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Learning Theory

Constructivist Approach

Constructivism is an epistemology, or a theory, used to explain how people know what they know. The basic idea is that problem solving is at the heart of learning, thinking, and development. As people solve problems and discover the consequences of their actions–through reflecting on past and immediate experiences–they construct their own understanding. Learning is thus an active process that requires a change in the learner. This is achieved through the activities the learner engages in, including the consequences of those activities, and through reflection. People only deeply understand what they have constructed.

A constructivist approach to learning and instruction has been proposed as an alternative to the objectivist model, which is implicit in all behaviorist and some cognitive approaches to education. Objectivism sees knowledge as a passive reflection of the external, objective reality. This implies a process of "instruction," ensuring that the learner gets correct information.

History of Constructivism

The psychological roots of constructivism began with the developmental work of Jean Piaget (1896–1980), who developed a theory (the theory of genetic epistemology) that analogized the development of the mind to evolutionary biological development and highlighted the adaptive function of cognition. Piaget proposed four stages in human development: the sensorimotor stage, the preoperational stage, the concrete operational stage, and the formal operational stage. For Piaget, the development of human intellect proceeds through adaptation and organization. Adaptation is a process of assimilation and accommodation, where external events are assimilated into existing understanding, but unfamiliar events, which don't fit with existing knowledge, are accommodated into the mind, thereby changing its organization.

Countless studies have demonstrated–or tried to discredit–Piaget's developmental stages. For example, it has become clear that most adults use formal operations in only a few domains where they have expertise. Nonetheless, Piaget's hypothesis that learning is a transformative rather than a cumulative process is still central. Children do not learn a bit at a time about some issue until it finally comes together as understanding. Instead, they make sense of whatever they know from the very beginning. This understanding is progressively reformed as new knowledge is acquired, especially new knowledge that is incompatible with their previous understanding. This transformative view of learning has been greatly extended by neo-Piagetian research.

The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky's (1896–1934) relevance to constructivism derives from his theories about language, thought, and their mediation by society. Vygotsky held the position that the child gradually internalizes external and social activities, including communication, with more competent others. Although social speech is internalized in adulthood (it becomes thinking), Vygotsky contended that it still preserves its intrinsic collaborative character.

In his experiments, Vygotsky studied the difference between the child's reasoning when working independently versus reasoning when working with a more competent person. He devised the notion of the zone of proximal development to reflect on the potential of this difference. Vygotsky's findings suggested that learning environments should involve guided interactions that permit children to reflect on inconsistency and to change their conceptions through communication. Vygotsky's work has since been extended in the situated approach to learning.

Vygotsky and Piaget's theories are often contrasted to each other in terms of individual cognitive constructivism (Piaget) and social constructivism (Vygotsky). Some researchers have tried to develop a synthesis of these approaches, though some, such as Michael Cole and James Wertsch, argue that the individual versus social orientation debate is over-emphasized. To them, the real difference rests on the contrast between the roles of cultural artifacts. For Vygotsky, such artifacts play a central role, but they do not appear in Piaget's theories.

For the American philosopher and educator John Dewey (1859–1952), education depended on action–knowledge and ideas emerge only from a situation in which learners have to draw out experiences that have meaning and importance to them. Dewey argued that human thought is practical problem solving, which proceeds by testing rival hypotheses. These problem-solving experiences occur in a social context, such as a classroom, where students join together in manipulating materials and observing outcomes. Dewey invented the method of progressive education in North America. The Fostering Communities of Learners (FCL) program, devised by Ann Lesley Brown and Joseph Campione, is a current attempt to put Dewey's progressive education theory to work in the classroom.

In summary, Piaget contributed the idea of transformation in learning and development; Vygotsky contributed the idea that learning and development were integrally tied to communicative interactions with others; and Dewey contributed the idea that schools had to bring real world problems into the school curriculum.

Constructivist Processes and Education

There are a number of competing constructivist views in education. Constructivists tend to celebrate complexity and multiple perspectives, though they do share at least a few educational prescriptions.

Prior knowledge. Constructivists believe that prior knowledge impacts the learning process. In trying to solve novel problems, perceptual or conceptual similarities between existing knowledge and a new problem can remind people of what they already know. This is often one's first approach towards solving novel problems. Information not connected with a learner's prior experiences will be quickly forgotten. In short, the learner must actively construct new information into his or her existing mental framework for meaningful learning to occur.

For example, Rosalind Driver has found that children's understanding of a phenomenon (interpretations that fit their experiences and expectations) differ from scientific explanations. This means that students distinguish school science from their "real world" explanations. Studies of adult scientific thinking reveal that many adults hold non-normative scientific explanations, even though they have studied science. This is what the philosopher Alfred Whitehead (1861–1947) referred to as inert knowledge. Asking students what they already know about a topic and what puzzles them affords an opportunity to assess children's prior knowledge and the processes by which they will make sense of phenomena.

Real and authentic problems. Constructivist learning is based on the active participation of learners in problem-solving and critical thinking–given real and authentic problems.

In anchored instruction, for example, as advanced in the work of the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt University, learners are invited to engage in a fictitious problem occurring in a simulated real-world environment. Rich and realistic video contexts are provided–not only to provide relevant information for solving the problem, but also to create a realistic context. If the students buy in to the proposed problems, they will be engaged in problem solving similar to what the people in the video are engaged in.

There are also many examples of project-based learning in which students take on tasks such as building a vehicle that could cross Antarctica. It is unclear whether these constitute authentic problems–or what students learn from project-based learning.

Constructivist curriculum. A constructively oriented curriculum presents an emerging agenda based on what children know, what they are puzzled by, and the teachers' learning goals. Thus, an important part of a constructivist-oriented curriculum should be the negotiation of meaning. Maggie Lampert, a mathematics teacher, guides students to make sense of mathematics by comparing and resolving discrepancies between what they know and what seems to be implied by new experience.

In constructivist classrooms, curriculum is generally a process of digging deeper and deeper into big ideas, rather than presenting a breadth of coverage. For example, in the Fostering Communities of Learners project where students learn how to learn, in knowledge-building classrooms where students seek to create new knowledge, or in Howard Gardner's classrooms where the focus is on learning for deep understanding, students might study endangered species, island biogeography, or the principles of gravity over several months. As students pursue questions, they derive new and more complex questions to be investigated. Building useful knowledge structures requires effortful and purposeful activity over an extended period.

Cognitive conflict and social context. According to Dewey, "Reflection arises because of the appearance of incompatible factors within an empirical situation. Then opposed responses are provoked which cannot be taken simultaneously in overt action" (p.326). To say this in another way, cognitive conflict or puzzlement is the stimulus for learning, and it determines the organization and nature of what is being learned. Negotiation can also occur between individuals in a classroom. This process involves discussion and attentive listening, making sense of the points of views of others, and comparing personal meanings to the theories of peers. Justifying one position over another and selecting theories that are more viable leads to a better theory. Katerine Bielaczyc and Allan Collins have summarized educational research on learning communities in classrooms where the class goal is to learn together, to appreciate and capitalize on distributed expertise, and to articulate the kinds of cognitive processes needed for learning.

Constructivist assessment. Assessment of student learning is of two types: formative and summative. Formative assessment occurs during learning and provides feedback to the student. It includes evaluations of ongoing portfolios, and demonstrations of work in progress. Student collaboration also provides a form of formative assessment. In FCL, for example, students report to each other periodically on their research. In knowledge-building classrooms, students can read and comment on each other's work with the Knowledge Forum software. Formative assessment rarely occurs in classrooms.

Summative assessment occurs through tests and essays at the end of a unit of study. Summative assessments provide little specific feedback. From a constructivist perspective, formative assessments are more valuable to the learner, but with the recent emphasis in North America on standards, and due to the poor alignment of constructivist approaches and standards, it is very difficult to harmonize formative and summative assessments.

Technology and constructivism. Cognitive research has uncovered successful patterns in tutorial, mentoring, and group discussion interactions. However, typical Internet chat and bulletin-board systems do not support a constructivist approach to learning and instruction. During the 1990s, researchers created tools such as Knowledge Forum, the Knowledge Integration Environment, and Co Vis to more fully address constructivist principles. Each of these tools invites collaboration by structuring the kinds of contributions learners can make, supporting meaningful relationships among those contributions, and guiding students' inquiries. Teachers who use information and communication technologies in their classrooms are more likely to have a constructivist perspective towards learning and instruction. Additionally, sophisticated information and technology communications tools can capture the cognitive processes learners engage in when solving problems. This affords teacher reflection and coaching to aid deeper learning. It also affords teachers the chance to learn from each other.

The teacher's role. The teacher's role in a constructivist classroom isn't so much to lecture at students but to act as an expert learner who can guide students into adopting cognitive strategies such as self testing, articulating understanding, asking probing questions, and reflection. The role of the teacher in constructivist classrooms is to organize information around big ideas that engage the students' interest, to assist students in developing new insights, and to connect them with their previous learning. The activities are student-centered, and students are encouraged to ask their own questions, carry out their own experiments, make their own analogies, and come to their own conclusions. Becoming a constructivist teacher may prove a difficult transformation, however, since most instructors have been prepared for teaching in the traditional, objectivist manner. It "requires a paradigm shift," as well as "the willing abandonment of familiar perspectives and practices and the adoption of new ones" (Brooks and Brooks, p. 25).

A constructivist approach to education is widely accepted by most researchers, though not by all. Carl Bereiter argues that constructivism in schools is usually reduced to project based learning, and John Anderson, Lynn Reder, and Herbert Simon claim that constructivism advocates very inefficient learning and assessment procedures. In any event, the reality is that constructivism is rarely practiced in schools.


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