CEPA eprint 3732

Constructivism examined

Fox R. (2001) Constructivism examined. Oxford Review of Education 27(1): 23–35. Available at http://cepa.info/3732
Table of Contents
The central claims of constructivism summarised
The claims criticised
(1) Learning is an Active Process
(2) Knowledge is Constructed, Rather than Innate, or Passively Absorbed
(3) Knowledge is Invented not Discovered
(4a) All Knowledge is Idiosyncratic and Personal
(4b) All Knowledge is Socially Constructed
(5) Learning is Essentially a Process of Making Sense
(6) Effective Learning Requires Meaningful, Open-ended, Challenging Problems for the Learner to Solve
In this paper I examine constructivism as a view of learning which has come to dominate educational debates about learning in the field of teacher education. The major claims of a variety of constructivist theories are considered and found to be largely wanting, in that they either differ little from common sense empiricist views, or else provide misleading and incomplete views of human learning, with consequently misleading implications for teaching in classrooms.
Constructivism now appears to dominate the view of learning articulated in the educational literature, at least of the Anglo-Saxon academic world, and especially in the domain of teacher education. Yet it is perhaps as much a guiding myth as a testable psychological theory, a general view rather than a single clearly stated set of claims. Existing in many versions, it has become a somewhat uncritically accepted textbook account of learning (Eggan & Kauchek, 1994; Fosnot, 1996; Woolfolk, 1995), often articulated in opposition to simplified and even distorted ’straw man’ versions of behaviourism, nativism and information processing theory. In such contexts it is in danger of becoming a general term of approbation with but little content and an incoherent underlying epistemology. The aim of this paper is to review the principal claims of a variety of constructivist accounts of learning, as they appear in a variety of textbooks and papers in the field of teacher education, and to argue that, except where constructivism slips into making extreme and implausible epistemological claims, it turns out to have relatively little to say which is distinctive and not already implied by common sense, broadly empiricist, accounts of learning (Strike, 1987). What it does have to offer, as a positive contribution to debates on education is, however, also considered. It will also be argued that the popularity of constructivism, at least in its more unsophisticated versions, stems largely from its being a view that is articulated and understood in opposition, or reaction, to naïve psychology and, or, naïve epistemology. That is, students, realising the improbability of their initial unexamined and naïve views of teaching and learning, take up constructivism as a better alternative, but then tend to make characteristic mistakes of their own.
The central claims of constructivism summarised
Constructivism is basically a metaphor for learning, likening the acquisition of knowledge to a process of building or construction. Like all such metaphors of the mind, it has particular strengths and weaknesses. Claimed as both a ’paradigm’ and a ’theory’ (Fosnot, 1996), constructivism has also been described as ’akin to a secular religion’ (Phillips, 1995). It is indeed a broad church, including variants of Piagetian constructivism (Piaget, 1969; Liben, 1987; Adey & Shayer, 1994) neo-Vygotskian constructivism (Wertsch, 1985; Brown & Reeve, 1987; Tharp & Gallimore, 1988), Feuerstein’s mediated learning (Sharon, 1994), radical constructivism (von Glasersfeld, 1996) and social constructivism in various shades and hues (Rogoff, 1990; Mercer, 1995; Fosnot, 1996). Its varieties have been reviewed and compared by Strike (1987), Ernest (1994), Prawat & Floden (1994), Phillips (1995) and Fox (1997), amongst others. Quite apart from its position as the most favoured current view of learning and teaching in the teacher education literature (Mayer, 1992; Sudzina, 1997), it has a long history as a theory of perception and of memory (Bartlett, 1932; Neisser, 1967, Gregory, 1981, Eysenck & Keane, 1995). As a theory of learning, its central claim is that (human) knowledge is acquired through a process of active construction. This vague idea, itself misleading and incomplete, can be developed in a number of ways that are not always compatible with one another. Moreover, as the claims become more bold and distinctive, they risk collapsing either into implausible philosophical positions or becoming empirically too narrow, respecting some aspects and types of learning to the detriment of others. My method will be to list a number of such claims and to comment critically on each in turn.
The claims, which together are held to define constructivist views of learning, are first summarised en masse:
(1) Learning is an active process.
(2) Knowledge is constructed, rather than innate, or passively absorbed.
(3) Knowledge is invented not discovered.
(4a) All knowledge is personal and idiosyncratic.
(4b) All knowledge is socially constructed.
(5) Learning is essentially a process of making sense of the world.
(6) Effective learning requires meaningful, open-ended, challenging problems for the learner to solve.
The claims criticised
(1) Learning is an Active Process
This, the most central and insistent claim of constructivism, seems, as it stands, to be either misleading or untrue. Human beings, and animals in general, certainly do acquire knowledge of their environments by acting upon the world about them (for example by investigating habitats and by eating things); however, they are also acted upon. We do things and we have things done to us; we act and we react, and clearly we can learn from both types of experience. Many simple forms of habituation and conditioning consist of adaptive reactions, rather than actions. Thus, from light adaptation of the eye to changing levels of brightness, to conditioned (e.g. eye-blink) responses and to the pervasive phenomena of orientation and habituation, there is a continuum of adaptive responses which include instinctive processes and various reactive forms of learning. Subliminal learning, perceptual recognition and implicit learning (Claxton, 1997; Reber, 1993) have all now been minutely investigated and documented and turn out to be extremely common and important to human adaptation. Why, then, should constructivism emphasise only one pole of human experience? I suggest that this follows from its own reactive origins, as a view of learning which was set up in opposition to a once dominant behaviourism and to traditionalist views of education.
Thus an ’active’ view of learning is often contrasted with behaviourist stimulus- response accounts in which organisms learn by being ’stimulated’ and by ’responding’. This is often described as a ’passive’ view of the learner, although, in fact, many animal-oriented behaviourists studied and wrote mainly about animals adapting actively to their (severely controlled) surroundings, as in Thordike’s cats attempting to escape from puzzle boxes and Skinner’s rats and pigeons pressing levers and keys to obtain various reinforcing consequences (e.g. Brown & Herrstein, 1975, chapter 2). In behaviourist accounts, typically, clear logical distinctions are made between increasing or withholding pleasurable or painful consequences, following either a response or the inhibition of response. Piaget famously insisted on the fact that children, rather than being merely recipients of stimulation, frequently and typically investigate and act upon their world, whilst getting to know it. However, he was also well aware that they often react, both to people and events. In the teacher education literature, however, there has been a further rhetorical reason for emphasising the active pole of learning, in the form of a frequently expressed opposition to traditionalist views of teaching and learning, at least as these have come to be described by their more progressive opponents.
Thus traditionalists are said to believe that teaching consists of telling, or instructing, and that the learner is treated as ’an empty vessel’ to be (inertly) filled with knowledge. Since few constructivists, presumably, would want to rule out either listening or reading from the domain of possible ways of learning, both these are described as ’active’ processes. In many ways this is reasonable; all cognition is active in the sense of involving activity of the brain, but it is worth noting that in contrast to talking and writing, listening and reading are relatively ’passive’. But, does anyone actually hold the views ascribed to the ’traditionalist’? Few, surely, would seek to deny the importance of some form of dialogue, if only question and answer, to teaching. It is rather that traditionalists place a greater value on knowledge and its objective status, and on the teacher as knowledgeable expert, as against learners and their existing knowledge and immediate interests. Of course, such biases can be taken too far in either direction (Pring, 1976). Too great an emphasis on either teacher or taught can lead to prescriptions for teaching which either ignore the learner’s needs or ignore the teacher as a valuable, knowledgeable resource.
Naïve views of learning may well be lop-sided in just such a way. It seems that many lay people, if pressed to explain what they take learning to be about, resort to defining it as memorisation. Learning is remembering. This most simple of views may then be added to, or adapted, to become a view of learning as the acquisition of practical skills and, further, as consisting of understanding some topic (Saljo, 1979a in Gibbs, 1981). In so far as naïve views of classroom teaching and learning amount to no more than learning as remembering, or ’filling empty vessels’ with facts, then of course the constructivist story of the active learner comes as a welcome relief. But it does so whilst subtly implying that remembering is not important, and that understanding concepts is all there is to learning, neither of which is true.
(2) Knowledge is Constructed, Rather than Innate, or Passively Absorbed
This is an elaborated form of claim (1). Once again it highlights one aspect of learning, namely the extent to which it is a matter of acquiring and elaborating concepts, in opposition to innate, or maturational, influences on learning, and in opposition to implicit learning. Yet in so far as human beings have a distinctive cognitive system, different from that of, say, seagulls or chimpanzees, it is virtually all inherited. Our ability to perceive, to learn, to speak and to reason are all based on the innate capacities of the evolved human nervous system. Piaget, of course, considered that maturation was important, although difficult to study directly, and limited in its direct influence. He wrote, for example, that:
Because the maturation of the nervous system is not completed until about the fifteenth or sixteenth year, it therefore seems evident that it does play a necessary role in the formation of mental structures, even though very little is known about that role … the maturation of the nervous system does no more than open up possibilities, excluded until particular age levels are reached. (Piaget, 1969, quoted in Light et al., 1991, pp. 11-12)
Other researchers suggest that genetic factors play a crucial role in developing perception and cognition, besides in language acquisition and developing motor skills (e.g. Carey & Spelke, 1994). Besides contrasting the active learner with nativist views (a contrast incidentally also made by all environmental empiricists) active learning is contrasted by constructivists with ’passive absorption’. But the passive absorption of elements of our experience is exactly what does seem to occur in contextual and implicit learning (Claxton, 1997), so again the claim is one-sided and misleading.
(3) Knowledge is Invented not Discovered
This claim is not always explicitly stated by constructivist writers, but it lies at the very heart of their rejection of empiricist and ’positivist’ conceptions of learning. It is argued that knowledge is not a copy or a true reflection of some independent reality (Rorty, 1979; von Glasersfeld in Fosnot, 1996) and that therefore we must adopt some more subjective, idealist or at least conceptually relative view of human knowledge and of the world we can know. Truth as objective correspondence to an independent reality simply does not exist, on this view; we cannot have a ’God’s eye’ view of the world, or a ’view from nowhere’. We always perceive and know the world from some sociocultural, and historically situated, point of view. Hence, human knowledge is always to be seen as a ’construct’, a product of the human mind. But one can accept this argument of ’conceptual relativism’ without being driven by it into some subjective or relativistic epistemology. We can accept that maps of the world, for example, are human constructions, which make different assumptions and simplifications in representing the globe. Different 2-D projections, for instance, notoriously produce different distortions of land areas in different latitudes, and so forth. But we do not have to conclude from this that there is no globe, no planet Earth, which is the subject of these imperfect human representations. Similarly, our conceptual viewpoints are indeed limited but, being views, they are precisely views of something, namely the world or some part of it. That we cannot know ’things in themselves’ or ’reality as it is’ does not mean that we have to give up our deep assumption of the existence of things in themselves, or of an external world independent of human minds (Searle, 1995).
Indeed, the background assumption of external realism is crucial for our lives, our learning and our discourse. It is not exactly that we have to believe in external realism; it is simply that all actions, all communications, all investigations, presuppose its truth. The exact nature of this reality, independent of our minds, may forever be beyond our representations of it. But as a presupposition, external realism is virtually unavoidable. In Searle’s words, it is the assumption that there is a way things are, which is quite independent of our theories about the way things are. Alternative anti-realist positions can be invented, but it is not clear what difference they would make to our sense of the contact between mind and world.
When constructivism starts down the road of conceptual relativism, it rejects naïve empiricism or common sense realism, but it then reaches a fork in the track and has difficulty avoiding either solipsism, or a kind of blinkered social consensualism. The solipsist position is defended, it seems, by no-one. If I can be confident of the existence only of my own mental states, then I am reduced to believing that my mind constitutes the whole world. This, at the very least, makes it difficult to see how I can justify a belief in the existence of you, or your mind, or the natural world, or discourse about the world. I am left in absurd isolation, without a world of any kind to investigate or discuss. No-one seems to wish to occupy this ridiculous philosophical position, but in escaping from it, constructivists tend either to re-admit an independently existing object world, or else pursue a kind of social solipsism, in which other minds, and social constructions, are all that exist.
Thus von Glasersfeld, the defender of radical constructivism, takes the first of these possible routes, arguing as follows:
The key idea that sets constructivism apart from other theories of cognition was launched 60 years ago by Jean Piaget. It was the idea that what we call knowledge does not and cannot have the purpose of producing representations of an independent reality, but instead has an adaptive function. (von Glasersfeld, 1996, p. 3)
In adopting this Piagetian view of the function of knowledge, he seems to believe that he has provided himself with an alternative epistemology. But to provide an explanation of the function of knowledge is not to say what knowledge consists of, nor how it arises. It very soon emerges that for von Glasersfeld, although knowledge results from our sensory world, and thus: ’is the result of our own perceptual activities and therefore specific to our ways of perceiving and conceiving’ (1996, p. 4), it allows organisms to survive, ‘given the constraints of the world in which they happen to be living’ (1996, p. 4). But this entails not only that there is a contingent real world, in which we are living, but also that we somehow obtain feedback from that world. The ’fit’ of adaptation is a fit to an objectively existing environment. I think von Glasersfeld would object that this ’fit’ is only to a subjective world of experience, not to an independent objective world, but then the reply is simply that death may well bring about its end, without bringing about the end of the world. Most species which have existed are extinct. Survival is an admirably objective criterion of successful adaptation. Thus perception, and concepts, are re-connected to the world, in spite of being human constructions. To put it another way, von Glasersfeld holds that all knowledge is relative to our human conceptual viewpoints (conceptual relativism) but allows that we can know a world, including its constraints, well enough to survive within it. But any reasonable empiricist, or positivist, can accept this easily. It is to say only that our knowledge is fallible and derives from our human point of view. It still remains a testable view of something, namely an independent reality. To use Phillips’ (1995) terminology, nature is still to a degree our instructor, although we are the creators of our (imperfect) knowledge. The world hits back, as it were, when we try to act upon it, and gives us feedback when we investigate it.
Ernest (1994) takes the alternative route at the conceptual relativist fork, and argues that:
Social constructivism regards individual subjects and the realm of the social as indissolubly interconnected. Human subjects are formed through their interactions with each other (as well as by their individual processes) … Mind is seen as part of a broader context, the ’social construction of meaning’ … The humanly constructed reality is all the time being modified and interacting to fit ontological reality, although it can never give a ’true picture’ of it. (Ernest, 1994, p. 8)
This move is important in differentiating social constructivism from radical, individualistic, constructivism. We shall need to examine it again in connection with claim 4b, below. For now, however, suffice it to say that by allowing an ’ontological reality’ Ernest also re-admits a real world from which we can obtain sufficiently accurate feedback in order to survive and to improve the ’fit’ of our knowledge. Fit involves one thing fitting another, in this case knowledge fitting (or failing to fit) the actual (ontologically existing) world. This is just as well, since the alternative would seem to be a form of social solipsism (only minds exist). However, Ernest also has to account for how this fit is obtained. The difficulty is that, for a completely relativistic epistemology, which both von Glasersfeld and Ernest think they have achieved, it seems there can be no objective assessment of fit whatever. A relativistic epistemology implies that our knowledge is completely relative to our particular human conceptual framework and hence that no particular framework has any priority or preference over any other, except in social terms. Any conceivable framework, be it individual or cultural, would do as well as any other. The only criteria of ’fit’ become socially negotiated criteria, as we construct our human meanings via conversations. But if these criteria are confined to different social processes, of power and persuasion, then the fit achieved is limited to various types of social compliance or consensus, rather than to features of the natural world. The part played in this process by perception and experiment, or more generally feedback from the non-social world, remains fuzzy.
It is as if we imagined human beings all locked into a hermetically sealed, dark room (Plato’s cave, without any way for light to enter?) in which they converse about what the world outside might be like. Amongst its oddities, this image of life fails to explain how the physical sounds or letters of language would be perceived by the socially constructed individuals taking part in the conversation, unless, that is, we make the common sense assumption that the social world is built out of natural, material elements, in a natural physical world. But then we are dealing with the natural world just as empiricists, such as John Locke, always thought we were. It appears that social constructivists thus fail to account for the fact that a socially constructed reality presupposes a reality independent of all social constructions, for there has to be something for the social constructions to be constructed out of (Searle, 1995). Even language, the material out of which most constructivists seem to want to build knowledge, is a socially constructed system of representation which is itself built out of brute physical sounds or visual marks, or similar alternatives.
When constructivists argue that we ’construct the world’ or that the ’the world is a product of minds’ we need to resist the temptation to infer that our constructions need only be products of the will, or that the world beyond and independent of mind, is whatever we desire it to be. Indeed, much of our learning consists in coming to terms with the constraints of our own physical and biological make-up as well as the physical and biological constraints of the wider environment. To sum up, conceptual relativism is a breakthrough; it allows us, for example, to realise that the same reality can be
represented in many ways. But it need not force us into an implausible subjective or relativistic epistemology. We need to accept that our knowledge is fallible, rather than certain, but who these days denies this? We also need to maintain some form of feedback from the non-human world, in order to avoid falling into an individual or social form of solipsism (and, incidentally, in order to survive).
(4a) All Knowledge is Idiosyncratic and Personal
(4b) All Knowledge is Socially Constructed
These two claims are best considered together because they appear to contradict one another. 4a, the individualistic version, is important for teachers because it implies that the same lesson, or ’experience’ or activity may result in different learning by each pupil. Unique subjective meanings are derived by each learner from ostensibly the same teaching, or the same text. Social constructivists, on the other hand, generally following Vygotsky, insist on the sociocultural nature of learning. Individual knowing subjects are themselves considered to be constructed out of social interaction and social discourse and the individual is thus him- or herself, a social product. Since all meanings are social, and since Wittgenstein has plausibly argued that the notion of a private language is basically incoherent, it is thought to follow that all teaching and learning is a matter of sharing and negotiating socially constituted knowledge. This, too, has important implications for teachers, since the ’shared construction of knowledge’ becomes the central image of teaching. Each of these positions tends towards an implausible extreme which can be discerned more easily by keeping both of them in view together.
4a tends towards solipsism once again, for by insisting on the subjectivity of the individual learner’s experiences, it tends towards a denial of the possibility of sharing and communicating knowledge between people. It is only one step beyond this to the assertion that personal subjective experience is all the experience, and hence all the world, that there is. If it is admitted that knowledge can in fact be communicated, and shared, and compared, and evaluated, then the distinctive point about this claim (4a) largely disappears and we are back with common sense. If it is not admitted, then amongst other things we are left wondering what there is for teachers to do. The most that 4a offers, as an insight into learning, is that each individual learner has a distinctive point of view, based on existing knowledge and values, which the teacher ignores at her peril.
The insistence of 4b on the intrinsically social nature of all knowledge, and hence all learning, also tends towards an implausible extreme, in this case the idea that social factors, or influences, alone determine all learning and all conscious thought. This would deny the individual any role or influence whatever in learning. But since memories are crucial to learning, and memories, not to mention perceptual systems, are packaged in individual biological brains, this seems to go too far. Psychology may often have over-estimated the power of individualistic explanations, but even those who follow Marx in arguing that man’s consciousness is a product of the social world would generally admit that individuals, such as Marx, have often had a crucial role to play in changing peoples’ beliefs, in changing knowledge and hence in changing cultures. Science may be a social tradition, largely based on social institutions, but this doesn’t mean that individual scientists have never made discoveries, or changed the path of scientific knowledge through their individual efforts.
Another variant of this extreme socialisation theory is to argue that all knowledge is based on language and on linguistic representations, or perhaps on semiotic systems more generally. Human minds are said to be ’shaped’ by language, although it is not clear why this one form of experience is held to exclude others (viz perceptual experience, practical trial and error and non-verbal emotion). If held literally, this view denies any knowledge to infants in their pre-linguistic phase (all of Piaget’s sensorimotor intelligence) and tends to imply that animals cannot know anything. It also ignores all the implicit knowledge we have of the world which we have never put into words. To focus on teaching as the shared construction of knowledge also risks ignoring the extent to which learning depends on independent practice and problem-solving. It tends to highlight learning as conceptualisation and to ignore learning as the formation, or revision, of skills. But as well as sharing knowledge, we have to make knowledge our own. Outside of these implausible extremes, claim 4b leaves us with the insight that schooling, as a context for learning, is crucially dependent on linguistic representations of knowledge.
It seems more reasonable altogether to bring 4a and 4b together and to argue (a) that although individuals have their own personal history of learning, nevertheless they can share in common knowledge, and (b) that although education is a social process, powerfully influenced by cultural factors, nevertheless cultures are made up of subcultures, even to the point of being composed of sub-cultures of one. Cultures and their knowledge-base are constantly in a process of change and the knowledge stored by individuals is not a rigid copy of some socially constructed template. In learning a culture, each child changes that culture. To see more clearly why 4a and 4b have developed their distinctive, if flawed, views of learning, it is helpful to bring out their different underlying conceptions of what knowledge is. On the one hand (4a) knowledge may be seen as ’essentially’ defined in terms of the subjective mental states of each knower. On the other hand (4b) knowledge may be defined in terms of the publicly communicated and constructed bodies of knowledge that make up academic disciplines, data-bases, books, theories, works of art and other cultural products (Popper, 1979). Popper distinguished these two senses as subjective and objective conceptions of knowledge. Only by denying that social groups are formed of individual minds, or by denying that individual minds can communicate, are these two senses rendered incompatible. The individual and the social are mutually constructed and co-existing levels of analysis and indeed of life. In passing, it is worth remembering that even behaviourism recognised that individuals have unique histories of learning, whilst traditional empiricist social psychologists have always studied social influences on learning. Constructivism is not offering a new vision in either of these respects.
(5) Learning is Essentially a Process of Making Sense
This, although it has a seductive ring to it, is once again ultimately misleading. Making sense (or making meaning) is a notion which has its home in the area of language, and in activities such as reading, or more generally perceiving patterns. As we puzzle over a text, or perhaps an image or a set of numerical symbols, we make sense as we assimilate the new experience to our existing knowledge. Here, constructivism emphasises the aspect of learning which is about understanding and, in doing so, takes us beyond any naïve conception of learning as rote learning or as an unproblematic ‘drinking in’ of new information. Since Psychology, particularly in its view of intelligence, tended for a long period largely to ignore the structure of the learner’s knowledge, this was certainly a great step forward in developing a more realistic conception of human learning. But, if taken too literally or one-sidedly, it can suggest (a) that understanding is all there is to learning, and (b) that motivation is not a problem for teachers. In an extreme form it may also suggest that we are at the mercy of our existing knowledge.
Figure 1.
One of the most simple and powerful ways to grasp the message of constructivism is to contemplate one of the many visual illusions or ambiguous images studied in the psychology of visual perception. An example is provided in Fig. 1. In Kanizsa’s design, we ’see’ (or construct) a series of white star points which are ’not there’. The effect is a powerful one, in that our visual system delivers to us not only the white star shape but even a sense of contours, or edges of white against the white background and of a brighter white (star) figure against a dimmer white background. This is impressive evidence of the way in which we ’construct’ our view of the world, using stored knowledge, but we should also bear in mind: (i) that virtually all humans report seeing this phenomenon (contra claim 4a), (ii) that our visual system delivers this visual experience up to us without any conscious effort, or deliberation on our part (contra claim 1) and (iii) that we are also capable of examining the image and of noticing that the enhanced brightness and the contours are in a sense illusory and can be resisted (contra extreme forms of claim 5). (These are features which are general to such examples taken from perceptual research.) Thus, as well as being impressive examples of the ’constructed’ nature of our perceptions, such figures can also be read as examples of the objectivity of human perception, of its deep innate roots and of the way in which we can, up to a point, resist various features of our own initial view. But, on the other hand, we cannot make anything of such figures. If someone claimed to see here a set of nested circles, or a giraffe, we would think they had somehow got it wrong.
Returning to the classroom, it is surely important for teachers to realise how learners are always trying to make sense of lessons in terms of what they already know. If the context is too removed from their horizon of expectations, they may well abandon the search for meaning, feeling either bored or confused, or both (Smith, 1975). But the ‘making sense’ aspect of learning, important though it is, needs to be placed alongside two other aspects, which might be called ’making learning easy’ and ’making learning satisfying’. Learning, in its deliberate forms, is a struggle to get beyond existing knowledge but, although we clearly rely on existing knowledge in this process, the role of prior knowledge cannot itself explain the paradox of how we transcend it. Another important part of learning is made up of practising (or tuning, or polishing, or rehearsing) our use of concepts, skills and strategies and thus making performance easy. Practice is vital in two ways: firstly because it is the chief way in which we eliminate errors from habitual routines and secondly because it somehow (once more because of evolved instinctive processes) allows us to transfer our limited powers of conscious attention away from routine competences. Thus the practicing musician does not exactly repeat each scale or musical piece, but strives to change the performance, at each trial, so as to make it more fluent, error-free and easy to accomplish. Indeed, to the extent that a trial is an exact repetition of a previous trial, nothing has been learnt. The point of practice, in this sense, is to eliminate errors.
But beyond this, as we repeat and hone our skilled and habitual routines, either deliberately, as in the example of the practising musician, or unconsciously, as we automate everyday skills such as dressing, washing, eating and driving, we gradually transfer their control to non-conscious brain processes. ’Consciousness’, as William James observed, ’goes away from where it is not needed’. This automation of skills and habits is extremely important in virtually every area of learning because it allows us to use our very limited span of conscious, purposeful thought, for strategically higher levels of planning, execution and evaluation. Only if we have the elementary facts, or skills, ’at our finger-tips’ can we solve our problems strategically, with reference to higher level, longer-term values, purposes or hypotheses. A mathematician who always had to re-calculate simple number bonds, a chemist who always had to look up the elementary properties of acids, an historian who never remembered any facts would always be trapped in low-level aspects of their problems. To some extent, getting deeper into any subject depends on developing a rich data-base of relevant information, on knowing one’s way around a topic, of having ready knowledge and skill available when it is required. Only by making the early stages easy can we spend cognitive resources on the new and the difficult. To memorise without understanding is indeed mostly pointless and to realise this is to move beyond the naïve. It is a move constantly re-iterated by constructivists, and one that all teachers and learners need to make. But to understand without ever remembering is also equally useless, for it condemns us to repeat each episode of learning over and over again, ad infinitum.
Turning to the matter of making learning satisfying, constructivists often seem to imply that since making sense is a natural cognitive state of affairs, for children as for adults, pupils will naturally try to make sense of the school curriculum. The problem of attitude, of motivating the learner to become deeply engaged in relevant activities, is thus either magically dissolved or else tacked on to the constructivist view as a further claim. In Smith’s work, the problem is dissolved, as when he writes:
Learning is not difficult. It does not even require deliberate motivation. Most of the time we learn without knowing that we are learning. (Smith, 1992, p. 38)
But this account fails to distinguish the ’easy’ episodic, perceptual and incidental learning, which is indeed largely an unconscious by-product of experience, from the more ’difficult’ deliberate learning of concepts, skills or strategies, which requires a conscious effort of attention and a striving to make sense of new ideas or procedures. This is the problematic type of learning which we routinely demand of pupils in schools. In Fosnot’s introduction, this aspect of learning gives rise to a further claim:
Challenging, open-ended investigations in realistic, meaningful contexts need to be offered, thus allowing learners to explore and generate many possibilities, both affirming and contradictory. (Fosnot, 1996, p. 29)
Putting this into general terms, we get the further claim:
(6) Effective Learning Requires Meaningful, Open-ended, Challenging Problems for the Learner to Solve
One may well agree with this as a general prescription for the curriculum, though noting that some rather less challenging kinds of instruction and practice may also be helpful, but it is difficult to see why it should follow from any of the earlier claims of constructivism, any more than from any other view of learning. It recognises, as Smith does not, that motivating learners to engage with the topic requires more than simply facing them with new learning to do. It accepts, implicitly, that our existing model of the world includes powerful values and dispositions, which set up expectations about which experiences we are likely to find interesting or satisfying. This gives rise to one of the most difficult and persistent problems for teachers, namely that of devising lessons and activities which succeed in persuading pupils to try, whole-heartedly, to learn something which is not, immediately, or obviously, interesting to them. But this does not follow from the claims that learning is constructive, or relative to our conceptual schemes, or subjective, or socially mediated. Perhaps it is thought to follow from the claimed insight that learning is ’active’, but, if so, we need to remember that this notion of ’activity’ has to include such things as reading a book, or listening to an interesting talk, both of which can prove extremely satisfying. Nor are all ’active’ lessons (viz investigating how many different ways we can make the number 6, or which substances dissolve in water) necessarily interesting to all learners. In other words, the generally progressive tone of such supposed implications of constructivism has to be justified by reference to additional premises, or arguments, about what pupils find interesting or engaging; ’activity’ alone will not suffice.
Constructivist accounts are often ’hopeful’ in that they seem to promise that if we, as teachers, are prepared to recognise our pupils’ natural learning capacities, are aware of the ways in which knowledge is mediated via representations, and of the many ways in which past knowledge affects present learning, then classroom learning will not be a problem, for teacher or taught. A further over-simplified claim may be that all individual differences in learning come down to the consequences of each learner’s history of learning; no upsetting differences in innate ability or talent have to be confronted. Constructivism seems to offer learning without tears. There is a tendency here, it seems to me, to brush all manner of obvious problems and difficulties to one side. But if this is indeed so, disillusionment awaits the unwary constructivist teacher. The greatest insight of constructivism is perhaps the realisation of the difference made by a learner’s existing knowledge and values to what is learned next, both in facilitating and inhibiting it (e.g. Claxton, 1990). But this is a neutral insight, in that it points to both possibilities and problems. Learners do need to interact, to have dialogues, to solve problems and to make sense of new ideas; but they also often find it difficult to see why they should make the effort, fail to pay attention, misconstrue new concepts, forget what they learned ten minutes ago and fail to apply fragile new knowledge effectively to new contexts. They can be helped by the expertise of teachers and they need instruction, demonstration and practice, as well as challenging problems and investigations, to make progress. In all this constructivism moves us beyond naivete, but perhaps not very far.
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