Truly constructivist teaching is often hard to analyze because it involves teachers who talk less and listen more. As the noted constructivist teacher Eleanor Duckworth put it, “Instead of explaining to the students, I ask them to explain what they think and why… Much of the learning is in the explaining” (Duckworth, 1987, p. 130). But this restraint, punctuated with well-timed and open-ended questions, was at the heart of what Ellen found so valuable.
For example, Ellen recalled an activity during the first MFT summer called “Starfish Math,” in which the facilitators set up a simulation through which teachers needed to create from scratch an original Base-5 number system. It was adapted from an activity called “X-Mania,” developed by current NYU professor Martin Simon.
As teachers worked, facilitators set about “working the floor,” circulating among groups, asking teachers to share their thinking, and posing open-ended questions. Of one of the facilitators, Ellen noted that she “asked a lot of questions, and she would sit down with you. She was very patient, I think, with people who weren’t necessarily understanding.”
Such patience and understanding were essential for Ellen’s engagement, since she identified herself as someone who struggled to understand the concepts and ideas being discussed. This uncertainty led her to feel self-conscious: “I mean there were people in the room who were getting things like this” she said, snapping her fingers, “and I’d be like, ‘Oh, jeez.’” Her self-consciousness could have been a barrier to learning, but the experience was designed precisely to induce the often destabilizing process of unlearning that Ellen was undergoing. And so the facilitators were well-prepared to support her.
Over time, the patience and careful modeling of the facilitators and other teachers, as well as scaffolded opportunities for continued learning, helped Ellen’s tentativeness turn to excitement and a sense that what she was learning was “really going to make a difference for me in my practice.”
Based in part on the epiphanies she had as a learner, Ellen set about to transform her teaching and to be the kind of steady supportive presence for her students that was so important to her. “I started implementing the strategies and techniques,” she said, “moving to an explorative-based, inquiry-based practice. I started less telling. I became more of a facilitator in my own classroom.” In addition, she continued her involvement with MFT as a facilitator, which set her on a path to be a K-8 math specialist and coach where she tried to be the kind of teacher she found so valuable as a learner.