As the semester winds down, there are some issues that I’d like to address relative to the ideas surrounding constructivist theory, instruction, learning, and education.
One issue is the idea of constructivist theory. The underlying notion of constructivism is that we each build our own understanding of the world. Given the emphasis on objectivism in the literature surrounding the topic, this seems counter intuitive. Perhaps one way to play with the idea is to consider that there is an Objective Truth. Things exist outside of our ken and the nature of those things is immutable. What’s at stake in constructivism is how each of us understands that Objective Truth.
Example: There is a rock in my yard. I discovered it while mowing. That rock means something to me but existed before I knew of it. My wife doesn’t know about the rock. She doesn’t mow the lawn. Her mental construction of the world does not include the rock. My daughter, on the other hand, knows about the rock because she used it as a background in one of her digital images. Her construction of the world includes the rock – just as mine does – but for her, that construction is linked to her creative efforts and not to my lawn mowing. We have — all three of us — constructed knowledge about the world and each of our constructions is unique.
Objectively there is a rock. Some people know about the rock. Some people don’t. Even those of us who know about the rock do not agree on what the rock is.
Education doesn’t care about the rock in my yard. From a certain perspective, Education doesn’t care about learning at all. The focus of Education is the business of instruction. For many societies, the main purpose of Education is the indoctrination of the next generations to become good, upstanding members of the society. In large part this is a political effort, but here in the US the idea is rooted in a Capitalist ideal. People should grow up and be able to take care of themselves.
Because Education is a business, there are constraints on what Education can do. One good thing is that Education can actually help make a positive difference in the lives of those it touches. Teaching a child to read or a youth to calculate are both valuable life skills which can lead to the acquisition of commercially marketable skills. As adults we need marketable skills which can be traded as labor in a marketplace in order to earn the incomes we need to acquire food, shelter, and security. The uncertainty in the last two decades as information and knowledge technologies gain on the more industrial ones has caused a substantial realignment of the economic landscape. A similar realignment happened during the Industrial Revolution as generalist agrarian populations became specialized urban ones. (In the course on Technology, Education, and Culture I argue that technology does not change culture, but defines it.)
The intersection of Education and constructivism is really a null set except for the subset of Education which involves effective instruction. Instruction is the production work in the Education factory. Classrooms and their technological surrogates are the work centers where teachers work to produce learning in their students. This relationship is key to understanding what we’re doing. Teachers do not produce knowledge. They do not produce students. The knowledge exists without the students. The students exist without the teacher. The purpose of the teacher is to help the student acquire the knowledge in useful and meaningful ways. Those ways vary from content domain to content domain and from student to student.
Example: A dance teacher needs to help students understand the cultural, social, aesthetic, and kinesthetic reality of dance. They may use examples from history, practice on the floor, movies, whatever. There’s a large collection of materials upon which to draw depending on the specific requirements for that particular course at that particular time for that particular set of students. In an ideal world they help students learn to dance, but in an Educational world their role is to assess and validate that the students have acquired the prescribed level of knowledge outlined in the content guidelines.
Example: An algebra teacher needs to help students understand priority of operation, principles of substitution and equivalence, and how to solve equations with one or more unknowns. Unlike dance, this is a mental construction — more abstract than concrete — and requires the student and teacher to enter a largely theoretical realm. In many ways this is a virtual world where the computer that mediates and creates the world is internal to each of us. We need to learn the rules and be guided through the operations. We need to learn how to navigate and what might have meaning. Again, in an ideal world the teacher helps the student learn how to solve a collection of real problems which they will encounter in the real world — namely how to calculate a real value when we don’t have all the direct numbers, but instead must deal with – for example – proportions. In the Educational world, the role of teacher is to assess and validate that the students … etc.
In both these examples and in both worlds–regardless of what or how the teacher teaches–a constructivist would hold that each student builds their own meaning, their own understanding of the subject matter. Yes, they dance. Yes, they solve equations. The meaning of the dance or the nature of the solution is unique because it’s constructed anew for each student based on their particular context.
With that as a background, we need to construct a new reality–an understanding of the pivotal role of teacher as worker in the Educational factory.
Any effective worker learns how to do the job most effectively and efficiently. In part that means understanding what the job is and being clear about what that construction entails. For a teacher, the learner is a black box. Stuff goes in. Stuff comes out. We can’t really see what happens in the middle. We have some theories — Behaviorism, Objectivism, Operant Conditioning, Constructivism, Constructionism, Connectivism — but they are all just ex post facto analyses of observed phenomenon which are used to predict outcomes based on the results of previously administered inputs.
I like the notion of Constructivism — although Connectivism is gaining currency with me. Philosophically, the idea that there is an Objective Truth which must be discovered by each individual seems more rational to me than the idea that nothing exists until we think of it. My experience validates the notion that construction is unique to each individual — even on things that seem obvious like the rock in my yard. If you come to my house, you can see the rock. We can agree that it’s there. What it *means* and how it relates to anything else is the key. I think that idea of meaning and relation is the key to any knowledge — not just the trivial idea of the rock in my yard.
This underlying philosophy — that everyone constructs his or her own knowledge — forces me to consider that what I want to teach has very little relationship to what my students learn. Ideally, I’ll manage congruency and they’ll learn what I need them to learn in order to satisfy my role as teacher. That philosophy dictates that I accept and understand that what I teach is only a subset of what they’ll learn and that the meaning they create has only a passing and tangential relationship to any assessment I may use. This is particularly true when I consider that I cannot assess the difference between what I intend to teach and what I actually teach. The situation only gets worse when we take into consideration that even the student might not know what they’ve learned — what the meaning and relationship of that knowledge might be to the rest of their lives — until weeks or even years after the course ends.
The implications of constructivism for my practice are that, ideally, I want to create educational situations where the students are offered the opportunity to construct knowledge in the domain of interest. Whether that domain is concrete like geology or abstract like algebra, it behooves me to create environments that encourage students to create their own knowledge. Because my job is to assess and validate for the Education factory, I need to temper that by applying assessments that satisfy the institutional requirements. The more that my assessments approximate real performance–the more my students can demonstrate what they’ve learned and not just answer questions about it–the more confidence I can have that the students actually learned. If I teach cooking, having students cook something instead of taking a multiple choice test about cooking something is more authentic and is likely to provide me with a more satisfying assessment and even–perhaps–a better sense for how well and how much the student has learned.