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Making Mental Engineers: Constructing Learning

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

Construct: (verb) to form (an idea or theory) by bringing together various conceptual elements, typically over a period of time.

Okay, stop right there. I'm pretty sure this is the perfect definition of the learning process, right?! I think so. The idea of constructing learning is nothing new. I'm sure there may be something rattling around in your head left over from your days in undergrad classes... something about Piaget perhaps? Constructivist learning theory boils down to the idea that humans construct knowledge and meaning from their experiences to build a foundation of understanding. As a science educator, I like to keep this mindset at the forefront when planning units and lessons, but constructivism is certainly applicable to all disciplines.


Have you ever sat down to a movie or show having missed the beginning? Chances are you either found it boring and figured it wasn't worth your time or, your intrigue got the best of you and your mind kicked into high gear trying to figure out what must have happened to get to this point in the plot. What are the relationships between the characters? Why is she in the hospital? What's the secret they're eluding to? He did what?! OMG!!!

That, my friends, is your brain trying to process the incoming information and make sense of it. As you watch the events unfold, you take in new information and draw conclusions based on events you've already experienced to make meaning of it all. Well, this is what our students do every day. It's literally their job to get information, process it, and make sense of it all.

A truly eloquent lesson sequence allows concepts and experiences to unfold over time, gradually incorporating ideas that build on one another. This is how we're able to reach higher levels of depth and complexity, application and elaboration. But it begins with a strong foundation.


In my class, we spend the first few weeks of the school year on an engineering activity. Perhaps you've seen the spaghetti tower or newspaper tower STEM challenge in your Pinterest feeds? If not, go check them out. We use these initial building challenges to spur discussion about what makes a structure sturdy. The classroom is always filled with giggles, laughter, and evidence of success and failure. Everything we need to understand structural foundations is there for us, right before our eyes.

Next, I have my students draw models of their creations. I encourage them to label areas of strength and weakness, and to look for patterns of what worked well, what didn't, and what unique ideas they saw their classmates come up with. I ask them to record their observations and write about why they thought their towers were successful or not. Then, we share those ideas as a class. I am always happy to discover that many students come up with the concept that the best structures tend to have the following qualities:

Read those again. Can you apply these three points to a successful lesson sequence? Go deep... I'll wait... okay, keep those thoughts stored in your mind for a moment while I circle back to our engineering challenge example.

Once we share out our ideas as a class, I make sure to highlight these core concepts. We then go into a study of structures that fail (Tower of Pisa, bridges affected by earthquakes... they love it) and we look at what patterns arise. It all comes back to foundation. All good structures have a strong foundation. It's true. I even build my classroom "rules" around this... instead of rules, we come up with "Classroom Foundations" that we all agree to.

We then research bridges and geometrical shapes that produce strong structures and end the unit with a project-based learning experience in which the students build bridges to fit the needs of a community. It's such fun and I love hearing the student's conversations as they begin to discuss different styles of bridges in their community and around the world... Brooklyn, Golden Gate, that one in Shrek that Donkey is afraid to cross, piers and docks at the local beaches. The students have built a broad base of understanding that they can use to evaluate the world around them. What started as an entertaining, somewhat silly STEM challenge grows into an understanding of structural integrity. My teacher heart surges when the students start making connections back to skyscrapers and shelters of varying size. It's my favorite way to start the year. If you're interested in seeing more about this, check out these highlights from my instagram stories.


Now I understand that my engineering challenge example won't work in every classroom, but let's break down the lesson sequence a bit. Have you ever heard of the 5Es? The amazing group of people at BSCS developed this lesson sequence which is rooted in the concept of constructivist learning. I could spend WAY too long writing about this model (alas, a blog post for another time) because it has transformed my planning for instruction, but here's a quick summary.

1. Students engage in an activity inspire learning and try to make sense of their initial experience.

2. Students explore more through readings, videos, and/or image dissections, continually folding in new ideas and concepts. Teacher facilitates questioning and points out terms or important vocabulary used.

3. Students attempt to explain what they've learned. Teacher addresses misconceptions and provides examples to direct/redirect student learning.

4. Students elaborate on information learned by continuing to build in depth of understanding. PBL projects fit in perfectly here!

5. Students evaluate their understanding of the concepts and create questions to act as a catalyst for future learning.

If you can embed this simple structure into your lesson sequence, I can guarantee your students will be the ones CONSTRUCTING their own understanding of the concepts you are tasked with teaching. It's all about that compelling introduction to the material.

This works exceptionally well in a science classroom as we have endless demonstrations, labs, activities, and phenomena (NGSS, anyone?!) to pull from for that initial experience. We have the opportunity to put the learning right in the laps of our students. It's the best! Now, can you do this with a math lesson or introduction to a new novel? Absolutely, I just happen to be a science nerd so that's my comfy spot. Let's think back to those three core concepts I asked you to dig into.

1. The foundation you provide is meant to give all students a jumping off point. It's meant to level the playing field and shift away from the teacher being the "knower of all content" and put the student in leadership role. Now of course this is carefully crafted by the teacher.

2. Those three or more points of contact are the concepts you are going to fold into your lesson. Think about key vocabulary, and subtopics a student needs to know to master the content of study. In my engineering example this included, why structures fail, types of foundations of towers, strength of geometric shapes, styles and purpose of bridges, pressure, compression, and the need for flexibility. Students discovered the need to know these ideas as we unfolded them throughout the lesson sequence.

3. True mastery of a concept will never happen with a linear path. Especially in science, patterns and connections to other content help to build a broad base. If we don't allow for broad exploration or give students time to ponder and chew on the material a bit, it will be a struggle for them to truly own their understanding. Knowledge and meaning is constructed over time with repeated exposure.


Student ownership. Student engagement. Student struggle. Student persistence. Student creativity. Student collaboration. Strong students.

Isn't that what we all want to build? By using simple structures in our lesson sequences, we can get there.

If you're looking to find lesson ideas or resources, I recommend you search for 5E lessons ( is a great FREE place to start). I also have a few listed below that you might be interested in.

Know of other great places to find more? Please share them by posting a comment... I know our teacher community will appreciate it!

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