Constructivism, Learning, and Educational Technology
Overview of Constructivist Theory
Constructivist theory has roots in both psychology and philosophy, and draws upon principles from several other theories of learning, including those of Piaget, Bruner, and Vygotsky. Constructivism is based upon a few key assumptions about learning:
- knowledge is constructed by learners through experiences,
- knowledge constructions do not necessarily bear any relationship to external reality, and
- learners will test their understanding against those of others, especially teachers or more advanced peers, (Driscoll, 2005, p. 388).
For constructivist theorists, “learners…are not empty vessels waiting to be filled, but rather active organisms seeking meaning” (Driscoll, 2005, p. 387).
The Constructivist Learning Process
Constructivist theorists consistently argue the importance of learning in context, viewing learning as “a continuous, life-long process resulting from acting in situations” (Brown, et al., 1989, p. 33). For constructivists, learning is determined by a combination of the learners’ previous knowledge, the social context, and the problem to be solved, (Tam, 2000, p. 52). As described by Tam (2000, p.52), there are two main characteristics of the constructivist learning process:
1) “Good” Problems
In any constructivist learning environment, the focus is the issue or problem that the learners are attempting to solve. Jonassen explains: “ the problem drives the learning, rather than acting as an example of the concepts and principles previously taught. Students learn domain content in order to solve the problem, rather than solve the problem as an application of learning” (1999, p. 218). These problems provide learners with the opportunity to take ownership of their learning, and apply their knowledge in a meaningful way. They must be “interesting, relevant, and engaging problems to solve…(they) should be ill defined or ill structured, so that some aspects of the problem are emergent and definable by learners” (Jonassen, 1999, p. 219). According to Jonassen (1999, p. 219), ill-structured problems:
- Have unstated goals and constraints,
- Possess multiple solutions, solution paths, or no solutions at all,
- Possess multiple criteria for evaluation solutions,
- Present uncertainty about which concepts, rules and principles are necessary for the solution or how they are organized,
- Offer no general rules or principles for describing or predicting the outcome of most cases, and
- Require learners to make judgments about the problem and to defend their judgments by expressing personal opinions or beliefs.
In the constructivist perspective, learning occurs not in isolation, but is mutually constructed through working with others. Constructivist learning environments should “encourage conversations about the problems and projects the students are working on” (Jonassen, 1999, p.229) to facilitate this collaborative knowledge-construction process. This dialogue provides students with the opportunity to test their ideas and opinions and further their understanding.
Educational Technology and Constructivism
There are several types of educational technology available that support the constructivist learning process. These technologies include key aspects of the constructivist conditions for learning by creating complex, realistic, and relevant environments that incorporate authentic activity, and/or encouraging social negotiation and analysis from multiple perspectives.
Microworlds are “small but complete subsets of real environments that promote discovery and exploration” (Driscoll, 2005, p. 403). They have two distinguishing characteristics, which distinguish them from similar concepts, like simulations:
- they match the learner’s cognitive and affective state, and
- they present the learner with the simplest model of a domain (Rieber, 1996, p. 46).
Examples of Microworlds
LOGO, one of the most widely researched microworlds (Driscoll, 2005, p. 403), allows children to learn the language of computer programming through writing commands that control a “turtle”. In the LOGO program, the learner is “learning to speak mathematics, and acquiring a new image of themselves as mathematicians” (Papert, 1980, p.13).
Based upon LOGO, Lego Mindstorms allows students to program and construct toy robots that are controlled by the computer, just like Papert's original turtle robot.
Hypermedia can be described as the use of text, data, graphics, audio and video as elements of a system, in which all elements are linked so that the user can move between them at will. As described by Jonassen, Myers, and McKillop, “producing hypermedia…is among the most complete and engaging of the constructivist/constructionist activities” (1996, p. 94)
Example of Hypermedia Designs
HyperAuthor is a tool designed to engage learners in creating history lessons. This process involves “transforming information into concept maps, segmenting information into nodes, linking the information segments by semantic relationships, and deciding how to represent ideas. This is a highly motivating process because authorship results in ownership of the ideas in the presentation” (Jonassen, Myers, & McKillop, 1996, p. 98).
Software that is designed to be used a group of people to help “facilitate and manage the interaction among group members” (Driscoll, 2005, p.404), is referred to as groupware. These web-based collaborative technologies provide an opportunity for scaffolding through access to online support and knowledge experts.
Example of Groupware
CSILE/Knowledge Forum is collaborative software that provides a space for knowledge construction. “In the form of notes, participants contribute theories, working models, plans, evidence, reference material, and so forth to this shared space” (Scardamalia, 2004, p. 2). Editing and reorganizing demonstrates advances in knowledge by the group, “like the accumulation of research advances in a scholarly discipline” (Scardamalia, 2004, p.2).
- Collaborative Learning
- Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development
- Jean Piaget's Developmental Stage Theory
Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18, 32-42.
Driscoll, M.P. (2005). Constructivism. Psychology of Learning for Instruction (pp. 384-407). Toronto, ON: Pearson.
Jonassen, D. (1999). Designing constructivist learning environments. In C. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional design theories and models: Volume II. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Jonassen, D., Myers, J.M., & McKillop, A.M. (1996). From constructivism to constructionism: Learning with hypermedia rather than from it. In Wilson, B. (Ed.), Constructivist learning environments: Case studies in instructional design (pp. 93-107). Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.
Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York: Basic Books.
Rieber, L. (1996). Seriously considering play: Designing interactive learning environments based on the blending of microworlds, simulations, and games. Educational Technology Research and Development, 44(2), 43-58.
Scardamalia, M. (2004). CSILE/Knowledge Forum. Education and Technology: An Encyclopedia (pp. 1-13). Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
Tam, M. (2000). Constructivism, instructional design, and technology: Implications for transforming distance learning. Educational Technology & Society, 3(2), 50-60.