Constructivism Today: How Should Students Learn?

nürnberger-trichterOur schools: Same old, same old

The most commonly voiced out critique against traditional rote learning is that it doesn’t deliver what it promises, this is that acquired knowledge fades fast and students start to forget mental content shortly after their exams. In this model, learning serves to achieve a good grade by internalising syllabus material as fast as possible, forgetting it as fast as possible and to move on to the next short-term goal. But even if students would fully remember the knowledge that they were presented in class, they could do very little with it – perhaps with the exception of impressing their peers in TV game shows and quizzes that test for the recall of isolated facts. Knowledge acquired by rote learning is internalised passively. It is neither actively acquired by the learner, which would entail intrinsic motivation, nor applied within a real-world (and not merely academic-hypothetical) context.

Above: Traditional German illustration of the ‘Nürnberger Trichter’ (‘The Funnel of Nürnberg’). The writing says ‘First dumb and stupid, now clever as Goethe, all of which has been achieved by the funnel’s power’.

How about intelligence?

According to Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence (Sternberg, 1985), the mere recall and modulation of fixed content circumvents various forms of intelligence, which are analytic intelligence (the ability to apply new knowledge to solve real-world problems), creative intelligence (the ability to create innovative and novel ways to solve problems and to design systems) and practical intelligence (the ability to make internal changes to adapt to new environmental conditions). As a result, students in traditional schools learn hard but remain incompetent. What is measured in most schools and colleges are not aspects of intelligence, but the individual ability to endure stress and anxiety, the level of supportive upbringing provided by parents and the ability to regurgitate and parrot the mental content set out by the school’s curricula. Within such settings, students are assessed as solitary actors in a rather mechanical manner, illustrated fittingly by the ‘Nürnberger Trichter’.

new jobs

Above: Courses advertised at Udacity. The digital economy requires proactive, self-directed and intrinsically motivated learners. From the perspective of emerging technologies, Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence celebrates a comeback.

It is not about how long we remember what we have learned

The primary goals of knowledge acquisition, however, are neither the long-term recall of mental content nor to become a tough solitary learner. Actual cognitive and metacognitive performance is demonstrated by students being able to create concepts and tools to solve problems, to design systems that help people improve their lives, to develop positive social relations with others and to strengthen their autonomy. These educational outcomes are rarely assessed in most institutions of Higher Learning but they are more commonly found in elite education. Elite learners know how to contextualise newly created concepts (such as e.g., in information technology, social sciences or engineering) and they are aware of underlying historical and cultural conditions that scaffold local social development.

helvetas

Above: Managing comprehensive project administration and supervision based on modern research and sustainable local development (picture: biodiversity project in Haiti by Helvetas, 2017)

As for most movements, constructivism has been developed by many contributors, notably by their founders Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Piaget’s approach can be described as socio-interactional constructivism with emphasis on the individual learner, whereby Vygotsky’s approach can be described as a cultural-historical and activity-based constructivism with emphasis on the social scaffolding of learning via a ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (Vianna & Stetsenko, 2006). Both approaches share the assumption that knowledge and the meaning of knowledge are actively constructed in the learner’s mind, that learning evolves contextually and is facilitated by social interaction. The mind is not perceived as a passive container to accommodate fixed sets information and limited cognitive processing within the boundaries of these sets. Piaget was grounded in the biological imperative, set out by Darwin, of a child’s adaptation to the environment. Vygotsky, following Marxist philosophy, focussed on the collaborative and transformative nature of learning. His approach remains highly relevant in today’s digital economy and media society which is characterised by the omnipresence of collaborating teams, complex multi-layered project development, intelligent knowledge management and highly integrated network groups. Curiously enough, it is these cooperative competencies of 21st-century working environments that are barely taught, if at all, at schools.

As for most movements, constructivism has been developed by many contributors, notably by their founders Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Piaget’s approach can be described as socio-interactional constructivism with emphasis on the individual learner, whereby Vygotsky’s approach can be described as a cultural-historical and activity-based constructivism with emphasis on the social scaffolding of learning via a ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (Vianna & Stetsenko, 2006). Both approaches share the assumption that knowledge and the meaning of knowledge are actively constructed in the learner’s mind, that learning evolves contextually and is facilitated by social interaction. The mind is not perceived as a passive container to accommodate fixed sets information and limited cognitive processing within the boundaries of these sets. Piaget was grounded in the biological imperative, set out by Darwin, of a child’s adaptation to the environment. Vygotsky, following Marxist philosophy, focussed on the collaborative and transformative nature of learning. His approach remains highly relevant in today’s digital economy and media society which is characterised by the omnipresence of collaborating teams, complex multi-layered project development, intelligent knowledge management and highly integrated network groups. Curiously enough, it is these cooperative competencies of 21st-century working environments that are barely taught, if at all, at schools.

How Design Thinking extends Constructivism

Although it is correct that context, learners’ self-regulation and social scaffolding play a central role in active learning, the success of achieving learning outcomes depends largely on achieving mastery in the construction, application and evaluation of cultural tools. In design education, tools are commonly known in association with software- and hardware tools (from silk-screens to 3D printers and visualisation software), but also as concept maps and design theories, such as ergonomics, human-centered design and social design.

Broadly defined, cultural tools are instruments of mind that encompass concepts, strategies, information collection and processing methodologies, culturally-mediated reflective and communicative practices as well as methods to relate inductive-empirical and deductive-theoretical inferences. Cultural tools are the means by which our lifeworld is designed and mediated. Cultural tools empower students to connect ideas with facts, to minimise the margin of error of empirical tools and to maximise the validity and relevance of theoretical concepts. Without the mastery of effective tools, teamwork and context awareness do not yield productive outcomes by themselves.

Design thinking is closely related to Problem-based Learning (PBL) as it consists of a series of logical steps to design products and services. These shared steps are (1) group setting, setting up a team, (2) problem definition and cooperative reframing of the problem if necessary, (3) the review of prior knowledge and hypothesis generation (for explaining phenomena) or setting goals and expectations (for creating designs and implementing interventions), (4) the identification of learning issues and gaps of knowledge (5) going through reiterative cycles of research and research review (inclusive of experimentation and creative exploration), (6) concluding solutions development, (7) final outcome presentation and (8) post-project assessment by the entire team. PBL, as well as Design Thinking, are grounded in procedural inquiry and follow best practices of empirical research. Solutions are developed in logical stages by a team and they are not arbitrarily assumed by a solipsistic learner following an elusive ‘model answer’ or ‘model solution’.

Tesla

Above: Modern production facilities like here at Tesla are a good example for the need of skilled and competent workers that can solve complex problems, such as to program and manage robots or track and diagnose anomalies within automated production processes.

On the point of mastering cultural tools, Howard Barrows noted that PBL has one root in the apprenticeship method whose roots go back to the dawn of history (Wee Keng Neo & Kek Yin Chyn, 2002) where learning by doing emerged within an intergenerational culture of mastery. Today, mastery is rooted in science, also referred to as learning science (Bransford, 2000) shifting the educational focus on the mastery of scientific methods in support of new and innovative ideas.

Another argument for a procedural approach to future education is that without explicit awareness of the in situ implementation of knowledge, corresponding responsibilities cannot be assigned in a meaningful manner. As we live in a highly complex and interconnected world where responsibilities dilute across chains of institutions and businesses, a central theme in Badura’s recent work on moral disengagement (Bandura, 2016), the need to design systems of responsibility and accountability reinforces the call for fundamental educational reforms. If students are not taught on how to build a better world at an early age, how can anyone expect sensible societal progress?

References

Bandura, A. (2016). Moral disengagement: How people do harm and live with themselves. New York: Worth Publishers, Macmillan Learning.

Bransford, J. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (1985). Beyond IQ: A Triarchic Theory of Intelligence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vivanna, E. & Stetsenko, A. (2006). Embracing History through Transforming It: Contrasting Pigetean versus Vygotskian (Activity) Theories of Learning and Development to Expand Constructivism within a Dialectical View of History. Theory of Psychology, Sage Publications.

Wee Keng Neo, L. & Kek Yin Chyn, M. (2002). Authentic problem-based learning: Rewriting business education. Singapore: Pearson Malaysia.

2 thoughts on “Constructivism Today: How Should Students Learn?

  1. Your articles are often interesting; this one even inspiring – thank you!. Hoping to use it as part of basis for attempts to revise Swedish higher education, in particular economics.
    We are trying to revive an old Swedish concept of “People’s Parliament” to gather non-establishment thinkers in order to create new political paradigms, thus influencing establishment decisions towards a more sustainable society. The focus is on climate, for obvious reasons, but that focus inevitably ripples into subject areas such as yours.
    Regards, Ola Gabrielson

    • Thank you for your kind comment. I am happy to be of service. In the context of social change paradigms, you might find Theory U interesting which has been developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. You find free access to MIT’s ULab 0.x (Leading Awareness-Based Systems Change) at the EdX website at https://www.edx.org/course/awareness-based-systems-change-u-lab-how-mitx-15-671-0x .

      Climate change is right at the heart of this initiative. I will write a review on Theory U soon. If you have any particular questions feel free to contact me by email (joanakompa@gmail.com). The idea of inviting non-establishment thinkers is, from the perspective of social psychology, very useful to prevent groupthink patterns.

      Kindest Regards!

      Joana

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