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The Teacher's Role in Establishing a Constructivist Sociomoral Atmosphere

How can you foster cooperation in the classroom? By not making assumptions about what the children know and by inquiring into their thinking

The constructivist teacher attempts to cooperate with children and foster cooperation among children themselves. When people talk about cooperation between adults and children, they often mean children's compliance with adult demands. This is not what we mean. Rather, we mean the teacher's reciprocal relations with children. These arise from respect for children as people and respect for the nature of their development. The general principle of teaching is that the teacher minimizes authority as much as practical and possible. Cooperation is important for the sociomoral atmosphere because it reflects respect for the equality of class members-quality in rights and responsibilities.

We conceptualize the ways constructivist teachers cooperate with children in terms of what teachers try to do. They try (1) to understand children's reasoning, and (2) to facilitate children's construction and knowledge.

Understanding Children's Reasoning

Knowledge of Piaget's research and theory on the preoperational stage of development helps teachers to understand young children's reasoning. We do not attempt a review of that work here but offer a few guidelines and examples that may ease the inexperienced constructivist teacher into a habit of observing and listening to children.

This habit is characterized by taking seriously what children say. For example, when a child says, "The weatherman made it rain today," the teacher recognizes this is a real belief and not just a cute remark. Similarly, the teacher assesses the intuitive nature of an idea expressed by a child on a walk. As the group turns around to return to school, shadows are no longer behind but in front of them. "How come your shadow is in front of you now?" The answer: "The wind blew it." The teacher realizes that the child is not able to think about spatial and causal relations among light, object, and shadow. Similarly, when a child insists that a classmate bumped his block structure on purpose, the teacher recognizes that the child does not and perhaps cannot appreciate that actions may not reflect intentions.

The constructivist teacher does not assume that children think like adults. Rather than making assumptions about what children know and how they reason, the teacher honestly inquires as to what children think and is prepared for surprises.

Facilitating Children's Constructions

Understanding children's reasoning provides the basis for facilitating development. To help children construct knowledge and intelligence, the constructivist teacher engages with children to introduce a new element of food for thought. In a shadows activity, for example, Coreen Samuel observes that "B," a kindergarten boy, has figured out that moving a toy elephant back from the screen results in a bigger and bigger shadow. Wondering whether B has taken the light source into account, she asks, "How big can you make it? Make it as big as you can." B responds by moving back and back until he is behind the slide projector serving as light source. "What happened to the elephant shadow? I don't see it anymore." B is startled by the unexpected result and waves the elephant in the dark. Seeing no shadow, he moves forward, but out of the path of light. Waving the elephant from side to side, B accidentally catches the light and glimpses the shadow. This leads him to move into the full path of the light. "There it is!" Coreen again asks, "So how big can you make it?" B again backs up, still not conscious of the light source, and loses the shadow again. "Dam!" He waves the elephant around, places it on top of and beside the projector, and finally recreates the shadow by going back to stand in the place where he saw it last. Over the course of the year, Coreen continues to create situations that challenge B to experiment further with shadows. Making shadows on the ceiling is a particularly exciting situation in which B tests various hypotheses and gradually coordinates the light/object and object/screen relations.

In a group game, the constructivist teacher often takes part as a player alongside children. In this position, she can think aloud and thereby help children become more conscious of rules and strategies. For example, in a game of checkers, a student intern says, "If I move that one here, it would be safe, but if I move it here, you'd jump me, so I think I'll move it here so it will be safe." Children thus are challenged to think ahead and reason about possible moves on the part of the opponent. The constructivist teacher cooperates with children by taking seriously their particular reasoning and constructions of knowledge.

Fostering Cooperation Among Children

Because so much peer interaction occurs in a constructivist classroom, relations among children comprise an important part of the sociomoral atmosphere. The constructivist goal is for children to construct emotional balance and coping abilities, interpersonal understanding, and social and moral values. All these goals are approached through the teacher's work with children in the interpersonal context of peer interactions.

Promoting Construction of Emotional Balance and Coping Abilities

Construction of emotional balance is a continual effort on the part of young children who are emotionally labile. They have not yet constructed personality characteristics and coping competencies. This is in large part due to intellectual limitations in thinking about perspectives and complexities of self/other interactions and relationships. The child who does not differentiate action from intentions will be angered at every accidental encroachment of his rights. Emotional balance comes about gradually as children learn to withhold judgment and question their own interpretations of others, realizing that they need to find out what others' intentions are. Some adults do not learn this very well, jumping to conclusions that are really projections of their own attitudes. The constructivist teacher assists children in the process of achieving emotional balance and mental health by facilitating the development of self-knowledge and interpersonal understanding.

The constructivist teacher fosters the development of self-knowledge by helping children reflect on their feelings and reaction tendencies. When children become upset, the teacher can ask the children what happened to make them upset. Sympathetically, the teacher can acknowledge children's feelings, letting them know that how they feel is recognized. In the case of an issue with another child, the teacher uses conflict mediation techniques. If the child comes to school upset with a parent, the teacher can listen and perhaps help the child figure out how to talk to the parent about the problem. If the child continues to be upset or is upset about something that cannot be changed, the constructivist teacher tries to help the child let go of and master the difficult feelings by suggesting, "Sometimes you can make yourself feel better. Is there something you can do or think about to make yourself feel better?" When a child seems to be in a destructive spiral of anger or self-pity, it sometimes helps to say, "You can decide to feel bad, or you can decide to feel better."

Promoting Construction of Interpersonal Understanding

Construction of interpersonal understanding is a process of decentering to think about the other's point of view and to figure out how to coordinate it with one's own through negotiation. As children come to be interested in the psychological states of others and in developing friendships, they construct a repertoire of different types of negotiation strategies and shared experiences of which they are capable. The constructivist teacher facilitates this construction by using advanced strategies, sometimes suggesting them in the context of conflicts, and generally supporting children's efforts to negotiate. For example, the constructivist teacher refers children to other children for help in activities and states children's different points of view in the context of conflict.

Promoting Construction of Moral Values

Construction of moral values is a gradual process of building respect for others. Children do not develop respect for others unless they are respected. The teacher's expression of respect for children goes a long way toward establishing the foundation for construction of self-respect and respect for others. Respect for others rests on intellectual and emotional decentering to consider others' points of view. Through countless situations in which children experience sympathy, community, and clashes with others, the child constructs ideas of reciprocity among people. We generally recommend that the teacher not initiate group discussion of problems between two children. However, when many children are concerned about an individual's behavior, group discussion may be fruitful.

Summary

A constructivist sociomoral classroom atmosphere is based on the teacher's attitude of respect for children's interests, feelings, values, and ideas. The constructivist classroom is organized to meet children's physical, emotional, and intellectual needs. It is organized for peer interaction and child responsibility. Activities appeal to children's interests, experimentation, and cooperation. The teacher's role is to cooperate with children by trying to understand their reasoning and facilitating the constructive process. The teacher's role is also to foster cooperation among children by promoting their construction of emotional balance and coping abilities, interpersonal understanding, and moral values.

A sociomoral constructivist program will consider a child's:

  • Physiological needs It seems obvious that adults should meet children's physical needs. However, sometimes these are disregarded-perhaps because school rules and facilities may make it difficult and inconvenient for teachers to respond. Or perhaps the school is not meeting teachers' needs, so the teacher can't meet the children's needs. Nevertheless, failure to meet children's physical needs creates an abusive situation. The sociomoral atmosphere of the constructivist classroom is characterized by physical comfort.
  • Emotional needs In many schools where children's physical needs are met, emotional needs may be overlooked. The constructivist teacher is a mentor who is not only emotionally present and available to children, she continually takes children's feelings into account and tries to help them construct a more stable system of feelings and ways of coping with difficult feelings. Respecting children requires communicating acceptance and affection. It requires providing an environment that encourages and supports children's expressions of feelings, interests, and values. This means accepting the child's right to feel anger and sadness as well as positive feelings. In the moral classroom, children feel safe, secure, and comfortable.
  • Intellectual needs Children have intellectual needs for activities that stimulate their interests and provide content that inspires them to figure out how to do something. Respect for children's intellectual needs leads to recognizing that young children must be physically active and emotionally engaged. Therefore, meeting children's intellectual needs is bound up with meeting their physical and emotional needs. The sociomoral atmosphere is an intellectually engaging atmosphere.

Rheta DeVries is professor of curriculum and instruction and director of the Iowa Regents' Center for Early Developmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa.

Betty S. Zan is a research fellow at the Iowa Regents' Center for Early Developmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa and a doctoral candidate in developmental psychology at the University of Houston.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher from DeVries, R. & Zan, B., MORAL CLASSROOMS, MORAL CHILDREN: CREATING A CONSTRUCTIVIST ATMOSPHERE IN EARLY EDUCATION (New York: Teachers College Press, (C) 1994 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved), excerpts from chapter 4.

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