A Constructivist in Higher Education

Rafe Steinhauer
7 min readJul 24, 2020


{This is my personal teaching statement, last updated July 2020}

“The student is infinitely more important than the subject matter.” -Nel Noddings

My interest in education started in 9th grade when I switched from a small Montessori school to a public high school. My formative experience in Montessori was project-based, balancing intellectual, emotional, and physical learning. Traditional pedagogy came as a shock: “why is the teacher in the front of the classroom?” “Why are most assignments individual and daily?” “Wait, all I need to do to excel academically is pay attention and remember the material?”

Because this standard model is so much more common than progressive approaches, I started my M.Ed. program expecting to view education differently than my colleagues and professors. Instead, I learned that many people who study education also believe that standard models are misaligned with: how people learn; what engages students; and how to cultivate citizens that strengthen society. My M.Ed. gave me vocabulary and skills to teach higher education informed by my Montessori upbringing. I am a constructivist educator whose pedagogy assumes:

  • Team-based projects challenge students to grow intellectually and emotionally
  • The most important learnings for each student are often emergent and individual
  • Reflection catalyzes transformative education (learning that requires unlearning)
  • Care and criticality should be at the core of our classroom cultures
  • The best way to teach design is to model design
  • Schools are society, not just preparation for it

All my courses and programs have been organized around team projects, which challenge students to grow as thinkers, doers, and citizens. In Tiger Challenge, the co-curricular program I started at Princeton University, small teams of students worked with advisers and social sector organizations on multi-year partnerships. One summer, a rift emerged between a student I will call “Afrah” and her teammates. After unsuccessful mediation sessions, Afrah decided her team would be better off if she quit. The split would have been easy, but I did not think Afrah would grow most by leaving. I invited her to get lunch, told her it was her decision whether to leave the program, and then asked her why she decided not to tell her team about all the personal challenges she was facing, including a close relative’s murder, a breakup, her grandmother’s deteriorating health, and a family crisis.

Earlier, Afrah had told me she was “sad but fine;” yet she was frequently late and often had to step out of the studio to talk with her family. When she was present, her work suffered. I wanted to test a hypothesis: that this was the first time in Afrah’s life in which she was not living up to her identity as someone who is always reliable, no matter what. Afrah and I were close enough that I trusted my intuition: I asked her to take some time off and reflect on whether she could see herself with more curiosity and compassion, perhaps as someone who values reliability without attachment to it as an identity. The next time I saw her in our studio (after she decided to rejoin), she and a teammate were hugging and crying.

A few years removed from college, Afrah is thriving personally and professionally. When we last discussed her growth over that summer, she said another key learning was that vulnerability can strengthen relationships: “[that] led me to be a much more trusting, open and authentic person. I am more comfortable being vulnerable now, and I believe in the inherent kindness of people.”

While some of Afrah’s circumstances were exceptional, the pattern of this story has been common during my teaching career. As in Afrah’s case, the most important things each student will learn in constructivist education are individual and emergent. There is no syllabus that would list, “students will build lifelong resiliency by confronting personal losses that require them to change their identities in challenging but profound ways,” as a learning objective. Students will grow most in environments that allow for this personalization and emergence, which I try to cultivate by building caring relationships while challenging students to make society more aligned with their values.

Reflection also scaffolds these transformations. In both the course I taught at Princeton (Creativity, Innovation, and Design) and in the summer portion of Tiger Challenge, I asked students to submit a weekly journal. These revealed the skills and methods students were learning; more importantly, the journals also helped students rewire assumptions by cultivating metacognitive habits. One of my all-time favorite entries began: “Until recently, I would have never described myself as a creative person.” It included a one-minute video of the student singing a song she composed about her creativity. And it ended, “Seeing creativity through a new lens, as skills rather than a binary characteristic, has changed me, and I promise to keep utilizing my creativity and the empowerment it has given me to continue to grow.”

Tiger Challenge students being overly serious. ©Princeton Unversity, Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy

Nel Noddings and Paulo Freire are two of the four authors who have influenced me the most (along with Maria Montessori and John Dewey). Noddings argues that our education (and our ethics) should maximize care. “When a teacher asks for a question in class and a student responds, [the teacher] receives not just the ‘response,’ but the student. What he says matters, whether it is right or wrong, and she probes gently for clarification, interpretation, contribution. She is not seeking the answer but the involvement of the cared-for. … The student is infinitely more important than the subject matter.”[1] We made one of the core values of Tiger Challenge “end-to-no-end support;” which established an expectation between students and partners — that even if projects and school years end, relationships endure. “End-to-no-end support” is also a personal teaching philosophy: I average about one call with former students per week. As we continue to increase the diversity of our student bodies, this depth and duration of relationship is also crucial to increasing inclusivity and creating pluralistic communities that are enriched by every student’s cultures, experiences, and prior knowledge.

Freire raised my consciousness about the ways education has increased racism and other forms of oppression, and he helped me consider how adding criticality to courses might help move my teaching in opposite directions. One way to do this is by exploring, with students, the historical and political contexts which created our educational programs. Prior to orientation, all Tiger Challenge students read a speech by David Scobey[2], in which he explores the histories and ontologies of the civic engagement and social innovation movements on college campuses. The speech prompted me and the students to ask: “why do colleges seek to do ‘good’ in society?” and “What do different approaches imply about how colleges view students and the communities they might serve?” After discussing the reading, each cohort would draft vision boards for their work. My colleagues at Tulane University’s Taylor Center have further helped me understand that the most immediate way I can help shift my education, especially my design education, is to discuss identity and historical inclusion/exclusion explicitly in my courses, exploring how my positionality (as a white, male, professor from New York) and the students’ positionalities influence both our class and our project work.

These discussions deepen the agency students have in their education, which further increases intrinsic motivation and metacognitive abilities. Students, however, will only assume shared ownership of their education if I apply the same design methods and sensibilities in how I lead the programs. Thus, we annually redesigned Tiger Challenge with the help of student leaders. Not only did this reinforce a culture of design, but it also allowed the program to improve quickly despite being part of an institution that is more cautious by nature. For example, when we learned that students were dropping courses to make room in their schedule for Tiger Challenge, we realized that it was in the students’ interest for the program to bear credit. After a year-long project of aligning stakeholders, Tiger Challenge became one of the only programs in Princeton’s recent history to switch from fully co-curricular to a hybrid model.

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” -John Dewey

Dewey’s earlier writings articulated experiential education’s potential, which informed not only my teaching, as demonstrated above, but also Noddings’ and Freire’s thinking as well. But it is his 1938 non-refutation refutation of his critics (and followers) that influenced me the most. In Experience and Education, Dewey reminds us that experiential education is important not just because it better prepares students for adulthood and citizenship, but because life is a collection of our lived experiences.[3]­ “…[T]he ultimate reason for hospitality to progressive education, because of its reliance upon and use of humane methods and its kinship to democracy, goes back to the fact that discrimination is made between the inherent values of different experiences.” Thus, because everyone spends a large proportion of their lives in school cultures — as students, parents, and community members — experiential education should be human-centered not just because it is useful for the future, but also because it is moral in the present. If schools are joyful, our lives will be more joyful in sum. If schools introduce tastes, sounds, and movements, our lives will be filled with more beauty in sum. As Noddings might add: if schools center caring, our lives will have deeper relationships in sum. And as Freire might add: if schools are liberating and pluralistic, all our lives will be freer in sum.


[1] Noddings, N. Caring: A Relational Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. 1984. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA.

[2] Scobey, D. “Social Innovation and Civic Engagement: Sibling Rivals or Kissing Cousins?” 2015. Think Tank on Social Innovation and Civic Engagement. University of Washington: St. Louis, MO.

[3] Dewey, J. Experience and Education. 1938. Free Press (Simon & Schuster, Inc): New York, NY.

Freire, P. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 1970. Bloomsbury Publishing: New York, NY

Rafe Steinhauer is a visiting assistant professor of design thinking at Tulane University’s Phyllis M. Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking. Bio.



Rafe Steinhauer

My mission is to help people co-create the world in which they and others want to live. Faculty at Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering.