Next Up – Constructivism

My head is going to explode with such an overdose of educational psychology in 24 hours, but if I have the time, I might as well put it to good use.

So … I went to the Sage Encyclopedia of Educational Psychology, to take a look at the ‘Constructivism’ entry.  It’s only short – I should know, as I’m a Sage encyclopedia author myself! – my hope was that it would just enable me to ensure that I’m not missing out on anything in my understanding of the principles.  The Sage e-books offering is astonishingly broad, and it hadn’t yet let me down on educational theory.  However, as I shall explain, this time it was disappointing – probably because it was theoretical, and just not what I was looking for.  (Nonetheless, I’ll still be recommending Sage e-books, because in general, there is a lot of good content.)

Prawat, Richard S., “Constructivism”, in Encyclopedia of Educational Psychology, ed. Neil J. Salkind.  (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2008)

Print ISBN: 9781412916882
Online ISBN: 9781412963848

Print page: 183

The students themselves construct knowledge, and as a consequence, teaching relies less on lectures and textbooks, and more on the teacher supporting individual students in their learning.  That much is very straightforward.

I had not been aware that different camps of constructivists have a different understanding of what knowledge actually is, nor that there are at least three different camps – two groups of social constructivists, and a third group deriving from the theories of John Dewey and the more recent Jean Piaget.  I have at least heard of them!

Disappointingly, the fact that this article is an overview actually means it’s not much practical help to me.  It’s highly theoretical.  Reading the different arguments, I can’t even decide whether I agree or disagree with the conceptual disputes about the nature of knowledge.  What is clear is that to declare, ‘I am in favour of a constructivist approach’, is an incredible generalisation.  There is room for a whole range of views under this broad umbrella. For example:-

  • Should the curriculum be problem-based, or centred on students’ interests and developmental level?
  • Should pedagogy be ‘peer centered’ or ‘individually oriented’? (p.1 of pdf)
  • Should assessment be performance-based against a common standard, or based on the individual’s development?
  • Is knowledge actually something that is shared, between people? In which case, the author says these particular social constructivists say it should be ‘overt or observable’, and that it follows from there that knowledge either consists of strategies/routines or of language. This seems to me more of a philosophical argument than a practical method of teaching!  In my view, whichever way you conceptualise knowledge and its connection with language, at some stage both student and teacher have to use language to convey their understanding to each other.  Even in instrumental teaching, verbal communication and explanation augments the technical demonstration.
  • Following on from the definition of knowledge, the social constructivists prefer different models of learning, intellectualising the idea of ‘apprenticeship learning’ in the classroom. (pdf p.1)  At the bottom of the page, I finally realise that what is being described is the scaffolding technique where the teacher supports the student, gradually removing support as the student gains knowledge and confidence. Thus, in a longer lesson, I might start by demonstrating what can be deduced from an early nineteenth century Scottish songbook preface, but by the end of the lesson I would be encouraging students to interpret another collection themselves, using the approach that I had modelled.
  • When we come to Dewey and Piaget, I understand the argument that children and adults alike instinctively try to make sense of what they encounter.  This is just logical.  Dewey’s view of ‘inductionist constructivism’ (pdf p.2) is summarised as the ‘guide on the side’ rather than ‘sage on the stage’ approach.  Again, this is how I understood the constructivist model, and it’s my preferred method where I have the freedom to design the learning.  However, I must add that, whereas this approach is ideal for small groups or seminars, it is very difficult to utilise when one is catapulted into a one-off session with a larger number of students about whom you know very little, and when you have been asked to impart knowledge which is not the students’ primary focus.  It’s equally hard to use if you were over-optimistic about the cohort’s preparedness and background.  Moreover, devising group activities where students construct their own knowledge is almost impossible when you have been asked to stand at the front of a lecture theatre to demonstrate websites, databases and best practice to an entire year-group.  In an IT suite with multiple computers, on the other hand, one can at least try to engage a class by setting challenges individually or in groups.  There’s then the distinct possibility that some students will check their emails and social media, but at least the configuration of the session is more manipulable.

In short, this encyclopedia entry didn’t really meet my requirements, so I’ll be going back to Gagnon and Collay, whose Constructivist Learning Design was more useful despite being aimed more at school than higher education level:-

Gagnon, George W., Jr. and Michelle Collay, Constructivist Learning Design: Key Questions for Teaching to Standards (Thousand Oaks, CA.: Corwin Press, 2006.)

(I blogged about this before: see, A Headful of Theory and a File full of Notes, 6 December 2015.)

FUTURE READING?  We have an e-book about John Dewey’s constructivism theories. If i have time, this might be worth following up:-

(Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)


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