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.

Language and Cognitive Development

children talkingIn his Tractus Logico Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein (Wittgenstein, 1998) coined the famous phrase ‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world’. It is because of language that we are consciousness of our inner and the outer world and that we are capable of symbolic interaction. Our ability to explain, predict and understand others’ mental states, feelings, wishes, intentions and behavior is known as the Theory of Mind (ToM). Language development and ToM are closely intertwined (Miller, 2006).

Language and Cognitive Development

Language development and its representational use starts for Piaget at the end of the sensorimotor stage at about 2 years of age (Piaget, 1962). Initial language egocentricity which uses imitation, private speech and modeling, proportionally decreases while language- and thought differentiation increases (JeongChul et al, 2011). The correct application of logic and mental operations is not achieved until the concrete operational stage at 7-11 years (Arnett, 2012, p.294) while problem-solving, abstraction and hypothetical reasoning do not appear until the formal operational stage at 11 years and above (Arnett, p.355). Piaget’s mechanistic concept of schemata-evolution by assimilation and accommodation does not sufficiently explain how language development evokes higher cognitive levels and it fails to explain individual developmental differences.

Rather than individual investigation Vygotsky focuses on the emergence of language and cognition through concrete social interaction (Vygotsky, 1986). Internalization of external dialogue morphs for the child into internal, subjective thought (Christy, 2013, p.201). Human cognition is socially constituted, first pre-linguistically and subsequently by language.    Vygotsky stresses the importance of joint attention which forms a central idea in the ToM. In the ToM the pre-verbal ability of an infant to focus on an object or a person is a prerequisite for learning the first words. The child’s ability of joint attention with caretakers via language at 18-20 months is a precursor to the ToM (Charman et al., 2000). Social interaction precedes language acquisition and scaffolds it. Cognitive development starts with employing verbs such as ‘need’ and ‘want’ at 2:4 as well as using mental state verbs such as ‘think’ , ‘believe’, ‘guess’ and ‘know’ at 2:7 (Bartsch & Wellman, 1995).

At 40 months a child engages in family talk about feelings and causation while cooperative verbal interactions with siblings occur at 33 months (Youngblade, 1991). From age 3 onwards children are able to use mental state terms with increasing confidence and can perform typical ToM tasks such as differentiating true from false beliefs, handle unexpected content or identify a toy’s change of location while testing memory and intentionality (Miller, p.150), equivalent to Piaget’s concept of object-permanence (Piaget, 1954). In late childhood and adolescence the use of language expands from constative and performative speech-acts to locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts (SEP, 2007), allowing for complex mental operations, advanced problem-solving skills and normative assessment within extended social ecologies.

The impact of multilingual development on cognitive development          

Bilingual upbringing is positively associated with increased attention-control, working memory, abstract and symbolic reasoning and metalinguistic awareness (Adesope et al., 2010). Early access to a second language, fostered by high significance- and participation levels in everyday communication, is positively related to taking over another person’s mentalistic perspective. Meristo and colleagues (Siegal et al, 2012) point out that for deaf children for example early bilingual upbringing (sign language and lip-reading) allows children to perform at similar levels as hearing comparison children which is not the case for monolingual and late-signing deaf children. The reasons for such benefits are attributed to the development of efficient executive controls; this is to be able to focus on one language while inhibiting another, overcoming the child’s own salient mental state (Bialystok, 2004). Bilingual children tend to score well in ToM-tasks that pose high inhibitory demands, ultimately contributing to high-level cognitive functioning (Kovács, 2007).

Siegal and colleagues argue that the more advanced capability of understanding the intentionality of other speakers subsequently encourages more cooperative behavior. This is assumed to lead to improved moral development pending further research (Siegal et al, 2012).

Conclusion               

In early cognitive-lingual development, semantics at age 3-5 predict significant variance in ToM-performance while syntax does not contribute to variance in belief or desire (Ruffman et al., 2003). In pretend-play, pragmatics, assuming different speaker roles and perspectives, play a vital part to cognitive development (Sawyer, 1993) suggesting that early cognitive-lingual development is driven primarily by semantics and pragmatics with syntax refining at a later age. Vygotsky’s visionary approach of understanding speech-acts in socio-cultural context provides the basis of today’s ToM.

References

Adesope, O. O., Lavin, T., Thompson, T., & Ungerleider, C. (2010). A systematic review and meta-analysis of the cognitive correlates of bilingualism. Review of Educational Research, 80(2), 207–245.

Arnett, J. J. (2012). Human development: A cultural approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Bartsch, K., & Wellman, H. (1995). Children talk about the mind. New York: Oxford University Press

Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I., Klein, R., & Viswanathan, M. (2004). Bilingualism, aging, and cognitive control: evidence from the Simon task. Psychology and Aging, 19, 290–303.

Charman, T., Baron-Cohen, S., Swettenham, J., Baird, G., Cox, A., & Drew, A. (2000). Testing joint attention, imitation, and play as infancy precursors to language and theory of mind. Cognitive Development, 15, 481–498

Christy, T. C. (2013). Vygotsky, cognitive development and language: New perspectives on the nature of grammaticalization. Historiographia Linguistica, 40(1-2), 199-227. doi:10.1075/hl.40.1-2.07chr

JeongChul, H., Sumi, H., Christopher, K., & Hasan, A. (2011). Piaget‟s Egocentrism and Language Learning: Language Egocentrism (LE) and Language Differentiation (LD). Journal Of Language Teaching And Research, (4), 733.

Kovács, Á. M. (2007). Beyond language: childhood bilingualism enhances high-level cognitive functions. In I. Kecskés & L. Albertazzi (eds), Bimultilingualism cognition (pp. 301–24). Netherlands: Springer Science.

Miller, C. A. (2006). Developmental Relationships Between Language and Theory of Mind. American Journal Of Speech-Language Pathology, 15(2), 142-154. doi:10.1044/1058-0360(2006/014)

Piaget, J. (1954). The development of object concept. In The construction of reality in the child (pp. 3–96). New York: Basic Books

Piaget, J. (1962). The psychology of the child. New York: Basic Books.

Ruffman, T., Slade, L., Rowlandson, K., Rumsey, C., & Garnham, A. (2003). How language relates to belief, desire,and emotion understanding. Cognitive Development, 18, 139–158.

Sawyer, K. (1993). The Pragmatics of Play: Interactional Strategies during Children’s Pretend Play. Pragmatics: Quarterly Publication Of The International Pragmatics Association, 3(3), 259-282.

Siegal, M., & Surian, L. (2012). Access to language and cognitive development [electronic book] / [edited by] Michael Siegal, Luca Surian. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2012.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP).(2007). Speech Acts. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/speech-acts/

Vygotsky, L. (1986) Thought and Language. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (1998). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Dover Publications

Youngblade, L. M., & Dunn, J. (1995). Individual differences in young children’s pretend play with mothers and siblings: Links to relationships and understanding of other people’s feelings and beliefs. Child Development, 66, 1472–1492.