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The Constructivist View of Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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On the constructivist view of learning, the learner constructs theirown knowledge and the knowledge is conceived to be organized more asa network (cognitive structure - see later) than as a brick wall(Novak, 1985; Strike and Postner, 1985).


The posting below takes another look at consturctivist learning. It is from Chapter 9 Reflection in learning - some fundamentals of learning, part 1, in Reflection in Learning & Professional Development,Theory & Practice by Jennifer A Moon. Kogan Page, 120 Pentonville Road London N1 9JN, UK ( 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling VA 20166-2012, USA. ? Copyright Jennifer Moon, 1999. The right of Jennifer Moon to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. ISBN 0 7494 2864 3 (hbk) ISBN 0 7494 3452 X (pbk). Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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The recent developments in student learning have been based a constructivist philosophy. Previous emphases in studies of teaching and learning had focused on the activity of the teacher, suggesting that the structure of teaching - or of instruction - is the key to learning. This view implies that knowledge is transmitted from the teacher to the learner. It stresses the content and organization of the curriculum as being the basis of learning and implies that knowledge is built from ideas, they replace them like bricks in a wall. On this empiricist model of teaching and learning, the learner's prior academic ability and knowledge is seen as a guide to the teacher's strategy (Prosser, 1987) and its role in a new learning for the learner is as a foundation on which the new learning is built or sometimes the foundation may be replaced.

Under the influence of such thinkers as Kelly (1955) and Rogers (1961), there was a movement towards a view of learners as the determinants of what is learnt. On this learner-centred constructivist view, the teacher's role is that of a facilitator of the learning, and the prior ability and knowledge of the learner determines the learner's approach to a learning task. This view conceives of a more active role for learners, particularly for those who choose to be engaged in meaningful learning (see below) where their intentions become more significant than those of the teacher.

On the constructivist view of learning, the learner constructs their own knowledge and the knowledge is conceived to be organized more as a network (cognitive structure - see later) than as a brick wall (Novak, 1985; Strike and Postner, 1985). What is already known is employed in guiding the new learning in organizing the process of assimilation (taking in the material of learning). In meaningful learning, where the learner intends to understand the material of learning instead of just memorizing it, the learner accommodates or adapts an area of the network in response to the new learning (Pines, Fensham and Garrard, 1985). Whether learning is meaningful or not can only be judged by the learner because meaningfulness is an expression of the relationship between the material of learning and the learner's existing understandings. Teachers may seek to influence the learning by, for example, careful construction of the material of teaching to make it likely that it will be understood by the learner, by interaction to check understanding or by choosing specific forms of assessment that, in turn, influence the learner's approach to the learning of their intentions (Ramsden, 1992).

In these terms, rote learning or learning by memorizing occurs when the learner does not, or cannot, relate the material of learning to prior knowledge and will not wish to recall in the context of other knowledge. It results in isolated 'bits' of knowledge and, for this reason, a more descriptive term might be 'unconnected learning'. This is contrasted with meaningful learning, which is when the learner intends to understand the material of learning. Nichol (1997) describes the distinction between meaningful and unconnected learning as:

Learning through memorization and . . . reproduction does not result in knowledge that can be used to reason and to solve problems in new contexts. For this [reasoning/problem solving] to happen, students must learn by interacting with and transforming received information so as to own it and make it personally meaningful. They do this by actively constructing or reconstructing information input - i.e. modifying, revising, transforming, connecting, extending it, relating it to what they already know - in an effort to make sense of it.

(Note that the term 'transform' here is not used in quite the same manner in this book - see the discussion of transformative learning later in this chapter.)

Marton and Ramsden (1988) distinguish the constructivist view by means of its implications of a qualitative change in the learner - 'rather than a quantitative change in the amount of knowledge someone possesses'. The qualitative change is in the understanding that the learner constructs. While learners construct personal understanding and knowledge, this can occur within a set of guidelines that might be the form of thought embodied by the discipline (Bruner 1966). The implication of this is that the thinking of discipline does not exist separately from learners (Biggs, 1993). Similarly, Eisner (1991) says, 'I . . . believe that humans do not simply have experience; they have a hand in its creation and the quality of their creation depends upon the ways they employ their minds'. On this view, the meaning that a learner constructs is an element that has been selected out of larger possibilities and, in this sense, education can be regarded as 'a mind-making experience' (Eisner, 1991) - or perhaps more accurately, a 'mind-making' opportunity. The notion that the mind is constructed by the learner and that the ability to employ the mind appropriately is significant in the outcome of learning begins to hint at some of the roles that reflection might play in the learning process.

Evidence that supports the constructivist view of learning comes from studies of the application of study skills to help students improve their ability to learn. Both from research (Ramsden, 1992) and from observation in the classroom it is evident that teaching students a bank of study skills does not usually have a long-lasting effect on their ability to learn (Gibbs, 1981). While some gain a certain level of confidence from study skills courses and may learn a few techniques, they gain more from a learner-centred approach in which they are helped to explore their own learning abilities, confront their deficits and experiment with change in their own time and on the basis of their own understanding. This is more effectively done within the context of the discipline studied. In other words, other than a few techniques, the most effective study skills are constructed by the learner within the context of their own learning. Raising awareness of personal study skills enables appropriate modification and reconstruction in response to different learning demands, and students who study well do appear to be more aware of their study processes than those who are less effective (Gibbs, 1981). Harri-Augstein and Thomas (1991) use the term 'self-organized learner' to describe someone who is able to deploy their learning and study skills effectively.