Constructivism (In A Nutshell)

Note: I originally wrote this in preparation for writing part of my dissertation – and I linked to it in yesterday’s post. I realized it also made a good post in it’s own right, so I’m sharing it here now. Please feel free to comment. Did I forget anything or misrepresent anything – or nail anything right on the head? :)

In contrast to the empirical behaviorist view that knowledge about an objective reality can be simply and reliably passed on from teacher to student, the kernel of constructivist philosophy is the belief that all knowledge must be actively and subjectively constructed in the mind of each individual. This core belief is associated with several corollary beliefs that have become hallmarks of constructivist pedagogy.

The most important of these corollaries is captured by the adage of learning by doing. Constructivist philosophy holds that the learner should take an active rather than passive roll in the learning process, and that the tasks required of the learner should have an authentic context and purpose. It is under these conditions that the transfer of learning from the educational experience to the “real-world” is believed to be most successful.

In addition, learning is often considered by constructivists to be a social process, involving the negotiation of meaning between individuals and the distribution of knowledge over social networks. It is commonly accepted that individual learners can complete more sophisticated tasks with the aid of mentors or peers than they can on their own.

It is also commonly accepted by constructivists that individual learners will have different interests as well as different strengths and weakness, including a varying degree of aptitude not only in mathematical and linguistic intelligence but also in multiple other kinds of intelligences.

Criticisms of constructivism often focus on the lack of structure provided to students, however many constructivist educators insist on a structured environment in which students’ knowledge construction can be facilitated. Such an environment is one in which students are challenged without being frustrated and in which they are focused on intentional (rather than incidental) learning.

At a minimum, a constructivist learning environment will motivate and engage learners. Most importantly, it will also provide a context for learning, opportunities for inquiry or discovery, and a framework for collaborative learning. The value of all of these elements is increased if the environment also facilitates reflection and metacognition on the part of the learner. Such an environment can also be useful for the development not only of traditional school skills but also difficult-to-teach “soft” skills and “21st century skills”, such as digital-age literacies, inventive thinking, effective communication, and high-productivity. Within such a learning environment, the role of the teacher in providing support to students is especially critical. Each of these elements of a constructivist learning environment will be discussed in greater detail in the following sections. Each section will explore traditional constructivist perspectives, the contributions of educational technologists, and the more recent literature on video games and education.