UKEdMag: A constructivist approach to technology in STEM education by @Collaborat_Ed

Damaging beliefs?

What is the core responsibility of a teacher? What do effective learning and teaching look like?

Many pre-service teachers view “interest” as synonymous with learning: a teacher who promotes learning in their students is one who consistently makes lessons interesting regardless of other aspects of their teaching. This results in the puzzling finding that preservice teachers’ criteria for the quality of a lesson may be based almost entirely on students’ motivation and classroom management during that lesson (Joram and Gabriele, 1998). But, although this seems to be a common belief of student teachers, it can often be found in many experienced teachers, especially in science. I have heard many times the argument that “we need to let KS3 students enjoy science lessons and keep them engaged with wiz and bangs, because they will be bored to death during their GCSE exam preparation”.


This article originally appeared in the January 2017 edition of UKEdMagazine

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Sadly, this argument is often used to justify the use of technology in the classroom too. So, the fact that children engage with technology in their private life daily can easily become the main motivator for using technology in schools. This is a somewhat limiting view of technology in the classroom and I believe one of the main contributors to the negative connotation recently given to the effectiveness of technology in education.

Why digital learning?

What questions do you ask yourself when you plan a lesson that involves the use of technology? Are you asking “will my students be engaged and my lesson be fun?” or are you asking “will this use of technology enhance my students’ understanding of this topic?”. Which question is more aligned with the core responsibility of a teacher and likely to foster more effective learning and teaching in your classroom?

I am not saying that engaging learners is pointless. Quite the opposite. Yet focusing entirely on engagement at the expense of learning, challenging and thinking, is not the best strategy, nor will it convince reluctant users of technology that digital learning makes a positive difference.

In the rest of the article, I will focus on two tools and strategies that have been really useful in my teaching and that other educators have also found highly beneficial. Each strategy is heavily relying on constructivist methodologies, as they both seek to foster learners’ progress by constructing meaning and understanding through challenging misconceptions via personal experience and concrete examples.

Acting the graph!

When I was an NQT I attended a course by Howard Dodd and he showed us a nice little use for ultrasound motion sensors. He asked a delegate to walk in front of the sensor so that the Displacement – Time graph drawn by the software would look like the letter M. Then he asked to ‘draw’ the letter W. This activity provided a good visual and physical link between what students had to learn for their exams and their personal experience of moving. So, I decided to go a step further and use the Vernier Video Physics app and ask students to act a typical Displacement – Time graph that they would be likely to see in an exam question.

The students in this Yr11 class were given a trundle wheel, a stop watch and some markers to mark specific points on the floor. Then, they organised themselves to act the graph. So, one person walked along a straight line to mimic the graph, whilst the others in the group could help signposting important parts of the graph, as well as keeping the time. You can see how the Vernier Video Physics app renders the video after tracking the object in each photogram in this video bit.ly/uked17jan01. What do you think? Did this group act the graph well? I believe the advantage of Vernier Video Physics in this example is that, unlike the motion sensor which immediately showed the graph being plotted, the learners had to really think very carefully about how

You can see how the Vernier Video Physics app renders the video after tracking the object in each photogram in the video below. What do you think? Did this group act the graph well?

I believe the advantage of Vernier Video Physics in this example is that, unlike the motion sensor which immediately showed the graph being plotted, the learners had to really think very carefully about how they needed to move in order to generate a graph that would look like the one they were given in their handout. In order to act the graph, students needed to challenge a range of misconceptions they might have had about motion graphs. For example, a typical misconception is that students often interpret the straight line going up as an object literally going uphill and the straight line going down as the object going downhill, so before the group can be ready to act their graph they need to construct a more correct understanding of the meaning of straight lines in a Displacement – Time graph.

Acting the graph out with their movement will support the learners in consolidating this new cognitive construct and will act as a powerful example that reinforces these elements through personal experience. Not being able to see the shape of the graph until the activity is completed should be seen as an advantage, because it adds to the challenge of translating a Displacement – Time graph into the real movement of a person, hence forcing the learner to think more deeply about the task they are tackling. However, the visual feedback the app gives at the end by showing the graph the students have ‘plotted’ is a powerful tool that can be used for Assessment for Learning (AfL).

Virtual confidence walls

I once observed a great lesson on centre of mass led by my good friend Neil Atkin @natkin in a comprehensive school in Leicester. Neil started by handing post-it notes to the learners and asking them to write what they thought centre of mass is. Then he told them to stick their post-it definitions of centre of mass on the left end of the back wall, if they didn’t feel very confidence that their idea of centre of mass was correct, in the middle, if they felt fairly confident and on the right end of the wall, if they felt really confident. It became quite clear very early on in this activity that a considerably larger percentage of boys placed their post-it note on the very confident end of the wall, whereas many girls placed their definition closer to the left side of the wall.

A closer look at the comments on the sticky notes revealed that a significant number of boys’ contributions on the right side of the wall showed a lack of knowledge and understanding of centre of mass, whilst some learners who placed their notes towards the left of the wall had better definitions. I thought this was a fascinating way to start a science lesson that had some excellent elements of AfL and that opened many opportunities for reflective practice, both for the teacher and the learners. However, I thought it would be a shame to lose those contributions at the end of the lesson and the ability to use the original definitions and their place on the ‘confidence wall’ (as I later called this activity) for the next lesson.

So, I immediately thought of Padlet.com as a perfect tool to address this limitation and I have since created a range of confidence walls using Padlet that allow learners to add, move and edit virtual post-it notes to a digital board. The example below is the beginning of a lesson on falling objects and air resistance where I cut a piece of paper, or card, in the shape of a circle with

However, I thought it would be a shame to lose those contributions at the end of the lesson and the ability to use the original definitions and their place on the ‘confidence wall’ (as I later called this activity) for the next lesson. So, I immediately thought of Padlet.com as a perfect tool to address this limitation and I have since created a range of confidence walls using Padlet that allow learners to add, move and edit virtual post-it notes to a digital board. The example below is the beginning of a lesson on falling objects and air resistance where I cut a piece of paper, or card, in the shape of a circle with

The example (right) is the beginning of a lesson on falling objects and air resistance where I cut a piece of paper, or card, in the shape of a circle with diameter a bit shorter than the diameter of a 2p coin. Then, I show the coin and card to the class and ask them to predict which will fall to the ground first. Next, I let the card and coin fall together (next to each other, but not on top of each other). The students will see that the card takes a lot longer to reach the ground, so I ask my students to discuss in pairs what this situation shows us about two objects of different mass falling near the surface of the earth. I also get them to write an explanation of what they have observed in the Padlet ‘confidence wall’.

There are immediate visible advantages in using this digital version of ‘confidence walls’, as I could easily identify and read new inputs as they were added, as well as edit and offer feedback to pupils’ contributions.

But the real value of this application of Padlet is the ability to save and recall these ‘confidence walls’ over a series of lessons, as well as revisiting the ‘confidence wall’ at the end of the lesson to reflect on the progress made. The idea here is that as new cognitive constructs and learning have taken place, the students can edit their virtual post-it notes and make additions, change their models of how the processes observed work and move their own notes across the confidence line. So, some learners who develop new understanding can move their contributions to the right of the confidence line, whilst others who felt overly confident can review their notes and move them further left, as they come to realise that their explanations are actually pretty far from a better model.

This could be the case of “Galileo” in the example above, who talks about both the coin and the piece of paper experiencing the same force. If that were the case, they would have the same weight (and they clearly haven’t). What they both have (when the card is dropped on top of the coin) is the same acceleration (g = 9.8 m/s2) and because the coin has greater mass, its inertia (the resistance to being accelerated) is also greater than the paper’s inertia, so a greater force (weight) is needed to generate the same acceleration.

In fact, weight = mass x g → g = W/m.

As explained above, this was just at the start of the lesson and these students had not much experience of falling objects and the forces involved at this point, although “Galileo’s” response already deals with the next question I posed to this class, which was:

“So, what would happen, if I put the piece of card over the coin and then drop the coin with the card on top?

Will the card fall at the same rate as the coin, faster than the coin, or more slowly than the coin now?”

The main factor here is that we have removed the air resistance on the piece of card by putting it on top of the coin, so the coin and the card will now fall at the same rate.

Things are a little more complex than just that in reality, because of the turbulence of the air particles being displaced by the coin as it falls there will be a pressure difference at the top of the coin which also helps to keep the card there, but the air resistance argument is good for this age group and useful to discuss and visualise that all objects fall with acceleration g near the surface of the Earth, although air resistance will cause lighter objects to fall with increasingly lower acceleration as the drag from air particles increases until it balances the weight of the object. All this offers a really good link to resultant forces and vector addition along the same line of action too. All these points might be developed over a series of lessons and through a range of different learning experiences (including practical work), so a post-it note to describe this phenomenon at the start of this learning journey is quite likely to look very different than what a student will write at the end of the journey. Using Padlet as a digital ‘confidence wall’ allows the teachers to capture this journey and the students to map their progress and visually see their explanations grow and their confidence build up.

I can do all that with no technology!

I believe the elements highlighted above make applications of technology such as these invaluable as tools and strategies to develop constructivist lessons. But the methodology is what I would like you to take from this article, not the particular digital tools, because those continuously change and evolve, but good pedagogical principles are timeless (take Socratic questions as an example). Many of you might think “Well, I can do all that without technology”, or “where do I find a class set of iPads to use with Video Physics?”

I will address each question in turn and briefly. Firstly, yes, indeed you can create effective ‘confidence walls’ using real post-it notes and physical walls. There is nothing wrong about that and it still makes a great and formative activity. But developing a virtual wall that can be accessed anywhere, saved and recalled any time and that learners can edit as they construct new meaning in their thinking about topics enriches this activity manifolds. You will eventually run out of wall space in your classroom and you will need to take down previous classes’ notes for another class, but you don’t have to abandon the wall next lesson, if you are using Padlet (or a similar application).

Similarly, you can easily get students to act the graphs without videoing each other, but how would they know that their movement matched the graph they were mimicking? In addition, the ability to compare their graph with the handout and describe how they were moving at different stages is very useful, as well as using their creations as a tool for peer and teacher feedback from the projector. Secondly, at the time I led the motion graph lesson above I only had one iPad available for the class, my personal iPad, and I filmed as many groups as I could. Then, I invited each group at a time to analyse their graph on Vernier Video Physics as the rest of the class was working on some questions. So, there are always ways to engage with meaningful use of technology in science when it is worth it.

It’s not all about fun!

In conclusion, I believe that technology, like any other initiative, strategy and tool in education should be used with the same objectives in mind we should have whenever we plan a sequence of learning events, i.e. with the learners’ best interest in mind. If you can genuinely answer positively to the question “will my students learn something new, or consolidate previous knowledge through this use of technology?”, then it is worth pursuing and there are many other examples where technology really supports learning. But if all technology achieves is to make lessons fun, it becomes the equivalent of the “wiz and bangs” that confuse “interest” with learning.


Alessio Bernardelli is the Founding Director of CollaboratEd.org.uk. You can follow him on Twitter as @Collaborat_Ed. You can also see him in action at BETT 2017 at the Learn Live: Secondary area where he will show the strategies in this article and other effective uses of technology in STEM learning.

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