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Constructivist Learning
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
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Only by wrestling with the conditions of the problem at hand, seeking and finding his own solution (not in isolation but in correspondence with the teacher and other pupils) does one learn.
John Dewey, How We Think, 1910

As a philosophy of learning, constructivism can be traced to the eighteenth century and the work of the philosopher Giambattista Vico, who maintained that humans can understand only what they have themselves constructed. A great many philosophers and educationalists have worked with these ideas, but the first major contemporaries to develop a clear idea of what constructivism consists in were Jean Piaget and John Dewey, to name but a few. Part of the discussion that ensues grapples with the major tenets of their philosophies, with a view to shedding light on constructivism and its vital contribution to learning. As a revealing gloss on this issue, it could be said that constructivism takes an interdisciplinary perspective, inasmuch as it draws upon a diversity of psychological, sociological, philosophical, and critical educational theories. In view of this, constructivism is an overarching theory that does not intend to demolish but to reconstruct past and present teaching and learning theories, its concern lying in shedding light on the learner as an important agent in the learning process, rather than in wresting the power from the teacher.
Within the constructivist paradigm, the accent is on the learner rather than the teacher. It is the learner who interacts with his or her environment and thus gains an understanding of its features and characteristics. The learner constructs his own conceptualisations and finds his own solutions to problems, mastering autonomy and independence. According to constructivism, learning is the result of individual mental construction, whereby the learner learns by dint of matching new against given information and establishing meaningful connections, rather than by internalising mere factoids to be regurgitated later on. In constructivist thinking, learning is inescapably affected by the context and the beliefs and attitudes of the learner. Here, learners are given more latitude in becoming effective problem solvers, identifying and evaluating problems, as well as deciphering ways in which to transfer their learning to these problems.

If a student is able to perform in a problem solving situation, a meaningful learning should then occur because he has constructed an interpretation of how things work using preexisting structures. This is the theory behind Constructivism. By creating a personal interpretation of external ideas and experiences, constructivism allows students the ability to understand how ideas can relate to each other and preexisting knowledge (Janet Drapikowski, personal communication).

The constructivist classroom presents the learner with opportunities for "autopoietic" learning (here, I deploy the meaning of Francisco Varela's term in a context different to the original one) with a view to helping learners to build on prior knowledge and understand how to construct new knowledge from authentic experience-certainly a view in keeping with Rogers' experiential learning (Rogers, 1969, 1994). C. Rogers, one of the exponents of experiential learning-the tenets of which are inextricably related to, and congruent with, those of constructivism-made the distinction between cognitive learning, which he deemed meretricious, and experiential learning, which he considered significant. For him, the qualities of experiential learning include:
· personal involvement;
· learner-initiation;
· evaluation by learner; and
· pervasive effects on learner (see the web document: http://www.educationau.edu.au/archives/cp/04f.htm)
Rogers' humanistic approach to learning is also conducive to personal change and growth, and can facilitate learning, provided that
· the student participates completely in the learning process and has control over its nature and direction;
· it is primarily based upon direct confrontation with practical, social, personal or research problems; and,
· self-evaluation is the principal method of assessing progress or success.
(ibid.)
Interestingly, contrasting this approach with the typical behaviourist classroom, where students are merely passive "receptacles" of information from the teacher and the textbook, is rather revealing. We will come to that later on in the study. At this juncture, it is important to briefly discuss the theories of John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Jerome Bruner that have certainly influenced our stance toward the nature of learning and, concomitantly, teaching. For Dewey, knowledge emerges only from situations in which learners have to draw them out of meaningful experiences (see Democracy and Education, 1916 and Experience and Education, 1938). Further, these situations have to be embedded in a social context, such as a classroom, where students can take part in manipulating materials and, thus, forming a community of learners who construct their knowledge together. Students cannot learn by means of rote memorisation; they can only learn by "directed living," whereby concrete activities are combined with theory. The obvious implication of Dewey's theory is that students must be engaged in meaningful activities that induce them to apply the concepts they are trying to learn.

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