Case Studies in Constructivist Leadership and Teaching
reviewed by Terri Ruyter - 2004
Since I was asked to review Arthur Shapiro’s Case Studies in Constructivist Leadership and Teaching (2003), I have left academe to work in
This book has three sections. The first part is a series of case studies about constructivist teaching. These cases represent an array of classroom contexts from elementary through college, Swedish and American, public and charter, from the perspectives of teachers, students, and administrators. The individual cases are presented as narratives of how educators came to constructivism and how they design their classroom cultures to be constructivist. At times, these cases read a bit like testimonials about the power of constructivism, as when one student says “People who’ve taken this class with Art tell me that we’ll be able to pass the F.E.L.E. (an exam for school administrators in Florida) from it alone” (p. 28), and the title of Case 8, Classroom Management – Solved.
The second section of the text presents case studies on constructivist leadership. Shapiro notes that it is much easier to locate information on constructivist teaching than on constructivist leadership. Thus, it is perhaps this section that offers the most potential for the professional community. These cases portray the narratives of school change and how a constructivist approach can inform the role of administrators in a building as they engage in work at the building and central office level. Interspersed in this section are three chapters on testing and standards that guide the reader to think about the implications of high stakes testing for teaching and learning.
In both parts one and two, Shapiro devotes a chapter on how to develop the structures at the classroom (chapter 5) and school/curricular levels (chapter 25) that support constructivist approaches. Both of these chapters are followed by appendices that provide checklists of models and rules for operation that can be used to guide educators as they transition to constructivism.
The last section of the text consists of two chapters that summarize the traditions and research around constructivism. As indicated in the theoretical summary in the last two chapters, Shapiro agrees with D.C. Phillips that there are many forms that constructivism can take (Phillips, 2000). In addition to situating constructivism historically, Shapiro draws heavily upon the work of Brooks and Brooks (1993). A unique aspect of Shapiro’s version of constructivism is the influence of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Gregorc’s personality style indicator. This section provides some of the background knowledge and highlights key features of constructivism that, if it were in a forward or preface, would have provided a theoretical lens to guide the reader as he reads through the cases.
At the end of each case/chapter, questions are provided to guide the discussion. These questions were clearly intended to fit the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and to help readers to transfer the intended learnings to their own practice.
Case studies can be useful tools in developing links between theory and practice. The theoretical framework was not clearly established at the beginning of the book and was not woven throughout the text. Perhaps the author’s intention was to have the reader develop her own understanding of constructivism. However, the tone of the cases seemed to be targeted towards those new to constructivist theories. Consequently, placing the theoretical frame at the back and not establishing a view of constructivism in advance makes it more difficult for novices to gain rich understandings of constructivist theory as it applies to teaching and leading. As Shapiro states, “It is useful to have everyone on the same page” (p. 327). Stating important theoretical influences on his teaching and the cases, would have allowed novice readers to develop some level of intersubjectivity and gain more from the cases.
Similarly, the questions at the end of each chapter based on Bloom’s Taxonomy guide the reader to consider how he could use these ideas in his own work. Yet many of these questions seemed tangential to the intended learnings. Questions rooted in the theoretical frame of the book would help beginners develop richer understandings of constructivism and consequently to incorporate constructivist approaches more meaningfully and successfully into their practice.
Finally, there were several surface features of the text that troubled me. The cases were not organized in any obvious manner, the intended audience was not clear, the writing was conversational rather than professional prose, there were few sources cited, and Shapiro seems to have written most of the cases. As noted above, however, the lack of a preface to guide the reader in how to use case studies, the theory behind the cases, and an overview of the organizational structure diminishes the usefulness of this book.
Case studies can be powerful tools for learning. Presented as narratives, cases can allow us to closely study specific aspects of professional life. Effective use of case studies does not happen automatically. As with any teaching task, clear learning outcomes and careful scaffolding are needed to ensure success. Shapiro’s book has many potentially useful case narratives. However, a lack of a clear organizational structure and theoretical thread throughout the text diminishes its potential for use in professional learning.
Brooks, M. G.and Brooks, J. G. (1993). In search of understanding: The case for constructivist classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).
Phillips, D. C. (Ed.) (2000). Constructivism in education: Opinions and second opinions on controversial issues. Ninety-ninth Yearbook of the Society for the Study of Education: Part I.