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Shift Happens: Social Studies

Constructivist Instructional Environments

2009 March 30
Nancy Castonguay

Outside the classroom walls, today’s teens have the world at their
fingertips. They communicate and share opinions through blogs, publish
videos on You Tube, join action groups on FaceBook, buy and sell on
EBay, create entire worlds of their own in Second Life, and connect to
people from all over the world through chats and forums. This all comes
to a screeching stop when they walk into the Social Studies classroom.
They come in, sit quietly, open their textbooks, and squint at the big
bright screen in front of them where all they need to know is annotated in
bullet form, except for the area where the classroom teacher’s shadow
cuts into the magnified text. This is where and how they are expected to
engage in the critical analysis of world events and the history society. No
wonder high school students find Social Studies boring; Social Studies
education is still in the Dark Ages! Despite current theories on learning
and technological advances that support these theories, most Social
Studies courses at the secondary level are still textbook-based and
teacher-centered. Mostly, this is due to the fact that access to technology
in secondary schools is problematic and that teacher training programs fail
to provide adequate theory instruction on technology integration in their
curriculum. As a result, teachers often question whether technology is a
solution or just part of the problem, perpetuating the cycle of falling back
into the path of least resistance: textbook-based teaching. This paper
proposes a new model for Social Studies curriculum design that utilizes
the latest technologies and pedagogy to engage grades 9-12 students in
life-long autonomous student-centered learning based on John Lutz
(Department of History / University of Victoria, British Columbia) and Ruth
Sandwell (Department of Theory and Policy Studies in Education / Simon
Fraser University, British Columbia)’s ideas of technology integration and
instructional design in the study of history.

By today's standards and in one student's own words, textbooks are "absolutely

100% junk" (Hope, 1996). Current educational reforms in Social Studies in the Hong

Kong area confirm what Hope, and many others since, had discovered in the mid-90s:

textbooks no longer suit the needs of young learners (Angus, 2004) because they

simply do not possess the sort of affordances needed to engage learners in meaningful

interest-specific and life-long learning. Based on social constructivism, a theory of

learning at the forefront of today’s academia and education professionals, learners

become engaged when learning is student-centered, when it is inquiry-based, and when

new knowledge is socially constructed in parallel with prior knowledge and consistent

with the learners’ cognitive level. Most importantly, constructivism tells us that learners

become active in learning when the experience is highly relevant to them (Driscoll,

2005; Miller, 2002; Scardamalia, 2004). Whereas textbooks are knowledge dispensers,

constructivists assert that knowledge cannot be acquired passively from one source to

another but rather, it must me actively constructed through the hands-on collecting and

processing of information in authentic context (Angus, 2004). Edelson (2001) suggests

that in order for learners to even become motivated to learn, the experience must

create a need for new information, that is, provide learners with problematic gaps in

information that will elicit curiosity and sustain motivation (Edelson et al., 2002).

Textbook-based learning cannot support inquiry-based learning since it consists of a

gapless and flat environment in which no opportunity to question or contest content is

afforded, nor are alternate perspectives accessible. Moreover, this conventional model

of instruction is most often associated with exam-driven and teacher-centered learning,

a pedagogy in which there is little room for inquisitive minds and personal interests. In

brief, textbooks may be convenient for the lack of access to more specialized learning

tools and or innovative curriculum, but they are in fact inflexible ‘one-size-fits-all’ tools

in a ‘one-size-cannot-fit-all’ world (Angus, 2004).

Shifting Gears

In order to bring Social Studies out of the Dark Ages and into the 21st century,

we need to switch tracks and start making use of the new technologies that are now

openly available, and inform ourselves from innovative pedagogical models to design

21st century curriculum and learning experiences that students will find engaging and

that will promote the development of critical skills needed in today’s world. The model

proposed in this paper is one in which a constructivist student-centered environment

would be designed (Social Studies Constructivist Instructional Environment - SSCIE)

integrating the latest technologies, and made available to all BC Social Studies students

and teachers in both French and English. Aside from providing students with an

environment better suited to the study of history and society, SSCIE would provide BC

teachers with open access to ready-made structured, flexible and current learning-

outcome oriented teaching materials and pedagogies. This model would involve a

flexible curricular approach based on the BC Ministry of Education’s prescribed

learning outcomes (PLO) for Social Studies students grades 9-12, with instructional

design firmly anchored in current research on technology and learning, but call for the

modification of existing Ministry protocols for assessment without which this model

would not work. Finally, because this model entails daily interaction over the Internet as

a way of meeting all learning outcomes, it should be sub-classified as an

interchangeable curriculum model’ (ICM); meeting the needs of all methods of

instructional delivery on the e-learning continuum from face-to-face (technology access

provided), to online (DL).

Theoretical Foundations

Jonassen et al. (1998) suggest that

when webtools are used to learn with as

opposed to being used to learn from (drill

& practice), they can support the

development of critical thinking, as well as

analytic, organizational, and cognitive

processing skills. Webtools allow learners

to experience the world virtually (Google

Earth 5.0, The GLOBE Program), to engage

in experiential learning through simulations

(Integrated Laboratory Network) and to manipulate objects in real time (WISE, Open

Hearts – Closed Doors). However, not all webtools were created equal. Cavanaugh &

Cavanaugh (2008) argue that different webtools fall at different places on the

‘democratic continuum’ (see fig. 1). Collaborative productivity webtools for example, are

located at the tip of the democratic continuum. Integrated into curriculum design, such

tools can help students become independent learners because "[w]hen transactional

distance increases, learners have the added responsibility to learn autonomously"

(Cavanaugh & Cavanaugh, 2008). Further, designing curriculum that integrates

webtools, such as wikis and forums, places learners in a perpetual front-row seat

position from where they can harness Web affordances to link and express ideas using

multiple forms of multimedia.

Because the study of history and society involves the selective collection and

careful analysis of various sources and artifacts, and because the Web is much too vast

to leave choice to skill level and cognitive ability (Mayer, 2004), a solid framework must

be at the foundation of the constructivist online learning. Chang & Wang (2009) concur

that, key to an effective constructivist learning experience / environment is the mindful

balance of student-to-student / student-to-teacher interactions, which need to be

moderated / integrated by using the appropriate webtools. Pure discovery, Mayer says,

is a recipe for disaster. "[W]hen students have too much freedom, they may fail to

come into contact with the to-be-learned material" (Mayer, 2004). Further, Chang &

Wang suggest that when students engage in self-directed problem-solving without

adequate support from either teachers or more-able peers, the steps they take to

problem-solve may lead them astray. That is, if left to too much on their own to surf

the often misleading information super highway, learners will impede knowledge

construction instead of furthering it. This is not to say that nothing can be gained from

mistakes made during the process of inquiry. On the contrary, Chang & Wang explain

that when discussed with peers / teachers, such mistakes can result in 'deep-learning'.

Based on Vygotsky's ideas about constructivism, displaying, comparing,

discussing, and disputing information make up the nucleus of knowledge construction

(Land et al. 2002). When pedagogy relies solely on textbooks, learners lose the

opportunity to process information because editors and writers have already done the

work for them. In keeping with constructivist principles, students should be given as

many opportunities to process and construct their own knowledge (Land et al., 2002).

Caverly & Ward (2008) suggest that wikis afford learners the very opportunities

essential to knowledge construction because they "allow a group to collaboratively

construct a document online by subscribing and then editing multimedia using simple

text editors". Moreover, they suggest that through the lens of multiple perspectives and

the funneling of ideas, learners are able to derive an agreed-upon truth and

understanding. The Web gives learners “access to information and materials that were

previously unavailable [and] that can allow students to evaluate and substantiate

differing points of view on a particular topic” (Heafner & Friedman, 2008). However, the

'wisdom of the crowd' generated in wikis needs to be kept in check through structured

dialogue that can be followed in a linear manner and accessed by order of relevance

over time on an on-going basis. Zhang & Peck (2003) explain that moderated

discussion is essential in supporting learners to attain Vygotsky's 'zone of proximal

development' (ZPD). Discussion forums are an essential tool for knowledge construction

because they provide the framework for such a structure.


In an interview with The Beaver – Canada’s History Magazine last year, Dr. John

Lutz & Dr. Ruth Sandwell explained that the most exciting part of studying history in

conventional pedagogy, the “process of creative and critical inquiry into primary

documents” is gone. In response, they co-created the Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian

History (UMCH) website in 1997, which is the inspiration behind SSCIE’ instructional

design. From the UMCH website:

This project was initiated in 1997 with the launching of the "Who Killed William
Robinson?" website which introduced the format. A virtual archives was assembled
to include all the key documents available on or surrounding the death of William
Robinson in 1868 on Salt Spring Island, B.C. from the relevant collections. Each of
the documents was transcribed and assembled thematically on an engaging website.
Teachers' guides were prepared to assist implementation in the classroom and
students were invited to "solve" this old crime.

The foundational philosophy behind UMCH is largely based on active learning theory

(ALT) and "document centered inquiry" (DCI). The site promotes and supports the idea

that critical thinking and inquiry are at the core of knowledge building and retention.

According to Lutz & Sandwell (n.d.), the study of history should be about a journey of

inquiry and exploration “rather than a set of facts to be memorized and regurgitated on

tests”. At the time this project was initiated, 12 years ago, technology and open-source

webtools were not as accessible as they are now in public schools and homes. As such,

Lutz & Sandwell point out that UMCH was not designed as a stand-alone; it was

intended to be used in conjunction with the classroom teacher’s guidance / classroom

discussions. Each case (a total of 13 to date) can be tied to specific learning outcomes

as specified in the various provincial curricula across the country.


SSCIE would be the first interchangeable curriculum model of its kind. Since

all learning materials, productivity and collaboration tools in this design would be Web-

based, SSCIE curriculum could be used in any Internet-ready classroom equipped with

a class set of laptops. PCs are not recommended since they have been known to come

in the way of classroom management and interactions. SSCIE could also support a

blended environment in which only a portion of instructional time is spent in the

classroom. What is more, SSCIE would already possess all the elements needed to

become an online course and would need only to be integrated / merged into the

desired learning management system.


Databases similar to those featured in the UMCH website would be created to

match each learning outcome as prescribed by the BC Ministry of Education and

organized in a hierarchic fashion: course level (9-12), PLO, thematic folders to suit

various areas of interests and learning styles. A main website could host all 9-12 Social

Studies courses, links to forums and wikis, and teacher resources. From there, the

learning outcomes could be accessed by linking directly to the Ministry’s Searchable

Learning Outcomes Databases by downloading and installing the software which is

already exists.

Reality or Fiction?

A grade 9 student logs into SSCIE, selects his / her course level and unlocks the

next learning outcome for this course: the student will be able to defend a position on a

controversial issue after considering a variety of perspectives. A cloud of possible paths

appears… among them one stands out more than the others: Global warming - Whose

fault is it anyway? After reviewing a short case history file, the student decides that this

is how he/she plans to satisfy this particular learning outcome. A choice is made and

archives on global warming open up. Several archives are available: video, newspaper,

scientific database, artifacts… This student chooses to further his / her inquiry through

the exploration of the video and artifacts archives. Once the student has gained insight

from a few differing perspectives, he / she posts an initial reaction in the appropriate

forum to which peers from anywhere in BC / the world, including the classroom teacher

will respond. His response stirs conversation in the classroom with other students who

also chose this particular topic. After some consideration and review of the material, the

student creates a wiki entry to make his / her case under the appropriate learning

outcome before the wiki section to this learning outcome times out! As the student

locks this section, another learning outcome unlocks, but this time, he / she will

collaborate with another student… Carlos, from Mexico…


Formative assessment in SSCIE would be conducted throughout, via forums or

face-to-face feedback. There would be no quizzes or final exam for any of the SSCIE

courses because regurgitating facts is not the focus of this curriculum design. Rather,

students demonstrate that they have achieved all learning outcomes by producing

digital artifacts to illustrate how they have met the course requirements. Online forums

and wikis make participation transparent and thinking visible (Linn et al., 2003), and

students are assessed by the quality and thoughtfulness of these contributions. Once all

outcomes have been completed, the student’s wiki serves as the summative assessment

for the course.


Several obstacles stand in the way of this vision; none of which are

insurmountable. Number one: This is not a one-man / woman-job. It took Lutz and

Sandwell several years and a team of dedicated historians, web designers, editors,

translators and more, to complete 13 mystery learning adventures. The task of building

a database for each learning outcome of one course is monumental. However, there is

strength in numbers. It is reasonable to think that those who are already investing time

and money in building the same online course, there are currently 31 distance

education Social Studies 9 courses offered in BC (Virtual School Society), might find a

vested interest in collaborating in this project. However, promoting the collaboration of

teachers across BC on an on-going basis will be central to keeping archives fresh and

relevant to current trends and topics. Another possibility would be to evolve to an open-

learning model and involve other global organizations such as the SEED project, which

contributes to open-learning science education for the benefit of providing access to

education in developing countries. Number two: This will bare a heavy initial cost that

could be distributed over a number of sources through partnerships and government

grants. Proposals should underscore the interchangeable aspect of this model, the

potential savings to the Ministry over time, and the potential savings in human

resources at the school level since new teachers would be able to invest their time in

supporting their students as apposed to building course materials. Number 3: This

model bases itself on the premise that one-to-one technologies will soon be readily

available to all in public schools and that the infrastructure to support such network will

be in place throughout BC. Number 4: More long-term research is needed to support

the benefits of this model; perhaps a pilot following students from grade 9 all the way

to their completion of grade 12. Although there already exists a good body of evidence

to the effect that a constructivist student-centered environment not only motivates

learners and promotes life-long learning, it will be essential that long-term effects on

learning are assessed before this model can become a reality. Moreover, it would be

useful to follow those students who continue on to college / university in order to

establish whether or not they have in fact acquired the desired skills. Number 5: This is

pioneering at its best and the unexpected is to be expected, of course. But as this

paper suggests, textbook-based learning in the Social Studies classroom offers little else

other than a basis for perpetuating the cycle of boredom and mind-wasting.

Reality is indeed stranger than fiction…

Word Count: 2819

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