Web-based teaching and learning is on the rise in education and industry, challenging teachers and trainers to deliver instruction in new ways with the same or better results. To maximize the potential of Web-based delivery, instructors can avail themselves of the rich body of research that supports constructivist teaching and learning in the traditional setting. Applying the constructivist approach to Web-based teaching and learning can help instructors establish learning environments and practices that encourage growth and development in their students. Constructivist teaching and learning recognizes both teacher and student as important and contributing members in a teaching-learning relationship. Other students in the learning environment also hold such qualities. The constructivist approach acknowledges that teacher and student, alike, bring prior knowledge and experiences with them into the learning environment. By capitalizing on familiar concepts and experiences, the student is able to connect new knowledge with prior and construct new meaning. This approach to teaching and learning differs markedly from the long-held notion that students are empty vessels (tabula rasa) waiting to be filled by a knowledgeable teacher. Although constructivism is widely accepted in theory, the teaching practices of many instructors do not support this approach.
Background: The Roots Of Constructivist Thought
Constructivism dominates contemporary learning theory. Constructivists view knowledge as something that is actively constructed in a learning environment comprised of meaningful experiences and interaction with others. Using prior knowledge to make sense of new knowledge, connections arise that join related pieces of construction. Over time, a student’s cumulative construction is uniquely erected and represents the whole of his or her experiences and interactions.
Constructivist thought draws from a variety of disciplines including education, psychology, and philosophy. John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Edmund Husserl represent some profound thinkers whose work contributes to contemporary constructivist thought (Morphew, 2002).
Dewey emphasized the role of experience in the learning environment:
When we experience something we act upon it, we do something with it; then we suffer or undergo the consequences. We do something to the thing and then it does something to us in return: such is the peculiar combination. The connection of these two phases of experience measures the fruitfulness or value of the experience. . . . Experience as trying involves change, but change is meaningless transition unless it is consciously connected with the return wave of consequences which flow from it. When an activity is continued into the undergoing of consequences, when the change made by action is reflected back into a change made in us, the mere flux is loaded with significance. We learn something. (Dewey, 1944, p. 139)
Piaget believed that thought develops by growing from one state of equilibrium to another. A thinker’s encounter with an experience that is consistent with prior beliefs is simply added to his store of information. In the face of inconsistency, however, the thinker either ignores the new experience, modifies the experience in his mind to fit, or modifies his thinking to fit the experiences. When the latter process is engaged, that is when thinking occurs (Baker & Piburn, 1997).
Husserl’s phenomenology similarly relates the construction of knowledge. Husserl, born in Czechoslovakia in 1859, first studied mathematics and science. He earned a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1883, but later studied philosophy and psychology. Phenomenology, as it is presented here, is a philosophy that looks to perception of phenomena as a key to greater understanding (Morphew, 1994). In phenomenology, the subject’s perceptions involve the transaction between the subject and the subject’s field where things outside the subject are transformed into meaningful entities (in Morphew, 1994, from Tiryakian, 1973). When a subject experiences phenomena and perceives, meaning is possible (Morphew, 1994).