8.2. Constructivist Approaches to Teaching
For many educators, the social context of learning is critical. Ideas are tested not just on the teacher, but with fellow students, friends, and colleagues. Furthermore, knowledge is mainly acquired through social processes or institutions that are socially constructed: schools, universities, and increasingly these days, online communities. Thus what is taken to be ‘valued’ knowledge is also socially constructed.
Constructivists believe that learning is a constantly dynamic process. Understanding of concepts or principles develops and becomes deeper over time. For instance, as a very young child, we understand the concept of heat through touch. As we get older we realize that it can be quantified, such as minus 20 centigrade being very cold (unless you live in Manitoba, where -20C would be considered normal). As we study science, we begin to understand heat differently, for instance, as a form of energy transfer, then as a form of the energy associated with the motion of atoms or molecules. Each ‘new’ component needs to be integrated with prior understandings and also integrated with other related concepts, including other components of molecular physics and chemistry.
Thus ‘constructivist’ teachers place a strong emphasis on learners developing personal meaning through reflection, analysis and the gradual building of layers or depths of knowledge through conscious and ongoing mental processing. Reflection, seminars, discussion forums, small group work, and projects are key methods used to support constructivist learning in campus-based teaching, and online collaborative learning and communities of practice are important constructivist methods in online learning.
Although problem-solving can be approached in an objectivist way, by pre-determining a set of steps or processes to go through pre-determined by ‘experts’, it can also be approached in a constructivist manner. The level of teacher guidance can vary in a constructivist approach to problem-solving, from none at all, to providing some guidelines on how to solve the problem, to directing students to possible sources of information that may be relevant to solving that problem, to getting students to brainstorm particular solutions. Students will probably work in groups, help each other, and compare solutions to the problem. There may not be considered one ‘correct’ solution to the problem, but the group may consider some solutions better than others, depending on the agreed criteria of success for solving the problem.
It can be seen that there can be ‘degrees’ of constructivism, since in practice the teacher may well act as first among equals and help direct the process so that ‘suitable’ outcomes are achieved. The fundamental difference is that students have to work towards constructing their own meaning, testing it against ‘reality’, and further constructing meaning as a result.
Constructivists also approach technology for teaching differently from behaviourists. From a constructivist perspective, brains have more plasticity, adaptability and complexity than current computer software programs. Other uniquely human factors, such as emotion, motivation, free will, values, and a wider range of senses, make human learning very different from the way computers operate. Following this reasoning, education would be much better served if the computer scientists tried to make software to support learning more reflective of the way human learning operates, rather than trying to fit human learning into the current restrictions of behaviourist computer programming.
Although constructivist approaches can be and have been applied to all fields of knowledge, they are more commonly found in approaches to teaching in the humanities, social sciences, education, and other less quantitative subject areas.