Constructivism is the label given to a set of theories about learning which fall somewhere between cognitive and humanistic views. If behaviourism treats the organism as a black box, cognitive theory recognises the importance of the mind in making sense of the material with which it is presented. Nevertheless, it still presupposes that the role of the learner is primarily to assimilate whatever the teacher presents. Constructivism — particularly in its "social" forms — suggests that the learner is much more actively involved in a joint enterprise with the teacher of creating ("constructing") new meanings.
We can distinguish between
- "cognitive constructivism" which is about how the individual learner understands things, in terms of developmental stages and learning styles, and
- "social constructivism", which emphasises how meanings and understandings grow out of social encounters—see Vygotsky below.
In this sense, conversational theories of learning fit into the constructivist framework. The emphasis is on the learner as an active "maker of meanings". The role of the teacher is to enter into a dialogue with the learner, trying to understand the meaning to that learner of the material to be learned, and to help her or him to refine their understanding until it corresponds with that of the teacher.
- One strand of constructivism may be traced to the writings of John Dewey, On Dewey: this site as a whole is invaluable—bookmark itwho emphasised the place of experience in education.
- Another starts from the work of Piaget, who demonstrated empirically that children’s minds were not empty, but actively processed the material with which they were presented, and postulated the mechanisms of accommodation and assimilation as key to this processing.
- At the theoretical level connections can also be made with the Personal Construct theory of George Kelly (the coincidence of terminology is no accident).
Note that Zone of Proximal Development (or just "ZPD"—even better) has a very high score on the jargon index!But the most significant bases of a social constructivist theory were laid down by Vygotsky [1896-1934] (1962), in his theory of the "Zone of Proximal Development" (ZPD). "Proximal" simply means "next". He observed that when children were tested on tasks on their own, they rarely did as well as when they were working in collaboration with an adult. It was by no means always the case that the adult was teaching them how to perform the task, but that the process of engagement with the adult enabled them to refine their thinking or their performance to make it more effective. Hence, for him, the development of language and articulation of ideas was central to learning and development. (See Daniels (1996) for an introduction to Vygotsky.) The common-sense idea which fits most closely with this model is that of "stretching" learners.
It is common in constructing skills check-lists to have columns for "cannot yet do", "can do with help", and "can do alone". The ZPD is about "can do with help", not as a permanent state but as a stage towards being able to do something on your own. The key to "stretching" the learner is to know what is in that person's ZPD—what comes next, for them.
If you are of a psychoanalytic turn of mind, you may see clear links between the idea of the ZPD and Winnicott's "potential space" which develops between baby and mother. It is always interesting to find the same observations and ideas cropping up in quite different frameworks.
The social dimension of learning is also central to the idea of situated learning and communities of practice, although the interaction is a little more diffuse, and to the social learning theories of Albert Bandura.
While constructivism has received more explicit attention in schools than in post-compulsory education, particularly through the influential work of Jerome Bruner (who is credited with introducing Vygotsky to the West), its attention to pre-existing ideas and understanding clearly has a lot to offer in post-compulsory education — most dramatically perhaps in the area of resistance to learning. Constructivist assumptions are also implicit in the notion of learning through reflection in professional practice.
And Laurillard's conversational model of teaching in higher education is also based on constructivist thinking.