The learning theory I have chosen to write about in this essay is that of constructivism. In researching the various explanations of how learning occurs, I recognized that many aspects of the learning theory of constructivism matched my own experiences in a learning environment. The theory takes the perspective that “exploratory learning, apprenticeship learning and problem-based learning” are strategies that characterize the model of constructivism and that they foster significant learning. (Christie, A. (2005). This speaks to my learning and my teaching styles. In this essay I will expand upon these roles, and the shift in focus from instructor to learner. I will detail the role of the learner and that of the instructor, and how these roles align and sometimes overlap. I addition, I will expand upon the specific aspects of this theory that are most appealing to me, and I will give three examples of constructivism in practice in my classroom. I will then provide a conclusion that summarizes the points that I have made about this particular theory of learning.
Constructivist Learning Theory: Highlights
Constructivism as a learning theory has been described as “a collection of perspectives all of which share the common assumption that learning is how people make sense of their experiences. Learners are active organisms seeking meaning.” (Driscoll (2005). Rather than focusing on the transmission of knowledge from teacher to passive student, the learner participates in experiences which are then followed by reflection. Learning is active; knowledge is built upon the learner’s prior knowledge and experience, and is unique to the individual and how they see the world.
John Dewey (1859 – 1952) is often said to be the philosophical founder of constructionism. Jerome Bruner (1915 – 2016) and Jean Piaget (1869 – 1980) are considered significant theorists among cognitive constructionists. Lev Vygotsky, (1896 – 1934) as a social constructivist, is also considered to be foundational to this theory.
Piaget’s theory of cognitive development based on his work with children, has contributed to the theory of constructivism with his theory that human cognition matures with age (Wikipedia, 2016) so that we are able to construct meaning at a higher level and effectively synthesize it into deeper and broader conceptual understanding. He also “proposed that learning is a dynamic process comprising successive stages of adaption to reality.” Differing from Piaget and drawing upon Vygotsky, who felt learning could not be separated from its social context, Jerome Bruner believed in “learning through dialogue and encouraging the learner to enlighten themselves through reflection.” (Mascolo & Fischer, 2005)
More recently, specific strategies that take the guiding principles of constructivism and provide specific strategies for creating a learning environment based on these principles, have been articulated for a modern setting. Though as Jacqueline G. Brooks and Martin Brooks say in, In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms “As long as there were people asking each other questions, we have had constructivist classrooms. Constructivism, the study of learning, is about how we all make sense of our world, and that really hasn’t changed.” (Brooks and Brooks, 1999) Their strategies include “encouraging dialogue with the teacher and each other and building on what students already know about a concept before presenting their own ideas and theories.” Similarly, Wenger suggests, for today’s constructivist classroom, that learning must be as “authentic as possible with real life experiences such as “field trips, service learning and problem-based learning.” (Wenger, 1998)
Why I Chose Constructivism
Reading about this theory of learning I came across Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences which, both as a learner and an instructor helped me focused on different ways that learning occurs amongst individuals. In Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1985), Gardner delved deeply into an exploration of the differences in the way people think. This is also central to the theory of constructivism; on any given day, based on a wide range of experiences amongst them, learners will respond differently to their learning environment. I also see that in a setting where there are “multiple representations of reality, a focus on knowledge construction rather than reproduction, presentation of authentic tasks, reflective practices, and support for collaborative construction of knowledge through social negotiation” (Jonassen, 1994), I would feel comfortable that I could be a facilitator of significant learning. I am drawn to the idea that taking learners out of the classroom to real environments where the exploration of an authentic environment will consolidate theoretical learning. Each student will make the meaning they are ready for, depending on their prior knowledge. A collaborative environment within the classroom fosters the kind of dialogue where students learn from each other, with the instructor as a guide or coach when that is appropriate.
Role of the Learner
The role that the learner plays in the learning environment is encapsulated in the descriptors of what is known as self-directed learning. In Tough’s research on adult learning projects, he found that self-directed learners “often spend hundreds of hours on a learning project, a project which they plan, implement, and evaluate on their own.” (Merriam and Bierema, 2014). The adult learner in particular, is independent and self-directing “and has a need to be perceived by others as capable of taking responsibility for themselves, and if others are imposing their wills on them without their participating in making decisions affecting them, they experience a feeling, often subconsciously, of resentment and resistance” (Knowles, 1984, p. 9). That being said, the role of the learner participates in creating “a psychological climate of mutual respect and trust and an atmosphere of collaboration.” In addition, constructivist theory is founded on the belief that accumulated experience is critical in constructing the knowledge that a learner will build based on their interactions in the world “by exploring environments, manipulating objects, testing hypotheses and by drawing conclusions” and the resulting meaning he or she gives to those experiences. The learner also shares their accumulated life experiences with others, as part of a dialogue that exists between learners as well as between learner and instructor.
The Role of the Instructor
Within the constructivist model the instructor’s role changes from that of a transmitter of knowledge to one of facilitator of learning. This shift requires the instructor to “allow the learners to discover for themselves the gaps between where they are now and where they want to be.” (Knowles et al. 2011 p. 63) “It places the learner’s interests and needs front and center and the facilitator uses strategies to engage the participants in their own learning.” (Merriam and Bierema, 2014.) The instructor does not limit the learning environment to the classroom setting; field trips organized by the instructor are organized to provide learners with a range of authentic life experiences. Internships or apprentice arrangements are set up where the learner engages with a resource person other than the instructor. These are examples of meaningful engaging experiences that an instructor following the constructivist model would support.
Classroom Example # 1
Bring Something Electrical from your House that is Broken
It is my belief that students would benefit from the collaborative construction of knowledge this task would provide, in part because of its social nature.
I would start by taking on the challenge of applying as many of the tenets of constructivist theory as I could in one classroom task, after providing my students with a brief explanation of this theory of learning. Even though you are not in your home setting, it is a real world environment when you bring your broken blender to class and hope that it can be fixed; a true representation of reality in a authentic problem-solving environment. I would have the students working in groups each with at least one appliance. The foundational knowledge already in place would involve AC circuitry and or DC circuitry and their understanding of its applications up to this point. The task is in an authentic context as opposed to an abstract or academic one, and provides for “learner control.” (Christie, 2005). I would then assess my own success with adhering to a constructivist model with a rubric that contained the principles of facilitating knowledge construction using this model. Depending on the interest of the learners, I would share this with them; I believe that learners should understand the theory behind the nature of their particular learning environment.
Classroom Example #2
The Exploding Zucchini
In the context of an electrical foundation course, learners must understand the electrical theory of voltage, resistance and current. In order to provide a real-world, case-based learning experience, I would organize a field trip to BC Hydro’s Power Tech Lab. Here they demonstrate the exploding zucchini, highlighting the dangers and results of high-voltage electric shock. In the lab, a zucchini is subjected to 25,000 volts of electricity. Subsequently, due to the extreme, high current, the moisture contained within the zucchini instantaneously cause it to turn to steam. The steam expands at such an incredible rate that it causes the zucchini to explode with an incredibly loud snapping sound. This occurs in a fraction of a second, and is meant to simulate the human arm (or other body part).
Following the field trip, the discussion explores the learners’ understanding of: What happened? Why did it happen? Of equal importance would be the critical reflection to include for example, what feelings did this experience evoke? This would also include a class discussion on the safety aspects of working in the electrical field.
Classroom Example #3
The Virtual Field Trip
At this stage of the 21st century, it is a reality that the range of skills and knowledge regarding technology varies greatly amongst the students in my classroom. The theory of constructivism, with its focus on collaboration and learners working cooperatively with each other, lends itself to remedy this disparity for the benefit of all learners. In fact, social networking sites in particular, which are utilized by students for a variety of purposes seem to beautifully complement constructivism as “a tangible venue to connect, communicate and collaborate about their learning. Social networking sites are relevant to constructivism because while using these sites, students can collaborate using tools such as email, blogs and wikis to create, invent, and showcase their work in a way that unlocks intrinsic motivation and advances learning outcomes.” (DiScipio, T. 2007) In my lesson I would pair students, with one being the peer tutor if necessary, to explore Ning, an online service that allows users to generate, customize, and share their own social network for educational purposes. They may share general classroom information, ideas for projects or absentee notes, and to connect and reflect on their experiences. The students will give it a name, perhaps “Flash Bang”, as students will know that when you mock a less than reputable electrical contractor, they are known as Flash Bang Electric; a constructivist model likely fosters humor amongst learners as well. The students will also explore using Twitter if they choose to connect with the instructor and other students regarding questions about course content or material that may arise while completing their class work.
In summary, the constructivist theory of learning is one that connects learners with each other and with the instructor in a more symmetrical power relationship than in the traditional model of teacher/student. It takes into account the social and the cultural dimensions of human interaction in a way that promotes a deeper and more meaningful connection amongst those participants in a learning environment. It is active learning that favors exploration and requires learners to “manage the pursuit of their goals”. (Christie, A. 2005) It encourages learners to develop the tools necessary for self-analysis in order to evaluate their own process. A model of learning that requires students to immerse themselves fully in the learning experience, yet is sensitive toward the individual learner’s previous knowledge, creates a very positive environment for adult learners.
Driscoll, M.P. (2005) Psychology of Learning for Instructors Ch. 11 Constructivism Toronto, On: Pearson
Mascolo, M. F. & Fischer, K. W. (2005) Constructivist Theories
Wenger, E. (1998) \|Communities of Practice: Learning Meaning and Identity, Cambridge, MA. Harvard University
Jonassen, D. (1994) Thinking Technology. Educational Technology, (p 34-37)
DiScopio, T. (2007) Adapting social networking to address 21st century skills. Multi Media and the Internet @ schools
Merriam, S.B. and Bierema, L.L (2014) Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice.
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Christie, A (2005) Constructivism and its implications for educators.
Grennon Brooks, J & Brooks, M.G. (1999) In search of understanding: The case for the constructivist classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Honebein, Peter. C. (1996) Seven goals for the design of constructivist learning environments.
Brent. G (Ed). (1996) Constructivist learning environments: case studies in instructional design. Educational Technology Publications Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey