Although not supported by everyone, constructivism is one of the most influential educational theories of our time. It is one of several important learning theories that have influenced teaching approaches. This page provides a brief summary of constructivist learning principles, along with some corresponding recommendations for educational practice and links to relevant resources. A downloadable version of this page is here. Please write to me with ideas, critiques, other links, etc.
|As its name may imply,
constructivism emphasizes the building
(i.e., constructing) that occurs in people's minds
when they learn. A simple way to summarize this idea
is to refer to Gestalt
theory (e.g., 'a whole is different than the sum of
its parts). For example, when different people
'observe' the black-and-white image at right, some
people 'see' a geographical location, others say it
looks like the side of a cow, and others claim the
image depicts a bearded man. Apparently, what each
person 'sees' (or 'observes') depends more on what
is already stored in that person's brain than on
light being emitted (or not) from the image. This
suggests that learning from our environment (through
our senses) is an active, rather than a
passive, process. We seem to project onto
phenomena what we already know about them. We each
construct a unique mental image by combining
information in our heads with information we receive
from our sense organs (e.g., eyes). In many ways,
this is self-assuring. Each of us is an individual,
viewing the world in ways like no other person -
although, based on principles of social
constructivism, our 'personal' ideas, etc. are
always associated with those of our contemporaries
and those who have preceded us.
|While many theorists
emphasize each person's right and tendency to
construct unique meanings, many people also believe
that these are not completely unique. Because we share
common languages and think largely through language
and other communal symbols, many agree that knowledge
constructed, even while an individual is
thinking. In a sense, a person's thought is never his
or her own.
Knowledge also may be considered socially constructed because public knowledge - that is, ideas and information stored and made available for the public - usually goes through debate. Groups of scientists, for example, read each others' articles, write for the same journals and attend the same conferences. After they have debated ideas about their inquiries, etc., their collective conclusions may get published in school texts and other records available to the public. This is related to the idea of community of practice (CoP); that is, a group of people with a shared history that gives them - among other things - a common identity, a repertoire of related practices and a similar knowledge set. In other words, each of us must admit, 'I am apart of all of whom I have met' (Tennyson).
|Some suggestions for
teaching and learnng strategies informed by
constructivist learning theory include:
Learners have ideas!
This is frequently the case in science education, since students have had prior experiences about many topics in science; for example, they have experienced forces (e.g., magnetism), living things (e.g., pets and houseplants), solar systems effects (e.g., day & night and eclipses), chemical change (e.g., burning), etc.
Learners' ideas often contradict
those of teachers!
Learners like their ideas!
For example, when people try to convince others that what they see in the above black-and-white image is the 'right' way to look at it (e.g., a man is visible), they often fail. Once a person sees it one way, however, it’s difficult for them to see it any other way!
Indeed, students often are emotionally attached to their ideas; they don’t even want to hear that someone may have a ‘better’ explanation. That might threaten their self-worth. As a consequence, they may not even want to deal with what others (e.g., teachers') recommend!
Learners see what they want to see!
Observing is, consequently, an active, rather than a passive, process. To a great extent, people project what they already have in their heads onto phenomena to be observed. They see what they ‘want’ to see.
Learners often are not aware of what
Learners may not discover experts'
‘inquiry,' ‘discovery’ (and certain
‘constructivist’) practical activities ('labs.')
are inappropriate. Students, invariably,
‘discover’ what is apparent to them; not,
necessarily, what would be apparent to a
professional scientist or engineer - or the
teacher. Accordingly, it is important for
educators to carefully present ideas, skills,
attitudes, etc. to students to which they want
them to have access. This policy has important
ramificatioins for social justice. Generally,
those least likely to 'discover' important
ideas, skills, etc. from 'inquiry' or
'discovery' experiences are the most
disadvantaged students. Often, this is tied to
socio-economic level. Expecting students to
discover important ideas through experiences,
therefore, discriminates against the poorest
children. For this reason alone, educators must
work to actively share societies' ideas, skills,
etc. with all students. It is right and just to
Learners need 'first-hand'
In addition to being told/shown ideas, skills, etc., learners need to use and test ideas, skills, etc. through relevant activities. Often, this involves concrete experiences that combine with abstract ideas that have just been presented to learners. For example, while a teacher can show students on a blackboard that various atoms can be rearranged to make new molecules in a chemical change, students often need to try such reactions with concrete materials before they fully understand the new ideas, skills, etc. Although this is superior to discovery activities, teachers also need to be careful not to expect students to verify (conclude to be true) the abstract ideas being tested. Teachers can remind students that scientists and engineers have developed their ideas after many tests, by different investigators and over large periods of time - and that, although students' conclusions may have merit, they may require more testing by them and others over longer time periods.
Students' and scientists' inquiries
All of these ‘science skills’ are, therefore, theory-based; i.e., how a person conducts the ‘skill’ depends on what ideas s/he already holds. How a person classifies, for instance, depends on what categories he/she already has in mind.This means, therefore, that whole science investigations often are theory-based or, more crucially, theory-limited. It is like they are ‘self-fulfilling prophecies.' Consequently, it is difficult for a student (or a scientist!) to plan, conduct and conclude a science test about which he/she does not already have prior notions. Therefore, science inquiries tend to be conservative; i.e., support ideas scientists and engineers already hold.
For students to learn, therefore, experiences alone are not enough; they need to receive different 'lenses' - e.g., different laws and theories - through which to view objects & events, design tests and interpret data.
Teachers must, therefore, take purposeful steps to get students to see things in new ways. For example, teachers may have to isolate certain areas in the black-and-white photograph above in order to help students to ‘see’ particular shapes within it. Likewise, it is about getting them to ‘see’ that, as a candle burns, a prevalent explanation is that wax is combining with oxygen to make carbon dioxide and water.
Because knowledge is so communally-based, moreover, learners deserve access to knowledge of different communities. Learning should not be so conservative as to ignore knowledge and ways of knowing of different races, cultures and societies. In other words, learning must be pluralist -- rather than conformist. Teachers could, for example, introduce students to Aboriginal ways of knowing, as well as those of 'Western' science and technology. A good example of this is provided at: Rekindling Traditions.
Students need to know how to
Teachers need to portray scientific
and technological knowledge as
Indeed, there have been major paradigm shifts in history (e.g., believing in a flat Earth vs. a round one). Furthermore, scientists have been known to be influenced by personal and group biases (e.g., an interest in fame). Similarly, products of science and technology -- such as various inventions -- have had negative side-effects on societies and environments. Breakdown of nuclear reactors is just one of many examples. Perhaps most importantly, much common knowledge is biased and, most worrisome, controlled by the most powerful societal members and groups.
could ask whether or not society (through
teachers) has the right (or, even, ability!) to
change a student’s beliefs. While getting students to understand new ideas may be
(is) society’s right and responsibility, forcing
them to accept certain beliefs may be
problematic. Should education be about
convincing others or about enlightening
others? Perhaps students deserve the right to
determine their own beliefs in school settings and
beyond. That may occur if students have
opportunities to conduct science
inquiry and technology design projects under their
control. In line with principles of social
constructivism, such decision making should -
likely - be made by groups of students.
A constructivism-informed framework
for science and technology education!
|Constructivist theories of learning and constructivism-informed pedagogical frameworks and practices are so common that they appear to have achieved 'fad' status. Consequently, although there are numerous educational resources applied to education, we should always be critical about them - and perhaps defer to basic constructivism learning principles.||