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.