Using the Constructivist Approach in Family & Consumer Sciences

Vol. 18, No. 2
ISSN: 1546-2676

Guest Editor:
Jacquelyn W. Jensen

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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM, Vol. 18, No. 2. 
1546-2676. Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer. Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member, Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 2009. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, PO Box 798, Okemos, MI 48805-0798. Telephone: (727) 940-2658 ext. 2003

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An Example of Constructivism in FCS Teacher Education

Jacquelyn W. Jensen
Eastern Kentucky University
Maxine L. Rowley
Brigham Young University


This study portrays a family and consumer sciences (FCS) teacher educator using constructivist theories to guide instruction within a teaching methods course. Specifically, a 1 1/2-hour lesson on assessing students’ prior knowledge was the focus of the study. Instruments for the study included a videotape of the lesson and field notes. The dominant instructional strategies utilized during the lesson included discussion, experiential learning, stories, examples, and multiple knowledge representations. Connections between the instructional strategies and constructivist theories are highlighted.

An Example of Constructivism in FCS Teacher Education

From a transmission or behaviorist orientation to learning, instructors tend to view students as passive storage bins for holding information (Locke, 1947). The emphasis is on having students give correct responses when presented with external stimuli (Sternberg & Williams, 2002). In recent years, the teacher education community has shifted away from the behaviorist perspective and has embraced a constructivist view of how people learn. Constructivist theories have in common several assumptions, each of which is accompanied by instructional implications.

  • Prior knowledge serves as the basis of knowledge construction (Ausubel, 1968; Calderhead & Robson, 1991; Resnick, 1989). The instruction should enable students to make connections between what they already know and the subject matter.
  • Meaning is negotiated through social interaction (Tobin, Tippins & Gallard, 1994). Students need many opportunities throughout instruction for social interaction with their classmates and the teacher because prior knowledge and learning are driven by meaning, not by the environment (Driscoll, 1994).
  • Learning is related to activity (Derry, 1996; Fosnot, 1989). The importance of active learning that is physical, mental (Phillips, 1995), social, or some combination of these, is widely accepted. Lessons should contain learning activities that place students in an active role.
  • Real-world or authentic tasks promote learning that is necessary in everyday situations (Putnam & Borko, 2000). The instruction should make connections between the subject matter and out-of-school contexts.

By the time students become teacher candidates, they have already experienced thousands of hours of instruction that placed them, as students, in passive roles in their respective elementary, secondary, and college classes (Lortie, 1975). A challenge, therefore, is to help candidates restructure their notions of what it means to teach so that their own students actively learn. Note that a crucial component of candidates’ teacher education experience is for instructors to use and model the practices they expect candidates to learn (McDevitt, Heikkinen, Alcorn, Ambrosio, & Gardner, 1993).

Education scholars have written a great deal about constructivist theories (e.g., Bereiter, 1994; Cobb, 1994; Orland-Barak & Schonmann, 2006; Phillips, 2000; Richardson, 1997; Schuh, 2006; von Glasersfeld, 1995). Unfortunately, too few teacher educators delineate in detail how they use constructivist approaches to guide their teaching. Highly contextualized accounts are needed because context is an important feature of learning (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989).



The purpose of this study was to describe a family and consumer sciences (FCS) teacher educator using constructivist theories to guide instruction within a teaching methods course. Specifically, a 1 1/2-hour lesson on assessing students’ prior knowledge was the context for the study.

Research Questions

Two research questions were the focus of the study: (a) What teaching strategies are present when a teacher educator uses constructivist theories to guide instruction with FCS teacher candidates? and (b) How do these teaching strategies coincide with the instructional implications of constructivist theories?


Participants in the study were five female teacher candidates who registered for an FCS teaching methods course the semester before beginning their student teaching in secondary schools. Those students comprised the population, and the entire population became the sample for the study. The candidates attended a mid-sized, public university (of approximately 16,000 students) located near the middle of the Appalachian Region. A demographic questionnaire revealed that two of the candidates were married; all five candidates were Anglo American; four candidates were from rural areas of the state. Their mean age was 28.

Dr. Dupont, the guest instructor who participated in the study, was an Anglo American. She was an associate professor who, for nearly two decades, had taught an FCS teaching methods course in universities in the western United States. She received many awards for her student-centered approach to teaching on the college/university level and had been a national consultant to state departments of education across the United States.

Data Collection

Field notes and a video camera were the instruments used to gather naturalistic data about teaching. One of the researchers used a double-entry procedure to take field notes by writing direct quotes on the right half of the paper and an interpretation of what was occurring on the left side (Brown, 1997). She then expanded the field notes and added analytic insights while viewing the videotape (Erickson, 1986). The field notes were used to make sense of the video transcript. Rather than concentrating on every behavior of the students and the instructor, analyses of the video transcript focused on identifying major instructional events. A content analysis of these events was conducted to identify the most dominant instructional strategies.

Data Analysis and Findings

An important focus during the analysis of each teaching strategy was, “What is happening in the classroom when a specific strategy is used?” It is risky to assume that different instructors will use a teaching strategy in the exact same manner. Depending on how an instructor uses a teaching strategy, it can be aligned more with behaviorism or more with constructivism. Recall that constructivist theories have in common assumptions related to prior knowledge, the social negotiation of meaning, active learning, and authentic tasks. The dominant instructional patterns within the lesson will be discussed relative to these assumptions. The patterns include (a) discussion, (b) experiential learning, (c) stories, (d) examples, and (e) multiple knowledge representations.


The instructor’s use of discussion as a teaching strategy was consistent with constructivist views in that she connected candidates’ prior knowledge with new information. Candidates had opportunities for interaction with the instructor. Further, Dr. Dupont made connections between information about pre-assessing students’ knowledge and actual teaching practices for doing so.

Dr. Dupont used questions throughout the lesson to assess candidates’ prior knowledge and understanding of the material, and to facilitate thinking about the lesson content. For instance, she assessed candidates’ knowledge of the teaching strategies she had them experience. After Dr. Dupont stated the lesson focus, teacher candidates experienced a strategy for assessing their students’ prior knowledge of color. Each teacher candidate received a handout with four labeled squares onto which they spooned jellybeans. Dr. Dupont instructed them to place the candy in the appropriate square, i.e., warm, cool, advancing, receding. Dr. Dupont reflected on candidates’ actions as they sorted the candy, and asked questions so they would each think about the kinds of information she had gained. Note that an increase in the amount of student talk may have enriched the discussion. The following are direct quotes:

Dr. Dupont: Tell me what else I could tell from this than what you already know about color? What can you tell me about the colors in the jelly beans that you did not know before or you didn’t think about as you took the spoonful? Is there anything you weren’t focusing on when you took a spoonful of jelly beans from the bowl?

Bethani: What kind to get.

Dr. Dupont: (Matter-of-factly): What kind to get, Bethani.

(To the class): She knew that she didn’t have the ones she needed for the square and she kept looking at Tiffany’s, and at Jennifer’s papers to see what they had done. And that’s okay in this instance . . . . What else do you know, now, that you didn’t know before, about the spoonful of jelly beans? Can you tell me how many you have that are advancing? How many are receding? How many are cool and how many are warm by a quick count. Were you threatened?

(Students shake their heads “no.”)

Dr. Dupont: (Matter-of-factly): It was very non-threatening.

Kara: It’s been a while since I had my interiors class, and I had to think about advancing and receding.

Dr. Dupont: What if you had been a non-reader? You could have done this couldn’t you? Where would you have gotten hung up? The labels. Bethani’s pointing to them. And so as a teacher I needed to tell you, if you had been a non-reader, what the labels said. That’s why two or three times I was saying warm, cool, advancing, receding.

At another point in the lesson, Dr. Dupont assessed and connected new material to candidates’ knowledge of previously learned course material. For example, she connected the assessment of prior knowledge to concept learning, and asked students the meaning of the word “concept.”

Dr: Dupont: Preassessment is a vehicle we use to try to ferret out the important things to teach students and the things that will build on the students’ prior knowledge, which is defined as what students already know. Teachers plan to preassess at the beginning of a unit that’s made up of a number of lesson plans. It’s tied tightly to your concept. You know about concepts, right? Tell me what a concept is? Give me a synonym for a concept. I believe that you all know what a concept is, but it seems hard for you to articulate . . . . Look at your notes. Tell me what a concept is, Jennifer.

Jennifer: It is -- that’s a great question! (Everyone laughs.)

Dr. Dupont: I know that all of you know this.

Jennifer: It’s a category.

Dr. Dupont: It is. It’s a category. It’s a category, especially it’s one of the categories within a lesson plan. What else is it?

Jennifer: A broad idea.

Dr. Dupont: Oh good!

Jennifer: A law, a principle, and an axiom.

Dr. Dupont: I had trouble hearing you. What was that last word?

Jennifer: Axiom.

Dr. Dupont: Ok. Good. Now listen, preassessment is tied to concepts. You want to preassess the students’ terminal concept. Why? Because you don’t need to preassess each day’s lesson plan. You can preassess the unit by preassessing the terminal concept of that unit.

A prominent feature of the classroom discussion was that the instructor connected candidates’ prior knowledge with new information such as when and how to use various strategies, concepts, and rationales for assessing prior knowledge. Repetition was a prominent feature of discussions in that Dr. Dupont explained or summarized the connections among concepts several times and in several different ways.

Experiential Learning

Experiencing first-hand various teaching strategies was consistent with constructivist theories because they were authentic tasks that required candidates to engage in various kinds of activity. In addition, the instructor used discussion of candidates’ experiences with the strategies to help them develop shared meanings about the content, and/or Dr. Dupont used candidates’ experiences as connecting points for new information. If the instructor had not done so, the strategies would have been more closely aligned with a behaviorist orientation, where the assumption is that experience alone will produce knowledge within the individual.

Candidates experienced three strategies for future use with their students. Particularly during the first sorting strategy, the instructor thought aloud about what she knew through observation about candidates’ thinking, and how candidates’ knowledge would impact instruction. While candidates were experiencing this preassessment strategy, the instructor modeled how to use the strategy as a window to view student understanding and to guide teaching.

Later during the lesson, Dr. Dupont indicated that candidates could also use objects to assess prior knowledge. She showed the class cans of food products and other items found at home. Each candidate then received an object. The instructor indicated that a basic physical science principle had been ignored with each item. Dr. Dupont defined the word “principle” and then said, “This was my brand new scarf and I’m thinking I pressed it with too hot an iron. The shape of the iron remains. Basic principle, some fabrics can’t take heat very well.” The teaching strategy that originated in Extension is called result demonstration.

Each candidate examined her item and took turns displaying each object and stating a basic principle, illustrated by the damaged object that had been ignored in caring for the item. The instructor recounted the details about what had actually happened to each item (i.e., a wool sweater that had shrunk, an acrylic sweater that was knitted off grain, a melted plastic spoon, a melted pan, a faded dress, damaged ties for a blouse). Again, an increase in the amount of student talk may have enriched the discussion.

Taylor: This is wool and it’s been washed and dried. It has shrunk.

Dr. Dupont: (Nodding her head): If you ever want to make felt this is what you do. This is a sweater that was never worn. It was my husband’s Christmas present to my youngest daughter. It was not only wool, but it’s specialty hair fibers. It’s cashmere and mohair. My little three-year-old niece took it from under the Christmas tree and dropped it into the washing machine. She was helping me do the laundry, and the washer was filled with hot water, soap and Clorox. My daughter never wore this sweater. Now, here is the basic principle. Do not launder hair fibers with detergent and bleach in very hot water with the washer on regular cycle. If we pressed this with a steam iron, we would have a very expensive, poor quality piece of felt. You can also see the bleach has streaked the color. Okay. Now look at the next one. This one’s a little tougher.

Kara : The only thing I’ve found is that some weaves snag.

Dr. Dupont: Okay. It does have some snags on it, but let’s look again, Kara. I don’t think I have you far enough away from it. (She takes the sweater and holds it up, moving back to the wall.) What can you see?

Kara: Is the color fading on it?

Dr. Dupont: No. It has had white and yellow stripes from the time it was new.

Kara: The grain is off!

Dr. Dupont: Uh-huh, and it wasn’t when I bought it. Then I laundered it. It was washable; it’s acrylic. But it would have reacted the same way if I had dry-cleaned it. If you have a fabric that is off-grain, it will look fine until the item is laundered or cleaned. At a certain temperature or moisture level it will revert to the true grain. This was knitted off-grain, cut off grain and sewed together. I wore it once. It was laundered. I took it back and showed the buyer in the store from which I bought it. She offered to give me my money back. I told her I would like my money back, and I also wanted to keep the sweater because I wanted to use it in preassessments and result demonstrations. She was quite angry. She assumed I was trying to get the sweater free, and was not really worried about the grain. I explained I was teaching textiles. It didn’t matter, so I let them keep my money, and I kept the sweater to show students such as you. These are not things that happen on purpose. They happen by accident. So don’t worry if something like that happens! Just add it to your result demonstration box! It is worth more than a thousand words! (Dr. Dupont pauses and then looks at the next student.) Bethani, what happened?

Bethani: This spoon was left in whatever was cooking in this pot at too hot a temperature for the plastic. It melted the handle.

Dr. Dupont: Did you turn the pot over?

Bethani: I haven’t. (Bethani turned it over.) Oh! (Class laughter.) Was this left on the burner in the pot?

Dr. Dupont: At the university where I teach, we have a group of dormitories called Heritage Halls. They are special units. Among other things, the students who live in them do their own cooking. This student put that on the range at 6:00 in the morning and didn’t return until 6:00 at night. The next day she brought the items into my office and said, “What should I do about this?! And I said, don’t eat whatever was left in it. It takes a lot to melt a metal pan. It had to have no liquid left it in, I think. Later, I was told the odor in the building and in the apartment was just atrocious. And then I asked if I could have it because I didn’t think that I would ever find that again. I have the reputation of collecting the strangest things! (Students laugh.) Ok. Tiffany what do you think about your article?

Tiffany: It looks like bleach, or it’s somehow faded. Something’s made it fade.

Dr. Dupont: (Matter-of-factly): It’s faded.

Tiffany: It’s definitely faded.

Dr. Dupont: Have you had your textiles class yet? (Tiffany responds “no.”) If you had the class the teacher might have addressed that in class. This is “gas” or “fume” fading. It’s caused by something stored or hung close to an outlet where natural gas fumes, possibly from a heat vent, are omitted. The fiber has to be acetate. In certain circumstances, the dyes on acetate fade, and, as it fades, the color changes from blue to pink, for example, like this. Also, some types of deodorant from perspiration have a similar effect on fabric.

Dr. Dupont: (Looking at the next student): What happened?

Jennifer: It was either ironed or put in the dryer at too high a temperature. I was guessing the dryer.

Dr. Dupont: You were really close. It was the vacuum. This was my other daughter’s new blouse. She was to be a bride’s maid at a wedding and wear this. The blouse had long ties that came around and fastened and fell full length of her skirt. I vacuumed her floor. The vacuum sucked the silk out from under the closet door. It not only tore the blouse, but it melted parts of it as the ties and blouse wound tightly around the brushes in the vacuum.

Tiffany: That must have been a powerful vacuum.

Dr. Dupont: Oh, it was! It was one of those wind tunnel types, and I was really cleaning up a storm. It was an expensive day . . ! All kinds of objects can be used to preassess.

To assess candidates’ knowledge of young children, the instructor had candidates experience a word association strategy called “projective technique.” She read part of a sentence and a candidate would complete it with the first thing that came to mind. Each candidate had several opportunities to complete different sentences. The instructor then read different words and partial sentences and let the students experience word association and sentence completion. She then debriefed the experience concerning when and how to use students’ responses, and what the teacher would learn about students’ prior knowledge.

Dr. Dupont: Have you done word associations? You all know what word association is? (Students nod heads “yes.”) I say a word and you say the first thing that comes into your mind. “Children,” Tiffany. (The instructor caught Tiffany off guard, and she couldn’t respond. Much laughter from the class.) Don’t do that to students. They need time to shift gears. It would have been better, if I had said, Tiffany, What do you think of when I say “children?” Now, let’s play “Word Association!”

Dr. DuPont: Bethani, here we go. “I think children . . .”

Bethani: Are cute.

Dr. Dupont: Kara. I think children . . .

Kara: Are interesting.

Dr. Dupont: Taylor. I think children . . .

Taylor: Are fun.

Dr. Dupont: Jennifer, when children are unhappy . . .

Kara: They make others unhappy.

Dr. Dupont: (later at the end of the experience.) There are all kinds of projective techniques that you can use. What happens is that you give them a stimulus that triggers an answer. In this instance, I find out a lot about how you feel about children, what you think about children, by doing projective techniques. All of you gave correct answers. That may not necessarily be true in different settings, but projective technique is easy to use in all kinds of classes and with all our subject-matter specialty areas.


The principal way the instructor used stories provided candidates with prior knowledge on which to build. With the exception of a story called “The Animal School,” all of the others were related to real-world narratives. Story topics included (a) a high school coach whose track team exhibited wide variation in ability, (b) football players enrolled in a child development class, (c) a student teacher’s discovery that the student body president of a large high school could not read, (d) a middle school student who emigrated to the U.S. from South Vietnam, and (e) a FCS teacher’s assessment of her child development students’ prior knowledge of children’s literature. In telling the latter story Dr. Dupont stated:

Students all need to feel that they can succeed. Preassessment is one of the keys to that. If students can have fun with it, like the jelly-bean activity where they get to eat the candy, they will be easier to manage and so much less threatened by you. You will find that students just love preassessments. The other day a high school FCS teacher was looking at variety with preassessment for her child development course. Many of the children who attend are below the poverty level. As she looked at what she had taught for four weeks she said, “I was amazed. They learned during Channel One. They learned during class. None of them looked up. None of them whispered. None of them passed notes. None of them talked. They were totally engrossed in the learning activity. I said, “Why?” She said, “I think because it was such a different experience that was totally non-threatening. They could do it at their own pace. No matter what they decided it was right.” She was using it as a preassessment to see how much they know about children’s literature. She said that it happened in all three classes. If you can get that kind of climate going, it is wonderful. Often preassessment will do it for you. You need to ascertain what you have taught them at the end of instruction.

The amount of social interaction surrounding the stories and the active participation of students was more limited than some of the other strategies. The instructor used the stories to help candidates learn certain concepts that were embedded within the stories. Dr. Dupont used them in three ways. She sometimes asked questions about ideas in the stories, and then elaborated on candidates’ responses. She also referenced the stories to provide connecting points for new information. Both efforts focused on increasing the number of concepts that candidates understood. In addition, Dr. Dupont used the last two stories to provide a rationale for assessing prior knowledge.


The instructor’s use of examples was consistent with the instructional implications of constructivist theories in that the teaching strategies were real practices for assessing students’ prior knowledge. When candidates experienced strategies, they were the most actively involved in the lesson. Examples also facilitated social negotiation of the lesson content. Further, candidates used their prior knowledge particularly during the analysis of objects as well as when they generated examples.

The most prominent use of examples within the lesson was the wide variety of teaching strategies that the instructor introduced for assessing prior knowledge. Candidates experienced some of these strategies, and Dr. Dupont used discussion to teach candidates about others. Examples were also used extensively when the instructor showed candidates examples of objects where a basic physical science principle had been ignored. Likewise, candidates each analyzed an object that served as an example. Further, Dr. Dupont gave an example to help clarify her directions for participating in the strategy with the objects. At several other points in the lesson, Dr. Dupont gave examples to teach concepts. Candidates also gave some examples on which the instructor then elaborated. Overall, examples were used to help candidates expand their knowledge of concepts.

Multiple Knowledge Representations

Many of the instructor’s teaching practices were consistent with a constructivist view of learning. As with all learners, a variety of representations is essential. Multiple representations positively influence the transfer of skills and knowledge to other contexts (Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1997). For candidates, that would be the classroom. In addition, a variety of representations supported candidates’ understanding of the breadth and depth associated with assessing students’ prior knowledge. Each representation or strategy also adds “connections and perspectives that others miss” (Eggen & Kauchak, 2004, p. 341).

One of the most striking features of the lesson was the instructor’s use of multiple strategies or practices for representing the content. Rather than covering many concepts, she focused on teaching a more limited number. As with discussion, much repetition of the content was woven across the lesson so that candidates would have numerous opportunities to learn.


The instructor in this study used several teaching strategies consistent with the instructional implications of constructivist theories. Unfortunately, few detailed analyses of teacher educators’ instructional efforts with candidates have been completed using a constructivist lens. Many more analyses are needed because of the wide variation in how teacher educators use various teaching practices. Once an assortment of analyses has been completed, researchers can highlight differences in quality. With such information, teacher educators can better ensure that their practices are grounded in theory.

We encourage many more FCS teacher educators to study their practices and share them with the teacher education community. Such dialogue is particularly important as the National Association of Teacher Educators in Family and Consumer Sciences (NATEFACS) has recently released new national standards focused on both subject matter and pedagogy. Student-centered pedagogy is a major component of these standards. FCS teacher educators, therefore, must model what they advocate for use by teacher candidates and secondary teachers.

As teacher educators we all want to know what influences candidates’ learning. Such knowledge will be possible with additional studies concerning the meanings that teacher candidates construct in varying instructional environments. More information is also needed about the practices that candidates find the most salient.


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Kappa Omicron Nu Forum Volume 18 No. 2

Student Teaching: A Constructivist Context

Cheryl Mimbs-Johnson, University of Kentucky

Laying the Foundation for Professional Competence in Family and Consumer Sciences: A Contructivist Approach

Barbara A. Clauss, Indiana State University

An Example of Constructivism in FCS Teacher Education

Jacquelyn W. Jensen, Eastern Kentucky University
Maxine L. Rowley, Brigham Young University

Constructivist Learning Theory in an Interior Design Program

Candace Fox
Mount Vernon Nazarene University

Application of Constructivism by Students Majoring in Early Childhood Education

Jaesook L. Gilbert
Northern Kentucky University

Reflections on Using Constructivist Techniques to Teach Constructivist Teaching

Gale Smith
University of British Columbia

Last Word

Dorothy I. Mitstifer, Kappa Omicron Nu