a formal curriculum. I’m wondering if we can extend those practices up into the formal curricula, which are pushing down even into kindergarten now, so that by the time children reach high school, they can hit the targets that schooling is setting for them?

PS: I have found that most students benefit by thinking of physics problems in terms of “before” and “after.” Most physics problems have a before/after structure, but it’s hidden. The equation in the text above is actually before/after/in between. Can you find this structure?


Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. J. (1998). Scaffolding emergent writing in the zone of proximal development. Literacy, 3(2), 1.

Edwards, C., Gandini, L., & Forman, G. (1998). The Hundred Languages of Children, The Reggio Emilia Approach—Advanced Reflections.

Forman G. & Hall, E. (2005). Wondering with children: The importance of observation in early education. Early Childhood Research and Practice, 7(2). Retrieved from

Tipler, P. & Mosca, G. (2008). Physics for scientists and engineers (6th Ed.). New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry,17(2), 89-100.

Posted in Formalizing experience | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

From the Field: Tech Yes!

The Gloversville Enlarged school District is a high poverty district on the edge of the Southern Adirondack Mountain Park in upstate New York.  The district is comprised of four elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school.  The average size of each class is 225.


In the spring of 2011 we were fortunate enough to furnish each of our students and teachers in seventh grade with hand-held mobile learning devices.  Before the highly anticipated date of deployment, teachers were provided with professional development in both the logistic use of the devices, and what little pedagogy exists for the optimal use of mobile learning devices in seventh grade. The multiyear plan was to grow the availability of the technology into eighth grade in 2011-2012, and be integrated into the high school’s grade nine by 2012-2013.


Teachers spent a large amount of time reaching consensus determining a learning platform to deliver lessons and assignments.  The underlying belief was that teachers could use existing lessons which could easily be modified to enhance delivery using the mobile technology.  The ultimate goal was, and remains to be, expanding opportunities for classrooms to be student centered; for more students to take greater responsibility for their individual goal setting and learning.


The deployment of the devices was successful in that it created a great deal of buzz around both the school and community, and all stakeholders seemed interested, excited, and engaged.  Students successfully prepared and delivered a presentation to the Board of Education which added to the sense of excitement.  Local media was on board, and helped create more positive buzz.


Initially, teachers on the two seventh grade teams relied on the technology for much of their content delivery.  Materials and lessons that already existed in electronic form were easily adaptable, and student engagement appeared to increase. Teachers and students hunted for applications related to content, and discovered numerous products that greatly enhanced the experience.   In a very short period of time it became apparent though, that individual teachers had individual belief systems about the technology and how best to incorporate them into their curricula.  By the end of the year, some teachers had fully embraced the idea of incorporating the devices into their classrooms, while others retreated, instead relying more and more on traditional lesson delivery methods.  The district was faced with the question of how best to proceed with grade eight, if at all.  Administration was challenged with where to find any available research pointing toward best practices in the uses of mobile technology in classrooms.  Very little exists.  While articles about mobile technology flood the literature, studies of the pedagogy are scarce.  With the technology changing rapidly, it appears that researches are challenged with providing timely information.


Seventh grade social studies teacher Robert Garren serves as advisor to a middle school student technology club, Tech Yes.  A group of Tech Yes students attended the Institute for Learner Centered Education’s Constructivist Design Conference in the summer of 2011. Using student knowledge to inform technology needs is nothing new in the field.  However, the notion of using seventh and eighth grade students to provide this service seems to be unique.   These students eagerly worked on an action plan that could be used to advise eighth grade teachers when school resumed in the fall.


The teachers in grade eight were at an even greater disadvantage than the teachers in grade seven.  They had incoming students arriving with expectations about the inclusion of mobile learning, but they had not been part of any of the decision making processes.  The district’s challenge was to determine the types and methods of professional development that would be tolerated, helpful, sustainable, and ultimately embraced.  The largest issues still faced by the district seem to be the lack of research-based best practices, and the idea that this type of technology needs to be embedded, as opposed to just another tool to pull out of the cupboard from time to time.  Watching students with their personal cell phones not only shows the ubiquity of the technology, but how fully integrated into their daily experience it has become.  Students have greater facility with the devices, greater knowledge of the applications available, and greater interest and reliance, on the available technology. Teachers are at a distinct disadvantage.


With district prodding, Rob Garren, guided his Tech Yes students to create a professional development series for their eighth grade teachers.  They surveyed teachers about their familiarity, interest, motivation, perceptions, and pedagogical beliefs and needs related to hand-held learning technology.   The findings have led them to provide training for teachers both individually, as needs arise, and in groups when they sense that their instructions are floundering with delivery.  The student led professional development is centered on a set of beliefs which they feel are largely universal for their grade level.  The technology:


  • Saves time in classrooms which can be recycled to delve deeper into content
  • Forces more student-centered learning
  • Creates contextual connections that may not have been evident before
  • Increase student motivation
  • Provide more learning ‘fun’
  • Empower students by having the world’s search engines at their fingertips.


Teachers have recognized the power and potential that exists in allowing their students to provide this type of information.  This current age group is indeed comprised of digital natives, with skill sets related to technology that the adults in their lives just do not possess.  The students and their teachers are all acutely aware of this.  I credit the teachers for having the wisdom and tolerance to actively learn from their students.


While it is too early for us to realize any trends in achievement as a result of this initiative, the anecdotal information we have points in the right direction.  The district has learned that while trying to keep up with the advances in technology is daunting, we should not overlook our students as ready and willing resources in our learning environments.



-Frank Pickus

Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction

Gloversville Enlarged School District.

May, 2012

Posted in From the Field | 1 Comment

Marine Science Investigations

“If a child is to keep his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” Rachel Carson Spring … Continue reading

Gallery | Tagged | 3 Comments

STEM Education at the Maritime Explorium

This gallery contains 4 photos.

At a time when schools are becoming increasingly prescribed and test driven, children need places in which their imaginative intelligence can sail. I will use this forum to report on the successes and challenges we encounter at the  Maritime Explorium. the ME, … Continue reading

Gallery | 6 Comments

iPad iLearn

This gallery contains 1 photo.

Often we hear about technology being the savior of all our problems in education or the culprit. It is either the solution we’ve been waiting for or it is contributing to education’s demise. Where technology is concerned, beauty is in … Continue reading

Gallery | Leave a comment