Chapter 2: The nature of knowledge and the implications for teaching
2.5.1 What is constructivism?
Both behaviourist and some elements of cognitive theories of learning are deterministic, in the sense that behaviour and learning are believed to be rule-based and operate under predictable and constant conditions over which the individual learner has no or little control. However, constructivists emphasise the importance of consciousness, free will and social influences on learning. Carl Rogers (1969) stated that:
‘every individual exists in a continually changing world of experience in which he is the center.’
The external world is interpreted within the context of that private world. The belief that humans are essentially active, free and strive for meaning in personal terms has been around for a long time, and is an essential component of constructivism.
Constructivists believe that knowledge is essentially subjective in nature, constructed from our perceptions and mutually agreed upon conventions. According to this view, we construct new knowledge rather than simply acquire it via memorization or through transmission from those who know to those who don’t know. Constructivists believe that meaning or understanding is achieved by assimilating information, relating it to our existing knowledge, and cognitively processing it (in other words, thinking or reflecting on new information). Social constructivists believe that this process works best through discussion and social interaction, allowing us to test and challenge our own understandings with those of others. For a constructivist, even physical laws exist because they have been constructed by people from evidence, observation, and deductive or intuitive thinking, and, most importantly, because certain communities of people (in this example, scientists) have mutually agreed what constitutes valid knowledge.
Constructivists argue that individuals consciously strive for meaning to make sense of their environment in terms of past experience and their present state. It is an attempt to create order in their minds out of disorder, to resolve incongruities, and to reconcile external realities with prior experience. The means by which this is done are complex and multi-faceted, from personal reflection, seeking new information, to testing ideas through social contact with others. Problems are resolved, and incongruities sorted out, through strategies such as seeking relationships between what was known and what is new, identifying similarities and differences, and testing hypotheses or assumptions. Reality is always tentative and dynamic.
One consequence of constructivist theory is that each individual is unique, because the interaction of their different experiences, and their search for personal meaning, results in each person being different from anyone else. Thus behaviour is not predictable or deterministic, at least not at the individual level (which is a key distinguishing feature from cognitivism, which seeks general rules of thinking that apply to all humans). The key point here is that for constructivists, learning is seen as essentially a social process, requiring communication between learner, teacher and others. This social process cannot effectively be replaced by technology, although technology may facilitate it.
2.5.2 Constructivist approaches to teaching
For many educators, the social context of learning is critical. Ideas are tested not just on the teacher, but with fellow students, friends and colleagues. Furthermore, knowledge is mainly acquired through social processes or institutions that are socially constructed: schools, universities, and increasingly these days, online communities. Thus what is taken to be ‘valued’ knowledge is also socially constructed.
Constructivists believe that learning is a constantly dynamic process. Understanding of concepts or principles develops and becomes deeper over time. For instance, as a very young child, we understand the concept of heat through touch. As we get older we realise that it can be quantified, such as minus 20 centigrade being very cold (unless you live in Manitoba, where -20C would be considered normal). As we study science, we begin to understand heat differently, for instance, as a form of energy transfer, then as a form of energy associated with the motion of atoms or molecules. Each ‘new’ component needs to be integrated with prior understandings and also integrated with other related concepts, including other components of molecular physics and chemistry.
Thus ‘constructivist’ teachers place a strong emphasis on learners developing personal meaning through reflection, analysis and the gradual building of layers or depths of knowledge through conscious and ongoing mental processing. Reflection, seminars, discussion forums, small group work, and projects are key methods used to support constructivist learning in campus-based teaching (discussed in more detail in Chapter 3), and online collaborative learning, and communities of practice are important constructivist methods in online learning (Chapter 4).
Although problem-solving can be approached in an objectivist way, by pre-determining a set of steps or processes to go through pre-determined by ‘experts’, it can also be approached in a constructivist manner. The level of teacher guidance can vary in a constructivist approach to problem-solving, from none at all, to providing some guidelines on how to solve the problem, to directing students to possible sources of information that may be relevant to solving that problem, to getting students to brainstorm particular solutions. Students will probably work in groups, help each other and compare solutions to the problem. There may not be considered one ‘correct’ solution to the problem, but the group may consider some solutions better than others, depending on the agreed criteria of success for solving the problem.
It can be seen that there can be ‘degrees’ of constructivism, since in practice the teacher may well act as first among equals, and help direct the process so that ‘suitable’ outcomes are achieved. The fundamental difference is that students have to work towards constructing their own meaning, testing it against ‘reality’, and further constructing meaning as a result.
Constructivists also approach technology for teaching differently from behaviourists. From a constructivist perspective, brains have more plasticity, adaptability and complexity than current computer software programs. Other uniquely human factors, such as emotion, motivation, free will, values, and a wider range of senses, make human learning very different from the way computers operate. Following this reasoning, education would be much better served if computer scientists tried to make software to support learning more reflective of the way human learning operates, rather than trying to fit human learning into the current restrictions of behaviourist computer programming. This will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 5, Section 4.
Although constructivist approaches can be and have been applied to all fields of knowledge, they are more commonly found in approaches to teaching in the humanities, social sciences, education, and other less quantitative subject areas.
Activity 2.5 Defining the limits of constructivism
1. What areas of knowledge do you think would be best ‘taught’ or learned through a constructivist approach?
2. What areas of knowledge do you think would NOT be appropriately taught through a constructivist approach?
3. What are your reasons?
Rogers, C. (1969) Freedom to Learn Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co.
There are many books on constructivism but some of the best are the original works of some of the early educators and researchers, in particular:
Piaget, J. and Inhelder, B., (1958) The Growth of Logical Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence New York: Basic Books, 1958
Searle, J. (1996) The construction of social reality. New York: Simon & Shuster
Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press