Monitoring Constructivist Classroom

Learning Environments



Peter C. Taylor, Barry J. Fraser and Darrell L. Fisher



Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Australia*





By incorporating constructivist and critical theory perspectives on the framing of the classroom learning environment, we developed the Constructivist Learning Environment Survey (CLES) to enable researchers and teacher-researchers to monitor constructivist teaching approaches and to address key restraints to the development of constructivist classroom climates. The CLES assesses student or teacher perceptions of Personal Relevance, Uncertainty, Student Negotiation, Shared Control and Critical Voice. The plausibility of the CLES was established in small-scale classroom-based qualitative studies and its statistical integrity and robustness was validated in large-scale studies conducted in the USA and Australia. 





The Constructivist Learning Environment Survey (CLES) enables researchers and teacher-researchers to monitor the development of constructivist approaches to teaching school science and mathematics. The original version of the CLES  (Taylor & Fraser, 1991) was based largely on a psychosocial view of constructivist reform that focused on students as co-constructors of knowledge but which remained blind to the cultural context framing the classroom environment. Although the original CLES was found to contribute insightful understandings of classroom learning environments and to be psychometrically sound with Australian high school students in science and mathematics classes, as well as in a number of studies in other countries (Lucas & Roth, 1996; Roth & Bowen, 1995; Roth & Roychoudury, 1993, 1994; Watters & Ginns, 1994), its theoretical framework supported only a weak program of constructivist reform.


Our ongoing research program revealed major cultural restraints that can counteract the development of constructivist learning environments, such as powerful cultural myths rooted in the histories of science or mathematics and of schooling (Taylor, in press; Milne & Taylor, 1996). Because of the importance of teachers and students becoming critically aware of how their teaching and learning roles are being unduly restrained by these otherwise invisible forces, we decided to redesign the CLES to incorporate a critical theory perspective on the cultural framing of the classroom learning environment.


As part of the design process, we examined the viability of the new CLES for monitoring constructivist transformations to the epistemology of school science and mathematics classrooms. As a result of these qualitative studies, we made significant changes to the CLES, changes that signal a departure from traditional practices in learning environment research (Taylor, Fraser & White, 1994; Taylor, Dawson & Fraser, 1995). We then trialed the new CLES in two large-scale quantitative surveys of classroom learning environments in the USA and Australia to determine its statistical characteristics, especially its internal consistency, factorial validity, and cross-cultural integrity (Dryden & Fraser, 1996). In this paper, we explain the theoretical framework of the new CLES and outline the results of both the qualitative and quantitative studies. 



Field of Classroom Environment Research


Over the previous two decades or so, considerable interest has been shown internationally in the conceptualisation, assessment and investigation of perceptions of psychosocial characteristics of the learning environment of classrooms at the elementary, secondary and higher education levels (Fraser, 1986, 1994; Fraser & Walberg, 1991). Use of student perceptions of classroom environment as predictor variables has established consistent relationships between the nature of the classroom environment and student cognitive and affective outcomes (McRobbie & Fraser, 1993; Walberg, 1969). Furthermore, research involving a person-environment fit perspective has shown that students achieve better where there is greater congruence between the actual classroom environment and that preferred by students (Fraser & Fisher, 1983).


Studies involving the use of classroom environment scales as criterion variables have revealed that classroom psychosocial climate varies between Catholic and government schools (Dorman, Fraser & McRobbie, 1994). Researchers and teachers have found it useful to employ classroom climate dimensions as criteria of effectiveness in curriculum evaluation because they have differentiated revealingly between alternative curricula when student outcome measures have shown little sensitivity (Fraser, Williamson & Tobin, 1987). Research comparing students' and teachers' perceptions showed that, first, both students and teachers preferred a more positive classroom environment than they perceived as being actually present and, second, teachers tended to perceive the classroom environment more positively than did their students in the same classrooms (Fraser, 1994). In small-scale practical applications, teachers have used assessments of their students' perceptions of their actual and preferred classroom environment as a basis for identification and discussion of actual-preferred discrepancies, followed by a systematic attempt to improve classrooms (Fraser & Fisher, 1986).  In terms of desirable directions for future research, Ellett (1996) has called for the use of multiple methodologies and units of analysis.



Critical Constructivist Framework


The original version of the CLES was based on a theory of constructivism that underpins recent research in science and mathematics education that is concerned with developing teaching approaches that facilitate students' conceptual development (Treagust, Duit, & Fraser, 1996). This conceptual change research highlights (1) the key role of students' prior knowledge in their development of new conceptual understandings, and (2) the reflective process of interpersonal negotiation of meaning within the consensual domain of the classroom community.


However, our research has shown how readily traditional teacher-centred classroom environments can assimilate this constructivist perspective and remain largely unchanged (Taylor, 1993, in press). The rationality of traditional teacher-centred classrooms is dominated by cultural myths: (1) an objectivist view of the nature of scientific and mathematical knowledge; and (2) a complementary technical controlling ethos that views the curriculum as a product to be delivered.


From an objectivist perspective, scientific and mathematical knowledge exist independently of our minds, are static and unchanging over time, and are the embodiment of universal truths. If this foundationalist perspective is valid, teachers are entitled to adopt the role of experts who transmit to their students accurate versions of the universal body of truths. Curriculum theorists argue that such a technical ethos has prevailed as the dominant mythology of the West's education professions for most of this century (Apple, 1979; Schon, 1983). A professional culture has developed that renders the concept of curriculum in terms of the objectivist metaphor of a container of immutable knowledge — curriculum  as product — which the teacher is obligated to deliver.


However, the foundational view of knowledge has been challenged and largely discredited by philosophers of science and mathematics (Kuhn, 1962; Tymoczko, 1986). Because scientific and mathematical knowledge results from human inquiry and must be validated against community norms, Solomon (1987) contends that this intersubjectivity is achieved by negotiating and consensus building. These activities are undertaken by both professional scientists and students of science, within their respective communities. This social constructivist epistemology is shaping educational research and curriculum development in science and mathematics education (Cobb, Wood & Yackel, 1993; Tobin, 1990). Teachers are reconstructing their roles as mediators of students' encounters with their social and physical worlds and as facilitators of students' interpretations and reconceptualisations.


Recent research has explored the possibilities for newly developing communicative relationships between teachers and students. Drawing on the work of Habermas (1972, 1984), rich communicative relationships are born of open discourse (Taylor & Campbell-Williams, 1993) oriented towards understanding and respecting the meaning-perspectives of others. Open discourse gives rise to opportunities for students to (1) negotiate with the teacher about the nature of their learning activities, (2) participate in the determination of assessment criteria and undertake self-assessment and peer-assessment, (3) engage in collaborative and open-ended inquiry with fellow students, and (4) participate in reconstructing the social norms of the classroom.


However, a communicative ethos based only on open discourse is susceptible to the control and efficiency imperatives of the prevailing technical ethos. There is a need, therefore, for a powerful countervailing emancipatory ethos that gives rise to opportunities for teachers and students to become critically aware of the influence of the repressive myths of objectivism and control that govern the social realities of schools and classrooms. We also need to establish critical discourse aimed at examining critically the prevailing (invisible) myths that disempower teachers and students from developing classroom learning environments in which richer and more equitable educative relationships can flourish. It was with these goals in mind that we redeveloped the scales of the CLES and trialed it in high school science and mathematics classrooms.



The New Constructivist Learning Environment Survey


Each scale of the new version of the Constructivist Learning Environment Survey (CLES) was designed to obtain measures of students' perceptions of the frequency of occurrence of five key dimensions of a critical constructivist learning environment. The CLES contains 30 items altogether, with six items in each of the five scales. The response alternatives for each item are Almost Always, Often, Sometimes, Seldom, and Almost Never.


Personal Relevance


This scale focuses on the connectedness of school science to students' out-of-school experiences, and with making use of students' everyday experiences as a meaningful context for the development of students' scientific and mathematical knowledge.




This scale assesses the extent to which opportunities are provided for students to experience scientific knowledge as arising from theory-dependent inquiry involving human experience and values, and as evolving, non-foundational, and culturally and socially determined.


Critical Voice


This scale examines the extent to which a social climate has been established in which students feel that it is legitimate and beneficial to question the teacher's pedagogical plans and methods, and to express concerns about any impediments to their learning.


Shared Control


This scale is concerned with students being invited to share with the teacher control of the learning environment, including the articulation of learning goals, the design and management of learning activities, and the determination and application of assessment criteria.


Student Negotiation


This scale assesses the extent to which opportunities exist for students to explain and justify to other students their newly developing ideas, to listen attentively and reflect on the viability of other students' ideas and, subsequently, to reflect self-critically on the viability of their own ideas. 



Small-Scale Qualitative Studies


Trialing early versions of the CLES in two classroom-based collaborative research studies enabled critical scrutiny of both the conceptual soundness and psychometric structure of the questionnaire. During our interpretive research inquiry (Erickson, 1986), we visited classrooms as participant-observers, observed teaching and learning activities, analysed curriculum documentation, and interviewed teachers and students. In the two case studies described below, we investigated both the way in which students made sense of responding to CLES items and the way that CLES data enabled us to make sense of our observations of the classroom environment (Taylor, Dawson & Fraser, 1995; Taylor, Fraser & White, 1994).


The Research Sites


The first study in mathematics took place in a government-funded, mixed-sex high school that serves a predominantly middle-class neighbourhood in the Perth metropolitan area. We collaborated with the teacher who taught a five-week mathematics activity in his grade 8 mathematics class. Students experienced open-ended problem solving and investigation that challenged them to be creative and to negotiate their methods and results in small-group work. The second study involved grade 10 science in a private all-girls school that served a relatively wealthy sector of the Perth metropolitan area. The teacher presented a unique Biotechnology course designed to enable students to articulate and evaluate their established ethical values and beliefs by engaging in critical self-reflective thinking. The teacher was committed to establishing with students a 'caring and sharing' relationship, rather than a relationship defined in terms of powerful teacher and powerless students.


Learning From Anomalies


Our research confirmed that data obtained from each of the five scales of the CLES were generally compatible with data obtained from our classroom observations and teacher and student interviews. However, because we were alert to evidence that might disconfirm the viability of the CLES for portraying accurately the classroom learning environment, we discovered several problems that caused us to question some of our assumptions about the design of the CLES.


For example, when we compared our observational data with some of the CLES data, we noticed some anomalies. In one of the mathematics classes, learning activities did not appear to be related directly to the world outside of school. Rather, the teacher explained the purpose of activities as “experimenting like science” and as “real genuine mathematical thinking”. However, the CLES data indicated high degrees of perceived relevance among some students, particularly students with highly favourable attitudes. Subsequently, we interviewed several of these students and found that, when they responded to items in the Perceived Relevance scale of the CLES, they had not referred to the immediate classroom learning environment. Rather, they had imagined that their learning activities were relevant to their future careers. By contrast, most students were somewhat unsure about the relevance of their learning activities; and some were adamant that the activities were irrelevant to the point of being “a waste of time”.  We found similar patterns of student behaviour in responses to other CLES scales. We concluded that, for some students, a learning environment undergoing epistemological transformation can be an unsettling experience and that, when asked to describe its characteristics, students tend to be imaginative or to refer to more familiar (perhaps more legitimate?) learning environments of the past.  


We became aware of a second problem associated with the traditional practice of including a comparable number of positively-worded and negatively-worded items in learning environment instruments. This psychometric strategy aims to overcome the tendency of respondents to bias their responses towards either of the extremes of a response scale (e.g., Almost Always, Almost Never). However, we found that some negatively-worded items confused students because of the conceptual complexity that occurs when a negatively-worded item is considered in relation to negatively-worded categories on the response scale (i.e., Seldom, Almost Never).


We also found a problem associated with the practice of arranging items in cyclic order. Traditionally, learning environment questionnaire items have been arranged in a format that prevents respondents from identifying the scales to which items belong, but in a manner that expedites the teacher-researcher’s manual scoring of questionnaire responses. It has been assumed that, if respondents understand the significance of an item, from the researcher's perspective, their responses might be biased (favourably or unfavourably). In other words, traditional approaches to research have sought ways of making the research agenda invisible to respondents. However, the results of our research with the CLES challenged our assumption that the presentation of items in a decontextualised manner does not affect unduly the respondent’s sense of meaningfulness.


From our investigation of students’ responses to the CLES, we concluded that gaining statistically reliable measures of a classroom learning environment undergoing epistemological transformation is likely to be problematic. We felt that more reliable responses would be obtainable from students if the CLES (1) focused students’ attention on the specific learning environment of interest and (2) made the process of responding to items a more meaningful activity.


Consequently, we made important modifications to both the content and format of the CLES. Some of these changes signal a departure from traditional practices in learning environment research. First, by rejecting items whose wording was conceptually complex and by minimising the use of negatively-worded items, we produced a more economical and less conceptually complex 30-item version comprising five six-item scales. Second, we created a more meaningful context for responding to items by abandoning the traditional cyclic format of learning environment instruments and grouping items in their respective scales, each with a 'user-friendly' title. Third, in order to focus student thinking on the “immediate” classroom learning environment, we included a prompt, “In this science [mathematics] class . . .”, throughout the questionnaire.




Large-Scale Quantitative Studies


We were interested in determining the viability of the refined 30-item version of the CLES for use in large-scale survey research. The potential usefulness of the CLES would be enhanced by evidence of its statistical robustness, particularly the reliability and factorial structure of the five scales. We seized the opportunity of including the CLES in two major studies, namely, an evaluation of urban systemic reform in Dallas and an Australian option of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.


Evaluating Urban Systemic Reform in Dallas


Under sponsorship of the National Science Foundation, the Dallas Public Schools currently are attempting systemic reform in science and mathematics education. This reform partly involves the promotion of more constructivist approaches to teaching and learning. As part of the evaluation of this initiative, the CLES was used with a large sample of approximately 1,600 students in 120 grade 9-12 science classes to establish district-wide baseline information (Dryden & Fraser, 1996). Table 1 shows the internal consistency reliability obtained for the Dallas sample for each CLES scale (Cronbach alpha coefficient) separately for two units of statistical analysis, namely, the individual student and the class mean. At the classroom level, the lowest reliability value is 0.64 for Uncertainty, but values for all other scales exceed 0.8.  As anticipated, scale reliability values are higher with the class as the unit of analysis than with the individual as the unit of analysis.


Table 1 about here


Also the structure of the CLES was explored using factor analysis with varimax rotation. Separate factor analyses were conducted using the individual and the class mean as the units of analysis.  Table 1 shows that the orthogonal structure of the CLES held up, thus supporting that each CLES scale assesses a unique aspect of constructivism within the classroom environment.


Various analyses of predictors of classroom environment as assessed by the CLES suggested that the learning environment was independent of the social or economic status of the students.  Instead, most differences could be explained in terms of the science subject being taken or the ethnic backgrounds of the students (Dryden & Fraser, 1996).


Third International Mathematics and Science Study


The CLES was included in an option of the Australian component of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study conducted in secondary schools during 1994. The TIMSS is the latest in a series of worldwide studies sponsored by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) which examines the systemic provision of educational opportunity and its relationship with educational attainment. As part of the TIMSS in Australia, a random sample of 13-year-olds in grades 8 and 9 in both government and independent schools responded to pencil-and-paper instruments measuring student background information, achievement and attitude. We also included the CLES in Western Australia and, subsequently, we received completed CLES questionnaires from a total of 494 13-year-old students in 41 science classes from 13 schools.


The Cronbach alpha reliability coefficient was estimated to provide a measure of the internal consistency of each of the five CLES scales at two levels of analysis (the individual and the class mean). For this Australian sample, results were similar to those obtained for the American sample (see the bottom of Table 1). For example, four of the CLES scales (i.e., Personal Relevance, Critical Voice, Shared Control, Student Negotiation) have alpha reliabilities above 0.8 with the student as the unit of analysis. Although the remaining scale (Uncertainty) has a somewhat lower alpha value (0.72), it also has satisfactory internal consistency for this sample, especially as CLES scales contain only six items each. When factor analyses with varimax rotation were performed for two units of analysis with the Australian data, the orthogonal structure found for the American sample (shown in Table 1) was replicated.




This combination of small-scale qualitative studies and large-scale quantitative studies has provided substantial evidence that the Constructivist Learning Environment Survey can be used to monitor the development of constructivist learning environments in school science in Western cultures. A major advantage of this use of multiple methodologies is the enhanced viability of the CLES that allows it to be used across a range of grain-sizes, from case studies of individual classrooms to state-wide reform initiatives.


Because the six-item CLES scales have satisfactory internal consistency and factorial validity, we are confident in recommending the CLES for use in monitoring systemic constructivist-oriented reforms in science education. We are confident also that teacher-researchers conducting action research studies of their own teaching, particularly studies that involve a constructivist transformation of their classroom environments, will find the new CLES valuable for contributing to the compilation of fine-grained analyses that yield rich profiles of selected students (see McRobbie, Roth & Lucas’ paper in this issue). In this type of study, the CLES can be used as a heuristic device to enrich teacher-researchers’ understandings of the impact on students of their teaching innovations, and alert them to the possible counterproductive impact of their reform endeavours.


Looking to the future, it is important to examine teachers’ propensities for pursuing epistemological transformations of a constructivist nature. In future research, the CLES could be used in exploring the relationship between teachers’ sense of self-efficacy and their commitment to the emotionally-demanding task of engaging their students in renegotiating the social reality of the science classroom. We need to find answers to questions such as: ‘what type of professional development programs might enable teachers to create learning environments in which students feel empowered to examine critically the knowledge claims of science?’ and ‘how best might students be supported as the security of the traditional objectivist learning environment is gradually replaced by an emphasis on critical self-reflective inquiry involving scepticism and theory construction in the context of real-world investigations?’.





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Table 1.  Item Factor Loadings and Scale Alpha Reliabilities for CLES for

Two Units of Analysis






                         Factor Loadings*











of Science












Indiv      Class



Indiv      Class


Indiv      Class


Indiv      Class


Indiv      Class



.58         .49






.54         .61






.37         .54






.66         .60






.66         .77

























.54         .62


















.40         .41







.52         .45






.64         .56






.62         .48






.65         .57






.70         .71






.79         .76







.72         .79






.66         .71






.79         .77






.78         .73






.78         .72






.59         .64







.44         .67






.70         .68






.79         .78






.81         .85






.74         .77






.78         .87


Sample Size



1574      120


1613      119


1594      121


1576      121                                        


1626      121





.70         .82


.61         .64


.82         .88


.89         .95


.89         .94


*Only factor loadings ≥ .40 are included.





* Correspondence: Dr Peter Taylor, SMEC, Curtin University of Technology, GPO Box U1987, Perth, Australia 6001. Fax: +619 351 2503; E-Mail: [email protected]