Constructivism

Citation: Huitt, W. (2009). Constructivism. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved [date], from http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/topics/cognition/construct.html


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The constructivistic approach to teaching and learning is based on a combination of a subset of research within cognitive psychology and a subset of research within social psychology, just as behavior modification techniques are based on operant conditioning theory within behavioral psychology. The basic premise is that an individual learner must actively "build" knowledge and skills (e.g., Bruner, 1990) and that information exists within these built constructs rather than in the external environment. [See Ullman (1980) versus Gibson (1979) for an overview of this controversy within the cognitive perspective.] However, all advocates of constructivism agree that it is the individual's processing of stimuli from the environment and the resulting cognitive structures, that produce adaptive behavior, rather than the stimuli themselves (Harnard, 1982). John Dewey (1933/1998) is often cited as the philosophical founder of this approach; Ausubel (1968), Bruner (1990), and Piaget (1972) are considered the chief theorists among the cognitive constructionists, while Vygotsky (1978) is the major theorist among the social constructionists. Activity theory and situated learning are two examples of modern work based on the work of Vygotsky and some of his followers.

A major problem is that making connections between thinking (in terms of knowledge, intellectual skills, attitudes, etc.) and behavior has proven very illusive (Doyle, 1997). One reason is that other factors, such as situational variables, emotions, and consequences, all play an important role in the production of overt, adaptive behavior. As Doyle points out

Mental representations such as attitudes, mental models, scripts, and schemas are, of course, related to behavior, but the relationship is often complex and counterintuitive. There is also a growing body of evidence that suggests that the mental representations on which decisions and behavior are based can be highly variable depending on subtle aspects of the particular situation or context decision makers are in at any given time (Payne et al., 1992), making it difficult to generalize results across task and domain differences. Until more is known about the form, content, and function of mental models of systems in a particular research setting, assessments of systems thinking interventions should measure both behavioral and cognitive changes.

At this point, without a unifying theory as to how the different learning theories interact within a single individual to produce behavior, we have to study these different viewpoints independently and then piecemeal them together into a school curriculum. However, acceptance of a particular viewpoint provides a different starting point for curriculum development. Fennimore and Tinzmann (1990) suggest a difference between a behaviorally-oriented curriculum in which knowledge and skills are taught discretely and then inductively connected versus the constructivistically-oriented classroom in which students acquire content while carrying out tasks requiring higher-order thinking:

An example should help clarify this characteristic of a thinking curriculum. Summarizing is a common skill learned in school. In conventional curricula, young students frequently are expected to learn how to summarize by first learning each "step" in the summarizing process. They are taught these steps one at a time. Ample time is given to practice the first step; for example, categorizing items or activities described in a text under a more inclusive label. Indeed, they may complete numerous worksheets on categorizing. Then, the teacher may teach them a second "step;" for example, deleting redundant information. Again, the students practice. This approach continues until students have been taught all the steps or subprocesses thought to be involved in summarizing. In short, curriculum tends to routinize the task. Finally, students are asked to put all these subskills together. Unfortunately, many students cannot do this---they are stuck at the subskill level, each of which they might perform beautifully, but which they cannot integrate into a smooth process of summarizing.

In contrast, in a thinking curriculum, summarizing would be conceived and taught as a holistic process. Rather than fragmenting the process, it would be taught in a context or environment in which students can succeed. For young children, this might mean asking them first to summarize relatively short paragraphs that deal with information with which they are very familiar. The teacher may also ask students to work collaboratively to summarize information at this initial learning stage. As students gain skill and confidence in summarizing, the teacher would ask them to summarize longer paragraphs, perhaps containing less familiar information. In summary, a thinking curriculum always treats tasks as indivisible wholes; variations that acknowledge the novice status of the learner are changes the teacher can make in the environment.

Bruner (see Kearsley, 1999) provides the following principles of constructivistic learning:

    1. Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that make the student willing and able to learn (readiness).
    2. Instruction must be structured so that it can be easily grasped by the student (spiral organization).
    3. Instruction should be designed to facilitate extrapolation and or fill in the gaps (going beyond the information given).

Advocates of a constructivistic approach suggest that educators first consider the knowledge and experiences students bring with them to the learning task. The school curriculum should then be built so that students can expand and develop this knowledge and experience by connecting them to new learning. Advocates of the behavioral approach, on the other hand, advocate first deciding what knowledge or skills students should acquire and then developing curriculum that will provide for their development.

Using a framework developed by Dunn and Larson (1998) to explain the process of implementing elementary level technology curricula, Alexandria and Larson (2002) specified ten events that provide the foundation for a constructivistic approach to instruction. They categorized these events into five components of an effective constructivistic lesson: investigation, invention, implementation, evaluation, and celebration.

Investigation

  1. Contextualizing: The teacher explains the process to the whole class, then works with students in small groups to help them connect the students previous experiences to the task at hand.
  2. Clarifying: The students discuss the project among themselves in small groups and the teacher facilitates students as they determine what they need to know in order to complete the project.  
  3. Inquiring: Students begin the process of acquiring the necessary knowledge and skills they might need to complete the project; teachers facilitate by asking questions and helping students identify and understand credible resources.

Invention and Initial Implementation

  1. Planning: Students in each group begin to organize their knowledge and develop some initial plans as to how to approach the project.
  2. Realizing: Students develop a first draft or beginning product that will meet the stated criteria for the project. Each small group will develop an original approach and no two will look exactly alike.

Further Implementation and Evaluation

  1. Testing: The students check their project against the criteria to see if it meets the specifications. It is expected that the first attempt will need some or several modifications.
  2. Modifying: Students rework their project in terms of deficiencies they may have identified. They then retest and modify until they have a finished project that meets the stated criteria.
  3. Interpreting: Students describe the value of the project relative to their backgrounds and experience.
  4. Reflecting: Students broaden their evaluations of the project and put it in larger context.

Celebration

  1. Celebration: Students present their projects to the larger group while the larger group acknowledges the value of the effort and results of the group.

Those advocating a constructivisitic approach should consider there are a variety of principles from operant conditioning and information processing learning theories that can be utilized within this approach. For example, when mediating a studentís learning it is certainly appropriate to teach a specific skill using direct instruction, observe students practicing the skill, and providing corrective feedback. The major issue is whether to start with a curriculum that is taught step-by-step in an inductive manner as suggested by the behaviorists or to start with the studentís knowledge and understandings and help the child fill in gaps necessary to solve a situation-specific problem as suggested by the constructivists.

Principles of learning from an information processing perspective such as recognizing the limits of short-term memory, providing many opportunities for students to connect prior knowledge to current learning, and recognizing the need for spaced practice can also be implemented within a constructivistic approach. Again, the major distinction is in where to start: with a predesigned curriculum or with the studentís experiences and knowledge base.

What is the correct approach? In my view the answer is "YES." If we start with the student's knowledge base before we have established desired end goals, there is a tendency to have the students simply ďmake progress,Ē thereby limiting students who are not adequately prepared. These students may develop adequate thinking skills, but can have large gaps in their knowledge and skills. On the other hand, if we  focus only on desired end goals, especially knowledge goals, without consideration of the student's acquired knowledge and background, we run the risk of developing knowledge and skills that have no meaning to the learner and are therefore easily forgotten.

References


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