Chapter TwoLiterature ReviewIntroduction Problem-based, discovery-based, inquiry-based, case-based, and project-based are all examples of best practice learning pedagogies from the constructivist theory framework. The constructivist learning theory is based on the idea that learners construct or build knowledge through active experiences with their subject matter. These types of best practices may be especially useful for the types of students that are considered to be at-risk. According to Wikipedia, an at-risk student is a term used in the United States to describe a student who requires temporary or ongoing intervention in order to succeed academically (At-risk students, n.
d.). At-risk students may be found in all schools, but they are found mostly in our nation’s alternative schools. Project-based learning is especially intriguing for at-risk students and their success in alternative schools. Although project-based learning has a long history in education dating back to John Dewey, it has gotten a second wind in the past decade as a strategy to engage diverse learners in rigorous learning (Cervantes, Hemmer, & Kouzekanani, 2015).
Rooted in constructivism, constructionism, and cooperative/collaborative learning, project-based learning has strong theoretical support for successful achievement (Grant, 2002).Understanding Alternative SchoolsIn order to investigate best practices for students in alternative schools, an understanding of the history of the alternative educational system, as well as the types and structures of alternative schools that are available to students, is necessary. There are several misconceptions about alternative schools such as dumping grounds and schools for losers or the bad kids. The research indicates that there is not a well-defined system for information in the world of alternative education across the nation which only helps to perpetuate these misunderstandings. History of alternative schools. From the beginning, public education failed to account for students who were not suited to the standardized setting of regular high schools. Continuation (or alternative) education has filled many roles in the last century, from citizenship training to vocational guidance, adjustment education to dropout recover (Williamson, 2008). In the early 1900s, the focus for an alternative school concept began and educators looked to Germany and England for models that could support an alternative to the regular, mainstream high schools. The first continuation school was founded in Wisconsin in 1911. In 1917, the Smith-Hughes Act established a Federal Board of Vocational Education and special funds to support vocational programs (Williamson, 2008). The schools continued for many years with an alternative to the regular setting for students that needed to work and could only go to school part-time.By the late 1950s, the traditional schools were being criticized for being racist and designed only for those of privilege. In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Act was passed by President Johnson and equity became the new goal in education. The government began funding new types of alternative schools that could offer equal education to disadvantaged and minorities (Lange & Sletten, 2002). One of the biggest challenges for students is that of staying in school and graduating. While no single reason stands out, research indicates that difficult transitions to high school, deficient basic skills, and a lack of engagement serve as prominent barriers to graduation (Siegrist et al., 2010).The costs and consequences of school dropout can be severe for both the student and society (Mann & Whitworth, 2018). By the 1980s, the focus shifted again and schools were tasked to find a way to address those who were dropping out. Suspension, expulsion, retention, chronic failure, and alienation were all factors of the increased dropout and low completion rates (Gilson, 2006). With our nation losing billions of dollars annually because of school dropouts, public schools had to find alternative methods to keep the at-risk students in school which led to the formation of more alternative schools (Gilson, 2006). By the 2007-2008 school year, there were 10,300 public alternative schools in the United States (National Center for Education Statistics, 2010).Definition of alternative school. Although alternative schools have been around for many years, a definition that encompasses every alternative program is hard to locate. In the glossary of Sable, Plotts and Mitchell’s 2010 statistical analysis report for the U.S. Department of Education, the alternative school is defined as:A public elementary/secondary school that (1) addresses needs of students that typically cannot be met in a regular school, (2) provides nontraditional education, (3) serves as an adjunct to a regular school, or (4) falls outside the categories of regular, special education, or vocational education (Mann & Whitworth, 2018; Porowski, O’Conner, & Luo, 2014; Sable, Plotts, & Mitchell, 2010, C-1; Siegrist et al., 2010).Dictionary.com cites an alternative school as any public or private school having a special curriculum, especially an elementary or secondary school offering a more flexible program of study than a traditional school (Alternative school, n.d.). A simple way to describe alternative education is specialized educational programs that function outside of traditional schools (Slaten, Irby, Tate, and Rivera, 2015). Another way to identify alternative schools is by meeting the needs of individuals who have not succeeded in traditional education and representing various degrees of separation from the standard school organizations (Raywid, 1994). Types of alternative schools. Just as there is no exact definition of what constitutes an alternative school, the types of alternative schools available are quite lengthy. Several sources of research reference Raywid’s work of classifying alternative schools as being either Type I, Type II, or Type III (Mann & Whitworth, 2018; Morissette, 2011; Raywid 1993, 1994; Slaten et al., 2015). Type 1 alternative programs are those that may be schools of choice that offer innovative programs, instructional approaches or special strategies to attract students. Type II alternative schools are those that are for behavior modification with mandatory attendance and may be offered as a last chance before expulsion. Type III alternative schools are designed for rehabilitation and remediation for academic issues and social or emotional issues. The types of students that the alternative programs serve varies greatly. Many students who attend alternative schools share behavioral, social and emotional traits (Mann & Whitworth, 2018). Alternative education has evolved to embody a wide range of options to serve students with varying circumstances, interests, and abilities (Lange & Sletten, 2002; Porowski et al., 2014). Alternative programs have some common characteristics such as student enrollment of less than 200, low student-teacher ratios, individualized and self-paced instruction, and less formal classroom structure. (Slaten et al., 2015). Another characteristic cited is assessments that are varied and noncompetitive (Lange & Sletten, 2002; Siegrist et al., 2010). Haggis (2017) cites the research indicates student success can be accomplished in alternative schools through hard work, use of social skills and the building of relationships. Alternative education is for students at risk of failing from traditional schools due to truancy, pregnancy, learning challenges, and/or behavioral problems (Slaten et al., 2015). Different alternative programs may be designed for pregnant or parenting teens, suspended or expelled students, recovered dropouts, delinquent teens, students with disabilities, students with high-risk health behaviors and students seeking vocational and technical education (Porowski et al., 2014). The students who are enrolled in alternative programs may present issues for the faculty and staff of alternative programs. The students are challenging to motivate because they have often had very negative experiences in school (Haggis, 2017).Creating a positive learning environment is very important in alternative schools. Slaten et al. (2015) listed some of the best practices for alternative schools include non-traditional and flexible school hours, flexible rules and consequences, strong home and school connection, focus on relationships and positive school climate. Building relationships, being positive, encouraging rather than disciplining is the way to reach the at-risk youth (Haggis, 2017). Raywid (1994) added that alternative schools should provide the organization and structure needed to sustain a community within them and to provide learning that is engaging for the students (Gilson, 2006). Theoretical FrameworkConstructivist Theory Constructivism is a theory about how we learn and the thinking process, rather than about how a student can memorize and recite a quantity of information (Liu & Chen, 2010). Constructivism involves constructing, creating, inventing, and developing one’s own knowledge and meaning (Liu & Chen, 2010). Active struggling by the learner with issues is learning (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996). Cattaneo (2017) stated constructivist learning environments require: student work that is intrinsically motivating to them; learners reaching a certain level of self-directedness; and teachers who provide support, context, relevance, and constant feedback. Yilmaz (2008) added constructivist teaching affords learners meaningful, concrete experiences in which they can look for patterns, construct their own questions, and structure their own models, concepts, and strategies. Three aspects essential for a convenient constructive learning design are the involvement of students, experience space, and balance of instruction and construction (Scheer, Noweski & Meinel, 2012).John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Jerome Bruner, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky are among the major contributors to the constructivist learning theory. Chaipichit et al. (2015) defined constructivist theory as a process in which students construct knowledge by associating their experience or what they had seen in a new environment or via information technology, with their prior knowledge in order to construct their own understanding. Liu and Chen (2010) summed up constructivism as the learner actively constructing knowledge rather than passively receiving it from the environment. Fosnot (2005) wrote it is a psychological theory of learning that describes how structures, language, activity, and meaning-making come about, rather than one that simply characterizes the structures and stages of thought or one that isolates behaviors learned through reinforcement. A growing body of research suggests that students learn more deeply and perform better on complex tasks if they have the opportunity to engage in more authentic learning – projects and activities that require them to employ subject knowledge to solve real-world problems (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008).The role of the teacher in a constructivist classroom is as a facilitator who provides information and organizes activities for learners to discover their own learning (Liu & Chen, 2010). Constructivism integrates the learner within his own observations in a cycle of creation and observation (Scheer et al., 2012). In constructivist classrooms, the learners do not just sit and get the information that a teacher gives to them. They demonstrate learning and understanding through different means such as developing critical questions and summarizing ideas by their own words (Liu & Chen, 2010). Teachers, as facilitators of learning, need to be equipped with up-to-date skills and tools to actually practice on the needed key competence learning (Scheer et al., 2012). Constructivist teachers challenge students to justify and defend their positions so that they can change their conceptual framework (Yilmez, 2008).Constructivist PedagogyConstructivist pedagogy is thought of as the creation of classroom environments, activities, and methods that are grounded in the constructivist theory of learning, with goals that focus on individual students developing deep understandings (Richardson, 2003). Richardson (2003) included a list of five essential characteristics of the constructivist pedagogy based on the research as:attention to the individual and respect for students’ background and developing understandings of and beliefs about elements of the domain;facilitation of group dialogue that explores an element of the domain with the purpose of leading to the creation and shared understanding of a topic;planned and often the unplanned introduction of formal domain knowledge into the conversation through direct instruction, the reference to a text, exploration of a Web site, or some other means;provisions of opportunities for students to determine, challenge, change or add to existing beliefs and understandings through engagement in tasks that are structured for this purpose; and development of students’ meta-awareness of their own understandings and learning processes.Richardson (2003) included a disclaimer that the five characteristics are elements and not specific practices. The elements should be used as approaches to teaching using the constructivist pedagogy (Richardson, 2003). Psychological constructivism is an approach that focuses on the ways in which meaning is created within the individual mind and how shared meaning is developed within a group process (Richardson, 2003). Cooperative small-group learning was defined by Cohen (1994) as students working together in a group small enough that everyone can participate in a collective task that has been clearly assigned (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008). Cooperative group work benefits students in social and behavioral areas including improvement in student self-concept, social interaction, time on task, and positive feelings towards peers (Cohen et al., 1982; Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008).