Within the field of education, and in particular educational technology, dominant paradigms of instruction include active, interactive, constructivist, and studentcentered approaches as opposed to passive and teachercentered approaches to learning and teaching. There is hardly much argument as to the relevance of such constructivist approaches in the contemporary world. It is no more a question of whether we have enough information, but of what critical and analytical skills we need to sift out relevant information from the huge barrage of information churned out of the pervasive information communications technologies (ICTs) of our time, and how to construct meaningful knowledge to enhance human life. Within such constructivist learning environments, digital ICTs are deployed to enhance the best possible methods. This article aims to provide an overview of the meaning and theories of constructivism, and to further illustrate the concept with a case study of using an online bulletin board in a university undergraduate course.
What Is Constructivism?
To construct, literally, means to build or to create something by combining different parts. In the field of education, the idea of constructing knowledge and meaning is highlighted. This philosophy of constructing knowledge and meaning is often called constructivism. The central idea of constructivism is that learners construct their own knowledge of the world. Learning is, therefore, a process of creating meaning by the learners themselves, and the instructor simply serves as a facilitator in this process.
An Overview of Constructivist Learning Theories
Theories of learning within education and related fields such as psychology and cognitive science have proliferated over the years. New pedagogical methods based on these theories are turning away from passive methods of teaching, which require no action on the part of the student beyond listening and taking notes, to interactive delivery methods, which enable the student to control and manipulate the instruction environment. These active approaches to instruction may be situated within the framework of what may be called constructivist theories of learning. The following subsections outline various views and theories of constructivist learning, including Piaget’s cognitive constructivism, Dewey’s theory of experiential education, Bruner’s theory of active learning, and Vygotsky’s social constructivism.
The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget is considered to be one of the earliest proponents of constructivism. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development in the field of epistemology has greatly influenced today’s theories of learning and child development. According to Piaget (1955, 1973), children’s abilities to acquire knowledge are attributed to the fact that they are born with the ability to adapt to the environment. This adaptation is achieved through two processes: assimilation and accommodation. Piaget’s views provide the foundation for many instructional models. Pedagogically, Piaget’s theory implies that children learn naturally through their interaction with the environment they live in, but not through information given by the teacher.
John Dewey’s educational theory (Dewey 1913, 1956, 1963) also focuses on the fact that knowledge is created by the learners themselves, but unlike Piaget’s theory that mainly stresses cognitive development, Dewey stresses the importance of society in the process of acquiring knowledge. As stated in Dewey (1956), learning is an active process that involves reaching out of the mind and organic assimilation starting from within. It is the learner and not the subject matter that determines both quality and quantity of learning. For Dewey, the learner plays an extremely integral role in the learning process, where knowledge is constructed by the learners themselves through their experience of the real world.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Cognitive Constructivism: An approach to constructivism based on the work of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, particularly his theory of cognitive development. According to Piaget, the knowledge of human beings is “constructed” through experience, but not from the information they are given.
Knowledge Transformation: The process in which the learner behaves as a passive “information receiver” at the beginning of a course, but gradually plays an active role in learning and constructing knowledge midway through the course
Interactivity: One of the main features of modern digital ICTs; refers to the interchange of responses and actions between humans and machines or amongst human beings.
Conversation Learning Community (CLC): A kind of interactive and constructivist learning environment in which the instructor(s), learners, course materials, and links to remote experts and resources interact with each other (Bodomo, 2001, in press).
WebCT: An asynchronous Web-based course-management system that provides a platform for e-learning and teaching practices, used amongst educational institutions.
Interaction-Oriented Intervention: The appropriate presence of the teacher in an active learning and student-centered environment.
Social Constructivism: Shares most of Piaget’s views but puts more emphasis on the impact of the social context of learning. Lev Vygotsky, the proponent of social constructivist theory, stresses that social environment plays a crucial role in children’s development and acquisition of knowledge.