Constructivist theories of knowledge development and learning have been around since the turn of the 20th century. But it may well be the advent of computerized and e-learning educational opportunities that offer this perspective its real chance to make a difference in the virtual world of learning and instruction. From Piaget to Papert, the core precepts of the constructivist understanding have been affirmed by what technology has to offer, even though researchers are just beginning to see what that means in practice. The current work reviews this transformation and what it might mean for the future of knowledge making and learning.
One of the most exciting aspects of the technological invasion of education is that the interactive and creative abilities of these tools allow students and teachers to design and develop their own relationship with knowledge. Computerized technologies of all sorts are simply fundamentally changing the game of learning and how various theories are being put into practice in very diverse classroom settings (SFSU, n.d.).
This fact is now at the heart of why constructivist theories, which got their start at about the turn of the 20th century, are now regaining a foothold in the application and practice of teaching (Koohang, et al. 2009). But in so doing, this movement is bringing about its own fundamental way of grounding the theories in real classroom settings. The early original constructivist theorists like Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner, were highly cognitively oriented, looking mostly toward how knowledge, once effectively created by an individual, was used and maintained as part of the person's learning frame of reference (SFSU, n.d.). Today's more contemporary theorists, including the most noteworthy, Seymour Papert, on the other hand, have turn more directly toward the interplay of activities associated with the situation and the media that people use as the basis for gathering and constructing their foundations for knowledge (Concept to Classroom, 2004). The importance of this shift is already becoming evident in the way newer generations of observers are seeing the game of instruction within the classroom (Holbert et al., 2010).
A cognitive approach to the constructivist perspective essentially accepts that "Learning is an internal process and influenced by the learner's personality, prior knowledge and learning goals" (SFSU, n.d., Constructivism as a Theory). This is essentially a cognitive approach that, for people like Piaget, whose emphasis is on how individuals achieve a sense of internal stability with the how and why of knowledge and understanding. Other, later theorists, like Papert, their interest will switch more to an interest in the dynamics of the changing nature of the knowledge acquisition process. Ackermann (n.d.:8) provides a very clear summary of this distinction in an article entitled Piaget's Constructivism, Papert's Constructionism: What's the difference? As the author elaborates, Piaget's "theory emphasizes all those things needed to maintain the internal structure and organization of the cognitive system. And what Piaget describes particularly well is precisely this internal structure and organization of knowledge at different levels of development" (Ackermann, n.d.:8). Papert's, however, is concerned with about how "different people think once their convictions break down, once alternative views sink in, once adjusting, stretching, and expanding their current view of the world becomes necessary. Papert always points toward this fragility, contextuality, and flexibility of knowledge under construction" (Ackermann, n.d.:9).
While the importance in these differences is important on many fronts, surely one of the most exciting distinctions can be seen in the way the approaches are being connected to the use of the computerized tools of learning. Papert (who was a student of Piaget) has been quite literally plugged intensely plugged into computer technology for some time, seeing all types of media as important parts of the knowledge acquisition process. Papert currently works in association with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and writes books on Rethinking Schools in the Age of the Computer (Concept to Classroom, 2004: Buzzword). Children, he believes, are already getting used to using the power of these devices to control and manipulate their environment, which means they are using these abilities to create knowledge and understanding (Cox and Cox, 2009:5). Stager, in his works on this new Learning Adventure, quotes Papert as saying, "If you can make things with computers, then you can make a lot more interesting things" (Stager, 2008:483) The earliest of Papert's efforts centered on the development of what is called LOGO, which is a computer programming language to focus the knowledge building attention of children on mathematics (Concept to Classroom, 2004). Many people now openly use these types of tools to begin into their own teaching experiences and recommendations many very specific respectful links to their instructional practices and the basics of constructivist thinking.
A number of examples of how this new approach is beginning to play out are just now starting to appear, even though it may be some time before the full impact of these constructivist ideas work their way into more classrooms because of the nation's intensive commitment to standardized schooling practices. Still, representations like Stager's Learning Adventure do offer a rather dramatic idea of what might be heading our way (Stager, 2008). For one thing, he takes quite literally the idea that in order to use true constructivist assumptions in a classroom setting, an instructor must toss out the curriculum of the past and start again with new activities that surround children and allow them to experience and make their own knowledge (Stager, 2008:480. Only in this way can they become fully engaged in the Learning Adventure that he sees as the outcome of such a philosophy. Stager often uses Papert's LOGO programming materials, but he is just as likely to allow students as well to turn instead in their own way to musical resources such as GarageBand, where they get to be today's Mozarts, making music as they see fit (Stager, 2008:481). Whether it works or not may still be open to question, but Stager's is confident:
Not every student responds to each learning adventure with the same enthusiasm or finished product, yet every student benefits from the learning associated with using technology to engage in serious intellectual endeavors. By the end of the course, every student had a working understanding of constructionism and used computers in ways they may never have imagined (Stager, 2008:485).
One of the reasons why innovative teachers are paying more attention to the ideas of people like Papert is because of how well the theoretical precepts of constructivism fit into computerized learning. It is important to remember that constructivism focuses on "knowledge construction, not knowledge reproduction" (SFSU, n.d.). The experience and mental abilities that we have help us to interpret what we see and become engaged with, thus building the foundation for other ways that we can make sense of what is about us. Computerized interactivity is a great complement to this expectation. It has been noted, for example, that when computerized instruction occurs, it often happens in smaller, individualized settings where the instructor is more of a coach than a lecturer (SFSU, n.d.: Constructivism Meets Technology). Students have the breadth of the universe of possible sources of information that can feed into their learning, and thus they can easily connect to their understanding of the knowledge that they are creating.
Doolittle and Hicks (n.d.), in looking at how technology is important in the study of the social sciences, begins by affirming the importance of the role of the original constructivist precepts. These four underlying elements assume that the knowledge attainment is not a passive process but is one that students actively participate in as they engage with making sense with the information about them. And even while how this happens is directly linked to cognitive and biological factors, it too is highly dependent on the social, cultural and even language experiences where that activity occurs (Doolittle and Hicks, n.d.:6). Computer experiences dramatically broaden that reality. As a result, "The adoption of these assumptions changes the nature of the social studies from one of a search for truth, to one of a search for perspective" (Doolittle and Hicks, n.d.:6).
Cox and Cox (2009) have broadened their perspective by looking more generally at integrating technology into a constructivist classroom. They accept the same arguments about the value of computer elements in the classroom, but then turn to how important it is for teachers and administrators to appreciate what this perspective means in practice. They talk specifically about the importance of understanding what technology has to offer and how everything from lesson planning to how apprentices can be helpful in the learning environment (Cox and Cox, 2009:6. As they put it, "When applying the constructivist theory, educational technologists should contextualize learning and 'pre-authenticate' it or make learning materials and environments that correspond with real world situations prior to the learner's interaction" (Cox and Cox, 2009:6). Authentic computer worlds are those that are well grounded in the real world and those that help the students learn in accordance with their own appreciation for the…