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Michael's 1788 design narrative

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Michael Muranty
30 March 2015

Title    Applied Constructivism


This is an example of learning and teaching that goes back to my childhood and has followed me through my education and some of my adult metamorphoses.


As a small boy my best friend, who lived down the street, had an older brother who was good with gadgets, tools and generally inventing fascinating things. One day he interrupted our play, wanting to impress us with a homemade torch that he had constructed using a battery, a lightbulb, wire and tape. I was secretly fascinated at the way he was able to put these objects together to make the lightbulb turn on and off. I examined it carefully, trying to memorise exactly how he had put it together, with the intention of obtaining the materials and making one for myself. In short, this simple event sparked a lifelong interest for me in electricity. (pun intended)

Eventually I procured a battery, wires and lightbulb of my own, but frustratingly was unable to put them together in such a way as to illuminate the bulb. I tried for several days, connecting the wire between the bulb and battery in every possible way I could think of without success. I eventually put it aside, disappointed and downcast at not being able to reproduce the "invention". After thinking about the problem and wondering where I might have gone wrong I decided to give it another try and finally managed to produce battery powered light.


Eventually, as a teacher, and after having thought during my teacher training of how this event relates to constructivism, I decided to apply my same learning experience to students in a classroom situation. The task is to convey to students the idea that electricity requires a complete circuit made of conducting materials to travel through for a device such as a lightbulb to operate.


In order to give students the opportunity to “construct” from their own experience the way that current flows through a circuit they were given a battery, wires and lightbulb and issued the task of making the bulb illuminate. Students generally went through a process of trial and error, with lots of failed attempts, like I had experienced many years previously, before being able to make the light work. Student success in this activity ranges from getting it on the first attempt to being unable to complete the task without assistance from the teacher. This is not so important because generally the correct configuration is stumbled upon by accident anyway. The real challenge for students arrives when they are called upon to describe how the circuit might work in terms of the movement and direction of flow of electrons through the battery, wires and lightbulb.


Students at the end of the activity were generally able to use their successful and unsuccessful attempts in illuminating the bulb to prove the concept of electricity flow in a circuit. In doing so they also learn to draw simple circuit diagrams, use electrical circuit symbols, learn electrical terminology such as positive, negative, polarity, conductor, open circuit, closed circuit, filament, terminal etc.  Student learning from the activity is far greater than simply stumbling upon the correct way to configure a lightbulb.


As I continue to teach I would like to think that I could refine this activity further, making it the basis of a study of electricity that could be built on and gradually introduces other electrical concepts as it grows. Once the student is equipped with this basic knowledge of electricity further questions can be investigated, such as another lightbulb, a switch, electric motor etc.



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