How do Students ‘Learn’ through Construction?

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In my last post, I raised my concern that the theory of Constructivism is often misrepresented as theory of teaching, instead of a theory of knowing. In this post, I hope to provide further insight into the theory of Constructivism and the implications of this on the way learning is catered for in our classrooms. Michael Devitt labelled Constructivism as, “the most dangerous contemporary intellectual tendency” as, although we are quick to accept that knowledge is constructed, the transformation of educational pedagogies and theories under the banner of Constructivism is often accompanied by confusion around what constitutes a Constructivist approach to teaching (1991, p. ix). In order to apply the theory of Constructivism to our teaching, we must first understand how learning happens.

We know that Constructivism is grounded in the concept that learners construct their own understanding through experiences and interpretations. This construction of knowledge comes initially from the prior knowledge, experiences, attitudes and interests that individuals bring to learning.  Learning then transpires when individuals apply these factors to new experiences and situations and construct their own understanding (Howe & Berv, 2000, p.30). One common misconception in relation to Constructivism is that learning must be social. This comes initially from the ideas of Vygotsky, who believed that knowledge was created through social interaction and immersion in a range of cultures (Lowenthal & Muth, 2009, para.7). This however, is not the only way knowledge is constructed. As mentioned in my previous post, Piaget’s work indicated that knowledge is constructed through an individual’s experience and prior knowledge (Lowenthal & Muth, 2009, para.6). Thus, while collaboration is often paired with Constructivism in educational settings, it is not essential that learning is social for students to construct knowledge. I would assert that balance between the two is beneficial for metacognition. It is imperative therefore, that we do not discard teacher-centred learning under the banner of Constructivist practice, as construction happens through knowledge and learning, regardless of the approach of the teacher.

While educators may use different pedagogical approaches to assist their students in constructing their own knowledge, what is essential, is that teachers adopt the mindset that they themselves are also learners. Brooks and Brooks asserted that students learn best when they work with adults who, “ask questions with which they themselves still grapple, who are willing and able to alter both content and practice in the pursuit of meaning, and who treat students and their endeavours as works in progress, not finished products” (1993, p.9). This assertion does not make the teacher redundant in student learning, it does however, reposition the teacher as a coach or facilitator of student learning who assists their students in developing, “an independent and active attitude of great importance for his or her functioning in a modern dynamic society (Taylor, 1992). Therefore, it is not only the student who is the focus of Constructivist practice; equal importance must be placed on the teacher as a learner. While in a classroom students will construct knowledge regardless of the method of instruction, by embracing Constructivism, educators will provide students with an environment that promotes learning and understanding.

The educator’s role in a Constructivist classroom is to assist learning through creating, synthesising and interpreting information. It is often lamented that applying Constructivist practice in the classroom involves getting rid of learning goals and lesson plans (Dick, 1992, p.92). However, instead of planning that caters for students getting from ‘A’ to ‘B’, Constructivist teachers need to refocus and readjust what they plan for in the learning of their students, instead considering how they will influence the depth to which students construct their own knowledge and understanding. Teacher preparation must centre on contemplating how they will pose problems for their student’s that will influence their thinking and understanding (Brooks & Brooks, 1993, p.44). To assist student’s in learning, educators in a Constructivist classroom must use the knowledge, attitudes and interests of learners as a starting point in their instruction. Educators must then design their instruction to provide learning experiences that interact effectively with the characteristics of their students in assisting them in constructing their own understanding (Howe & Berv, 2000, p.31). In preparing for learning by: integrating disciplines and curriculum, establishing a core knowledge domain, selecting tasks relevant to individual learners and situations, providing students with multiple perspectives and incorporating cognitive flexibility that promotes apprenticeship and real-world experiences, educators will ensure that they are catering effectively for the construction of learning in their classroom (Paparozzi, C, 1998, pp. 67 – 75).

Reflecting on the theory of Constructivism emphasises for me the great influence we as educators have on the way our students think, learn and understand. We must dispel the common adage that teachers teach as they have been taught and adopt practices that encourage and allow for the active construction of knowledge and understanding in our classrooms. Regardless of our instructional methodologies, the construction of knowledge and learning must remain at the forefront of our practices so that we are enabling learning in our students.

Reference List

Brooks, J. G., & Brooks, M. G. (1993). The case for constructivist classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Devitt, M.   (1991). Realism and truth. Oxford: Blackwell.

Dick, W. (1992). An instructional designer’s view of constructivism. In T. Duffy & D. Jonesson (Eds.), Constructivism and the technology of instruction (pp. 91-98). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Kenneth R. Howe and Jason Berv. (2000). “Constructing constructivism, epistemological and pedagogical.” In Constructivism in education, edited by D. C. Phillips, 19-40. Illinois: The National Society for the Study of Education.

Lowenthal, P., & Muth, R. (2009). Constructivism. In E. Provenzo, & A. Provenzo (Eds.),Encyclopedia of the social and cultural foundations of education. (pp. 178-180). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: http://dx.doi.org.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/10.4135/9781412963992.n86

Paparozzi, C. (1998). Implementing constructivism in the middle school classroom. (Order No. 9926671, West Virginia University). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 100-100 p. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/304454690?accountid=13380. (304454690).

Taylor, C. (1992). The ethics of authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Image Attribution

PublicDomainPictures. (2012). Connect connection cooperation hand hands holding. Public Domain CCO. Retrieved from http://pixabay.com/en/connect-connection-cooperation-hand-20333/