Publication 5906

Smerdon B. A., Burkham D. T. & Lee V. E. (1999) Access to constructivist teaching: Who gets it? Where is it practiced? Teachers College Record 101(1): 5–34.
Calls for the reform of instruction in U. S. classrooms, particularly those in secondary schools, are growing and often strident. Many reformers advocate a move away from traditional, teacher-centered, (didactic) direct instruction, where students are passive receptors of knowledge, toward more student-centered understanding-based (constructivist) teaching that focuses on exploration and experimentation. In this study we investigate the issue of access to these two types of instruction in U. S. high-school science classrooms. We use a nationally representative sample of 3, 660 students and their science teachers drawn from the first two waves of the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS:88). Although didactic instruction is more common among higher-SES and female students, constructivist instruction is practiced more often among students of lower ability. Constructivist teaching is also more common in both higher-level science courses (i.e., chemistry) and lower-level courses (i.e., basic biology and physical science). The students of average social and academic status appear to be the forgotten majority with respect to constructivist instruction. We offer explanations for the findings and discuss implications for educational policy and social equity in high-school science.
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