Beyond Classroom Boundaries:
Constructivist Teaching with the Internet
Amelia E. El-Hindi
Texas Tech University [at time of writing]
Lubbock, Texas, United States
dear friends in Japan,
im 7. I eat bar-b-q chicken. Um it is ymmy. What do you like to eat? I will draw a picture for you. Will you draw one for me?
Your friend, Shekita
Shekita is just one of the many students within Patti Weeg's U.S. classroom who now use the Internet to make friends with children in Japan and many other parts of the world. Patti's location on the Internet, "the global classroom," displays their many wonderful accomplishments. For Patti Weeg (email@example.com), a Title I computer teacher at Delmar Elementary School in Delmar, Maryland, the Internet is an important teaching tool for supporting writing process activities. Shekita's letter is part of a project called the World Wide F.A.X. project initiated by Isamu Shimazaki (firstname.lastname@example.org), a second-grade teacher at Rinkan Elementary School in Japan. F.A.X. stands for "Friendships Are eXciting." As students write, read, and illustrate within this international exchange, they create not only new friendships, but new ways to use reading and writing as well. With Internet technology the walls of their classrooms dissolve, and literacy is used to foster worldwide friendships.
The Internet has captured much attention, and in spite of increasing access, many still wonder just what it is. The Internet is simply a vast network of computers connected to one another. The World Wide Web offers the means of linking text, graphics, animation, and sound across any computer connected to the Internet. As more schools gain access to the Internet, teachers find themselves faced with questions about using this technology to support learning. The Internet can be a powerful ally for fostering meaningful learning experiences. Elementary language arts teachers, in particular, can use the Internet to create authentic literacy experiences for children. Children in Patti's class realize their power to communicate as they exchange letters and cards with their Japanese friends. (An example of their "New Year's Greeting Card Project" can be found at http://www.globalclassroom.org/masaminy.html.) The capacity of the Internet to link classrooms worldwide provides a wealth of opportunity for children to use reading and writing in authentic contexts.
As teachers explore uses of the Internet to support reading and writing activities for children, they find that this technology demands looking at literacy in new ways. Electronic information contexts regularly redefine what it means to be literate (Leu, 1997, online document; Reinking, 1995). Literacy now involves being able to make sense of and navigate through several forms of information, including images, sounds, animation, and ongoing discussion groups. Scholars such as Flood and Lapp (1995), Reinking (1995), and Leu (1997) remind us that with the advent of multimedia technology, we start departing from traditional notions of reading and writing. The idea of an isolated text no longer makes sense as children today are exposed to more fluid forms of information transfer. Being literate involves integrating reading and writing, navigating through information sources, discriminating between important and unimportant information, responding to e-mail, or engaging in electronic chat sessions. In short, it means being able to communicate in what Reinking (1995) calls a "post-typographic" world.
Electronic contexts are not the only forces reshaping definitions of literacy. Other forces include recent discussions by literacy scholars who have adopted a social constructionist perspective (i.e., Brufee, 1986; Gavelek & Raphael, 1996; Langer, 1991; Wells & Chang-Wells, 1992). Rooted in the work of Vygotsky, Bahktin, Bruner, and others, the social constructionist perspective embraces specific assumptions about the nature of knowledge. Social constructionists question the "giveness" of knowledge and assume that what is understood as knowledge is constructed jointly through social interaction within a community (Gavelek & Raphael, 1996). The role of reading teachers, therefore, is not to impart universal truths about text but to foster an environment where learners come to construct understanding through interaction. Student talk as opposed to teacher talk becomes very important. Learning from text occurs from students' active construction of "interpretations" and the ensuing justification of their interpretations. Meaning from text "is not 'out there' to be acquired but is something that is constructed by individuals through their interactions with each other and the world" (Gavelek & Raphael, 1996, p. 183).
According to this perspective, cognitive activity is inherently social (Brufee, 1986). Langer (1991), for example, sees literacy learning as "socially based" and believes that learners develop ways of thinking from such socially based experiences. In fact, language use becomes the very medium through which thought is developed (Langer, 1991; Wells & Chang-Wells, 1992). Higher order thinking skill is developed through language. Social interaction, therefore, is essential to developing sophisticated thinking.
In addition to contributing to new definitions of literacy, the social constructionist perspective fits with a paradigm shift that has redefined the very nature of learning. Teachers today are called upon to abandon traditional views of learning that define learners as "empty vessels" and emphasize the role of teacher as "transmitter" of knowledge. Often traditional classrooms are dominated by teacher talk, and students have few opportunities to engage in meaningful talk that fosters critical thinking. Such practice tends to promote rote recall and memorization as opposed to allowing students to think in meaningful and authentic ways. Student thinking tends to be geared toward copying the teacher for "correctness" as opposed to being rooted in active construction of understanding.
Constructivism, a theory of learning now in the limelight among educators, represents a radical departure from traditional notions of learning. Constructivism does not assume the presence of an outside objective reality that is revealed to the learner, but rather that learners actively construct their own reality, transforming it and themselves in the process (Fosnot, 1996). Constructivism assumes that knowledge is "built" by individuals from within instead of being transmitted into the learner from another source without (Cobern, 1993). In constructivist classrooms, teachers "offer situations in which children at various levels, whatever their intellectual structures, can come to know parts of their world in new ways" (Duckworth, 1996, p. 48).
Supporting New Paradigms with the Internet
Certainly discussions of social constructionism and constructivism have expanded educators' ideas about literacy and learning. However, up to this point much of this discussion has focused on changing conditions within regular classrooms. Relatively little has been said about how Internet technology can be used to support these new ideas. Learning on the Internet is very compatible with constructivism and social constructionism. The very process of knowledge construction on the Internet is in keeping with these paradigms. As each user gains access and adds to the Internet, knowledge is constructed and reconstructed. The knowledge base on the Internet becomes a function of social interaction among its users. Furthermore, the Internet also causes us to rethink the idea of the teacher as the sole source of knowledge by providing a vast world of information at students' fingertips. Using the Internet, teachers can focus less on transmitting information and allow for more discovery on the part of the student. Instead of being passive recipients listening to their teachers, students can devise their own ways of gathering information.
Constructivism assumes that learners are active and curious. In place of the textbook, the driving force of instruction is the students' natural curiosity to explore and make sense of the world. The power of the Internet to support learners' natural curiosity cannot be overlooked. Effective use of the Internet can help teachers move toward facilitating constructivist learning environments. On the Internet students can explore a nearly infinite variety of topics, engage in inquiry, and create original work using the full spectrum of multimedia technology. Teachers can use the Internet to foster learner-centered communities in which both students and teachers collaborate to develop and refine ideas.
Gould (1996) described constructivism in language arts classrooms as places where the emphasis is on big ideas as opposed to discrete facts. Gould adds that within these environments students are empowered to follow their own interests and classrooms are set up to foster a great deal of social interaction. Organizing instruction around big ideas, empowering students, and creating classroom environments that promote learning through social interaction are key components that can be supported by effective use of the Internet.
Constructivist teachers recommend organizing instruction around primary concepts (Brooks & Brooks, 1993). The Internet perhaps better than any other tool can help teachers organize lessons around big ideas. Consider creating a unit on folklore. On a search engine such as Yahoo, the keyword folklore uncovers 156 related sites [236 as of this updated posting]. Students can read about the folklore of a particular place such as Windsor Castle and click on Herne the Hunter to discover the legend of a famous huntsman who faced a charging stag and was saved by magic. A wealth of resources on folklore are just a click away on the Internet.
The Internet can also be used to show students the multifaceted nature and complexity of any one topic. Being able to link across sites allows students to see the many forms of folklore from Aesop's Fables to the legend of Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog who purportedly can predict the weather. A unit on folklore could culminate in a class creating its own newsletter and publishing it on the World Wide Web. Such a newsletter could provide an interactive forum for students to write their own folklore, study folklore, and solicit contributions from others. A class could solicit regional folklore from all over the world, make comparisons, and look for common attributes across stories. Such an activity provides direct experience with a literary genre.
The unique ability of the Internet to represent the multifaceted nature of primary concepts can be an asset in today's classrooms where children are encouraged to embrace complexity. Using the Internet to study folklore allows students to see the complexity of the topic. The concept is explored in many ways: as part of regional culture, as a part of history, and as a literary form children can experiment with in their own writing. Learning organized this way fosters deeper understanding that is not limited by "covering" specific facts.
The Internet, by its very nature, can offset the more static nature of covering content from the textbook. Furthermore, the Internet provides for the immediacy of events. With the Internet teachers have ready access to current information. A fifth-grade integrated language arts and social studies class studying race conflict has immediate access to the latest news on Bosnia. Topics explored with the Internet take on a certain immediacy. Moreover, such topics are relevant. Central to constructivism is the practice of engaging students in the study of relevant problems. When instruction is organized around big ideas that are relevant to the students, students are more motivated to take ownership of their learning.
The Internet provides a unique forum for children to publish their own writing. Ghost stories, for example, are a common form of folklore children enjoy. Children who love ghost stories can visit ZuZu and click on "spooky stuff" to view ghost stories written by other children. ZuZu, which began as a New York City newspaper created by Restless Youth Press (see http://www.zuzu.org/zbio.html), is dedicated to publishing original works by children. Now the electronic version features several creative outlets. At the website readers will find poetry, artwork, "neighborhood reports," and other unique contributions from children. By visiting ZuZu's "Write Now" page, young writers can submit their stories and artwork electronically. Eleven-year-old Emily, for example, submitted a story on raising money for flood victims to the "Courageous Kids" column.
Constructivism assumes that learning occurs as students generate questions and seek out answers. Unfortunately few teachers require students to generate and answer their own questions (Tobin, 1993). Constructivist teachers foster student inquiry and value the students' point of view (Brooks & Brooks, 1993). Students direct their own learning with the necessary scaffolding provided by the teacher.
A good example of how teachers can support student-initiated inquiry is provided by Leu and Leu (1997). They suggest a project that can be used across the curriculum before or during any major election. Students can investigate and research political candidates and write editorials about the candidates. These editorials can be published on a classroom homepage. By linking this site to other sites across their country, students can hold a mock election via the Internet. Election results can be compared with that of the population at large. In addition, the site could be set up to collect "exit poll" information, thereby allowing students to generate and test hypotheses about voting patterns and demographics. A mock election fosters many literacy skills and provides support for student-initiated inquiry, a key characteristic of constructivist classrooms.
Student-initiated projects can be easily fostered with the Internet. A good example of this may be seen at Kidstuff, a website created by three young teens from England to be "the home for writing by kids -- for kids." This well-crafted site features its own search engine and much potential for interaction. It not only posts children's news articles, poetry, and prose but also allows youngsters to interact with the site and one another. Youngsters can click on Kidstuff Friends to view a host of activities. They can join the Kidstuff Club and then participate in a KidsChat, they can vote in Poeta's Weekly Survey, and discuss their opinions through the KidsNotes bulletin board.
A compelling feature of the Internet is its capacity for creating social interaction. Too often in traditional classrooms, literacy is a solitary activity. However, social interaction is essential to the development of literacy skills. Through the Internet, students in one classroom can collaborate with students in other classrooms from all over the world. The walls of the classroom disappear as students read, write, and interact on the Internet.
The Kidstuff website provides an interesting opportunity for social interaction by inviting visitors to add a chapter to the site's "forking story." Children can read a story that "forks" at the end of each chapter with a choice of "what to do next." The two possible "directions" add different components to the story. Once readers have reached the end of the story, they are invited to submit their own chapters. The forking nature of the story makes for an interesting form of literature and reminds us of the integrated relationship between reading and writing. This site also provides a particularly good illustration of a way that children can build community through their reading and writing on the Internet.
Other good sites that stress community building among children include Kidlink, an organization geared to fostering global dialogue among children ages 10 to 15, and Kidproj, where teachers and other adults organize projects to foster collaboration among children from all over the world. The Current Projects page provides an up-to-date listing, and the Kidproj Quick Start page is the reference for joining Kidlink or initiating a new project.
An example of a global project can be found at the Money Around the World Project site. This is a site where children from all over the world send information via e-mail about the currency of their home country and the exchange rate relative to the U.S. dollar. The project was set up so that children would work within their own languages. Children who participate in this project learn about world currency and create friendships through a dialogue that spans the globe.
By integrating text and graphics with e-mail, the Internet provides a unique forum for creating socially mediated learning environments. Meaning about world currency, for example, is created jointly. Children construct knowledge of currency by writing about dollars and reading about the Norwegian kroner. U.S. and Norwegian children broaden their knowledge of money by jointly constructing a deeper understanding of currency.
Another project that fosters socially mediated learning includes the Email Mentor Program, organized by Hewlett Packard, which has created over 1,000 student-mentor relationships. Students are linked via e-mail to Hewlett Packard employees who help them improve their communication skills while also showing them careers in math and science. This type of socially mediated learning fosters literacy skills and establishes connections between children and role models.
A site that builds community is the Adventure Web Ring, a unique place on the World Wide Web in which several sites are linked under a unifying theme. Learners can "scroll" through the ring and ultimately end up back where they started. Real Kids Real Adventures features true adventure stories written by children ages 8 to 14. Students can enter the Story Room to discover collections of adventure stories, can read a review of each collection, and can post their own review to be seen by others. This site also features a Young Writer's Clubhouse where students can find out about writing contests, get advice on becoming an author, or join a Young Writer's Critique Group. The several forms of communication integrated within this one series of sites makes it a very powerful tool for enhancing literacy opportunities for young readers and writers.
By tapping into new forms of communication via the Internet, teachers can help students foster reading and writing communities. Writing process activities take on a new dimension as peer conferences can be extended to the electronic world. See, for example, Inkspot, which includes a special site for young writers where potential authors can find resources to help with their writing or join a writers' club. Imagine fourth graders being able to confer not only with other class members but also with peers from around the world. As students read, write, and interact about their writing with other emerging writers, they explore and discover new forms of communicating ideas.
Pushing the Boundaries
The technology of the Internet allows students to explore varied uses for reading and writing. Reading and writing on the Internet take on many forms, from posting a draft for peer editing via e-mail to joining an online chat about a favorite book. Thanks to Internet technology, learners now have a unique social setting for integrating all sorts of literacy activities.
Consider what Shekita wrote to her friends in Japan about a chapter from Frog and Toad Are Friends in which Toad is sad because he hasn't gotten any mail:
As Shekita writes to her friends she not only constructs her understanding of the book but also constructs new ways to experience literacy. Perhaps this is the greatest power of the Internet: the capacity for users to construct new forms of communication through the integration of reading and writing. Just as Shekita's communication pushes beyond her classroom, so can teachers use the Internet to push beyond the boundaries of traditionally held views about learning and literacy.
Shekita is growing up in a world where we are now called upon to redefine the very nature of knowledge. Less recently knowledge was seen as static and the teacher's role more or less one of transmitting information to students. Life on the Internet, however, reminds us that knowledge is fluid and ever changing. Teachers can use this capacity to support the active construction of knowledge within their classrooms. As learners navigate their way through the Internet, make discoveries, create links, and foster connections with other learners, knowledge is constructed in new ways. Shekita, who "won't be a snail," is our reminder that the old days are gone and that we must move ahead to discover the dynamic of learning on the Internet.
Brooks, J.G., & Brooks, M.G. (1993). In search of understanding: The case for constructivist classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Brufee, K.A. (1986). Social construction, language, and the authority of knowledge: A bibliographical essay. College English, 48, 773-790.
Cobern, W.W. (1993). Contextual constructivism: The impact of culture on the learning and teaching of science. In K. Tobin (Ed.), The practice of constructivism in science education (pp. 51-69). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Duckworth, E. (1996). "The having of wonderful ideas" and other essays on teaching and learning. New York: Teachers College Press.
Flood, J., & Lapp, D. (1995). Broadening the lens: Toward an expanded conceptualization of literacy. In K.A. Hinchman, D.J. Leu, & C.K. Kinzer (Eds.), Perspectives on literacy research and practice (pp. 1-16). Chicago: National Reading Conference.
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Gavelek, J.R., & Raphael, T.E. (1996). Changing talk about text: New roles for teachers and students. Language Arts, 73, 182-192.
Gould, J.S. (1996). A constructivist perspective on teaching and learning within the language arts. In C. Fosnot (Ed.), Constructivism: Theory, perspectives, and practice (pp. 92-102). New York: Teachers College Press.
Langer, J.A. (1991). Literacy and schooling: A sociocognitive perspective. In E.H. Hiebert (Ed.), Literacy for a diverse society (pp. 9-27). New York: Teachers College Press.
Leu, D. (1997). Caity's question: Literacy as deixis on the Internet. The Reading Teacher, 51, 62-67. Available: http://www.readingonline.org/electronic/RT/caity.html
Leu, D.J., & Leu, D.D. (1997). Teaching with the Internet: Lessons from the classroom. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.
Reinking, D. (1995). Reading and writing with computers: Literacy research in a post- typographic world. In K.A. Hinchman, D.J. Leu, & C. Kinzer (Eds.), Perspectives on literacy research and practice (pp. 17- 33). Chicago: National Reading Conference.
Tobin, K. (1993). Constructivist perspectives on teacher learning. In K. Tobin (Ed.), The practice of constructivism in science education (pp. 215-226). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Wells, G., & Chang-Wells, G.L. (1992). Constructing knowledge together. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
El-Hindi teaches literacy methods courses at Transylvania University, Lexington, Kentucky, USA. Her research interests include constructivist learning environments, metacognition and motivation, and the use of the Internet to foster reading and writing communities in classrooms. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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Back to listing of all Exploring Literacy on the Internet columns available in Reading Online
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Posted June 1999; author's e-mail address updated March 2001
Published May 1998 in The Reading Teacher
© 1998-2000 International Reading Association, Inc. ISSN 1096-1232