by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
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 http://www.exploratorium.edu/IFI/resources/
constructivistlearning.html), 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
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
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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.
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