By Zafar Iqbal
Constructivism means the learners construct their knowledge through a reflection of existing ideas. The evolution of learning comes from the prior concepts to make new thoughts. According to this theory when the learners receive new information, they reconcile this idea with their previous thoughts and experiences. They may refute the new information, ideas and concept or endorse it by comparing with preconceived ideas. In both cases, they are the ‘manufacturers’ of knowledge.
The constructivist theory of learning is further divided into subcategories:
Cognitive Constructivism: In this category focus is on the individual cognitive construction of mental structures which means how the individual learner understands things. Swiss psychologist Piaget is considered the founding father of cognitive or individual constructivism who presented three concepts of learning, assimilation, accommodation and equilibrium. For Piaget, a child learning process goes through three stages/mechanisms.
Piaget’s learning theory revolves around the pillars of schemas, assimilation, accommodation and ‘Equilibration’.
Schemas are mental representation of tangible and intangible in relations to objects, situations or events. When schemas are in the process, a new situation emerges, which is called assimilation. Assimilation is a reflection of previous existing schemas. When existing schemas fail to process new information, the mind uses a new adaptation process which is accommodation. Finally, assimilation and accommodation are agreed on a new mental structure, or concept of new knowledge that is called ‘equilibration’(Leonard, et al, 2007).
Social Constructivism: In contrast to cognitive constructivism, the social constructivism emphasizes how meanings and understandings grow out of social encounters, emphasizing the social interaction and cultural practice on the construction of knowledge (Atherton, 2013). A contemporary of Piaget, Vygotsky (1896-1936) is believed to be the chief advocate of social constructivism. Vygotsky’s’ theory is based on the concepts of ‘zone of proximal development (ZPD). For him ‘zone of proximal development (ZPD) is a boundary line that separates what is learnt independently by the learners and what could be taught by peer and teachers’ guidance. When this guidance and support comes from others by scaffolding, the new knowledge is built in the mind (Martin, 2011 Leonard et al, 2007).
- Learners must have the skills needed to complete a task and instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that the learners need to learn.
- In difficult activities or when learners do not have past experiences to help the process what they need to do to complete the task, it can essentially set the learners up to fail and discourage future exploration of new activities.
- Past knowledge and problem solving skills help the learner’s solve new problems that are more complex (Cited in Willis, 2009: p 24).
Constructivism has many other brands, such as radical constructivism, cultural constructivism, and critical constructivism, constructionism and so on.
Key principles of constructivism
During the last few decades, constructivism witnessed a number of modifications and developments that has paved way for the establishment of a few key principles which are best described by a series of research about the tenets of constructivism (Matthews, 1998, Jonassen, 1994, Good and Brophy, 1994, Boyle, 2009).
The underlying assumptions of the theory are as below:
Learners construct their own meaning that means new knowledge is actively produced without any involvement of environmental influence.
Learners construct new ideas and thoughts through the reflection of pre-existing cognitive movements and physical actions.
When new concepts emerge, they were given meaning by reflecting them with the already present mechanism of information.
Like other models of learning, constructivism too has critics and proponents. Proponents of the theory argue that constructivist activities are generally relevant to the learner and real-world based. Learners construct knowledge and meaning as they can relate the information to their own experiences, beliefs, and attitudes. Jonassen (1994) encompasses a series of benefits associated with the constructivist learning environments: Reflect realism avoids oversimplification and promotes learners to think in a broader context while making judgments. Its emphasis on carrying out of tasks in a meaningful context for authentic outcomes. It promotes in depth reflection on experience and encourages thoughtful reflection on experience. It arranges context and content- oriented learning, supports collaborative construction of knowledge among learners. It also encourages social recognition and discourage recognition –oriented generation competition among them (Cited in Wilson, 1996).
Constructivism has been criticized for a number of reasons. Firstly, as the theory emphasis upon prior knowledge due to the privileged class of learners, hence, disadvantaged children would not benefit as like the privileged class (Harnard, 1982). For example, the children with special needs are unable to learn the mental process needed to build new ideas or concepts based upon their current or past knowledge(ibid).
Secondly, constructivism is also criticized for not honoring the perspective of dissent students as they conform to the dominant consensus in the learning environment. Opponents also term various studies (Irzik, 2001, Mathews and Lio, 2005, Carson and Rowlands, no date) which claim that students in constructivist classrooms lag behind those in more traditional classrooms with basic skills, probably on the assumption that they already have some knowledge and traditional didactic teaching strategies such as lecturing are ignored due to the concentration of learners active participation (Fox, 2001).
Thirdly, the constructivist learning is learner-driven instead of instructor-driven. It restricts the instructor’s role as mediator; this restricted role may miss some key elements of earning. (Tetzlaeff, 2009).
Fourthly, the concentration of learners’ prior knowledge is also criticized because the misinformation or misconceptions, sometimes, can be hindrance in the processing of new knowledge or can lead to erroneous conclusions. In this backdrop, correction of previous misjudgments is required for new learning (Brooks and Brooks, 1993).
Application of constructivism in the education
Application of constructivism in the education revolves around two dimensions: The constructivist learning and constructivist teaching.In the constructivism learning the role of teachers becomes as facilitator, mediator, moderator, coach, promoter, and a guide to develop student skills management of the learning. The teacher does not transfer knowledge through instruction, but through asking ‘good questions’ that stimulate, analysis, synthesis and evaluation (Petty, 2009), for instance, raising questions such as ‘how’, ‘why’, ‘how could’ or judgmental questions such as ‘why do you…’ because they trigger students to show their emotions, feelings and response for discussion and engagement ( Joshi, 2007).
In contrast to conventional teaching, in constructivist learning, the learners are the ‘epicenter’ of activity who are not on the receiving end like an empty vessel to be poured by an expert, rather they actively play by becoming key ‘handler’ of the learning where they develop creativity, cognitive development and critical thinking (UCD Teaching and Learning, 2014).
On the other hand, constructivist teaching “promotes appropriate cognitive processing,” (Rusbult, 2007). Petty (2009) called this ‘brain friendly teaching’ which means the activities that promote processing of the new material, linking it to what the student already know are encouraged. Where learners are expected to process given information to make personal sense and construct their own meaning. In this construction mechanism brain work as parallel process where the learners think and consider broader and smaller perspectives at the same time by integrating new concepts effectively. Consequently, the activities which need more process from learners end create deeper learning and confidence.
Constructivist teaching promotes inclusive learning. It is based upon realism teaching tasks are authentic, set in a meaningful context, and related to the real world. Constructivist teaching concentrates holistic approach where dialogue between learner and teacher is promoted, power and control in the classroom is shared between teacher and learner while the classroom management and organisation is democratic.
Application of constructivism in learning
In terms of application of the theory in the learning environment, constructivism has a role from planning to delivery and assessment of the learners.
Choice of teaching strategies
In choosing teaching resources the teachers should use such activities and adopt processes which are linked to learners’ knowledge. Tasks should be authentic, set in a meaningful context, and related to the real world. For instance, in business-related subject teachers can use case studies where theories and models of business concepts are applied in real business world. I have used many examples of case studies about job recruitment, selection and exit procedure where students share their own former experiences. Their prior knowledge to act as scaffolding to further explore new concepts. As a result application of such techniques encourages students to develop their own thoughts.
In order to promote constructive teaching I also apply similar teaching strategies such as when framing tasks, I use cognitive terminology like ‘classify, analyze, predict, create’, etc. I also arrange activities which promote dialogue between the tutor and learners, for instance, peer or group work. During the explanation of tasks, it is ensured that learners express their understanding to each other through group work, peer work, etc. This approach is further supported by incorporating themes in tasks which generate deeper understanding. For example, I assign them tasks related with the creative themes, such as ‘revisit, conceptualize and reassess’.
Constructive resources such as worksheets, online group activities, etc. promote a learners’ level of understanding. For instance, in marketing principles I use inclusive case studies which require all learners to present their input. The inclusion of such activities promotes their interest as they consider concepts near to their prior experience of daily life where they go through as a buyer in diverse buying situations.
In the selection of assessment, the focus is given to improve the quality, in contrast to grading the learners . The execution of any project or activity, performance tasks and other methods, for example, problem-solving strategies, etc. are used for deeper understanding, self-regulation and reflection.
For example, in learning about health and safety regulations, I ask learners to carry out ‘practical assessment’, of college premises, which provided them with a practical opportunity to apply their knowledge through assessment. Questions which logic, ‘diagnostic questions, ‘Socratic questioning’, etc. are preferred for further exploration.
Constructivism helps tutors to understand individual and group needs of the learners from lesson planning, delivery and assessment. Vygotsky conveys the idea that we all learn through support and aid from others. In this context, working with others help learners understand and solidify their learning. So, group activities and pair work help to apply social constructivism. Additionally, the design of the lecture, making notes, type of assessment methods, it is important to think about learners with visual impairments and those with specific learning difficulties. For instance, I ensure that learners with disabilities sit on front seats, receive notes in bolder font and in advance. The group and peer activities reflect weaker and more able learners. I also make sure that the questions are open-ended and they generate ideas and discussion among learners. Their answers are challenged to promote their higher-level-thinking. Student’s ideas are respected and honoured. Reading content is deliberately interactive.
Possible impact on the progress and achievement of learners
Constructive teaching strategies and assessment tools and resources play a pivotal role in the development of learner’s knowledge, skills and understanding of my learners and a significant improvement is observed in the development of their skills and learning. They feel more confident in the participation of learning activities and reflect higher level learning goals.
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