WWW Site for John Lawrence Bencze, Associate Professor (Emeritus), Science Education, OISE/University of Toronto

Science & Technology Learning Cycles
Teaching & Learning Strategies Based on Constructivist Learning Principles

My experiences, reading of research reports, etc. and research findings suggest that all teaching, including that for science & technology education are best based on constructivist learning principles. This provides some justification and supports for constructivism-informed teaching and learning practices. if you have any relevant comments, suggestions, resources, etc., please write to me about them.

Pedagogical Framework.
Learning Control.


Constructivism-informed S&T Education
Among theories of learning, constructivism seems fundamental to schooling - in that students often begin learning with pre-conceived conceptions relating and often influencing their reactions to ideas, skills, etc. that teachers intend to address. Based on constructivist learning theories, educators have developed various teaching cycles (e.g., A, B, C). As illustrated at right, my particular version features cycles of: i) Expressing Ideas (e.g., students state, write, etc. pre-conceived notions), ii) Learning Ideas (e.g., the teacher teaches new ideas and provides practice opportunities), and iii) Judging Ideas (e.g., students conduct inquiries to evaluate different ideas available to them).

The above 3-phase constructivism-informed framework can, in principle, be used for pedagogy in any learning domain - such as for learning 'products' (e.g., laws & theories) of science and technology. Applying constructivism to multiple learning domains at once could be quite complex. A simpler framework may be more helpful. I have, accordingly, developed (with science teachers during my PhD thesis research) a pedagogical framework featuring intermeshed 3-phase learning cycles for two very broad learning domains; that is, for:
  • 'Conceptual' Learning: Fundamentally, this domain refers to learning concepts; that is, cogntive structures people use for understanding phenomena of the world. This is, of course, a comprehensive term - applying to a broad spectrum of topics. In science and technology education, there are concepts applying, for example, to most - if not all - of the elements of the STEPWISE curriculum framework. For example, students might learn: scientists' and engineers' conceptions of cell structure and function (Products Education); that business-science partnerships often lead to compromises to the integrity of work in science and technology (NoST Education); and, keeping 'extraneous' variables constant can identify a possible influence on a dependent variable (Skills Education). Conceptual learning relates to propositional/declarative knowledge. Ontario narrowly defines concepts only in terms of Products Education.
  • 'Procedural' Learning: This domain deals with activities involved in development of concepts, by individuals (e.g., in learning) and by groups (e.g., scientists developing laws and theories). This domain is, admittedly, difficult to separate from conceptual learning. People claim, for example, that procedures like experimentation involve various 'concepts of evidence.' Procedural learning relates to procedural knowledge and procedural memory, both of which appear to involve significant tacit dimensions - which, by definition, are not declarative. For example, people may develop certain aptitudes for solving problems that they cannot explain. In practical terms, procedures tend to refer to skills for science inquiry, technology design and related communications (including in terms of WISE Activism). As indicated by STEPWISE, however, Skills Education should interrelate with NoST and STSE Education.

Based on the framework at right, conceptual and procedural knowledge may be re-constructed in syncrony. For each phase of the conceptual learning cycle, time could be spent encouraging students to reconstruct their procedural talents. Eventually, however, much less teacher direction may need to be paid to procedural education, as students become more autonomous learners. Ideas and resources for each of the 3 phases in the two cycles are available at:

Note that the degree of teachers' and students' control of learning in this framework should vary, in terms of Lock's (1990) model - below.

This framework was developed in association with five teachers of secondary school science, whose contributions to it are acknowledged and greatly appreciated.

Although this framework has been used successfully by teachers, it should be noted that it is highly stylized. By using one-directional arrows, for example, it wrongly suggests that teaching and learning are one-directional. Similarly, by drawing it with relatively equal spaces between stages, it inappropriately suggests that equal amounts of time must be spent in each stage. Therefore, the above framework should be used only as a general guide - adapted by teachers in ways suiting various factors that typically affect teaching and learning including, for example, the nature of the teacher, students, curricula and the milieu surrounding teaching and learning (e.g., parental perspectives and priorities).

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Variations in Learning Control

Much of what students learn can be planned and analyzed by thinking about who controls educational situations. Roger Lock's (1990) framework, depicted below, right, and associated with the model above, is useful for this.

The horizontal axis on the grid at right refers to control of methods or procedures of an activity; i.e., it may be teacher-directed (TD) or student-directed (SD) or some combination of them. The vertical axis represents control of conclusions of the activity; i.e., the activity may have pre-determined conclusions, making it closed-ended (CE), or the activity may have no pre-determined conclusions, making it open-ended (OE). The activity also could be partly closed-ended and partly open-ended (CE, OE). Some general principles for variations in control of learning are:

  • When specific, pre-determined, conclusions are to be learned (CE), instruction should mainly be TD; otherwise, students might have trouble 'discovering' intended conclusions - as suggested here.
  • If the intention is to allow students to determine conclusions (OE), based on data/evidence and theory available to them, they also should - mainly or entirely - control procedures (SD).
  • If teachers intend to teach certain procedures (e.g., graph construction), they should control learning of such procedures (TD), while leaving conclusions OE.
For information about this framework, including examples of activities in several different positions (e.g., TD/CE or TD-SD/OE), refer to Lock's (1990) original article.
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  • Department for Education and Employment [DfEE] (1999). Science in The National Curriculum for England. London: Department for Education and Employment and Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
  • Hodson, D. (1998). Teaching and Learning Science: Towards a Personalized Approach. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.
  • Lock, R. (1990). Open-ended, problem-solving investigations - What do we mean and how can we use them? School Science Review, 71(256),  63-72.
All Rights Reserved, J. L. Bencze, 2008