Constructivism


Constructivism

You have something within you, Theaetetus, that you're bringing forth.

—Socrates: Theaetetus, 450 B.C.

Education is the growth of capacities with which human beings are endowed at birth.

—Rousseau, 1762

Experiential Knowledge: Learning Through Doing and Constructing

Constructivism is less a specific technique for designing and implementing instruction than a philosophy of learning. Based on the theories of Rousseau, Dewey, and Piaget, in addition to the progressive education of the 1930s, constructivism states that students learn by doing and experience, and that they should be "guided, not taught." As Rousseau warned conventional teachers, "You think you are teaching the student what the world is like; he is only learning the maps." As Dewey, Rousseau's pupil, stressed, "Avoid repeating formulas, and substitute the process of personal discovery." Where traditional lecture-based "instructivism" stresses the role of the teacher, constructivism stresses the role of the student, and states that we learn best through constructing our own mental models (schemas). We then check out how these schemas stack up against reality, and make our decisions accordingly. Knowledge is constructed through interacting with our environment.

Constructivism enjoys a long intellectual heritage. Because it focuses on an individualist problem-solving method, it overlaps with both guided experiential learning and discovery learning. Constructivism is grounded in the psychological "inward turn" of Kantian philosophy in 1800, which in turn gave rise to German phenomenology in the early 1900s. In the 1950s the movement arrived at the door of American educational institutions through the work of the Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget. Piaget asserted that children learn, not from being handed information, but from direct experience with life and a constant unconscious testing of their mental models (schemas, in the words of the phenomenologists) against the world. Piaget described the learning process as one of "assimilation and accommodation." We assimilate present learning experiences into past structures (in our heads), but at the same time subtly accommodate (shift) those same mental structures to accommodate the new experience. We thereby constantly "construct" our vision of the world (which is the position of the phenomenologist philosophers). The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky had already expressed similar thoughts in 1934 in his Thinking and Speaking, although he focused more on the social context of learning.

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Instead of rote memorization, use the sure process of personal discovery.

—John Dewey, Schools of Tomorrow, 1915

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Curriculum as Scaffold or Environment

Give the students an environment which is full of interesting things that need to be done.

—John Dewey, Schools of Tomorrow, 1915

Perhaps because of the connection with Piaget, constructivism has had less influence on adult learning than on the kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade curriculum, particularly its math and science branches. Because of its methodology of guided exploratory learning, constructivism speaks of designing "scaffolds" or "authentic environments" rather than designing "courses," and it refers to teachers as "coaches and facilitators." Only the experiential acquisition of knowledge really counts.

In conclusion, constructivism is easy to theorize about, but sometimes difficult and expensive to implement due to the high level of interactivity involved. However—like all experiential learning—given the appropriate budget, adequate learner-time, and the right situation, it can be extremely effective.

The teacher, if he is wise, leads you to the threshold of your own mind.

—Kahlil Gibran, Lebanese Mystic, 1920

Fastpaths

1915

John Dewey: The Schools of Tomorrow. The importance of Rousseau for progressive education (as well as later constructivism).

1924

Jean Piaget (1896–1980) Judgment and Reasoning in the Child.

1934

Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) publishes Thinking and Speaking. Soviet psychologist who develops a genetic approach to human learning, anticipating much of Jean Piaget's genetic epistemology of the 1950s. Published by MIT in translation in 1962 as Thought and Language.

1950

Jean Piaget: Introduction to Genetic Epistemology. Piaget studies the development (genesis) of knowledge (epistemology) in children and youth.

1954

Jean Piaget: The Child's Construction of Reality. Drawing on German phenomenology (theory of perception), the Swiss psychologist proposes a developmental view of humans and learning. He distinguishes four phases in the mental development of children:

  1. sensory motor coordination (up to age 2)

  2. intuitive (the labeling or naming of objects, ages 2 to 7)

  3. concrete (the classifying of objects, ages 7 to 12)

  4. abstract (cognitively thinking-about-things, symbolical reasoning, ages 12 to 16)

1960

Jerome Bruner: The Process of Education. Building on Piaget, Bruner helps launch the constructivist movement in the United States. Content is largely focused on science and math learning for young children.

1963

John Flavell: The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget. Good summary of Piaget's psychological work.

1966

Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman: The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Heavily theoretical.

1969

R. Beard: An Outline of Piaget's Developmental Psychology. Provides useful description of Piaget's major theories and their implications for teachers.

1978

Lev Vygotsky (translation of earlier work): Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes.

1981

Howard Gardner: The Quest for Mind: Piaget, Levi-Strauss, and the Structuralist Movement. Excellent summary of cognitivism (to which constructivism is related because of its belief in mental models).

1983

Philip Johnson-Laird: Mental Models: Towards a Cognitive Science of Language, Inference, and Consciousness. Excellent on individual mindset "schemas" (as opposed to group mindset "paradigms").

1985

Kenneth Gergen (ed.): The Social Construction of the Person. Sociological view.

1995

John Searle: The Construction of Social Reality. Philosophical view.

1995

B. G. Wilson (ed.): Designing Constructivist Learning Environments. Good anthology.

1995

L. Steffe and J. Gale (eds.): Constructivism in Education. Includes important piece by Paul Ernest, "The One and the Many," on the many conflicting definitions and schools of constructivism.

1996

Yasmin Kafai and M. Resnick (eds.): Constructionism in Practice: Designing, Thinking, and Learning in a Digital World.

1996

Brent Wilson (ed.): Constructivist Learning Environments. Includes useful articles on instructional design.

1999

Ian Hacking: The Social Construction of What? A refreshingly open-eyed review of the many fields that "constructivism" has influenced, including that of cognitive psychology.

See also Rousseau Dewey