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  • Writer's pictureAngela Slate

Constructivist Learning Theory and Implicit Bias in the Classroom

Updated: Dec 10, 2023


2 students raising their hands from behind and a teacher at the front pointing to one of them

Can Constructivist Learning Theory be both the Cause

and the Cure for Implicit Bias in the Classroom?

On May 31, 2020, an entire nation–stuck at home during a global pandemic without much else to distract them–watched as George Floyd, a Black man, was choked to death by a White police officer. Almost overnight, protests sprung up across the country and the words “Black Lives Matter” became a prominent part of our mainstream lexicon. Race relations became the central focus of everyone on social media and the news. And from this discourse, emerged other phrases such as “Critical Race Theory,” “institutionalized racism,” “implicit vs explicit bias,” and “White Privilege.”

For many Americans, mainly Black Americans and their allies, these concepts have been around for decades. However, for those who were being introduced to these concepts for the first time, it was jarring. Some took it as an opportunity to listen and learn while others were even more defiant and refused to acknowledge that certain members of our society have more privilege than others. As experts shared ways to combat bias and educate the public, the concept of incorporating Critical Race Theory into our schools became a central part of the discussion and remains a controversial topic today.

In this paper, I will explore the origins of bias using both Constructivist Learning Theory and Critical Race Theory, discuss the implications of bias in education, and look at research that successfully used Constructivist Learning Theory to deconstruct teacher biases and create inclusive learning environments for students.


Constructivist Learning Theory and the Origins of Bias


Despite being around since the 1970s, many are unclear about the meaning of Critical Race Theory (CRT). At the heart of CRT is the idea that racism is so intertwined with our society that it appears normal. One example is how “White” and “male” are the presumed defaults in our society and anything other than that needs to be defined: “doctor” vs “female doctor” vs “Hispanic female doctor.” This is also evident in the connotations of certain words and their unspoken association with race. Unless otherwise noted, words like “intelligence” or “beauty” is referring to White standards. In opposition, words such as “gangs” or “welfare recipients” have connotations of Blackness (Ladson-Billings, 2010). When we use words and phrases like these, we are unknowingly contributing to implicit bias. Unlike obvious examples of explicit bias such as attending Klan rallies or using known derogatory terms, implicit bias is harder to detect, measure, and even realize when we are participating. Implicit biases include 1) implicit attitudes which is the tendency to like/dislike certain races and 2) implicit stereotypes which is the assignment of particular traits to a certain group of people (Chin et al., 2020). Because these beliefs have become so normalized within our society, it is very possible for someone to exhibit implicit bias despite not actually endorsing the attitude or stereotype (Chin et al., 2020).

In order to combat these biases, we need to understand where they came from or how we learned them. In the discourse of pedagogy, there are many theories to how we learn things. We are going to focus on the most prominent one in modern education: Constructivism. Constructivism is based on the belief that reality does not have absolute values and knowledge is an interpretation of individual experiences ​​(Dastanpour).


From constructivists' point of view, the world of individuals is created in the mind and the world of one individual is not more realistic than the other one…. Knowledge representation in an individual's mind changes continously (Dastanpour, p. 3).

If this is the case, the more limited your experiences, the more limited your viewpoints. And since Whiteness is the norm, limited experience would limit exposure to only White voices, which would therefore create unconscious bias toward anything outside of the norm.

Fortunately, the Constructivist Theory also supports the belief that knowledge is constantly changing along with culture and society ​​(Dastanpour). If the source of implicit bias is limited exposure to experiences outside the White norm, then the cure would be more exposure. This is why another key tenet of Critical Race Theory is the importance of storytelling. For people who do not have the opportunity to interact with a diverse group of people, the exchange of stories allows exposure to different viewpoints (Ladson-Billings, 2010). Ladson-Billings shares an example from a discussion in her class about White Privilege summarized as follows:

A White student shared that she had forgotten her wallet at the grocery store and was allowed to take the groceries and return with her checkbook. She shared this story with a Black male friend who responded that this was due to her White Privilege. She insisted to her friend that it was the store’s “good neighbor policy.” To prove his point, her Black friend took her back to the store and had her watch as he pretended to forget his wallet with the same cashier. This time, the cashier asked him to leave the groceries and return with his wallet (p. 16).


In this story, the cashier was not explicitly bias. He did not use any racist terms or even mention race and there was no openly discriminatory store policy. In fact, the cashier may not have even been aware of his own bias. Unfortunately, there is no objective way to measure incidents such as this. That is why collective storytelling is so important. When we hear stories like this from multiple people of color, we are able to see a pattern of implicit bias that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

The incorporation of storytelling also aligns with the Constructivist view that learners create knowledge through experience and their interpretation of that experience. The goal of Constructivism is to move away from one-way-instructor models where knowledge is transferred from the teacher to the student toward helping learners examine complex situations through their own interpretations (Dastanpour, 2017). Considering that 80% of the teachers in the U.S. are white females (​​Simon et al., 2021), Constructivism is a way to ensure that non-White-female voices are a part of the conversation. In Constructivism, the teacher’s role is not to be the sole provider of facts, but to facilitate learning opportunities that encourage independent thinking, problem-solving, and sharing experiences (Dastanpour).


Using Constructivist Learning to Deconstruct Teacher Bias


Before we can eliminate implicit bias in the classroom, we must first eliminate implicit bias with our teachers. Unchecked teacher bias can have both short-and long-term negative consequences on students. Studies have shown that students as young as 6 can detect teachers’ attitudes toward them and a negative attitude could impede upon relationship-building which is conducive to learning (Chin et al., 2020). In 2020, Chin et al. aggregated data from three nationwide sources to see if there was a correlation of teacher bias and student outcomes. They found that Black students not only scored lower in counties with recorded pro-White/anti-Black biases, but they were also more than twice as likely to receive one or more suspensions than their White counterparts. They also found that teachers in counties with a larger Black population had lower levels of bias (Chin et al.). Although they were not able to determine a direct cause, it connects to the Constructivist idea that knowledge is based on personal experiences.


Combatting Teacher Bias with Constructivist Service Learning

In 2017, Gokmenoglu wrote a case study of preservice teachers from Turkey who were studying to become teachers in Northern Cypress. The university required that all teacher candidates participate in a two-credit course in which they partner with social organizations on a community service project of their choice. Acknowledging that teachers have the potential to impact society for generations, the goal is to develop holistic teachers that could then help their students engage in their community and develop a sense of civic duty to solve social problems. Realizing this type of knowledge is more meaningful if the learners are actively engaged, the course designers used a Constructivist approach where teachers were allowed to design their own project while teachers served as facilitators. The learning, therefore, took place naturally within the environment (Gokmenoglu, 2017).

Prior to beginning the course, the students were given a survey about their feelings toward Cypress and its people. The Turkish students had many negative things to say about Cypriots, describing them as “stiff,” unhygienic, and hateful toward Turks (unless they wanted money). They described Northern Cypress as underdeveloped, expensive, and neglected, some blaming Cypriots for the poor conditions. As students implemented their projects (which included a wide range of activities from renovating schools and playgrounds to organizing science festivals to recording audiobook for the visually impaired), the researcher already noticed a change in attitude as teachers described how helpful the Cypriots were with many donating needed supplies and transportation to the various projects. In the end 68% of students reported that their previously negative feelings towards Cypress had changed because of their experience (Gokmenoglu, 2017). This case study supports the idea that we can descronstruct our biases using the same Constructivist learning methods within which they were constructed in the first place.


Using Constructivist Learning to Create an Inclusive Classroom

It is, of course, impossible to remove all biases, but as educators, it is important to be aware of them in order to create classrooms where all students are welcome and given an equal opportunity to learn. In the following three examples, we look at how teachers have been able to use Constructivist learning theories to create an environment of inclusivity in undergraduate social science classes, within an after-school PE program for middle-school-aged girls, and finally, for elementary special education students.

It is notable that in all three examples, researchers/teachers describe traditional classrooms as deficit-based. If the student is not able to meet academic standards, they are seen as a problem that needs to be fixed as opposed to the curriculum or teaching style that needs to be more accommodating (Naraian, 2019; Simon et al., 2021; Williams-Wengerd, 2018). All three discuss how Constructivism helps them combat this and create an environment where all students have equal voice and equal access to learning.


Constructivism and Inclusivity in the Undergraduate Social Science Classroom

In their paper “Integrating Universal Design, Culturally Sustaining Practices, and Constructivism to Advance Inclusive Pedagogy in the Undergraduate Classroom,” Gier-Reed and Williams-Wengard provide practical guidelines for using Constructivist strategies to create an inclusive classroom drawing upon their experiences as undergraduate social science teachers. Using the Constructivist idea that knowledge is created in the interactions of individuals, they eliminate the power dynamic of teacher vs. student and encourage the co-creating of knowledge through mutual sharing and discussion. To maintain a safe space, it is important to create norms for interaction which include acknowledging that institutionalized oppression exists and assuming that everyone is doing the best they can. They caution against relying solely on students of color to be the source of diversity as this not only creates tokenism (where someone is asked to speak for their entire race), but is also an emotional burden on diverse students to always feel they need to educate others on issues of race. Instead, to ensure a variety of voices are included in the discourse, the teachers incorporate the previously discussed CRT method of storytelling by incorporating the experiences and narratives of diverse people as source material for class discussions. The perspective of students of color on these materials will naturally add to the analysis.

They also take pro-active steps to make sure no student feels marginalized. Williams-Wengard welcomes every new class by explicitly introducing three key assumptions that guide her class: “all students are capable of learning, students’ active participation is essential for learning, and learning is an ingoing process rather than an end state” (p. 3). Although this is a part of almost all teacher’s belief system, Williams-Wengard explicitly states it as a way of making any student who might be questioning their place in her classroom feel welcome. She also stresses the importance of making no assumptions of prior knowledge. She advises that it is the instructors job to explicitly state any possible assumptions in the curriculum to avoid excluding anyone who may not have had access to that prior information.


Constructivism and Inclusivity in an After-School PE Program for Girls

In 2021, Simon et al. followed a group of 12 middle-school-aged girls (11 identified as Latina and 1 as white) of low socio-economic status (SES) as they participated in an afterschool program called REACH, whose purpose is to use Constructivist ideas to build community through sport. The program was developed to combat traditional models of Phyiscal Education (PE) in schools which use military command-style training and celebrate masculine traits such as aggression and strength. In these deficit-based programs, if girls fail to meet these standards, they are seen as a problem that needs to be fixed. REACH, on the other hand, draws on the Constructivist theory of allowing the girls to co-create their own experience. While some girls requested to play competitive sports, a lot of the girls requested dance, yoga, or tennis, which was not available to them in the school program (Simon et al., 2021).


The girls were encouraged to journal throughout the program, which was used to measure progress and provide feedback to the instructors. This feedback was often used to adjust the program to meet their needs and requests. Two themes emerged from the journal entries. The first was the common opinion that school PE was boring (despite them being happily engaged in physical activity at REACH). One girl told the story of how her teacher told her if she didn’t improve her time on the mile run, she would have to run after school. Not only was this ineffective in improving her time, it enforced the idea of physical activity as punishment and only served to humiliate her, further alienating her from the school PE program (Simon et al., 2021).

The second theme in the journal entries was how the girls navigated gender norms within the program. Multiple girls mentioned how they felt pressure at school to be “good,” in other words quiet, nice, helpful, and polite. They were often punished for talking too much. Unable to be themselves, they became disengaged with school and only saw it as something they had to endure to have a better life than their parents. Some shared that it was not just the teachers who alienated them, but the boys at school also excluded them from playing sports or made fun of them when they did. At REACH, however, they felt free to do what made them happy. For some of them, it meant the freedom to participate in less competitive sports. For others, it meant the freedom to be even more competitive without the judgment of others. One girl described a game they created called “Savage.” They called it that because they allowed themselves to be as aggressive as possible to get the ball and win. They enjoyed the opportunity to be loud. They credited the ability to create their own program with their enjoyment (Simon et al., 2021).


Constructivism and Inclusivity in a Mixed-Ability Spanish-Speaking Elementary Classroom

In 2019, Srikala Nararian observed and interviewed two 4th-grade reading teachers in a Spanish dual-language program as they incorporated Constructivist ideas to create a more inclusive classroom for students of differing abilities, including several designated as requiring Special Education (SPED). Although the teachers embraced Constructivist ideas of student-centered learning and building knowledge through experience, they also recognized the need for the kids to meet foundational skills best taught through a more direct approach. They decided to use an eclectic approach to teaching where a direct method was used to teach skills, but Constructivist ideas were incorporated to ensure inclusivity. The direct instruction included common teaching strategies such as breaking down lessons to manageable tasks, scaffolding, modeling, and repetition (Nararian, 2019).


One of the Constructivist strategies used was making sure to connect the learning to student lives. Whether it was relating the steps of writing to the steps of tying a shoe or bringing in books with diverse characters and encouraging students to make connections to their own experiences. Another Constructivist strategy was co-learning, where the students worked collaboratively to write a short answer response while the teacher served as facilitator. In another example, students voluntarily shared their writing for critique from other students. Students worked together to improve each others’ writing, and the teacher made sure to validate all students voices (Nararian, 2019).


Despite not having a true Constructive learning environment, Narian found that these teachers were still successful in creating an inclusive learning environment where all students felt welcome, were engaged, and grew as learners. She credits this to the teachers themselves. They “saw their work in the classroom as directly linked to the social and economic progress of the community in which they and their students were embedded” (Nararian, 2019; p. 1598).


Discussion, Limitations, and Implications


As seen in these Case Studies, Constructivist learning theory is a useful tool for eliminating bias in the classroom. However, the most important way to prevent classroom bias is to eliminate bias in teachers. As seen with the last example, it was the teachers that made the difference regardless of what teaching method was used. “Recognizing the hidden values and underlying assumptions present in the educational environment is the first step” in designing inclusive classrooms (Grier-Reed and Williams-Wengerd, 2018, p.2). Therefore, it begins with teacher education. The Constructivist approach of service learning as described in this paper is one way we can help teacher candidates face any unknown biases they may have.

There are some limitations to the Constructivist approach. As mentioned in the last example, it does not often align with the objective measures of achievement currently used by schools. Simon et al. also acknowledged that it would have been impossible for the in-school PE teacher to incorporate their constructivist approach with such a larg class size (2021). A few words of caution were also mentioned in the papers. Ladson-Billings warned that if teachers are not trained properly, the strategies outlined in Critical Race Thoery could be misinterpreted. She used the example of how “multiculural education” was originally intended to address inequities in education, but instead became an excuse to talk about foreign foods and holidays (2010). This, once again, puts emphasis back on appropriate teacher training.



References

Chin, M. J., Quinn, D. M., Dhaliwal, T. K., & Lovison, V. S. (2020). Bias in the air: A nationwide exploration of teachers’ implicit racial attitudes, aggregate bias, and student outcomes.

Educational Researcher, 49(8), 566–578. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189x20937240


Dastanpour, T., Karamalian, H., & Sarmadi, M. R. (2017). The explanation of the curriculum characteristics of the e-learning system based on the proposed principles of Constructivist Approach. Interdisciplinary Journal of Virtual Learning in Medical Sciences, 8(4). https://doi.org/10.5812/ijvlms.15088



Grier-Reed, T., & Williams-Wengerd, A. (2018). Integrating universal design, culturally sustaining practices, and constructivism to advance inclusive pedagogy in the undergraduate classroom. Education Sciences, 8(4), 167. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci8040167


Gökmenoğlu, T. (2017). More than just another course: Service learning as antidote to cultural bias. Issues in Educational Research, 27(4), 751-769. http://www.iier.org.au/iier27/gokmenoglu.pdf


Ladson-Billings, G. (1998). Just what is critical race theory and what's it doing in a nice field like education? International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), 7–24. https://doi.org/10.1080/095183998236863


Naraian, S. (2016). Teaching for “real”: Reconciling explicit literacy instruction with inclusive pedagogy in a fourth-grade urban classroom. Urban Education, 54(10), 1581–1607. https://doi.org/10.1177/0042085916648742


Simon, M., Marttinen, R., & Phillips, S. (2020). Marginalized girls’ gendered experiences within a constructivist afterschool program (reach). Sport, Education and Society, 26(6), 579–591. https://doi.org/10.1080/13573322.2020.1764926




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