Constructivism vs. Connectivism

Constructivism, as a model of learning, holds the duality of much promise, and much frustration. On the one hand, it breaks from the structured models of learning that dominated the first half of the last century, giving voice to the “softer” elements of learning (educators often understand this intuitively – we see the lack of direct connection between what we lecture about and what our students actually learn). On the other hand, constructivism has not been well-defined. It can essentially mean anything to anyone. It’s an idea without boundaries, a philosophy without root. This vague definition results in everything being labeled as constructivism (see these six paradigms). If anything, my experience with constructivism places it more in the domain of a teaching philosophy, and less in the domain of a theory (consider these attributes of constructivism).

Any discipline that is largely self-directed and informal will draw critics…lack of structure and the ability to “managed” outcomes is frustrating to pragmatics. Jeremy links to Why Minimally Guided Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching (.pdf). While I have issues with constructivism, I don’t think the concept of self-directed (or minimally-guided) learning is a function of only constructivism (a behaviourist could say that the students failures in solving a problem, resulted in different approaches until the right problem solving behaviour was exhibited). The article does present an interesting example of limited differences between problem-based learning (PBL) and lecture learning for medical students – essentially concluding that PBL resulted in higher grades, but they ordered more tests (indicating that the lack of theoretical construct resulted in minimal ability to make decisions based on nuanced factors).

The article’s main contention is that constructivism is at odds with what we currently understand about “human cognitive architecture”…and approaches its argument based on cognitive load – the notion that our minds can only manage limited information, and learners without a base of established knowledge have difficulty understanding key elements due to extra stress on our working memory.

The numerous factors that impact learning is overwhelming – I’m almost at the stage of throwing up my hands and saying the real challenge lies in defining context, need, and intent of learning. Most often when we are debating about learning theories, we are really debating how we’ve framed the questions and the context of learning. As always, monochromatic views of learning fail. Each tool for the task (or the context).

On to my concerns with constructivism: Several individuals have provided excellent guidance in suggesting that I don’t try and position connectivism as a replacement for established learning theories (i.e. constructivism, behaviourism, cognitivism). I’m generally supportive of integral thinking, and agree with a matrix posted by Derek Wenmoth on online learning (including a continuum of learning theories).

Constructivism, for me, fails on two levels: 1) it is not capable of functioning in rapid knowledge growth environments, as it doesn’t account for learning that happens in networks and 2) constructivism is a “sometimes” learning habit (we are always connecting, but we only construct in certain situations).

Constructivism, as with other learning theories, assumes that learning happens in our head. In fairness, various flavours of constructivism acknowledge the importance of the social context in which the learning happens, and that learners learn from each other. The act of learning itself is still perceived to be in the head of the individual. Most learning needs today are becoming too complex to be addressed in “our heads”. We need to rely on a network of people (and increasingly, technology) to store, access, and retrieve knowledge and motivate its use. The network itself becomes the learning. This is critical today; the rapid development of knowledge means that we need to find new ways of learning and staying current. We cannot increase our capacity for learning ad infinitum. We must begin to conceive learning as socially networked and enhanced by technology (it’s a symbiosis of people and technology that forms our learning networks). We need to acknowledge our learning context not only as an enabler of learning, but as a participant of the learning itself.

Constructivism is complex. Let your mind wander a bit: My learning is a function of previous life experience, the people around me, the actual environment in which I function, my previous learning experiences (both emotional and cognitive), the nature of group relationships (socially-based), etc. When new information enters the space, I (according to constructivism) construct knowledge of its meaning/relevance against the backdrop of the above mentioned factors. But I can’t simply construct – because, to use the molecule metaphor of learning objects (or microcontent), many of the elements that comprise the base of my knowledge come previously constructed (by a discipline, the teacher, the article, etc.). For example, the elements that comprise a new idea come “chunked”. I don’t construct that entire concept or idea. Instead, I connect it with existing knowledge. If anything, the learning suggested by constructivism is actually in the deconstruction of these packaged elements into smaller pieces of knowledge. A simple example: if someone teaches me the skills of critical thinking, I will largely acquire the elements in “pre-constructed” formats. I will acknowledge that I need to question and validate knowledge sources for authenticity (a concept which can take a lifetime to integrate into practice and habits, and even then I’ll still make mistakes). I don’t construct anything to make use of this at a basic level. I simply adopt it and try and interrogate new information. My actual learning happens when I deconstruct the knowledge itself (getting deeper into the full meaning of the notion of “validating”). We don’t always construct. We are often much more passive in our learning. We read an article and we link it to our existing understanding. We subscribe to a newsletter (or magazine)…we attend certain conferences…we dialogue with certain people/communities. In the end, much of our learning is a connection-forming process (the conduit, not content, is what is king) where we add new elements that augment our capacity to know more. We rely on Google, libraries, friends, social bookmarks/tags, etc. to serve as our personal learning network (we store the knowledge external to ourselves). When we need something, we go to our network (know-where is more important than know-how or know-what)…or we expand our network. In the end, the constant act of connecting in order to stay current is a much more reflective model of learning than constructivism.

8 Responses to “Constructivism vs. Connectivism”

  1. Rick says:

    I agree with your thoughts on deconstructionism. After all, I deconstructed the meaning or your ideas to understand them. I also agree with your assertion that connectivism is the key to gaining kowledge. I actively sought out this information. But, aren’t I taking the deconstructed ideas, gained from being connected and, having a purpose and goal in mind, reconstructing them to meet that goal? I contend that deconstructivism and connectivism are means to an end — constructivism.

  2. Lanny Arvan says:

    It seems to me helpful to cast this discussion in terms of learners through the life cycle and ask questions of the sort:
    (1) What does it take to come to believe that something is true?
    (2) What evidence/experience is needed to make the individual change his mind on a position?
    (3) How fungible is the individual’s sense of taste?
    My belief is that when younger construction of the idea is crucial to come to believe it is true but when more mature and if there are ideas/experience that seem to have bearing then one might base truth of a particular idea or piece of infomration on a much more cursory look and indeed that ability to make quick judgements on the truth of a proposition is critical in operating in a network.
    I would also argue that when more mature much of what we hold to be true is done in a contingent way and evidence to the contrary can more quickly reverse the the point of view, but when younger there is a tendency towards absolutes which makes change of view more dramatic.
    In contrast, I would argue our sense of taste is less well formed when younger and is more likely to change subject to external forces, e.g., peer pressure, but when older the sense of taste is less mutable.
    If this makes sense the conclusion is that the consructivist approach as you’ve characterized it pertains to learning earlier on in the life cycle while one will come to your notion of connectivism as one matures.
    And even if you don’t buy all of that, I hope we can agree that a good teacher should modify her approach depending on the audience and that more mature learners do learn differently from their more junior counterparts.

  3. Are “constructing” and “forming connections” really different processes? In a constructivist view, people construct meaning by relating the input to prior knowledge. That means, they form connections between input and knowledge. Whenever input arrives working memory, people (or: their brains) interpret this information on the basis of prior knowlege. Thus, construction is implemented by forming connections.
    The other way around, connecting a thing to other things results in the construction of a richer network. Thus, connecting things means constructing a net.
    Thinking in neural terms, connecting and constructing are not separate processes. Connecting is the central process in brain, and the human mind constructs an image of the world based on this connectivity.
    In my opinion, it does not make sense to distinguish between constructing and connecting when talking about human cognition.

  4. Richard Giroday says:

    The problem with learning theories is that we approach them seeking the magic bullet… the end all and be all learning theory that somehow will apply in/to all contexts, subjects, and learners. Within our own philsophical approaches we often grasp rigidly to one or another and contrast and compare them, debating their merits or short comings. We seek a cookie cutter solution to learning.
    However, there is a time and place for each. Behavourism, Constructivism, Connectivism, each underline important ways of learning at different ages, in different subjects, in different contexts. To lose site of that is unfortunate. The claim is made that “knowing where to find” is more important than “knowing”…. perhaps that is true in certain situations or under certain conditions. However, if your 6 year old only “knows where to find” what 2 times 3 is… and doesn’t “know what” it is… I would suggest they will be handicapped in their future learning. It is amazing to see so many senior math students in highschool who are still using their calculators to “find” what they need to know… 5+17, 4X5 … they know where to find it, and have continued handicapping themselves in their learning by “finding it for years”… they just don’t know it. Extrapolate that to brain surgery or (place what you want here). Knowing where to find is not sufficient for much learning.
    Connectivism is an integral part of learning, constructivism is as well, and often behavourism produces the beginning of a foundation of knowledge. To exhort that one is superior to the other, to the exclusion of all else, is the common trap.

  5. tanbob says:

    “We must begin to conceive learning as socially networked and enhanced by technology (it’s a symbiosis of people and technology that forms our learning networks). We need to acknowledge our learning context not only as an enabler of learning, but as a participant of the learning itself. ”
    Don’t you think that post-Vygotskian frameworks address this? The way I understand it, cultural historical activity theory(Eg. Engestrom 1987, 1999, 2001) provides a framework for looking at this dialectic, and addresses your concerns with constructivism, such as: “Constructivism, for me, fails on two levels: 1) it is not capable of functioning in rapid knowledge growth environments, as it doesn’t account for learning that happens in networks and 2) constructivism is a “sometimes” learning habit (we are always connecting, but we only construct in certain situations).” Engestrom puts forward the notion of “knotworking” which essentially describes networks, and the activity system itself (the unit of analysis)provides a means for describing the mediation of activity (by technology, people, rules, resources) at any given time. In this view, the unit of analysis is never the individual and the construction of learning by that individual in the social context, but the system itself, which is dyanamic and full of transformative potential. Perhaps some of the ideas of connectivism could advance current understandings of activity theory.

  6. Bill Kerr says:

    I written a critique of this post, the latest version is , the network is not god

  7. ruthqing says:

    Yes, we may say that we don’t always construct, but we use other people’s knowledge that has been constructed. In fact, when we search and select information, when we deconstruct the complexity of a set of information and rebuild it as our own knowledge, or apply it in context, that is constructivism. Can we say that we do not construct? Are we really passive in learning? In this information age, constructivism has been developed to communal constructivism (Holmes et al., 2006). As process of learning is enlarged, from school into the public sphere or into corporate environments, such as e-learning environment, communal constructivism is formed. It is “an approach to learning in which students construct their own knowledge as a result of their experiences and interactions with others, and are afforded the opportunity to contribute this knowledge to a communal knowledge base for the benefit of existing and new learners.” More information about communal constructivism can be found in:
    Holmes, B. & Gardner, J. (2006). e-learning: Concepts and Practice. London: Sage Publications.

  8. [...] in third-generation activity theory.  I’ve made this point in the past (posted on George’s blog back in 2006 under ‘tanbob’) but as noted by Bill Kerr’s critique back in ‘07the point was never really addressed. [...]