Kappa Omicron Nu
Constructivist Learning Theory in an Interior Design Program
Mount Vernon Nazarene University
This paper documents one professor’s struggle to use constructivist learning theory to guide instruction in an interior design program. Family and consumer sciences teacher education candidates are also enrolled in the courses, affording them the opportunity to observe and experience the teacher’s modeling of the approach. Constructivist-oriented teaching emphasizes the learner’s active participation, which differs from the behaviorist approach that is more familiar to students.
Although there are several variations of constructivist learning theory, most of the variations share the following four foundational concepts: (a) meaningful learning is the active creation of knowledge based on personal interests, attitudes, goals, and prior knowledge; (b) the creation of knowledge is unique for each individual because of personal experiences and characteristics of age, gender, race, and ethnic background; (c) learners may create their own views of the world based on their prior knowledge but because each makes observations and tests hypotheses, the conclusions they reach are often consistent with others’ ideas; and (d) learners need to be offered opportunities to share views and discuss ideas with other students and/or the instructor so that they may create their personal knowledge (Snowman, McCown, & Biehler, 2009). Because it is possible for students to misinterpret or construct knowledge incorrectly, the instructor must continually assess students’ understanding of the subject matter throughout the instructional process. Other helpful conditions include the following: the learner is solving real-life problems that result in conceptual change (Brooks & Brooks, 2001).
Family and consumer sciences curriculum is often conceptualized as process-oriented with strong components of constructivist learning theory. Specifically, the curriculum can be centered on practical problems—the complex problems are real world and content-based, and the students are encouraged to draw connections between ideas (Redick et al., 1998). This paper reflects the author’s interpretation of this philosophical perspective.
Believing in the efficacy of constructivist learning theory and then being able to effectively practice it in the classroom can be challenging. The struggle to help students learn from the constructivist perspective rather than from a behaviorist orientation is presented in this paper. The topic of furniture arrangement lends itself well to the practice of constructivist learning theory because there could be more than one right answer for a specific real-life problem. Given a specific size and shape of a room, alternative furniture arrangements can be justified and supported depending upon the location of the room, the intended occupants of the space, and the proposed use of the space. One simple, absolutely correct way of solving these types of problems is not the goal.
To prepare future teachers for secondary family and consumer sciences classrooms, the required plan of study at a university includes courses in a variety of subject matter areas. In a small family and consumer sciences department, it may be necessary for teacher education candidates to study subject matter along with students who are focusing on specific concentrations of the discipline. For example, teacher education candidates enroll in the same introductory interior design course as the students who plan to be designers. They also participate in a course that focuses on societal problems in housing. This advanced course builds upon the first course and provides a forum for the modeling of practical problem solving grounded in constructivist theory.
Students enrolled in the introductory interior design course come from a variety of backgrounds and demonstrate great differences in their prior experiences and knowledge. Some of the students have completed several art classes, while others have no previous familiarity with any of the foundational knowledge. They fall somewhere on the continuum from “no knowledge or experience” with any of the basic design elements or principles to those who have had extensive experience with these art concepts.
The students are introduced to the basic elements and principles of design through an illustrated lecture and further reinforced by the textbook. To ascertain that all students have been made aware of the elements and principles, this technical mode of instruction must be utilized. The purpose of the illustrated lecture is to ensure that the students have some knowledge in common. Questions posed by the instructor throughout the lecture permit her to assess the students’ understanding of the elements and principles and to clarify any misconceptions. After all students have learned the basics of design, more in-depth exploration of the subject matter can begin.
Photos from a variety of sources are examined and critiqued by small groups of students. The groups must decide what elements or principles are evident and whether or not the elements or principles have been well executed. For example, how is the element of space used in the room? Does the inclusion of negative space contribute to a well-arranged room? How could people move through the room? Would all clients be able to utilize the room or would some be denied because of physical disabilities? Not all members of a group agree which is to be expected because this is a complex problem, one without a single solution. The discussion of why something does or does not lend itself to a well-arranged room is a valuable experience. Differing viewpoints require the students to defend their positions and substantiate their claims using textbooks or other references. Throughout the process, the teacher serves as the mentor, coach, and guide rather than the transmitter of knowledge. Probing questions are asked of each group as the teacher circulates through the room—e.g., Have you found a source that supports your conclusion that the distance from one side of a conversation area to another can exceed twenty feet?
Imagining what is not visible in the picture is an important next step for the students. The utilization of space in a well-arranged room also necessitates the consideration of traffic patterns and flow within the room. Determining the overall end-use or purpose for the room is accomplished by asking questions: What activities will be conducted in the room? What furniture is necessary for these activities? How many people will use the room, and how will they travel through the space? Has enough furniture been provided, and is it appropriate for the proposed ages of the users? Would a wheelchair be able to navigate throughout the room?
Student groups progress to selecting furniture templates and arranging them on a scale drawing of the room to meet the identified needs. At first, students arrange the room very simplistically. They tend to line things up around the room with great big empty spaces in the center. Or, they place too many pieces, or very large-scale pieces, of furniture in the room so that the traffic paths are impeded.
When asked why they have arranged the room as they have, students sometimes state that their family or friend’s homes are arranged. They tend to stay with what they know, not stepping out into the unfamiliar or seeking to create new knowledge. The instructor probes and prompts the students to help them extend their thinking. She challenges them by introducing ideas that do not fit the original solution—e.g., What if grandma comes to live with the family? Will that necessitate an additional chair or different type of chair? The disequilibrium that results encourages students to modify or create new additions to current schemes or solutions.
As they justify their solutions or decisions to their group mates, they might listen to what another person is saying and thus learn from other members of the group. The social negotiation that occurs can help them to see new relationships among the elements plus consider the applicability of the concept of space in the room arrangement. Samples of similarly arranged rooms shown in textbooks or magazine are analyzed, further expanding the students’ knowledge base. Subsequently, students are encouraged to reflect on their solutions and consider revision before submitting a scaled drawing. This assessment activity permits the instructor to ascertain whether or not the students have achieved the objectives of the unit. If the concepts or principles are not understood, the instructor can then revisit the subject matter with the students.
After the students have gained some expertise in arranging furniture and creating traffic patterns, they are introduced to clients. Faculty and staff members offer home or office spaces for which they need design advice. Pairs of students select a problem, interview the client, and then each student works on finding a possible solution. The clients ultimately receive two different solutions for their design problems, and the students are afforded the opportunity for interpersonal communication.
To ensure that the students are looking at the client’s needs rather than the students’ preconceived idea of the room’s needs, the client is interviewed and the student creates a profile. The questionnaire provides a framework for the students to use when exploring this new area of expertise—satisfying a client’s needs. The students ascertain the use of the room as well as the age, sex, and number of occupants. Students are encouraged to reflect on how the gender and age of the occupants will affect the use of the room and the traffic patterns. Students also ask if future occupants might have physical challenges or special needs.
Students present their projects and design boards to the entire class. Currently, students do not verbally critique each other’s projects but doing so might enhance the course. Class members vote for the project that they think best exemplifies a solution to the client’s problem. The students are not selecting the most attractive room or the one that they like the best but the one that appears to best meet the identified needs of the client. Then, the projects are presented to the clients. Each client reacts to the individual student’s solution thus providing another source of feedback and assessment for the student.
Housing, Society, and the Consumer
Upper level students who have completed the introductory interiors course progress to the course that examines housing issues. To give future teachers experience in dealing with a practical problem-based secondary family and consumer sciences curriculum, the university course is designed around practical problems. Students explore what should be done about societal housing problems. The professor models the practical problem-based curriculum approach so that teacher candidates can envision how they might utilize the approach in their future classrooms. The National Standards for Family and Consumer Sciences Education (NASAFACS, 2008) reflects this philosophical shift in the field from a technical approach to a problem-solving approach. Not only does the knowledge base include the traditional subject matter knowledge but also process skills and the values or attitudes to resolve real-life family and societal problems (Laster & Johnson, 2001).
A stated goal of the advanced course is to examine the issues surrounding housing accessibility and affordability for all individuals and families in society. An overarching goal of the course is to provide students the opportunity to explore real-life problems while extending their own learning through the creation of knowledge. The problems explored in the course are not simple, right or wrong answer problems but are complex societal problems with no single or absolute answer. The underlying problems behind homelessness and inaccessible housing are explored from society’s point of view as well as from a practical point of view.
In the introductory interior design course, students gain skill and proficiency concerning the technical utilization of the element of space, furniture arrangement, and traffic patterns. The focus of students’ work is not simply on obtaining the correct answer or the solution preferred by the teacher. The projects challenge the students to search for alternative possibilities and ideas. From a constructivist perspective, the coursework involves the students in solving real-life problems, extends their experiences beyond what they already know, and helps them create new knowledge based on interactive experiences and activities.
The second course in the series helps students explore what changes they could effect in society regarding a variety of housing issues. Building on the expertise gained in the first course, students now need to consider broader concepts such as universal design and accessibility for all people. Universal design is generally described as the design of an environment so that it is usable by all people without the need for adaptation. Specifically, ‘Principle Seven: Size and Space for Approach and Use” sets a standard for appropriate size and space. The following considerations are required: approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility (Center for Universal Design, 2006).
A magazine floor plan that is described as wheelchair accessible is presented to the class, and then students are encouraged to question whether this description is accurate. Groups use previously acquired knowledge of furniture arrangement and space planning to critique the floor plan. Other items that are critiqued include width of traffic patterns and flow, doorway measurements, direction of door swings, and the space available for wheelchair turns. Students are reminded that accessibility is dependent upon appropriate size and space for approach and use. Therefore, determining the accuracy of purported designs is important.
But how can learning become more grounded in real-life problems? Working in pairs, students select a physical challenge at random to role-play while participating in a scavenger hunt across campus. One student acts as the helper and recorder while the other portrays a challenged individual; midway through, the partners change roles. Students experience permanent challenges, such as someone who is visually impaired, hearing impaired, or wheelchair bound; progressive challenges such as diminished hand strength due to arthritis; or temporary impairment such as someone on crutches due to an injured leg. Students must travel around campus completing typical college student tasks—picking up a package at the post office, purchasing a textbook in the bookstore, manipulating tray service in the dining hall, searching the computerized database and checking out a book in the learning resource center, and peeling and slicing an apple in the food preparation lab. Imagine their surprise when the first difficult task they encounter is exiting the classroom door. Because it is a fire door, it is extremely heavy. Plus it does not have a kick plate for the convenience of wheelchair users. Students have discovered that the automatic button on the outside front entry door is inconveniently placed for the amount of time allowed to exit. They have also discovered that wheelchair users are inconvenienced by parking spaces that block ramps and by distances that must be traveled to reach ramps for building entry. Although the apple peeling task does not directly involve accessibility issues, the wheelchair and crutch users have found that it is difficult to reach the sink and preparation areas.
Students record their thoughts, feelings, and perceptions during the activity. Often, students reported feelings of helplessness and frustration when they were unable to complete a task. In a group debriefing, participants were encouraged to reflect on ways that accessibility could be improved so that no one is denied the use of the facilities.
It is assumed that the wheelchair accessible kitchen unit in the food preparation lab is truly that—accessible. Because the building was built nine years ago and designed by an architect, the students assume that the design is correct. The kitchen lab unit contains a cook top, a wall oven with a storage drawer beneath, a sink that is six inches deep rather than the usual ten to twelve inches, and upper cupboards that are six inches lower than standard. Instead of base cabinets below the cook top and sink, slanted boards are intended to protect the knees from the wiring and plumbing systems. Students are reluctant to critique an “expert” but meaningful learning depends on their participation in the questioning process. Even though our scavenger hunt participants use the space, they are simulating wheelchair confinement so their perceptions may be inaccurate or uninformed.
To further enhance the class’s understanding of wheelchair accessibility, a student invited her sister to speak to the class and join us on a field trip to a local motel and retirement center. Susan has a progressive disease that will make her wheelchair confinement increasingly difficult as she continues to lose strength in her arms. Her open attitude toward sharing her experiences was greatly appreciated by the students who asked many questions of this real-life expert. Susan arrived in a wheelchair accessible van but quickly found that the designated parking space blocked access to the ramp and sidewalk. Previously, the class had discovered that the front door to the building was awkward for a wheelchair-bound person to maneuver but we had high hopes that the back door was more convenient. Unfortunately, it was more difficult in at least one way because the back door, complete with signage directing a wheelchair user to that door, is located at a greater distance from the elevator.
Our accessible kitchen unit was the next area to be tested. Susan found that although the cook top was located properly, using the control knobs might present a fire hazard as she reached over the burners. She was unable to slide her chair directly under the sink area so washing dishes or prepping food was difficult. Because of her illness, her legs need to be extended straight out if at all possible, requiring additional space for turning radiuses. For her visit, she brought a smaller wheelchair that permitted her legs to bend, but the allocated spaces did not even accommodate that chair.
A field trip to commercial properties was conducted to obtain field experience. First stop on the field trip was the Holiday Inn Express, which advertises rooms that are accessible to individuals with physical challenges. The students observed a variety of conveniences—vibrating alarm clocks, blinking fire alarms, levers rather than doorknobs, and door security peepholes at two different heights. Again, our wheelchair bound expert helped the students analyze and question what was truly workable. Empty space surrounding the bed was deemed adequate although the entrance area into the room was narrow and prevented turning. Maneuverability in the bathroom was judged very good due to the “no threshold” shower stall.
The next stop was the local retirement campus. In one centralized location, students can observe independent living apartments, assisted living suites, plus a nursing care wing of the same building. Challenging the students to identify the differences and similarities in the facilities helped them to be involved in learning during the visit, not simply touring the facilities. Susan again asked the students to question the effectiveness of some features. For example, in the assisted living suite bathroom, a magazine rack had been installed to supposedly serve as a grab bar. Would this really support the weight of a person or would it cause damage to the wall if used? Would the person feel secure? What would happen if the resident fell?
In the debriefing that followed in the classroom, it was apparent that the students had gained confidence in their ability to judge the efficacy of universal design plans. They had engaged in meaningful learning that was grounded in real-life problems. These concepts were not simply something that had been read in a book but situations that they had experienced.
To ascertain that individual learning had indeed happened, a major design board project was required of each of the students. For this assessment, the students researched a physical challenge and then created a living unit that would accommodate that challenge. To satisfy universal design principles, the room or unit had to be accessible to all regardless of size, shape, and mobility. Some rooms were envisioned for real-life friends or family with challenges who then provided knowledgeable feedback for the student designer. The completed projects were higher quality than previous years, possibly due to the extensive participatory learning by the students.
Although the dominant view of learning has changed from students receiving transmitted knowledge to students creating knowledge, few examples exist of family and consumer sciences teachers’ attempts at modeling this perspective. This paper presented one teacher’s struggle to help her students learn subject matter utilizing a constructivist perspective. Upon reflecting on this struggle and current practices, the teacher intends to offer students increased opportunities to construct their own learning.
Brooks, J. G., & Brooks, M. G. (2001). In search of understanding: The case for constructivist classrooms. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Center for Universal Design. (2006). Universal design principles. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University, College of Design.
Laster, J. F., & Johnson, J. (2001). Family and consumer sciences: A chapter of the curriculum handbook. Alexandra, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
National Association of State Administrators for Family and Consumer Sciences. (2008). National standards for family and consumer sciences education. Published in partnership with American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences (AAFCS).
Redick, S., Vail, A., Smith, B.P., Thomas, R.G., Copa, P., Mileham, C., Laster, J.F., Fedje, C., Johnson, J., & Alexander, K. (1998). Family and consumer sciences: A chapter of the curriculum handbook. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Snowman, J., McCown, R., & Biehler, R. (2009). Psychology applied to teaching. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Cheryl Mimbs-Johnson, University of Kentucky
Barbara A. Clauss, Indiana State University
Jacquelyn W. Jensen, Eastern Kentucky University
Maxine L. Rowley, Brigham Young University
Mount Vernon Nazarene University
Jaesook L. Gilbert
Northern Kentucky University
University of British Columbia
Dorothy I. Mitstifer, Kappa Omicron Nu