The Practice Implications of Constructivism
Constructivism has roots in philosophy, psychology, sociology, and education. Butwhile it is important for educators to understand constructivism, it is equallyimportant to understand the implications this view of learning has for teachingand teacher professional development.
Constructivism's central idea is that human learning is constructed, thatlearners build new knowledge upon the foundation of previous learning. This viewof learning sharply contrasts with one in which learning is the passivetransmission of information from one individual to another, a view in whichreception, not construction, is key.
Two important notions orbit around the simple idea of constructed knowledge. Thefirst is that learners construct new understandings using what they already know.There is no tabula rasa on which new knowledge is etched. Rather, learners cometo learning situations with knowledge gained from previous experience, and thatprior knowledge influences what new or modified knowledge they will constructfrom new learning experiences.
The second notion is that learning is active rather than passive. Learnersconfront their understanding in light of what they encounter in the new learningsituation. If what learners encounter is inconsistent with their currentunderstanding, their understanding can change to accommodate new experience.Learners remain active throughout this process: they apply currentunderstandings, note relevant elements in new learning experiences, judge theconsistency of prior and emerging knowledge, and based on that judgment, they canmodify knowledge.
Constructivism has important implications for teaching. First, teaching cannot beviewed as the transmission of knowledge from enlightened to unenlightened;constructivist teachers do not take the role of the "sage on the stage." Rather,teachers act as "guides on the side" who provide students with opportunities totest the adequacy of their current understandings.
Second, if learning is based on prior knowledge, then teachers must note thatknowledge and provide learning environments that exploit inconsistencies betweenlearners' current understandings and the new experiences before them. Thischallenges teachers, for they cannot assume that all children understandsomething in the same way. Further, children may need different experiences toadvance to different levels of understanding.
Third, if students must apply their current understandings in new situations inorder to build new knowledge, then teachers must engage students in learning,bringing students' current understandings to the forefront. Teachers can ensurethat learning experiences incorporate problems that are important to students,not those that are primarily important to teachers and the educational system.Teachers can also encourage group interaction, where the interplay amongparticipants helps individual students become explicit about their ownunderstanding by comparing it to that of their peers.
Fourth, if new knowledge is actively built, then time is needed to build it.Ample time facilitates student reflection about new experiences, how thoseexperiences line up against current understandings, and how a differentunderstanding might provide students with an improved (not "correct") view of theworld.
If learning is a constructive process, and instruction must be designed toprovide opportunities for such construction, then what professional developmentpractices can bring teachers to teach in student-centered ways?
First recognize that construction in learning is not just the domain of childrenbut of learners, all learners. Constructivist professional development giveteachers time to make explicit their understandings of learning (e.g., is it aconstructive process?), of teaching (e.g., is a teacher an orator or afacilitator, and what is the teacher's understanding of content?), and ofprofessional development (e.g., is a teacher's own learning best approachedthrough a constructivist orientation?). Furthermore, such professionaldevelopment provides opportunities for teachers to test their understandings andbuild new ones. Training that affects student-centered teaching cannot come inone-day workshops. Systematic, long-term development that allows practice - andreflection on that practice - is required.
It is also useful to remember the educator's maxim, Teachers teach as they aretaught, not as they are told to teach. Thus, trainers in constructivistprofessional development sessions model learning activities that teachers canapply in their own classrooms. It is not enough for trainers to describe new waysof teaching and expect teachers to translate from talk to action; it is moreeffective to engage teachers in activities that will lead to new actions inclassrooms.
Constructivism represents one of the big ideas in education. Its implications forhow teachers teach and learn to teach are enormous. If our efforts in reformingeducation for all students are to succeed, then we must focus on students. Todate, a focus on student-centered learning may well be the most importantcontribution of constructivism.
Wes Hoover is SEDL president and CEO. He holds a doctorate from The University of Texas at Austin in human experimental psychology, with a specialization in reading and psycholinguistics.
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