Thursday, August 19, 2010

Constructivist Learning Theory

Overview of Constructivist Learning Theory & Implications for Instructional Design

In the introduction to a book that merits much reflection, Constructivism and the Technology of Instruction (Ed.) Thomas M. Duffy & David H. Jonassen, the authors argue that both “objectivism” and constructivism accept the fact that there is a real world that in some way can be and is experienced.” However, from the constructivist perspective,

Meaning is imposed on the world by us, rather than existing in the world independently of us. [Consequently,] there are many ways to structure the world, and there are many meanings and perspectives for any event or concept. Thus there is not a correct meaning that we are striving for (p. 3)

As further developed in Bednar et al, in “Theory into Practice: How Do We Link,” argues similarly that since all we can come to know is how various human actors construct the world through “internal representation,” “conceptual growth,” in turn, “comes from the sharing of multiple perspectives and the simultaneous changing of our internal representations in response to those perspectives as well as through cumulative experiences.” Clearly, from this point of view, growth in learning is both possible and desirable through increasingly rich internal representations that provide enhanced efficacy in interacting with the culture and social environment from which and to whom the “individual” has been shaped.

The contrast is with the objectivist tradition, in which, in language of Bednar et al, “Objectivity is a goal we must constantly strive for.” As argued by Duffy & Jonassen,

"Objectivism holds that the world is completely and correctly structured in terms of entities, properties, and relations. [Personal] experience plays an insignificant role in the structuring of the world; meaning is something that exists in the world quite aside from experience. Hence, the goal of understanding [and therefore, education] is to come to know the entities, attributes, and relations that exist. The objectivist view acknowledges that people have different understandings based on different experiences….However, the impact of prior experience and human interpretation is seen as leading to partial understandings and biased understandings. The goal is to strive for the complete and correct understanding" [in which truth, however beyond the capacity for flawed and finite minds to fully attain, is a regulative ideal that should inform research, theory construction, and evidence based practice] (pp. 2-3)

As articulated by Duffy & Jonassen as well as by Bednar et al, the contrast couldn’t be sharper. As we saw in the previous lecture, there is a sort of great divide in learning theory in which constructivists link education to the pursuit of enhanced and meaning through an exploration of the rich chords of context including the dialectic between personal and collective perception in which self and social context are subtly interwoven rather than sharply separated as two distinctive entities. We saw as well that cognitivist learning theorists, like behaviorists posit an external world which has its own power and legitimacy that operates largely outside the parameters of individual perceptions. This is the case, cognitivists argue, even as they give greater credence to enhancing self-awareness through various information processing strategies that depend very much on personal perception. Moreover, as reflected Merrill’s essay, “Constructivism and Instructional Design,” some cognitivists, Sticht included, seek to build bridges with constructivist learning theory even as their predominant inclinations, in my view remain ultimately cognitivist in scope, an assessment of which I am not sure Merrill or Sticht would accept.

A few notations on Bednar et al.’s “Theory into Practice: How Do We Link?” (,
will help to sharpen the discussion of the critical assumptions that underscore constructivist learning theory, including its contrast with what the authors refer to as the Objectivist perspective. The critical need, according to the authors, is to view the prevailing eclectic approach in instructional design with considerable skepticism in which “concepts and strategies [of learning] are abstracted out of their theoretical framework” simply because they seem useful in a given context. The authors maintain that cognitivist learning theorists, who share an affinity for “objectivism” with behaviorists, are, in fact, drawing implicitly on a broad range of behaviorist and cognitivist resources which cumulatively reinforce the objectivist paradigm. On this they point out the emphasis on “behavioral learning theory, cybernetics, and information-processing theory.

Whether or not this represents an adequate view of cognitivism is a point of contention to be explored throughout this lecture and throughout our two week focus on learning theories. For example, the distinctions get a bit fuzzier when considering “systems thinking,” which also falls within the purview of the cognitivist mix. Yet, in its emphasis on working toward holistic solutions could veer toward a more constructivist sensibility. The following links provide a brief overview of systems thinking:

Management theorist Peter Senge’s widely read book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization is a good example of a text that is deeply grounded in a systems-thinking design that appeals to cognitivist and constructivist-oriented management consultants and practitioners. Despite this complexity, I would agree with the intent of Bednar et al’s argument that underlying presuppositions (whether cognitivist or constructivist) play a powerful role in shaping how any resource will be utilized, and therefore, the ultimate orientation of a particular educational direction. In pushing their argument, Bednar et. al contend that:

Instructional design and development must be based upon some theory of learning and/or cognition; effective design is possible only if the developer has developed reflexive awareness of the theoretical basis underlying the design (italics in original).

Whether or not this is the case, a good number of those working from what might be dubbed “the constructivist revolution” in learning theory, argue this is the case. For these advocates this represents a profound paradigm shift of the first order magnitude. Whether or not insight from various learning theories can be fused in giving shape to a coherent instructional design and corresponding classroom practice, merits close investigation in its own right; a topic I will revisit when I get to M.D. Merrill’s research. For the immediate purposes here of fleshing out the basic assumptions of constructivist learning theory, the following comparative chart extracted from “Theory into Practice,” may be of more value.

Objectivist/Constructivist Contrasts:
Note: Bednar et. al represent the objectivist perspective through cogntivist rather than behaviorist learning theory in which the two are somewhat conflated.

Objectivist Learning Theory

Analysis of Content

• A tendency to simplify, and regularize, or systematize the components to be learned.
• Content components identified and classified based on nature of the content and goals of the learners.
• Component analysis presupposes and pre-specifies perquisite learning.

Analysis of Learners

• The focus of instruction is meeting the needs of the average or general learner
• The learner has a learning deficiency of some type which requires pinpointed remediation
• Pre-test assessment provides an important diagnosis of student learning needs
• The purpose of instruction is to help students gain efficient mastery of the information presented through various mind storage and retrieval processes.

Specification of Objectives

• The focus of instruction is the specification of the intended outcome, such as accurately filling out a job application
• Learning objectives are broken down into specific tasks and then organized into broader synthetic units in which each component builds into and builds up into a unitary block of knowledge.
• Instruction is to be based on performance objectives which are internal to each field of study or body of content.

Constructivist Learning Theory

Analysis of Content

• The content cannot be pre-specified since the learner must construct a frame of reference for even determining what content is relevant.
• A provisional topic range may be specified Still, getting to the relevant contexts that give shape to what emerges as the content to be explored requires a reflective discovery process in its own right.
• Most important is fresh data, fresh insights, fresh content that only emerges in and through the learning process itself.
• Units of information cannot be isolated from the contexts in which they are embedded, and therefore, the boundaries of what may are relevant are more permeable than traditionally viewed.
• There may be a need to simplify content for a novice learner, which needs to remain grounded in authentic contexts.

Analysis of Learners

• The focus of instruction is to enhance student reflexivity rather than that of remembering.
• Accordingly, the focus is on knowledge construction, the stimulation of the imagination, probing inquiry, and the exploration of alternative perspectives.

Specification of Objectives

• The focus of instruction is to enhance student reflexivity rather than that of remembering.
• Accordingly, the focus is on knowledge construction, the stimulation of the imagination, probing inquiry, and the exploration of alternative perspectives.

Concluding Thoughts

The remainder of the article further fleshes out some of the key assumptions that underlie constructivist learning theory such as the following:

• Students are not asked simply to solve pre-fabricated and artificial problems and projects. Rather, the learning challenge is to work with them to discover problems and create projects designed to either resolve them or probe more deeply into them that capture a larger context in which any given set of problems may be deemed as relevant. Learning objectives emerge accordingly as part of the discovery process.
• It is critical, therefore, to maintain the complexity of any authentic learning environment and situate learning within that complexity as students engage their roles within its highly contextual framework.
• High level modeling, extensive opportunities for role play and practice, and stimulating collaborative learning environments are key features of a constructivist learning/teaching design.
• These features, in turn draw out the necessity of multiple perspectives in which a significant learning challenge is to grasp and evaluate the different points of view. The objective in such a learning environment is obviously not that of extrapolating the one best answer, but for an enhancement of internal representations through deep reflection and empathetic, though critical dialogue and engagement.
• Evaluation, in turn, is less mastery of basic facts or isolated information than an assessment of the quality of thinking that the learner has undergone through inquiry-based education. Critical features include problem solving capacity, reasoned thinking, including deep contextual probing, and capacity to defend a point of view within some type of real-world-based perspective. Portfolio assessment has served as an important tool in providing an organized structure for a constructivist evaluation even as it by necessity requires some simplification of the context in order to manage.

Bednar et al. leave us with a few salient questions to ponder, namely:

1. Is critical thinking the goal of all learning?
2. Do the contexts in which the learning is to be applied relate to the nature of the learning experience? Stated somewhat differently, is there a direct correlation between learning and context mastery of a given topic?
3. Are there contexts where it is appropriate to apply traditional instructional developmental models and others where it is not?
4. Is it useful to distinguish learning capacities of novice from more experienced learners?

The authors leave these questions open. Nonetheless, one might draw a plausible inference that the reality may not be as clear cut from a pure assessment of their theoretical interpretation of constructivist learning theory. If that is, in fact the case then where does that leave their core argument that all aspects of developing a learning environment need to be based on a coherent (and seemingly singular) philosophical premise? I’ll let their minimalist prescription stand as the final word: “Minimally, we must be aware of the epistemological underpinnings of our instructional design and we must be aware of the consequences of that epistemology on our goals for instruction, our design on instruction, and on the very process of design.” This, indeed, may be a good starting point for an ongoing exploration of the cogency and relevant applications of an array of learning theories as they apply or might apply to adult education.

No comments:

Post a Comment