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Constructivist Learning
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
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Piaget's constructivism is premised on his view of the psychological development of children. Within his theory, the basis of learning is discovery: 'To understand is to discover, or reconstruct by rediscovery, and such conditions must be complied with if in the future individuals are to be formed who are capable of production and creativity and not simply repetition' (Piaget, 1973). According to Piaget, children go through stages in which they accept ideas they may later discard as wrong. Understanding, therefore, is built up step by step through active participation and involvement. However, applying Piaget's theory is not so straightforward a task as it may sound.
(see http://curriculum.calstatela.edu/faculty/psparks/theorists/
501const.htm
)
According to Bruner, learning is a social process, whereby students construct new concepts based on current knowledge. The student selects information, constructs hypotheses, and makes decisions, with the aim of integrating new experiences into his existing mental constructs. It is cognitive structures that provide meaning and organization to experiences and allow learners to transcend the boundaries of the information given. For him, learner independence, fostered through encouraging students to discover new principles of their own accord, lies at the heart of effective education. Moreover, curriculum should be organized in a spiral manner so that students can build upon what they have already learned. In short, the principles that permeate Bruner's theory are the following (see Bruner, 1973):
· Instruction must be commensurate with the experiences that make the student willing and able to learn (readiness).
· Instruction must be structured so that it can be easily understood by the student (spiral organization).

· Instruction should be designed to facilitate extrapolation (going beyond the information given).
It could be argued that constructivism emphasizes the importance of the world knowledge, beliefs, and skills an individual brings to bear on learning. Viewing the construction of new knowledge as a combination of prior learning matched against new information, and readiness to learn, this theory opens up new perspectives, leading individuals to informed choices about what to accept and how to fit it into their existing schemata, as well as what to reject. Recapitulating the main principles of constructivism, we could say that it emphasises learning and not teaching, encourages learner autonomy and personal involvement in learning, looks to learners as incumbents of significant roles and as agents exercising will and purpose, fosters learners' natural curiosity, and also takes account of learners' affect, in terms of their beliefs, attitudes, and motivation. In addition, within constructivist theory, context is accorded significance, as it renders situations and events meaningful and relevant, and provides learners with the opportunity to construct new knowledge from authentic experience. After all, Learning is contextual: we do not learn isolated facts and theories in some abstract ethereal land of the mind separate from the rest of our lives: we learn in relationship to what else we know, what we believe, our prejudices and our fears. On reflection, it becomes clear that this point is actually a corollary of the idea that learning is active and social. We cannot divorce our learning from our lives (Hein, 1991, see www.exploratorium.edu/IFI/resources/constructivistlearning.html.) What is more, by providing opportunities for independent thinking, constructivism allows students to take responsibility for their own learning, by framing questions and then analyzing them. Reaching beyond simple factual information, learners are induced to establish connections between ideas and thus to predict, justify, and defend their ideas (adapted from In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms by Jacqueline G. Brooks and Martin G. Brooks, Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1993).
Having expatiated upon the main tenets of constructivism, let us now content ourselves with juxtaposing constructivism with other theories, objectivist theories that is, and, more specifically, contiguity theory. Byrnes (1996) and Arseneau and Rodenburg (1998) contrast objectivist and constructivist approaches to teaching and learning.


Objectivist View Constructivist View
Knowledge exists outside of individuals and can be transferred from teachers to students. Knowledge has personal meaning. It is created by individual students.
Students learn what they hear and what they read. If a teacher explains abstract concepts well, students will learn those concepts. Learners construct their own knowledge by looking for meaning and order; they interpret what they hear, read, and see based on their previous learning and habits. Students who do not have appropriate backgrounds will be unable to accurately "hear" or "see" what is before them.
Learning is successful when students can repeat what was taught. Learning is successful when students can demonstrate conceptual understanding.

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