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Constructivist Learning
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
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Amongst the din of shifting paradigms, a theory that used to dominate the field but is not well-known is contiguity theory, an exponent of which is E. Guthrie. The classic experimental paradigm for contiguity theory is cats learning to escape from a puzzle box (Guthrie & Horton, 1946). Guthrie used a glass box which allowed him to photograph the movements of cats. These photographs showed that cats learned to repeat the same movements associated with the preceding escape from the box. In this vein, improvement comes about when irrelevant movements are unlearned or not included in successive associations. Drawing upon behaviouristic principles, contiguity theory sets out to show that, in order for conditioning to occur, the organism must actively respond; inasmuch as learning involves the conditioning of specific behaviours, instruction boils down to presenting very specific tasks; exposure to variations in stimulus patterns is necessary in order to produce a generalized response; and the last response in a stimulus-response situation should be correct since it is this one that will be associated (see
Within a positivistic tradition, so to speak, under which come the theories of behaviourism, contiguity theory, and many others, the learner was, and still is, seen as relatively passive, 'simply absorbing information transmitted by a didactic teacher' (Long, 2000: 6). In the universe created by these paradigms, the powerless learner is "worlds apart" from the omniscient and powerful teacher, whose main concern is to 'deliver a standard curriculum and to evaluate stable underlying differences between children' (ibid.). Against this background, the cognitive paradigm of constructivism has been instrumental in shifting the locus of responsibility for learning from the teacher to the learner, who is no longer seen as passive or powerless. The student is viewed as an individual who is active in constructing new knowledge and understanding, while the teacher is seen as a facilitator rather than a "dictator" of learning. Yet, despite its "democratic" nature, many contemporary philosophers and educationalists have tried to demolish or vitiate some of its principles. Such a discussion is outside the remit of this study, of course. We will only briefly mention George Hein (1991, see
), who voices some reservations about constructivist learning.
For Hein, constructivism, although it appears radical on an everyday level, 'is a position which has been frequently adopted ever since people began to ponder epistemology' (ibid.). According to him, if we align ourselves with constructivist theory, which means we are willing to follow in the footsteps of Dewey, Piaget and Vygotsky, among others, then we have to run counter to Platonic views of epistemology. We have to recognize that knowledge is not "out there," independent of the knower, but knowledge is what we construct for ourselves as we learn. Besides, we have to concede that learning is not tantamount to understanding the "true" nature of things, nor is it (as Plato suggested) akin to remembering perfect ideas, 'but rather a personal and social construction of meaning out of the bewildering array of sensations which have no order or structure besides the explanations…which we fabricate for them' (ibid.).
It goes without saying that learners represent a rich array of different backgrounds and ways of thinking and feeling. If the classroom can become a neutral zone where students can exchange their personal views and critically evaluate those of others, each student can build understanding based on empirical evidence. We have no intention of positing methods and techniques for creating a "constructivist classroom." After all, classrooms are, and should be, amenable and sensitive to a whole lot of approaches to teaching and learning, and a slavish adherence to the letter rather than the spirit of education is bound to prove detrimental. It should be borne in mind that the theory of constructivism, with which we have been concerned, is not yet another "educational decree." Like philosophy, constructivism can lead to its own de-construction, in the sense that it forges the very structures and associations that could possibly demolish it. It is a meta-theory, in that it fosters a meta-critical awareness. A constructivist orientation to learning is unique because at its heart lies the individual learner in toto, rather than dimly perceived "apparitions" of her essence. Constructivism is a modern version of human anatomy, in the sense that it is based on, and provides insights into, brain mechanisms, mental structures, and willingness to learn.

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Dimitrios Thanasoulas studied English Literature and Linguistics at Athens University and then did an MA in Applied Linguistics at Sussex University. After that, he earned an MBA from Mooreland University and is currently finishing the second year of my PhD studies in Education at Nottingham University. His academic interests include fostering cultural awareness and learner autonomy, as well as such issues as language and ideology, Critical Discourse Analysis, Pragmatics, Sociolinguistics, and the Psychology of Education.


Dimitrios can be contacted at:

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