Constructivism 10: More Mindtools

In the context of mindtools, significantly, Jonassen et al point out that learning is not restricted to formal learning environments, and that learners can “acquire sophisticated skills and advanced knowledge in natural learning situations” (1998, p. 28). As we discussed last time, there are eight characteristics of constructivist learning environments. Computer-based technologies can be used as “mindtools” to immerse learners in a Cognitive Web (pp.28-32).

Cognitive Web

The Cognitive Web (“Design of constructivist learning environments”, 2007)

These learning environment characteristics are elaborated upon in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Characteristics of a computer-based learning environment (after Jonassen, 1994)




Learners are engaged by the learning process in mindful processing of information where they are responsible for the result. In natural learning situations, learners, without the intervention of formal instruction, can acquire sophisticated skills and advanced knowledge about what they are learning. Through formal and informal apprenticeships and communities, learners develop skills and knowledge which they then share with other members of those communities with whom they learned and practiced those skills. In all of these situations, learners are actively manipulating the objects and tools of the trade and learning by reflecting on what they have done.


Learners integrate new ideas with prior knowledge in order to make sense or make meaning or reconcile a discrepancy, curiosity, or puzzlement. They construct their own meaning for different phenomena. The models that they build to explain things are simple and unsophisticated at first, but with experience, support, and reflection, they become increasingly complex. They can only know what they know, so they should be supported in the process of coming to know.


Learners naturally work in learning and knowledge building communities, exploiting each other’s skills while providing social support and observing the contributions of each member. Humans naturally seek out others to help them to solve problems and perform tasks.


All human behaviour is goal-directed (Cleary & Schank, 1995). That is, everything that we do is intended to fulfil some goal. When learners are actively trying to achieve a cognitive goal (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994), they think and learn more. Learning environments need to support learners in articulating what their goals are in any learning situation.


Teachers oversimplify most ideas in order to make them more easily transferable to learners. In addition to stripping ideas out of their normal contexts, concepts are distilled to their simplest form so that learners will more readily learn them. But the message this gives learners is that t the world is a reliable and simple place. However, the world is not a reliable and simple place. Problems have multiple components and multiple perspectives. They cannot be solved in predictable ways. Learners need to be engaged in solving complex and “ill-structured problems as well as simple problems” (p.31). Unless learners are required to engage in higher-order thinking, they will develop oversimplified views of the world.


A great deal of recent research has shown that learning tasks that are situated in some meaningful real world task or simulated in some case-based or problem based learning environment are not only better understood, but also are more consistently transferred to new situations. Rather than abstracting ideas in rules that are learned by rote and applied to other “canned problems” (p.31), knowledge and skills should be delivered in reality-based, useful contexts and provide new and different contexts for learners to practice using those concepts.


Learning is inherently a social, dialogical process (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996). That is, given a problem or task, people naturally seek out opinions and ideas form others. Technologies can support this conversational process by connecting learners across an organisation or across the world. When learners become part of knowledge-building communities they learn that there are multiple ways of viewing the world and multiple solutions to most of its problems.


Learners should be required by technology-based learning to articulate their actions, the decisions they make, the strategies the use, and the solutions that are generated. When they articulate what they have learned and reflect on the processes and decisions that were entailed by the process, they understand more and are better able to use the knowledge that they have constructed in new situations.

Implications of Using Mindtools

The implications of placing learners in this technology-based environment fundamentally affect pedagogical approaches to learning. An interesting subtext to this approach may be the design of the internet itself: as Agre (1999, p.3) points out, the Internet was originally designed for the scientific community.

As a result, its underlying design features reflect that community’s high capacity for self-regulation and openness. Applications can be used to represent knowledge that is generalisable to content in different subjects; learners are engaged in critical thinking about the subject; and, as skills are integrated into the learner’s schemata, they become transferable to other subjects (1996).

From a practical viewpoint, Mindtools can be developed for applications the learner is already familiar with, and that are non-content specific – the classic example Jonassen gives is semantic organisation using databases (1998). Similarly, computers and the internet enable the learner to engage with microworlds that allow the learner to experience multiple representations or simulation of real-world phenomena and which provide immediate feedback when learners attempt to solve problems (1996).


Agre, P. E. (1999). Life after cyberspace. EASST Review, 18(2), pp.3-5.

Carr, C. Jonassen, D. H. & Hsiu-Ping, Y. (1998) Computers as Mindtools for Engaging Learners in Critical Thinking [Internet] TechTrends 43(2). pp.24-32. March 1998