Lesson 5 - Theories of Learning
8.1. What is Constructivism?
Both behaviourist and some elements of cognitive theories of learning are deterministic, in the sense that behaviour and learning are believed to be rule-based and operate under predictable and constant conditions over which the individual learner has no or little control. However, constructivists emphasize the importance of consciousness, free will and social influences on learning. Carl Rogers (1969) stated that:
Every individual exists in a continually changing world of experience in which he is the center.
The external world is interpreted within the context of that private world. The belief that humans are essentially active, free, and strive for meaning in personal terms has been around for a long time and is an essential component of constructivism.
Constructivists believe that knowledge is essentially subjective in nature, constructed from our perceptions and mutually agreed-upon conventions. According to this view, we construct new knowledge rather than simply acquire it via memorization or through transmission from those who know to those who don’t know. Constructivists believe that meaning or understanding is achieved by assimilating information, relating it to our existing knowledge, and cognitively processing it (in other words, thinking or reflecting on new information). Social constructivists believe that this process works best through discussion and social interaction, allowing us to test and challenge our own understandings with those of others. For a constructivist, even physical laws exist because they have been constructed by people from evidence, observation, and deductive or intuitive thinking, and, most importantly, because certain communities of people (in this example, scientists) have mutually agreed on what constitutes valid knowledge.
Constructivists argue that individuals consciously strive for meaning to make sense of their environment in terms of past experience and their present state. It is an attempt to create order in their minds out of disorder, to resolve incongruities, and to reconcile external realities with prior experience. The means by which this is done are complex and multi-faceted, from personal reflection, seeking new information, to testing ideas through social contact with others. Problems are resolved, and incongruities sorted out, through strategies such as seeking relationships between what was known and what is new, identifying similarities and differences, and testing hypotheses or assumptions. Reality is always tentative and dynamic.
One consequence of constructivist theory is that each individual is unique, because the interaction of their different experiences, and their search for personal meaning, results in each person being different from anyone else. Thus behaviour is not predictable or deterministic, at least not at the individual level (which is a key distinguishing feature from cognitivism, which seeks general rules of thinking that apply to all humans). The key point here is that for constructivists, learning is seen as essentially a social process, requiring communication between learner, teacher, and others. This social process cannot effectively be replaced by technology, although technology may facilitate it.