Constructivist Pedagogy in European Schools – what, why and how?

The following essay, written by Dr Alex Sinclair, EFI’s Chief Academic Officer, sets outs EFI’s core pedagogic approach. A more user-friendly introduction to these ideas can be found in the videos in Our Pedagogical Approach.



There are two core aspects of the constructivist or experiential approach to education:

  1. Starting from the learner. Children (all people, actually) learn best when the learning begins from and connects to their own “world” of motivation and interest, rather than the content being disconnected from who they are and how they think. As John Dewey wrote in Democracy and Education, we have to ask whether the issue being studied is “the pupil’s own problem, or is it the teacher’s or textbook’s problem.” People learn best when they feel that the content being studied is directly relevant to and significant to their own lived experience, questions and life dilemmas, and that’s true whether the learner is 2 or 92.
  2. Student engagement. Children (=people) learn best when they construct their own knowledge, under the guidance of skilled teachers, rather than just listening to information told to them. While it is possible to learn things by “listening,” the learning is more likely to be robust, meaningful and long-term when it happens through people engaging in higher-order thinking activities like discussing, comparing, evaluating, analyzing, and applying. Good education happens when teachers enable learners to do those kinds of verbs with the subject matter.


Starting from the learner

The challenge in education, of course, is that most subject matters are not immediately of interest or relevance to the learner. Children do not turn up in school in the morning thinking “gosh, I hope that today we learn about the relationship between momentum and energy.” But a good physics teacher knows how to ignite learners’ interest in this kind of thing. She might show children a Newton’s Cradle, let one ball drop, and observe the reaction; then let two balls drop, and observe that reaction; and then hold up three balls and ask students to discuss with each other what they think the reaction will be. Students will have all kinds of guesses, and will eventually demand that the teacher release the three balls to see who is right, and why. The teacher has made the problem relevant to the learners. (This example is given in Brooks and Brooks, In Search of Understanding, ASCD, 1999).

EFI’s approach to Jewish education makes the challenge of relevance even harder. It’s not enough to teach children about Judaism; we have to teach children to do Judaism. And, as in the physics example above, most children in most of our schools do not turn up in the morning eager to learn more about (for example) how and why we build a sukkah. We know that the best way to get kids excited about learning about the sukkah is to take them into one, to ask them questions like “how do you feel here?”, “how is this different from being inside a house?”, “what else do you think the walls could be made of and this would still feel like a sukkah?”, and so on. If we do this kind of experiential education, and ask children to grapple with these kinds of questions, there is a much better chance that they’ll connect to the idea of the sukkah and be curious to learn more about it.

The sukkah is an easy example, though, because it lends itself naturally to this kind of experiential, constructivist education. What about something more abstract and less immediately child-friendly: say, teaching children about the tension in tefillah between keva (fixed forms of prayer) and kavannah (spontaneous and individual feeling during prayer)? This is more like the challenge of momentum and energy above: children do not arrive in school in the morning eager to think about the tension between keva and kavannah. Constructivist pedagogy would present children with questions and problems that are relevant to their own lives – questions that have nothing to do with tefillah – and use those as entry points. For example, a teacher could hand out shop-bought birthday cards and ask children to consider why they come with pre-written messages, and what themes emerge from those pre-written messages. Older children could research the relative sales numbers of cards with pre-written messages versus blank ones, or research the history of this cultural phenomenon. Once children are thinking about the creative tension between keva and kavannah in this relevant aspect of their lives, the thoughtful teacher can help them make the transition to simple prayers that they know, like the Shema or Modeh Ani, and have them ask the same questions.

EFI’s curricular resources are built around “essential questions” – powerful, compelling, open-ended, meaningful questions that will spark students’ curiosity to learn and create bridges from their own lives to the subject matter (Wiggins and McTighe, Understanding By Design). For EFI schools that have gone through curriculum development training with us, these essential questions should be mirrored in the curriculum map that you’ve developed, infused by your “portrait of a graduate.” If you’re coming to this site from a school that hasn’t gone through that process, we suggest beginning from the essential questions menu and using that to identify materials that will speak to your students’ lives and interests.


Student Engagement

It is not enough for teachers to begin with problems of relevance; the way in which children address the material must be engaging. It is possible to learn just by listening, but people learn much more effectively when they “chew on concepts, jot down their thoughts, compare understandings with peers, [and] articulate their questions“ (Himmele and Himmele, Total Participation Techniques, ASCD, 2017).

There are various techniques that teachers can use to help children learn like this in their classrooms. Below we will share a few main categories of these pedagogical approaches, drawn from our experience, and you can find many more in the links to external websites in Our Pedagogical Approach. These approaches have in common the desire to use pedagogies that engage all students in the classroom as much of the time as possible (i.e. not just one student at a time while the others look on). We strongly encourage you to consult these sources for more ideas about how to engage all students, all the time.

  1. Enabling all students to think before discussing

One of the core principles of student engagement is to give every student the opportunity to think about questions posed. Rather then jump immediately to whole-class discussion, or go straight to chavruta, we encourage teachers to pose a question, and then give students a moment (which could be anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes) to think about the question on their own, either quietly in their heads or writing down some ideas to themselves; secondly, to split students up into pairs or small groups, in which they will bounce their ideas off each other and further develop them; and only then, and only if absolutely essential, spend time in a whole class discussion. This “think-pair-share” system enables every single student to grapple with the question, and enables students who don’t feel comfortable speaking to the whole class to articulate their views in the less intimidating format of a pair or small group. There are dozens of different variations of the think-pair-share: using technology, using different kinds of writing prompt for the think segment, playing with the sizes and timing of the pairs/groups, doing role-plays in the pair stage, and so on: but the basic three-stage structure of it is perhaps the most important method of achieving student engagement.

  1. Empower students to take control of the classroom environment

One of the most powerful pedagogic moves a teacher can make is to release control of the classroom environment to the students. For example: ask students to write word associations on the whiteboard (e.g. “what comes to your mind when you think of the word “freedom”?); in discussions, ask each speaker to select the next person to talk; empower students to move classroom furniture around in order to create a conducive set-up for small group work. Technology can be used to enhance this pedagogic move in wonderful ways: a class VoiceThread on a piece of text allows all students to add their voices in whichever way they want; children can be asked to search for images online that bring to life Jewish values or texts and share them digitally with the rest of the class; even something as simple as a shared Google doc enables crowd-writing or editing of ideas or positions. Whether using technology or not, teachers should be encouraged to take a step back and enable students to take control of and responsibility for their own learning and thinking.

  1. Invert Bloom’s Taxonomy

There are different versions of Bloom’s Taxonomy but they all share the basic distinction between lower-order thinking skills like retell, remember and understand and higher-order thinking skills like analyze, synthesize, evaluate and create. The mistake that some teachers make is to think that students must first master lower-order thinking about a subject and only then move on to higher-order thinking. This can be a recipe for unengaging education: students spend all their time doing lower-order tasks and have (understandably) lost interest by the time the higher-order tasks come along. Or, the teacher runs out of time and the higher-order tasks get skipped or rushed. Instead, we suggest that teachers integrate higher-order and lower-order thinking throughout, and actually begin with higher-order thinking before getting to lower-order thinking. For example, in studying Biblical texts, rather than begin by making sure that students “understand the text,” teachers can begin by posing powerful essential questions about the text’s ideas, and then, once students are engaged by thinking and talking about those ideas, they can read the text with those questions in mind. They will end up not only understanding the text better, but feeling engaged in the learning throughout the whole process.

  1. Going Beyond the verbal

Children (=people) learn not only by reading, listening and writing. They learn by visualizing, drawing, making creative analogies, and many other creative avenues. Students can be asked to draw visual representations of complex ideas (e.g. “without drawing a shofar itself, draw a symbolic representation of the core message of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah”), or they can be asked to use music to help them think about Biblical texts (“play a modern song that you think should be the background music to Genesis chapter 1”), or they can be asked to create a tableau (a freeze-time character representation) that relates to a text (“in pairs, create a tableau of Adam and Eve when they were told the news about Kain killing Abel”). Pedagogies such as these will deepen learning for all children, especially those whose thinking is not verbal-linguistic.

  1. Language stems for discussion

Discussions, whether in pairs, small groups, or the whole class, don’t just “happen.” Children must be helped to develop the “muscles” that will enable their discussions to be thoughtful, respectful, and meaningful. Teachers can work with students on these “muscles,” using skills like paraphrasing (“if I understand you correctly, what you’re saying is…”), developing (“I’d like to take your idea and suggest another part of the text that it can apply to”), asking clarifying questions (“can you explain what you mean by…”), asking probing questions (“What do you think would happen if…?”), making personal connections (“your statement reminds me of something that happened to me recently”), and many other skills like these. Developing these skills can raise students’ discussions far beyond the simple “I like what you said” or “I disagree”.

  1. Technology

Finally, a word about technology. We live in an age when technological tools develop at an incredible pace. The few tools that have been mentioned in this document will no doubt be out of date within a year or two, and we can’t even imagine what will replace them. The most important thing to understand about using educational technology, then, is that the tools don’t matter; the educational goals do. A teacher’s educational goals will remain the same whether the technology is a lump of Play-Doh or the most advanced virtual reality software. The kinds of things we have discussed in this brief essay – posing questions of relevance, and meaning, empowering students to take control of their learning, using thoughtful discussion stems, etc – these should be the hallmark of everything we do, regardless of technology. When technology can help our students achieve those goals more effectively or engagingly, then that’s great, we should use it. But sometimes the best way to get kids to think deeply about Jewish ideas and texts is just to have them use a pen and pencil.