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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Definition: Constructivism

In contrast to the concept of the human brain as merely an information-processing center, the educational philosophy of Constructivism was born. (Apparently Stephen Downes—see his post on the topic-- is not the only person who had a problem with the concept of the mind being like a computer and working in an “information processing” only fashion.

Thus Constructivism is the idea that learners construct their own knowledge. The concept emerged because some educators and others were concerned that students were learning isolated, decontextualized skills and information and, therefore, students were unable to apply what they had learned or their proceduralized skills to situations outside of the classroom.

The Constructivist school of thought attempts to link learning with situational variables such as, emotions, environment, social status and anticipated consequences. The idea is that designers and teachers cannot teach anyone, they can only present information and then the learner creates his or her own meanings or constructs.

This could explain why something like Second Life which is literally a constructivistic paradise is so popular…people are literally constructing their own meanings, contexts and situations. This concept of constructivism may also be the missing link Mark Oehlert is wondering about when he asks
"what is the requirement?" - "what does this do differently or better than what has come before?" Kept running through my head. One answer to the former question is...there is no requirement. No requirement you can pin an ROI to. No requirement you can justify to a boardroom. Really - at this point there isn't - so stop looking.
In his post Thinking Out Loud on a Post about Second Life. Since Second Life allow you to construct nearly everything in your environment and then interact with environments created by others who have, in turn, constructed their own meanings.

Constructivism supports the idea of discovery learning which was proposed at least as early as John Dewey if not earlier. Learners discover what they need to know and then build their knowledge base through their own bias and context. This, of course, means that the instructional designer is forced to create an environment for the learner to discover learning rather than a specific step-by-step lesson.

For more information and links to Constructivism sources, you can visit a page created by the School of Education the University of Colorado at Denver

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Stephen Downes said...

Ah - but I consider constructivism to be a type of cognitivism, and not a response to it.

Look at the constructivist paradigm, its writings and slogans - things like "making meaning" and it becomes clear that they're still working with the physical symbol system hypothesis. The best that can be said for some of them is that they've added a homonculus to the process.

Bill Kerr said...

hi karl,

I think in discussing constructivism its necessary to mention both Piaget and Papert

Constructionism (N rather than V) was papert's extension from piaget. Constructionism is morphing constructivism with the word construction, meaning building things in the world to accelerate the internal process that Piaget was attempting to describe. Hence Papert helped develop the logo programming language (starting with turtle geometry), LEGO TClogo (controlling LEGO constructions using logo) and ISDP (Instructional Software Design Project) (with Idit Harel) as ways to promote learning. I have articles about Papert and ISDP on my website btw

Open ended discovery learning has been criticised for being too, well, open ended. Papert's approach is to minimise instruction by setting up environments containing rich "objects to think with" (eg. logo). There is guidance but it is built into the environment as much as possible.

Bill Kerr said...

In response to Stephen's comment:

Minsky's (Papert and Minsky worked collaborated at MIT on AI research) approach to AI has been categorised as symbolic AI (logical reasoning about data) and criticised by Rodney Brooks for blocking the situated and embodied approach

I don't think Minsky could be said to have added a homunculus though

Enactivism (embodied cognition)is a newer approach that has grown out of this dialogue. I'm developing pages on Brooks and enactivism at the learning evolves wiki

Edge optimist, Keith Devlin thinks we can teach maths more successfully using immersive 3D environments:
"We have grown so accustomed to the fact that for over two thousand years, mathematics had to be communicated, learned, and carried out through written symbols, that we may have lost sight of the fact that mathematics is no more about symbols than music is about musical notation. In both cases, specially developed, highly abstract, stylized notations enable us to capture on a page certain patterns of the mind, but in both cases what is actually captured in symbols is a dreadfully meager representation of the real thing, meaningful only to those who master the arcane notation and are able to recreate from the symbols the often profound beauty they represent. Never before in the history of mathematics have we had a technology that is ideally suited to representing and communicating basic mathematics. But now, with the development of manufactured, immersive, 3D environments, we do."

Karl Kapp said...

Stephen--perhaps I should ask to what school of thought do you subscribe when it comes to educational theory?

Bill--I agree my oversight on not mentioning Piaget and Papert.

To both--Any ideas on how an instructional designer should operationalize some of these concepts?

Thanks for the comments and continued discussion

Bill Kerr said...

hi karl,

Just to clarify my point of view in response to your question. Sorry, but I probably won't be very helpful. I agree with the sort of thing you have been saying in response to myself and Tony Forster as to where the various learning theories fit wrt developing instructional design.

My current perspective is to try to look at a broader picture. I think we're entering a period of possibly dramatic social and educational change, or at least, I hope so. Many people do see School as inadequate in its present form.

I'm a teacher, I'm in a classroom, I know how teachers think and that thinking is inevitably tied to the necessities of the classroom environment in certain ways. There are others developing educational programs from outside the classroom and their thinking is often very different, eg. Roger Schank , is a good example. Some of his critiques of School are very biting, satirical and possibly true. I'm thinking about the question of how can Schools change (they need to change dramatically) if teachers thinking is classroom bound. Who will lead that change? What ideas and methods will create that change?

Karl Kapp said...


A good point and, I think, in some ways the changes in schools are going to be driven by new technology tools that the students are going to bring with them...the gadgets, games and gizmos that we think of as toys and trinkets. On the otherside, I hope industry will realize that leaving school funding up to the public sector will not be effective until public officials understand why funding changes in schools is critical to the future success of a region, state or even country.

The new educational models will be developed by trial and error by teachers (like yourself) and others who "experiment" with the various schools of thought and see what works. Things are going a little fast to spend years and years working on an academic theory.

Anonymous said...

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