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Constructivism, Learning Environments: An Introduction

There are a range of views on what the term ‘constructivism’ means in the context of learning, but it can be said that most definitions would agree that it has these characteristics:

  • Learning is an active process of constructing rather than acquiring knowledge

and

  • Instruction is a process of supporting that active construction, rather than a process of communicating knowledge

(Duffy and Cunningham, 1996. p.171).

Bruner’s 1966 text Toward a Theory of Instruction described the key principles of constructivism (p.225):

Table 1 Principles of constructivism

Principle

Definition

Readiness

Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that make the student willing and able to learn

Spiral organisation

Structure.

The content must be structured so that it can be grasped by the learner.

Sequence.

Material must be presented in the most effective sequences.

Generation

“Going beyond the information given” – Instruction should be designed to facilitate extrapolation and or fill in the gaps

Extending from these basic constructivist principles as well as from the work of other key figures in the constructivist school, Driscoll (1994) outlines five conditions for learning (p.382-3). Very much like the multiple approaches and interpretations that exist in constructivism, a number of conditions must be met for the approach to be implemented. It is useful to elaborate briefly on these conditions, as they are relevant to the learning approach discussed in the rest of this part of the post.

  1. Providing complex learning environments that incorporate authentic activity. Constructivists argue that learners should learn to solve the types of complex problem they will face in real life. Learning how to do this is difficult unless complex and authentic learning environments are available to the learners.
  2. Providing for social negotiation as an integral part of learning. Bruner (1986) explains that learning is a cultural interchange between group members. Collaboration creates an opportunity for learners to share their understandings with others and to have others do the same with them. This provides multiple perspectives to each learner, and this negotiation process between peers should lead to enhanced understanding.
  3. Support multiple perspectives and the use of multiple modes of representation. Because learning skills, behaviours and knowledge can be diverse and complex, constructivists believe that to achieve complete understanding the learner must examine the material from multiple perspectives. If they are not supported in this endeavour, the learner will achieve only a partial understanding of the material. Multiple modes of representation allow the learner to view the same content through different sensory modes.
  4. Nurture reflexivity. Duffy and Cunningham (1996) characterise reflexivity as “the ability of students to be aware of their own role in the knowledge construction process.” (p.172). It could also be described as the learner taking ownership of their own thinking and learning processes. Driscoll (1994) assets that reflexivity and by extension critical thinking are central attributes in the constructivist methodology, as it enables learners to understand how and why cognition creates meaning. This enables learners to attain goals such as reasoning, understanding multiple perspectives, and expressing and defending their own beliefs.
  5. The last condition Driscoll describes is to “emphasise student-centred instruction.” Bruner (1966) calls this “discovery learning”. By obtaining knowledge by themselves, learners select and transform information, construct knowledge, and make decisions in the context of a cognitive structure that provides meaning and organisation to experiences and allows the individual to “go beyond the information given”. Students are actively engaged in determining what and how they will study or gain understanding.

These principles and conditions position the constructivist approach to learning as an appropriate orientation for learning sans frontiers; using technologies like the Internet, websites and virtual learning environments, applying collaborative learning, problem-based learning and goal-based mechanisms, making Open Source Software and Course- and Content Management Systems accessible to learners, and using e-learning applications like online conferencing and collaboration tools could be the foundation for these multiple constructivist conditions for learning. (Duffy & Jonassen 1992, Driscoll 1994; Schank 1994)

These characteristics provide an appropriate framework for knowledge workers to learn (and for the learning intervention), given that their ongoing development is based in the context of already-established cognitive schemata (from the learners’ perspective), the knowledge and skills are applied to solve real-world problems, and their expertise (behaviours) are typically used in collaboration with their peers to enhance the performance of organisations.

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References:

 

Bruner, J. S. (1966) Toward a Theory of Instruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J. S. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Driscoll, M. P. (1994). Psychology of learning for instruction. Boston, MA. Allyn & Bacon.

Duffy, T. M. & Cunningham, D. J. (1996) Constructivism: Implications for the design and delivery of instruction. IN: Jonassen D. H. (Ed) Handbook of Research for Educational Communications and Technology (pp.170- 198). New York: Simon & Shuster Macmillan.

Jonassen, D. H., (1994). Thinking Technology: Toward a constructivist design model. Educational Technology, 34(3), 34-37.

Schank, R. (1994) Active Learning Through Multimedia, IEEE Multimedia, 1(1), pp.69-78.