Constructivism Theory of Learning
“…knowledge is not simply transmitted from teacher to student, but actively constructed by the mind of the learner.” (Taylor and Francis, p 135-136)
What exactly is constructivism and what does it mean to build knowledge?
Constructivism may sound like a fancy term for construction because, well, essentially it is. But the root word construction is different from the root word constructive because the former refers to building some sort of thing, building or artifact, and the latter talks about building constructs, or thoughts.
Constructivism, then, refers to how people build thoughts, or how they learn.
And, just as a building is constructed, constructivism learning theory states that people construct new knowledge when they learn. And, similar to how a building is constructed on a foundation, the theory states that human knowledge is constructed on a foundation of previous knowledge.
This may seem like a pretty obvious thing- that learning creates new knowledge- but there are loads of subtle differences between this theory and traditional learning theories that have important implications for education.
For instance, traditional theories of learning are based on the idea of knowledge being information or a series of facts that is stored in the brain. Traditional education methods are based on trying to fill the brain with knowledge, information and facts. Repetition is used to help students memorize that information. Textbooks that are full of information are read or lectures are given and often those lessons are followed by quizzes or tests to see what knowledge a student has retained. Grades are dependent upon how well that specific information is recalled.
Constructivist theory, on the other hand, states that a student experiences the world around them and then makes sense of those experiences using previous knowledge. People must reconcile their current beliefs with the new knowledge that they are experiencing or being exposed to. They do this through actively questioning the new knowledge and relating it to previous knowledge. Exploring, questioning, experimenting, and then assessing the information is an important part of creating new knowledge. Students, therefore, can come to different conclusions about information and experiences and thus learning is an active, varied process for each individual. Two students can read the same book, but that book may have vastly different meanings for each of those students depending on their personal histories, cultural backgrounds, prior knowledge of the topic, and so on.
It would make sense if the constructivist theory of learning holds true, that measures of learning should not be universal measures of knowledge retention, but rather, personal measures of growth. READ MORE ON MEASURING GROWTH.
The origins of constructivist learning theory
The concept of constructivism was first recognized through the work of Jean Piaget. Piaget, born in 1896 in Switzerland, was most well-known as a psychologist; but his contributions to the world of epistemology, the nature and beginning of knowledge; form some of his most influential work on the field of education (Mooney, p. 59). Piaget’s epistemological view of learning holds that children construct their own knowledge by giving meaning to the people, places, and things in their world. In terms of understanding the world and making sense of it Piaget thought that learners engage with new information through the assimilation of knowledge into their old “schemata” and through the accommodation or adaptation of knowledge based on new learnings. In this sense, a constructivist view takes into account the background and the culture of the learner as well as what has been previously learned by recognizing that children already bring to the table themselves and their previous learnings; therefore, it would be difficult for a teacher to simply give the child new knowledge by telling them something, rather, it would be more effective to lead the child through questions that will help them think through a problem and to construct new knowledge about a topic. Children are much more likely to retain and find meaning in the new knowledge and then use that as a place from which to continue to building knowledge. In the sense that the learning needs to be relevant and important enough for a child to ask questions or to develop inquiry, constructivists take into account the motivation of the learner, the importance of context in learning as well as the active nature of learning.
Piaget developed many of his beliefs from following the teachings of Maria Montessori and John Dewey. In the Montessori tradition, the view holds that children need to perform meaningful work in order to develop cognitively. In the Dewey tradition of experiential learning, children are driven by curiosity and a need to experience their own challenges and attempts to solve them, rather than just merely being handed knowledge. In both the Montessori view and the progressive educational view of Dewey, the focus is on child-centered learning, rather than teacher-centered teaching.
Piaget took these concepts further by outlining a philosophy on developmental stages for both intellectual growth and physical growth that he applied to his theory of knowledge acquisition. “He did not believe that teachers can “teach” young children to understand a concept. He was certain that children build their own understanding of the world by the things they do.” (Mooney, p. 63)
Another important aspect of constructivism comes from the work of Vygotsky, who believed strongly in the importance of social setting and peer and teacher interaction when it comes to children’s ability to construct new knowledge. Vygotsky, born in Russia in 1896, is considered to have a great influence on educational theory despite his short life and despite being overshadowed by Piaget during his time. He expanded on Piaget’s theories of cognitive development to demonstrate that social development is of equal importance. He identified that the assistance a teacher or peer can give a child when completing a task or understanding a concept to be called “scaffolding”. (Mooney, p. 84) This scaffolding helps children to reach new heights, so to speak, by supporting them through careful observation and careful intervention. Scaffolding is an important part of constructivist classrooms.
In this way, constructivism is differentiated from other child-centered learning strategies that are maturationist in nature, such as unschooling, a term coined by creator John Holt in the 1970’s that essentially leaves learning up to the child and his or her own development. In contrast, constructivist classrooms have learning that is carefully facilitated as “the teacher searches for students’ understandings of concepts, and then structures opportunities for students to refine or revise theses understandings by posing contradictions, presenting new information, asking questions, encourage in research, and/or engaging students in inquiries designed to challenge current concepts” (Brooks and Brooks, p. ix).
Characteristics of Constructivist Classrooms
In addition to scaffolding learning around students interests and allowing them to construct their own meaning, constructivist classrooms have many other characteristics. They often focus on whole systems thinking first with an emphasis on larger concepts, thus allowing children to decide which smaller pieces need examining, rather than taking a part-to-whole approach as most traditional classroom learning does. Rather than teaching skills from a fixed curriculum in textbooks or workbooks, children develop their own inquiry questions which drive classroom activities. Finding data to support or refute theories is an interactive process in these classrooms; furthermore, assessment is often very different from traditional ideas, in which testing is conducted post learning to determine knowledge retention. In constructivist classrooms, the teacher observes children at work throughout the learning unit and through student portfolios and exhibitions. Also, traditional classrooms generally have students working individually, whereas constructivist classrooms generally have students working together (Brooks and Brooks, p. 17).
In the book In Search of Understanding: the Case for Constructivist Classrooms by Jaqueline and Martin Brooks, the following characteristics of constructivist educational settings are listed:
- They free students from the dreariness of fact-driven curriculums and allow them to focus on large ideas.
- They place in students’ hands the exhilarating power to follow trails of interest, to make connections, to reformulate ideas, and to reach unique conclusions.
- They share with students the important message that the world is a complex place in which multiple perspectives exist and truth is often a matter of interpretation.
- They acknowledge that learning, and the process of assessing learning, are, at best, elusive and messy endeavors that are not easily managed.
(Brooks and Brooks, p. 22)
How Open Space Education uses constructivist theory of learning
Open Space Education embraces a constructivist theory of learning in numerous ways:
- Through empowering students to follow their interests and passions.
- Through an embrace of systems thinking and focus on the big picture first in planning a students learning path, then allowing students to determine what information and skills are important to gain along that path.
- Through a focus on media literacy and understanding perspective and bias in the media, literature and non-fiction accounts.
- Through the encouragement of assessing experience and applying that to current knowledge and future experience.
- Through active embrace of cultural, gender, and racial identities.
- Through embracing a diverse global community.
- Through the use of formative assessments that measure growth and the use of a project portfolio as a narrative of learning.