Abstract: Constructivism is based on the idea that knowledge is constructed by the knower based on mental activity. This web site will examine the premises of constructivism, examine how constructivist design differs from traditional design, look at ways teachers are integrating constructivist ideas into their teaching, and then examine some new instructional tools which have been developed using a constructivist philosophy.
Constructivism is a theory of learning based on the idea that knowledge is constructed by the knower based on mental activity. Learners are considered to be active organisms seeking meaning. Constructions of meaning may initially bear little relationship to reality (as in the naive theories of children), but will become increasing more complex, differentiated and realistic as time goes on.
It is impossible to discuss constructivism without contrasting it with its opposite, objectivism. Bednar, Cunningham, Duffy and Perry (1991) state the philosophy of objectivism as follows:
Objectivism is a view of the nature of knowledge and what it means to know something. In this view, the mind is an instantiation of a computer, manipulating symbols in the same way....These symbols acquire meaning when an external and independent reality is "mapped" onto them in our interactions in the world. Knowledge, therefore is some entity existing independent of the mind of individuals, and is transferred "inside". Cognition is the rule-based manipulation of these symbols...this school of thought believes that the external world is mind independent (i.e., the same for everyone) and we can say things about it that are objectively, absolutely and unconditionally true or false....Consistent with this view of knowledge, the goal of instruction, from both the behavioral and cognitive information processing perspectives, is to communicate or transfer knowledge to learners in the most efficient, effective manner possible. Knowledge can be completely characterized using the techniques of semantic analysis (or its second cousin, task analysis). One key to efficiency and effectiveness is simplification and regularization: thought is atomistic in that it can be completely broken down into simple building blocks, which form the basis of instruction. (p. 91)
Jonassen (1991) talks about constructivism as follows:
Constructivism, founded on Kantian beliefs, claims that reality is constructed by the knower based upon mental activity. Humans are perceivers and interpreters who construct their own reality through engaging in those mental activities...thinking is grounded in perception of physical and social experiences, which can only be comprehended by the mind. What the mind produces are mental models that explain to the knower what he or she has perceived.... We all conceive of the external reality somewhat differently, based on our unique set of experiences with the world and our beliefs about them. (p. 10)
Bednar, et al (1991) elaborate further:
...the learner is building an internal representation of knowledge, a personal interpretation of experience. This representation is constantly open to change, its structure and linkages forming the foundation to which other knowledge structures are appended. Learning is an active process in which meaning is developed on the basis of experience....Conceptual growth comes from the sharing of multiple perspectives and simultaneous changing of our internal representations in response to those perspectives as well as through cumulative experience.
Consistent with this view of knowledge, learning must be situated in a rich context, reflective of real world contexts, for this constructive process to occur and transfer to environments beyond the school (p. 91-2).
Further readings from the web:
Constructivism is a holistic philosophy. Tenets of this philosophy include: the need to situate learning and problem solving in real-life contexts where the environment is very rich in information and there are no right answers (embedded knowledge); authentic tasks; cognitive apprenticeship; meaning negotiated through interactions with others; multiple perspectives on reality; nurturance of reflexivity and learning in ill-structured domains.
Situated learning (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1988) is proposed as a method of ensuring that students learn to understand concepts anchored within the context of the area of study. Instead of abstracting unrelated bits of knowledge deemed to be the important components of an area of study, a student would learn about a subject area by immersion in that culture. The final objective is to produce a student who, if studying geology, understands how a geologist would acquire knowledge, find information in his field and integrate this knowledge to solve problems in his field. A rich context for problem solving becomes part of this component.
The Cognition and Technology Group (1991) profile an example of how authentic situated learning in a rich context could be shared in a classroom setting by embedding mathematics problems in a video format where students must attend to many cues in order to solve problems. They have developed a video series called "The Adventure of Jasper Woodbury" which features "anchored" instruction, "whereby instruction is situated in engaging, problem-rich environments that allow sustained exploration by students and teachers." (CGCT, 1992, p. 65) The features of this program include a narrative presentation with embedded data design where students must decide what information can be useful in solving the problem posed, and what information is extraneous. The problems are engaging for students, and they mimic the complexity of real life, where problems are messy, and defining the problem can sometimes be harder than solving it.
Further readings on:
Another feature of constructivism sometimes mentioned is the idea of cognitive apprenticeship, where a teacher models the thought processes which would characterize an expert in a particular field. (Collins, 1988) Experiences are provided for the student which mimic the apprenticeship programs of adults in the trades, or teachers in the internship. Although it is not possible to submerse the student to the extent that an internship would imply, through the use of simulations and meaningful experiences, the student would learn the ways of knowing of an expert. I watched a program where a teacher recreated an archaeological site for his students. Students then proceeded to carry on the activities of an archaeologist, how to segment the site, how to unearth artifacts without disturbing the site, how to record the data, suppositions about the uses for various artifacts found at the site - all the activities of a practising archaeologist. (Check out this site - Summer Archaeology Program)
von Glaserfeld (1988) discusses the social construction of knowledge. Concepts are developed in a process of fine-tuning which involves the interaction of others. Group interaction is thought to aid this process, because it exposes the learner to multiple perspectives about a theme. Collaborative learning which emphasizes the need to examine an issue from all sides gives the student the understanding of various points of view.
|As an example, consider how medical interns can be brought together to discuss symptoms noticed in a particular case. Having taken note of different things, they may propose alternative treatments, which they must then justify to their peers...Hearing a variety of other perspectives helps learners to judge the quality of their own solutions and to learn perhaps more effective strategies for problem solving. (Driscoll, 1994, p. 369)|
Further readings on:
Constructivists believe it is important to encourage reflexivity, the process whereby a student becomes aware of how their own thinking processes work. Helping students to think about how they are arriving at conclusions, or how they go about solving problems, may help to form more meaningful links between knowledge and develop more elaborate schemas.
Spiro, et al. (1991) developed a theory termed Cognitive Flexibility theory which addresses knowledge acquisition in ill-structured domains. The theory was developed after they discovered that many learning failures resulted from cognitive oversimplification and the inability to transfer knowledge and apply it to new cases. In many cases, the design of learning involved the use of typical cases to explain a concept. The solutions to these typical cases were usually too obvious for students, so many students could not solve problems which involved more complex sets of factors. For example, in teaching interns, if the instructor used the example of a typical case of hypertension, students often missed this diagnosis if the patient did not exhibit the symptoms in the same way. To counter these problems they suggested the need for instructional systems which allow students to revisit "the same material, at different times, in rearranged contexts, for different purposes, and from different conceptual perspectives" (p. 28). The idea is that many crosslinks may occur, and conceptual richness will develop as a student spends time investigating the various connections between themes or concepts.
For an example of a software tool developed according to principles of cognitive flexibility see The Knowledge Mediator Framework Full explanation found in:
Jacobson, M. J., & Archodidou, A. (2000). The Knowledge Mediator Framework: Toward the design of hypermedia tools for learning. In M. J. Jacobson, & R. J. Kozma (Eds.), Innovations in science and mathematics education: Advanced designs for technologies of learning. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Constructivism in the Classroom - A Case Study:
In this section I would like to excerpt an article which describes teacher narratives about using constructivism in the classroom. The article is from the book: Constructivism: Theory, Perspectives, and Practice edited by Catherine Twomey Fosnot.
In the article titled "A Constructivist Perspective on Teaching and Learning Mathematics", the author, Deborah Schifter, contrasts two mathematics lessons which she feels offers an understanding of the difference between a lesson based on constructivism and one based on the traditional didactic approach to learning.
In the traditional approach, the teacher has noticed that the students are very excited to find out that blue whales can grow as long as 100 feet so she decides to have the students measure this length in the hallway. Here's how she went about it:
I told the children exactly how we would go about measuring the whale's length. We would take the yardstick, which we hadn't explored, and we would put it down and keep track of where it ended and then place it there and keep counting till we reached where it ended and then place it there and keep counting till we reached 100 feet. (Schweitzer, 1996)
Although the children were quite impressed by the length of the whale, the teacher recounts that the lesson seemed unsatisfying, and wondered what the students had actually learned about measurement.
In the constructivist approach, the teacher had a measurement activity concerning Thanksgiving. She laid out a model of the Mayflower on the floor in the center of the room using masking tape. Then she prepared a scroll or edict for the students to read, telling them that the ship could not sail until they told the king how large the boat was. After the edict was read, she waited for the students to figure out how they could measure the ship and be on their way. Here's how she described what happened after the reading of the scroll:
"Well, what should we do? Who has an idea?" I asked. Thus our discussion of measurement began... or I thought it would begin. But there was a period of silence-a long period of silence.
What do young children know about measurement? Is there anything already present in their life experiences to which they could relate this problem? I watched as they looked from one to another, and I could see that they had no idea where to begin. Surely, I thought, there must be something they could use as a point of reference to expand on. Someone always has an idea. But the silence was long as the children looked again from one to another, to Zeb, and to me. (Hendry, 1996)
After some confusion about the word Edict on the scroll (some students thought the boat was three feet long because the E in edict looked like a three) the following interaction occurred:
I felt we were back to square one again with more silence, until Tom raised his hand and said, "Mrs. Hendry, I know it can't be three feet because the nurse just measured me last week and said that I was four feet, and this boat is much bigger than me!"
From Tom's initial observation, our discussion on measurement was basically off the ground. Hands immediately went up. The children now realized that they knew a little about measurement, especially in relationship to their own size and how tall they were.
"Let's see how many times Tom can fit in the boat," someone suggested. Tom got down and up several times along the length of the boat: the children decided that the boat was four "Toms" long.
"How can we tell that to the King, since he does not know Tom?" I asked. "Send Tom to the King," was their easy solution, while others protested that they wanted Tom to stay on the boat for the trip. I was really hoping that they would relate to the information Tom had already given us about his size. I thought someone might add four feet, four times, presenting us with a quick solution to the problem. But this was not the route they decided to take.
Mark raised his hand and suggested that we could measure the boat with our hands like they do with horses. His neighbor had a horse that was 15 hands. "Then we could tell the King how many 'hands' long the boat was." The children agreed that this might be a better idea.
"All right," I said. "Since it was Mark's idea, he can measure the length of the boat with his hands." Mark was also the biggest child in the class.
At first, Mark randomly placed his hands on the tape from one end to the other, but when he double-checked, he came out with a different answer. The children were puzzled for a while as to why this happened. It took several more tries and much discussion before they came to an important conclusion. The children decided that it was necessary for Mark to make sure that he began exactly at the beginning of the boat and did not leave any gaps in between his palms and his fingers as he placed them on the tape. Measuring this way, he discovered the boat was 36 hands long.
Great! We decided to tell the King this, but just to be sure, I suggested we have Sue, the smallest child in the class, measure the other side. She did and related to the class that her side was 44 hands long. Now there was confusion.
"Why are they different?" I asked. "Can we use hands to measure?" "No," the children decided, this would not work either, since everyone's hands were not the same size.
Al suggested using feet. We tried this, but once again, when someone else double-checked with their feet, we found two different measurements. The children at this time began to digress a little to compare each other's hands and feet to discover whose were the biggest and smallest.
Finally, our original discussion continued, while the children explored various concepts and ideas. Joan sat holding a ruler, but, for some reason, did not suggest using it. Perhaps, I thought, it might be that her experience with a ruler was limited, and she may not have been quite sure how to use it.
Our dilemma continued into the next day when the children assembled again to discuss the problem with some new insights. One child suggested that since Zeb knew the King, and everyone knew Zeb, that we should use his foot. 'Measure it out on a piece of paper and measure everything in 'Zeb's foot."' Using this form of measurement, the children related to the King that the boat was 24 "Zeb's foot" long and 9 "Zeb's foot" wide.
Curiosity began to get the best of them and the children continued to explore this form of measurement by deciding to measure each other, our classroom, their desks, and the rug using "Zeb's foot." I let them investigate this idea for the remainder of the math period.
On the third day of our exploration, I asked the children why they thought it was important to develop a standard form of measurement (or in words understandable to a first grader, a measurement that would always be the same size) such as using only "Zeb's foot" to measure everything. Through the discussions over the past several days, the children were able to internalize and verbalize the need or importance for everyone to measure using the same instrument. They saw the confusion of using different hands, bodies, or feet because of the inconsistency of size. (Hendry, 1996)
Schifter uses these two examples to contrast the methodology that would be applied in a traditional versus a constructivist classroom. She points out: "we do not see Hendry engaged in the commonest of traditional teaching behaviors-giving directions and offering explanations. Instead, we observe her questioning her students, the questions sometimes coming minutes apart. And when they do come, more often than not they appear to elicit, rather than allay or forestall, confusion." (Fosnot, 1996, p.76) Schifter goes on to point out the following differences:
Similarities between the two lessons are easily identified. Both Hendry and Schweitzer were responsive to what had captured their students' imaginations-Hendry's class had been fascinated by a cutaway of the Mayflower they had made; Schweitzer's, by the length of the blue whale. Both teachers decided to engage the class in measurement activities connected to those topics. And both teachers set up their lessons to involve the children in the actual measuring-their lessons were hands-on.
From the point of view of this discussion, however, the salient difference is that while Schweitzer told her class exactly how to perform the task she had devised, Hendry posed a problem with the expectation that her children would find their own way to a solution. Schweitzer crisply demonstrated the use of a yardstick; Hendry watched her students messily struggle to figure out what the inconsistencies in their results would tell them about the concept of measurement. In addition, while Schweitzer could have demonstrated the procedure to ten, five, or even one student, indifferently, Hendry's lesson depended on her students interacting among themselves. What can we infer from these two units on measurement about the epistemological assumptions they enact? Hands-on though it may have been, Schweitzer's lesson is nonetheless consistent with beliefs about learning that still order most of our classrooms-that people acquire concepts by receiving information from other people who know more; that if students listen to what their teachers say, they will learn what their teachers know; and that the presence of other students is incidental to learning. However, although Schweitzer's students might now have been able to picture just how long a blue whale can get, most, as she would come to realize, had probably learned very little about the concept of measurement. For they had not had an opportunity to think through together what a yardstick is, or why they were supposed to lay it down exactly as Schweitzer prescribed. (Fosnot, 1966, p. 77)
Application of Constructivist Principles to the Practice of Instructional Technology:
And what are the implications of this philosophy of knowledge for the design of instructional tools? Traditional designers first attempt to analyze content and prerequisites (see Gagne and Briggs, 1979) to identify a course sequence. A constructivist course designer knows that content cannot be prespecified. Although a certain amount of content may be available for students to use, they are encouraged to seek out as many alternate sources of knowledge as they can find which will deepen their perspective of the topic they are working on. And the notion of situated learning is important, where students are encouraged to consider what real life people in a particular environment would do. Traditional theory focused on the typical learner and what he would know when the course was completed. A constructivist learner is not described. Instead, through metacognition, all learners are encouraged to reflect on how and what they are learning and how it fits into what they already know. Traditional theory specifies objectives for knowledge acquisition in advance. Constructivism attempts to identify the culture of a knowledge domain. For example, a constructivist learner would be encouraged to learn how to think like a historian, as opposed to learning dates in history.
The synthesis, or design phase of traditional instruction would involve the design of a sequence and message which would achieve specified performance objectives. Prespecified content and objectives are not congruent with the constructivist worldview. Substituted for these activities would be: learning based on situating cognition in real world contexts; cognitive apprenticeship and modelling; and negotiation of meaning through collaborative learning which emphasizes multiple perspectives of analysis. Another emphasis in constructivism is to make available an array of cognitive tools which can scaffold the learner within this rich, sometimes confusing, environment.
Wilson, et al (1993) provides some interesting insights into how instructional design must change in a constructivism environment. Below are some excerpts from a web article entitled "The Impact of Constructivism (and Postmodernism) on ID Fundamentals". Wilson, Teslow, & Osman-Jouchoux
A key element in effective ID is the nature of the design team. Instead of a designer and subject expert working in relative isolation, constructivist ID suggests that all major constituencies be represented on the design team, including teachers and students. These end users' the "consumers" of the instructional "product" should contribute directly to the project's design and development. Greenbaum & Kyng (1991) refer to this as participatory design, and Clancey (1993) recommends "we must involve students, teachers, administrators, future employers, and the community as participants in design..., working with students and teachers in their setting not just calling them into the...lab to work with us" (pp. 9, 20).
We can hear the comment now: "But we've always incorporated the end user in our ID models; this sounds like warmed-over formative evaluation." We respond: "If formative evaluation got done a tenth as much as it gets talked about, ID practice would be in much better shape."
In a pluralistic world, more flexibility must be built into the instruction; after all, even experts disagree on optimal solutions to problems. Not all students share the same learning goals; not all students' learning goals converge completely with instructional goals; students have different styles of learning, different background knowledge. Rather than ignore these differences, instruction should acknowledge the evolving nature of knowledge and encourage students to engage in a continuing search for improved understanding. This plurality of content, strategies, and perspectives typifies postmodern approaches to instruction. Such a pluralistic approach to instruction follows a clear trend toward accommodating multiple goals, styles, and perspectives in instruction (Collins, 1991). But is pluralism the exception or the rule? What one views as "typical" may depend more on one's philosophical and value orientation than on any actual conditions found in schools and training environments. And that relates to a continuing them of the chapter constructivism is a theory about how things are, about what the mind is like; then, through the lens of that theory, one begins to see ID in new terms.
This section is composed of a laundry list of tips for viewing ID from a constructivist perspective, organized according to generic ID phases. For scope reasons, issues of implementation are not addressed. Some of the tips are abstract and conceptual; others are simple and practical. Some depart radically from current practice; others reflect how most practitioners already view their jobs. Collectively, they provide a clearer picture of what it means to do constructivist ID.
Instructional Strategy Development
Evaluation of Constructivist Learning:
Bednar, et al (1991) define two ways which constructivist learning can be evaluated. They suggest that one method would evaluate how well students were able to function within a content domain, and whether they could use the tools and understandings of the domain to solve problems within that domain. If they are involved in an authentic task, then evaluation would assess whether the student successfully completed that task. The second method suggested would have students reflect on the processes whereby they came to their conclusions and document this process. Jonassen (1991b) states that it is the process of knowledge acquisition which should be evaluated, not any product or observable behavior. (Is this reverse behaviorism?) According to Jonassen, evaluating how learners go about constructing their knowledge is more important than the resulting product, suggesting that evaluative procedures must become a part of the instructional process. Jonassen also feels that goal free evaluation could be an important part of constructivist assessment, since that would allow the evaluator to be unbiased by the goals of instruction. Cole (1992) thinks the evaluation of the constructive learning process can be improved by adding multiple evaluators who have a range of expertise in the area being studied and who represent multiple perspectives. This allows the teacher to play a facilitative coaching role while external sources would be responsible for summative decisions. Cole (1992) also disagrees with Jonassen's (1991b) statement about goal-free evaluation, stating that in most authentic tasks, there are very measurable goals which can be used to identify successful completion of that task.
It is my feeling that a combination of these approaches look promising as an indicator of growth. As well, traditional approaches such as the collection of items in a portfolio, case study analysis or student self-evaluation would certainly prove useful as well.
Below are some excerpts about constructivist evaluation from a web article entitled "The Impact of Constructivism (and Postmodernism) on ID Fundamentals". Wilson, Teslow, & Osman-Jouchoux
Further Web Sources for Evaluation of Constructivist Learning:
Examples of Constructivist Tools:
Links to Constructivism on the Web:
This list of URLs constitutes some of the many sources for information about constructivism on the web.You may find them useful as you learn more about this philosophy of learning. Some of these resources are compilations of other bookmarks - there is probably enough interlinkage in these bookmarks to keep you hyperlinking for a long, long time! What a marvellous resource the web makes available for us!
Bookmarks: Constructivism -- - a collection of influential essays on constructivism
Institute for Learning Technologies (ILTweb): LiveText: Topics Scroll down to constructivism
Math Forum - Constructivism
Math Forum - Search ''Constructivist'
The Emerging Contribution of Online Resources and Tools to Teaching and Learning - prepared by Canada's Schoolnet. This is a series of literature reviews carried out "in order to identify the potentials of information- and communication-rich learning environments for school learners and teachers." (Gregoire, R., R. Bracewell and T. Laferriere, 1996) There is a discussion of constructivist computer environments, as well as numerous conclusions as to the efficacy of new technologies.
Constructing Knowledge with Technology - Dimock/Bethel literature review on constructivist learning and technological effects.
Rand Report: National Strategy for the Use of Technology in Education - includes studies about the effectiveness of educational technology, references to technology-rich schools and recommendations
MIT Epistomology & Learning Group - Constructivist Projects - Lego projects, real-time science tools, constructopedia, virtual worlds, network neighbourhood, toys that think, Escher's world, Java for kids, and Virtual Fishtank are some of the projects listed here.
Providing Hands-On, Minds-On, and Authentic Learning Experiences in Science - Includes audio clips from team members and illustrative cases of projects from various locations.
A Journey into Constructivism - Martin Dougiamas 1998
Constructivism and the 5 E's
SEDLETTER: Resources for Constructivism - various books & studies related to curriculum
Judi Harris' Virtual Architecture Web Site - Judi Harris' guide to the Internet - much more encompassing than strictly constructivism, but filled with wonderful resources
Reading list for Situativity theories
UD PBL: Problem-Based Learning
Schools for Thought http://peabody.vanderbilt.edu/projects/funded/sft/general/sfthome.html and http://peabody.vanderbilt.edu/projects/funded/sft/formoreinfo/srg/srgearli97.html
Knowledge Construction and Negotiation Environments Including CSILE, KIE, CaMILE, Belvedere, Kidlinks, Global Schoolhouse, Collaboratory
Constructivist Learning on the Web
Designing Constructivist Learning Environments David Jonassen
Building and Using Constructivist Learning Environments on the Web: A Resource Site
Examples of Constructivist Learning Environments on the Web
Summer Archaeology Program - Example of Cognitive Apprenticeship at the elementary level
The Adventures of Jasper Woodbury - example of anchored instruction
Reintroduction of the Wolf into the Southwest - another constructivist learning environment
Sexual Harassment - an example of Cognitive Flexibility Hypertexts
Bednar, A.K., Cunningham, D., Duffy, T.M., and Perry, J.D. (1991). Theory into practice: How do we link? In G. Anglin (Ed.), Instructional Technology: Past, Present and Future. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.
Brown, J., Collins, A., and Duguid, P. (1988). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Eric document # ED 342 357
Cognition and Technology Group. (1991). Technology and the design of generative learning environments. Educational Technology, 31(5), 34-40.
Collins, A. Cognitive apprenticeship and instructional technology. Eric Document # ED 331 465
Driscoll, Marcy. (1994). Psychology of Learning for Instruction. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Fosnot, C.T. (1996). Constructivism: A psychological theory of learning. In C. Fosnot (Ed.), Constructivism: Theory, perspectives and practice. New York, NY: Teacher's College Press.
Gagne, R. and Briggs, L. (1979). Principles of instructional design (2nd Ed.). New York, NY: Holt, Renehart and Winston.
Goodrum, D., and Knuth, R. (1991). Supporting learning with process tools: Theory and design issues. Eric document # ED 334 984
Hedberg, John G. and others. (1994) Information landscapes and exploratory user interfaces: Redesigning to improve learning outcomes. Eric document # ED 373717
Jonassen, D. (1991). Objectivism vs constructivism: Do we need a new philosophical paradigm? Educational Technology, Research and Development, 39(3), 5-13.
McMahon, B., O'Neill, B. and Cunningham, D. "Open" software design: A case study. Educational Technology, 32(2), 43-55
Perkins, D. (1991). Technology meets constructivism: Do they make a marriage? Educational Technology, 31(5), 18-23
Polin, L. (1992). Research Windows: Subvert the dominant paradigm. The Computing Teacher, 19(8), 6-7.
Schifter, D. (1996). A constructivist perspective on teaching and learning mathematics. In C. Fosnot (Ed.), Constructivism: Theory, perspectives and practice. New York, NY: Teacher's College Press.
Rieber, L. (1991). Computer-based microworlds: A bridge between constructivism and direct instruction. Eric document # ED 335 007
von Glaserfeld, E. (1988). Cognition, construction of knowledge and teaching. Eric Document #ED 294 754.
Wilson, B., Teslow, J., and Osman-Jouchoux, R. (1995). The impact of constructivism (and postmodernism) on ID Fundamentals. In B.B. Seels (Ed.), Instructional Design Fundamentals: A Review and Reconsideration (pp. 137-157). Englewood Cliffs NJ: Educational Technology Publications.