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."
Jacqueline Grennan Brooks (1999)
The concept of constructivism is as old as Socrates, but 20th Century pioneers of the movement include Jean Piaget, John Dewey and Lev Vygotsky. Jean Piaget and John Dewey were early adaptors of "Progressive Education" ideals that led to the formal concept of constructivism. For Piaget, these ideas were grounded in the notion that people learned in logical increments, through structured introduction and that children absorbed information in different ways than did adults. John Dewey thought that learning should be associated with real life experience achieved through inquiry. Vygotsky introduced a social aspect by asserting that children exceed their average learning capability when interacting with others.
Constructivism is, in a nutshell, a theory that rests upon the premise that people learn about the world through interaction and experience with it, rather than say, hearing a lecture about it. Constructivism is a departure from the traditional idea of epistemology (the theory of knowledge) in that the learner, not the subject matter becomes the focus. The challenge to this approach is whether we will consider each individual interpretation of meaning acceptable in accordance with our traditional concepts about our world, and to fend temptation to incorporate meaning as a part of a learning curriculum. If we accept the premise of constructivism, then we accept that:
Learners construct their own knowledge base from personal interaction with sensory data
Constructing interpretive meaning is learning
We abandon the concept of knowledge as an independent body of information created for us by our predescessors which we accept as the ultimate truth about the universe (pedagogic).
Dewey's approach to epistemology deals with the relationship between knowledge and action. (Raf Vanderstraeten and Gert Biesta, 2003) According to Toulmin, Dewey's work contains a "radical dismantling of epistemological tradition, displaying "farsightedness, perception and originality of a kind that could hardly be recognized [at the time it appeared]." (Toulmin, 1984)
Dewey's widely publicized article of 1896 entitled: The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology denounced the contemporary notion of viewing organisms as separate from their environment. His posture melds the subjective (individual) and intersubjective (sociocultural) dimensions of knowledge attainment into a sole constructivist framework. He stated: "It is the motor response of attention which constitutes that, which finally becomes the stimulus to another act" (1896, EW5, p.101-102). Consequently, Dewey stressed the continuous, intrinsic connection of organism and world on the level of action, and introduced the notions of transaction and experience. According to Dewey, "reflection arises because of the appearance of incompatible factors within the empirical situation... Then opposed responses are provoked which cannot be taken simultaneously in overt action" (1916, MW10, p.326). Knowledge is not concerned with experienced objects as such, but with future experiences which might ensue from the present situation. Given this account of human interaction, it is not too difficult to see that the existence of subjective realities poses no real threat to the possibility of mutual understanding. Understanding one another means "that objects, including sounds, have the same value for both with respect to carrying on a common pursuit" (1916, MW9, p.19). Dewey not only argues that in order to accomplish "agreement in action" it is necessary to "come to likeness of attitude, or to agreement as to proper diversity of attitude" (1911, MW6, p.17).
Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who incorporated Marxist social theory to principles of psychology. His entire premise is based on social interaction, in that 'action is mediated and cannot be separated from the milieu in which it is carried out.' (Wertsch, 1991:18) Vygotsky considered lower mental functions as those that are inherited through genetics, whereas what he referred to as higher mental functions consisted of those abilities developed by social interaction.
The human infant cannot, even theoretically, live an isolated existence,.. he is not an independent individual. He lives a common life as one term in a personal relationship. Only in the process of development does he learn to achieve a relative independence, and that only by appropriating the techniques of a rational social tradition." (McMurray 1961:57 in Lock, 1989) Akin to Dewey's subjective (individual) and intersubjective (sociocultural) dimensions of knowledge attainment, Vygotsky ascertained that a child's development occurs first on a social level and later on an individual level. The latter appears first between people (interpsychological) and then within the individual (intrapsychological). In this sense, all higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals (Vygotsky, 1978:57 in Lock, 1989)
Vygotsky's theory defines the zone of proximal development as each individual's range of potential for learning. He claims that this range is determined by the social environment in which it is developed. He further states that the potential exceeds the actual when stimulated by an element of higher expertise. (Wertsch, 1991) The example of the crying infant illustrates this point. The first cry the infant utters exists only to the infant. When a response is received, the infant learns that crying yields a specific result. Through proximal development, the infant uses the most fundamental tool available to man, the birth of language, or communication.
Piaget was another pioneer in the theory of constructivism. Vygotsky sided with Piaget alongside the notion that action underlined a child's thinking and learning, but he thought that language and direct involvement held more weight in cognitive development. Piaget indicated that child's play was associated with assimilation, whereas Vygotsky took the meaning of play a step further in terms of its contribution to the acquisition of language, and of knowledge. He felt that the social interaction of children led to the ability to appreciate a differing perspective (egocentricity), the ability to self-regulate, and the ability to learn socially cooperative behavior.
So how does one incorporate constructivism into a teaching curriculum? A comparison of the traditional method of teaching with constructivist teaching is illustrated in the table below:
Curriculum begins with the parts of the whole. Emphasizes basic skills.
Curriculum emphasizes big concepts, beginning with the whole and expanding to include the parts.
Strict adherence to fixed curriculum is highly valued.
Pursuit of student questions and interests is valued.
Materials are primarily textbooks and workbooks.
Materials include primary sources of material and manipulative materials.
Learning is based on repetition.
Learning is interactive, building on what the student already knows.
Teachers disseminate information to students; students are recipients of knowledge.
Teachers have a dialogue with students, helping students construct their own knowledge.
Teacher's role is directive, rooted in authority.
Teacher's role is interactive, rooted in negotiation.
Assessment is through testing, correct answers.
Assessment includes student works, observations, and points-of-view, as well as tests. Process is as important as product.
Knowledge is seen as inert.
Knowledge is seen as dynamic, ever changing with our experiences.
There are three primary strategies of constructivist teaching methods through inquiry. In essence, all three approaches utilize techniques developed by research scientists to guide students through one on one interaction with the physical plane. Students are led into situations that lend to inquiry and exploration. Teaching using inquiry has its basis in constructionist psychology. The dynamics are:
1. The emphasis is on a hands-on, problem-centered approach
2. Learning is accomplished through applying investigational or analytical strategies (as opposed to the textbook 'scientific method'.)
3. Developing an understanding of scientific constructs is more important than memorizing data.
The first inquiry strategy is entitled "The Pupil-Centred Inquiry Model: "free inquiry." This model presents the student with a plethora of problems requiring solutions. Support is provided to the students with regard to materials, objects (plants, specimens, etc.) and teacher assistance when requested. The students have the ability to choose which problem(s) to work on solving. Students will not be competing with one another. It is similar to the honor system, in that the student is expected to fill his or her time constructively, and disruptive behavior is prohibited. This is a true democratic approach as the student shares the responsibility for his or her own learning and in fact, initiates the process by embracing the problems presented. The teacher's role is one of facilitator, offering support and guidance rather than posing as the ultimate authority on any one source.
The Schwab Inquiry Model is a structured laboratory inquiry. Originated for the biological sciences, this approach may be duplicated in other areas of the sciences. This approach implies a four phased "syntax":
The teacher "proposes" an area of investigation to the pupil together with appropriate methodologies;
Pupils structure the problem with teacher guidance so that the thrust of the problem is identified;
Pupils "speculate" about the problem to identify the investigational difficulty or possible theoretical inconsistency;
Pupils "speculate" about ways of dealing with the difficulties through further investigation, data reorganisation, experiment design, or concept development.…