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Why constructivist learning can't always work in traditional classrooms

Constructivist learning is an educational theory based on the psychological theories of Constructivist thinkers such as Jean Piaget. His theory — usually referred to as Developmental Stage Theory — described learning and cognitive development as “a progressive reorganization of mental processes resulting from biological maturation and environmental experience”.

He suggested that children construct an understanding of the world around them based on prior experiences, discerning differences between what they already know, and what they learn from their environment and new experiences, thus forming new ideas.

The Constructivist theory is a sprawling field of academic inquiry that has been applied to theories of politics, society, economics and as well as philosophies of science. How the mind constructs meaning, what becomes accepted as formal knowledge, how societies agree on what holds meaning and what role culture and social mores play in agreeing on what is true, are all fascinating and important topics. For further reading I would suggest starting here and here.

From the constructivist theory to progressive education

Constructivist learning theories became the theoretical foundation for much of what is termed today as “progressive education”, a movement starting in the early 19th century as a reaction to the socially-stratified teaching methods that focussed almost entirely on university preparation.

The progressive education movement has a number of hallmarks, these include:

  • Learning by doing
  • Emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking
  • Group work
  • Development of social skills
  • Collaborative learning
  • Personalized learning
  • Basing content design on what future skills
  • De-emphasis on textbooks, rote learning and teacher-led instruction.

Critics of constructivist teaching methods claim that many active learning techniques lack focus. A highly cited review of over 50 years’ of constructionist learning literature by Richard Mayer, concluded:

The research in this brief review shows that the formula constructivism = hands-on activity, is a formula for educational disaster.

His problem was the high focus on activity, and the comparatively slender focus on actual learning. His suggestion is logical and pragmatic: using guided discovery, a mix of direct instruction and hands-on activity, rather than pure discovery, he concludes,

In many ways, guided discovery appears to offer the best method for promoting constructivist learning.

I think most elementary school teachers would agree that sending a group of ten-year olds into a field for an afternoon to learn about butterflies, while fun for the kids, would be an exhausting and time-consuming way to teach basic entomology. Such a field trip combined with field questionnaires, identification cards, group work and post-discovery discussion would be infinitely more effective.

A better environment for constructivist learning?

The online learning environment, while not specifically designed by proponents of constructivist learning theory, creates an environment where absorbing knowledge in the form of lessons, lectures and texts can be effectively balanced with “guided discovery” where students build knowledge through experimentation, exploration and discussion.

I’ll explore practical examples in next week’s blog on how specific constructivist teaching practices find wonderful and effective expression in the online and flipped classroom.

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