CEPA eprint 3958

Exploring social constructivism: Theories and practicalities

Adams P. (2006) Exploring social constructivism: Theories and practicalities. Education 34(3): 3–13. Available at http://cepa.info/3958
Table of Contents
Learning as social construction
Social constructivist pedagogy
A focus on learning not performance
Learners are active co-constructors of meaning and knowledge
Teachers as learning guides not instructors
Learners should be engaged in tasks seen as ends in themselves and consequently as having implicit worth
Assessment as an active process of uncovering and acknowledging shared understanding
In the drive to improve standards, the collection and dissemination of numerical data still directs much contemporary educational policy. However, recent publications and debates seemingly attempt to reorient discussion from performance to learning. In support, constructivism is often referenced as a contributor in this endeavour. However, constructivism is not a single unified theory either of knowledge or pedagogy. This article identifies one version of constructivist thinking, social constructivism, both in terms of its underlying epistemology (theory of knowledge) and related pedagogy. Contemporary educational theories are then outlined to demonstrate that many practical solutions and theoretical ideas now presented as ‘good learning and teaching’ have much in common with social constructivist thinking Finally, the article concludes by identifying two issues that require further discussion and debate if pedagogy of a social constructivist nature is to be considered.
For some time, educational policy over and above that required for exam success has been at best sidelined and at worst ignored; tests and other forms of objectively measuring educational quality have held sway (Easen & Bolden, 2005). Successive governments have used ever-increasing resources and centralized powers to attempt to raise standards by the manipulation of school curricula and teacher behaviour (Silcock, 2003). In this vein, learning at Key Stage 2 (via a simplistic belief in its association with performance) is measured by controlling for context, task and time whilst pupils undertake a series of predetermined and moderated tasks, marked against clear and agreed criteria; in short, Standard Attainment Tests (SATs). Subsequently, pupil performance is evaluated, attainment judged and standards commented upon.
Although the rhetoric speaks of assessing pupil learning, the practice is the moderation of a form of behaviour judged to be associated with learning (Easen & Bolden, 2005); mental activities and processes are indirectly observed through the prism of actions and reactions, which in turn are seen to provide reliable information about the type, scale and quality of learning. In many ways this is unsurprising: in many social situations evaluations based upon actions often provide the mainstay of interpretation. However, when considering learning, to use such observations to comment upon anything other than specific, context-bound performance misses two fundamental points: learning, or at least aspects of it, occurs in the mind; and behaviour is not a priori a reliable indicator of cognitive processes. That which a pupil demonstrates through ‘performance’ is but a surface manifestation of possible underlying competences (Easen & Bolden, 2005, p. 53). Although it might occur that success or failure in the test situation accurately indicates cognitive development, it might also be conjectured that such performance is nothing more than an indication of the child’s ability to read the requirements of the test. What is interesting (and troubling) is the way that performance as judged by test results can be modified without much attendance to underlying cognitive development. Here, teaching trains pupils to understand the intricacies of the exam question and thus become adept at reading what is required to glean maximum marks. Teaching for procedural or conceptual understanding becomes at best sidelined; at worst, ignored.
This surely poses questions as to whether short-term gains in attainment scores are being achieved at the expense of a commitment to learning in the long term (MacGilchrist, 2003, p. 61). Certainly, Pollard and Triggs note that ‘a significant proportion of pupils seem to have become instrumentally concerned with “playing the system,” with superficial learning and trying to avoid boredom’ (2000, p. 297). However, given that if they are not to depress a school’s league table position, children must and should succeed in a linear fashion and reach prescribed targets (Silcock, 2003), this may not come as too much of a surprise.
It would appear therefore that regular testing within such performance paradigms is in danger of closing down learning opportunities for young people now and in the future (MacGilchrist, 2003, p. 63). However, output-oriented conceptions of education have always been resisted. Indeed, Woods and Jeffrey (2002) note the ways in which teachers actively rein in, mediate or mollify the stultifying effects of performativity culture. For many teachers, discussion about learning and not performance is that which provides the staple, professional diet. In such discussions, deliberation and debate about what learning is and how best to promote it take centre stage.
The first casualty in such discussions is any notion that the connection between learning and performance is simplistic (MacGilchrist, 2003). Secondly, common themes seem to become distilled, which when examined concur both with informal and formal theorizing. In turn, these themes promote learning as an active process of meaning-making (Silcock, 2003); describe effective learners as those able to engage in the process of meta-learning (the ability to make sense of one’s experience of learning); acknowledge the role for emotions in learning (Goleman, 1996); and locate learning as the product of socio-cultural contexts (compare Vygotsky, 1978). Although educational interventions or initiatives all too often remain measured in terms of national test results, these emergent themes seem firmly rooted in a desire to develop the quality of pupils’ learning. For example, implicit to the idea of meta- learning is the belief that learners need to learn about learning and reflecting and begin to make sense of their own learning experiences and those of others (Biggs & Moore, 1993; Ertmer & Newby, 1996). Rather than attempt to teach how to rapidly converge on ‘the correct answer’, meta-learning encourages pupils to examine thought processes, thereby avoiding overly simplistic acceptance and/or the adoption of ‘face; the thinking with which pupils engage is seen as vital to the learning process.
Learning as social construction
These discussions about learning liberate; they permit teachers to move beyond standards and performance and concentrate on that which should be at the heart of the educational process: learning and learners. Additionally, such deliberations encourage teachers to analyse pedagogy from the point of view of the learner. Historically, such analysis originated from behaviourist positions: the ‘human-as-machine’ analogy, whereby learners can be programmed and reprogrammed. Behaviourist principles consider the learner to be a tabula rasa, filled with transmission-based teaching that improves stimulus – response connections, thereby communicating and instilling a set of predetermined and agreed facts (Reeves, 1992). In such cases, learning is seen to occur as a result of adaptation: a process of making associations that leads to alterations in displayed behaviour. Behaviourism’s egalitarian nature might well acknowledge the role for the environment in determining the scale and effect of learning but conversely ignores deliberation about cognition, preferring instead to describe differences in learning as being attributable solely to the reactions individuals display.
Although behaviourism might still gain regard in some behaviour management publications and strategies (Porter, 2000), increasingly those involved in education are adopting the idea that learners shape their own minds through their own actions within given socio-cultural settings; in orientation, learning as construction. Significant here is that pupils understand the tasks they face and believe that they have the capacity and intellectual tools to undertake them. Constructivist learning orientations seek to understand how pupils create their knowledge constructs and what these mean for understanding influences on thought processes. The fluid nature of constructivist learning requires teachers to adopt the view that each learner will construct knowledge differently and that these differences stem from the various ways that individuals acquire, select, interpret and organize information (Adams, 2006).
These ideas, although presented under the umbrella term ‘constructivism’, describe not a coherent set of proposals or features, but rather a series of ideas that can be thought of as sharing some family resemblance: learning as an active process of constructing knowledge to make sense of the world (Adams, 2003, 2006). In the literature, a variety of constructivist theories abound (see for example Crowther, 1997; Kanuka & Anderson, 1999). Although these positions differ in their emphasis there is commonality between them (Ernest, 1995): for all, the nature of the learning environment is one of experimentation and dialogue, where knowledge is seen within the context of problems to be discussed and solved.
One position, social constructivism, posits that learner construction of knowledge is the product of social interaction, interpretation and understanding (Vygotsky, 1962). As the creation of knowledge cannot be separated from the social environment in which it is formed, learning is viewed as a process of active knowledge construction (Woolfolk, 1993) within and from social forms and processes. Furthermore, due to the mediatory features of language and other forms of communication, knowledge constructs are formed first on an inter-psychological level (between people) before becoming internalized or existing intra-psychologically (Daniels, 2001). Thus, consensus between individuals is held to be the ultimate criterion upon which to judge the veracity of knowledge and not some form of ‘objective truth test’. In this sense, learning becomes the development of personal meaning more able to predict socially agreeable interpretations. As Heylighen (1993, p. 2) explains, social constructivism ‘sees consensus between different subjects as the ultimate criterion to judge knowledge. “Truth” or “reality” will be accorded only to those constructions on which most people of a social group agree.’
One result is that this view requires alternative conceptions of failure. Students who previously might be judged to have failed to understand can alternatively be said to have inadequately synthesized information in order to relay a socially acceptable interpretation (Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1991). Thus, problems reside not in a lack of absolute rightness, but rather in personal interpretation having less accurate predictive validity within the mediated social environment. It is then but a step to note that in order for learning to effectively occur, students must be enabled to access those social elements of learning that support the development of personal interpretation (Hein, 1991). Through an appreciation of thought processes, cognitive conflict and socially appropriate predictive ability, learning ceases to be judged as the acceptance of fact with associated problems of ‘wrongness’, and becomes personal interpretation, question creation and the appreciation of validity as defined by socially recognizable and appropriate forms (Adams, 2006). The aim of learning is thus to become aware of the realities of others and their relationship with and to one’s own. As the knowledge constructed is an indication of how the world might be, a variety of theoretical possibilities are acceptable, not because of their rightness but because of their ability to predict.
Due to the interpersonal requirements within the social constructivist position, a key element is an ability to decode attendant language (Vygotsky, 1986, cited in Goodman & Goodman, 1990; Kanuka & Anderson, 1999) so that negotiated, social interaction within prevailing personal-to-social constructs might be enabled. Implicit within the social constructivist position therefore is the need to focus on the learner and not the subject matter to be taught, whilst simultaneously recognizing that there is no knowledge independent of the meaning attributed to experience by the learner within the learning community (Hein, 1991).
Social constructivist pedagogy
The above discussion alludes to principles by which social constructivist learning environments might begin to be designed. What is required is a way to translate this pedagogic theory into practice; however, such a translation must have a high degree of generality. In support, there are many theories of instruction written from a social constructivist perspective that might be interrogated as a means to begin to identify common principles and processes (e.g. Wheatley, 1991; Yager, 1991; Saunders, 1992). What emerges from such writings and other literature (e.g. Hein, 1991; Tam, 2000) are a number of principles. Such principles should not be taken as a list to be checked off one by one until all are met; rather, they provide the means by which practice might be referenced.
Focus on learning not performance.View learners as active co-constructors of meaning and knowledge.Establish a teacher–pupil relationship built upon the idea of guidance not instruction.Seek to engage learners in tasks seen as ends in themselves and consequently as having implicit worth.Promote assessment as an active process of uncovering and acknowledging shared understanding.
A focus on learning not performance
As previously suggested, a performance orientation adopts an overly simplistic causal link between outcomes on standardized tests and the quality of pupil learning. In turn, such beliefs can engender ‘teaching to the test’; predictions about the form and content of exam papers are made and teaching methods subsequently skewed in an attempt to maximize marks. However, such orientations often leave teachers feeling frustrated and constrained, unable to satisfy their desire to be creative and take risks, seeking instead to operate via ‘contingent pragmatism’, that is, the adoption of survival techniques (Moore et al., 2002). In such cases teaching becomes compliant with central imperatives in an effort to secure a favourable standing within the education marketplace. Such target-driven orientations celebrate successful performance as indicated by favourable test results as the ultimate aim for education (Shepard, 2000; Willinsky, 2005). The measures of success used lead to an overemphasis on repetitive short-termism aimed at maximizing test performance.
One notable outcome of this is a concentration on those pupils who are able to make a difference (e.g. at Key Stage 2, those who might improve their SATs score from a level 3 to the required ‘average’, level 4), for such pupils are seen as crucial in the attempt to extend further a school’s league table position. Unfortunately, such views trap schools into a cycle of non-creativity; as institutions they are more akin to frightened organizations where people work hard and try new initiatives but are discouraged from taking risks due to the pervasive climate of fear (Watkins, 1999, p. 74). Furthermore, such high-stakes accountability cultures teach students that externally driven rewards and punishment should be those which engender effort (Shepard, 2000). What is never asked is whether the measures used actually represent valid, worthwhile or meaningful outputs (Ball, 1999, p. 204).
At the heart of these performativity orientations lies the need to ensure that pupils exhibit behaviours that can be credentialized (i.e. graded and celebrated) through anonymous, externally moderated marking procedures. Pressure thus exists to orient teaching as the most efficient way to get information from the teacher and into the minds of the students so that they might acquire the knowledge and skills required to perform well. The associated orientation of learning is one of knowledge reception by pupils from the teacher, via carefully constructed, teacher-centred activities designed to support correct acquisition and favourable demonstration. Learning unfortunately becomes lost within the morass of deliberation about input and output, in what has been called a ‘black box’ view (Ball, 1999). As Shepard notes:
Under intense political pressure, test scores are likely to go up without a corresponding improvement in student learning. In fact, distortions in what and how students are taught may actually decrease students’ conceptual understanding. (2000, p. 9)
Additionally, a performance orientation removes the locus of control from pupils; teachers become the focus for success. Such refocusing is evident in the way that English government policy repeatedly locates the problems of ‘underachievement’ squarely at the door of teachers (Tomlinson, 2001; Willinsky, 2005). Such attributions, in addition to celebrating professional compliance, reorient learners as passive recipients, dependent on those around them for success, required to prove competence through successful performance.
Although research suggests that pupils attribute success to a number of factors (Weiner, 1996; Weeden & Winter, 1999), a concern for improving one’s performance is more likely to engender feelings of ‘learned helplessness’ (Dweck, 1999), whereupon difficulty is avoided, repetition favoured and ability doubted. Consequently, pupils cease to persevere in the face of difficulty (MacGilchrist, 2003). In an era of high-stakes accountability, effort is increasingly being articulated by its relationship with responses to externally administered rewards and punishments (Shepard, 2000).
Conversely, a ‘learning orientation’ (Watkins, 2001) keeps the locus of control squarely with the pupil. Here, effort is seen to bring reward; an increase in achievement as measured through personal progress against previous positions. In this orientation, learners describe themselves in terms of deepening understanding and derive satisfaction from perseverance and success in difficult tasks (Dweck, 1999; Watkins, 2001). This orientation is supported by the social constructivist paradigm, which explicitly and implicitly acknowledges the contingent and fluctuating nature of learning.
Learners are active co-constructors of meaning and knowledge
Implicit and therefore vital within social constructivist principles is the concept of mind. In contrast to the black box, behaviourist view of learning, social constructivism requires attention to learning as mindful activity; that is to say, as occurring in the mind. Drawing upon related cognitive theory, social constructivism posits that existing knowledge structures and beliefs support or militate against new learning (Shepard, 2000). Additionally it readily incorporates social and cultural factors as essential to the formulation of understanding.
Social constructivist theory emphasizes the role for others in the individual construction of knowledge (Vygotsky, 1978); learning, in this paradigm, is a primarily social process (Shepard, 2000). Explicit here is the belief that individuals bring implicit theories and perspectives derived from the cultural milieu (Sutherland et al., 2004), and that inter-psychological aspects of knowledge creation themselves assist in the formulation of this very cultural context. Thus, whilst teachers have an important role in developing and arranging contrasts in order to stimulate discussion and thought, pupils are also so judged; the view that pupil learning is merely a reaction to culture is seen as untenable. Instead, social constructivist theory views learning as dual-agentic: learner and teacher engage to co-construct the socio-cultural realm; their decisions ‘scaffold’ each other (Silcock, 2003). The discursive nature of social constructivist learning environments emphasizes the need for children to be given time to talk, with the teacher’s role that of listener and observer.
The Assessment Reform Group (1999, p. 8) notes that teachers should observe and listen to how pupils describe their work and their reasoning through the use of suitably phrased, open-ended questions, and set tasks that require pupils to use skills and apply ideas which employ a variety of communicative methods, such as role-play, concept mapping, drawing and the use of artefacts. Moreover, such interactions provide opportunities for learners to scaffold their own understanding through the immediacy of shared interrogation both with and by peers and staff (Torrance & Pryor, 1998). Indeed, Black and Wiliam (1998) conclude that collaborative discourse leads to opportunities to self-reflect, with concomitant gains in learning. What all this provides for are spaces and instances of and for active co-construction of meaning and understanding. The mutually reinforcing nature of open-ended, exploratory talk provides mechanisms and opportunities for individual reflexivity within a context that actively desires and operates to mediate knowledge construction into the social space. The most obvious reform required then is the devising of more open-ended tasks that require students to think critically, solve complex problems and apply their knowledge in and to their own world (Shepard, 2000).
However, the idea of co-construction should not be confined to teacher – pupil interaction alone. Behaviourist learning and teaching interactions often led to a culture of pupil dependence on teachers; pupils did as they were told and had good surface understanding, but little sense of purpose (Weeden & Winter, 1999). To avoid such dependency, social constructivist approaches acknowledge the need for pupil – pupil interaction. The exploitation of peer approaches to learning provides possible answers to the problems of encouraging and enabling primary-age pupils to take gradually more control over their own learning. Additionally, such approaches are useful in creating the ‘common knowledge’ that Easen and Bolden (2005, p. 55) maintain is required if pupils are to recontextualize the everyday, common-sense knowledge of the home, which thrives on naïve or idiosyncratic theorizing, into the school environment, where formal theories and sense-making abound.
Teachers as learning guides not instructors
The logical conclusion of a behaviourist pedagogical paradigm is that classes should be dominated by teacher exposition, agreed texts and methods of instruction that best assist students in negotiating summative assessments designed to evaluate performance. This position does not necessarily preclude pupil involvement and discussion but ultimately the purpose and direction of interaction is preset. Rather than using debate and discussion as a means to elucidate and unpack personal ideas and theories, such activities become a means whereby teachers highlight and correct ‘misunderstandings’ and ‘inconsequential knowledge’.
As a counterpoint, the social constructivist-oriented teacher is positioned as an organizer and potential source of information (Hanley, 1994; Crowther, 1997). Their role is as facilitator (Copley, 1992), working to provide students with opportunities and incentives to construct knowledge and understanding. What alters is the way teaching and teacher identity are conceptualized. In a practical sense this reconceptualization focuses thinking on activities that provide pupil-world, case- based learning to enable authentic, context-oriented, reflective practice within a collaborative and social environment (Jonassen, 1994; Rice & Wilson, 1999). Most contentiously, the constructivist environment advocates the gradual transference of power to give the learning agenda to the learner. In effect what is required is a paradigm shift: the abandonment of the familiar to embrace the new (Brooks & Brooks, 1993).
However, social constructivism does not remove the need for the teacher; rather it redirects teacher activity towards the provision of a safe environment in which student knowledge construction and social mediation are paramount. Such orientations require teachers to understand the requirements and stages through which students travel on their journey towards understanding, which in turn might successfully mediate into the socio-cultural space. In short, the process of scaffolding the learning journey is the key teacher requisite (Vygotsky, 1978; Omrod, 1995).
Learners should be engaged in tasks seen as ends in themselves and consequently as having implicit worth
As Silcock (2003, p. 50) states:
A ‘true’ education is exactly that where learners grasp what is worthwhile for its own sake rather than as means to other ends (such as passing tests or hitting learning targets).
Implicit in this are two beliefs. First, the teacher’s role is fundamentally different from that lauded in the behaviourist paradigm, most specifically during teacher – pupil interaction at the point of celebrating learning. Unfortunately, all too often in primary education extrinsic reward provides the mainstay of motivational techniques. Paradoxically, the use of such reward systems (e.g. stickers, smiley faces) can actually undermine interest and demotivate (Black & Wiliam, 1998); it does nothing to close the gap between learning and understanding how to do better. There is nothing in the reward or its conferral that gives the learner an understanding of intricate cognitive change, neither do they connect meaningfully with the learning process.
Secondly, there is therefore a need to consider transference of control from teacher to pupil. The aforementioned problems with extrinsic reward systems denote a need to separate such rewards from the celebration of successful learning. Whereas behaviourist techniques for behaviour management at times may be both successful and necessary (even though such theories are predicated on particular views of the learner, teacher and indeed education, a discussion all of its own), their role in supporting pupil self-control for learning is at best minimal. Certainly, reward systems can and do achieve increases in the frequency and quality of pupil behaviour, including working with peers (Porter, 2000). However, mindful commitment is not required (Desforges, 1993, 1997); that is, a commitment to the learning in hand, due to purpose and a deep sense of self-awareness. A sense of purpose and the way a task situates a pupil are that which provide meaning, meaning which in turn provides motivation. However, motivation in this sense should not be taken to simply mean feelings of intrinsic worth; rather it should signal that pupils can persist even when a real desire to intellectually engage is not present. Mindful commitment recognizes that interest alone is not enough to engender persistence (Silcock, 2003, p. 49).
The above creates a new set of challenges. Although teachers cannot learn on behalf of the pupil, nor can they in all honesty make someone learn, they can do certain things to help. The idea of ‘common knowledge’ has been previously mentioned in relation to bridging the gap between the worlds of home and school (Easen & Bolden, 2005). This idea along with mindful commitment present an interesting opportunity to engage with social constructivist thinking. The significance of socio-cultural issues offered as part of learning in the idea of ‘common knowledge’ sits neatly with the underlying basis for social constructivism. Providing pupil-world perspectives on learning situations not only makes school learning authentic but also turns the knowledge and skills gained back in on themselves. Research demonstrates (Bereiter, 2001) that school learning which connects to a learner’s wider, personal agenda is more likely to transfer between home and school. Thus, by providing a socio-cultural context for tasks that is wider than school, those aspects of school learning that are transferable due to their occurring as part of the social milieu become not only embedded in the processes of school learning, but also alter the cultural context of the classroom; in effect learning shapes school into something tangible rather than ephemeral and obscure.
Practically, these points draw attention to two aspects. First, when designing learning opportunities, the question needs to be asked: ‘How is this meaningful for my students given their life-world?’ The requirement to reflect on that which has been personally constructed within the social world can only carry meaning if it can be related to personal reference points. When supporting pupils in their efforts to construct knowledge and meaning, opportunities must be provided that require the deconstruction of views within the social realm. Thus, rather than being asked what they think and why, learners must be encouraged to explain what they think, why, and how such changes seem to fit with the requirements of the socio-cultural context.
Secondly, design of learning opportunities and methods for demonstrating and mediating knowledge into the socio-cultural space should rest at least partly with pupils. Asking pupils what they wish to consider and how they wish to investigate and present their work engenders feelings of importance and worthiness.
Assessment as an active process of uncovering and acknowledging shared understanding
Traditionally, assessment, learning and teaching have been seen as three related but separate aspects of education (Graue, 1993). Moreover, teachers generally subordinate assessment to instruction (Torrance & Pryor, 1998). Such views echo the aforementioned behaviourist ideals: as learning (the act of acquisition) occurs sequentially and hierarchically, tests should be used to ensure mastery has been achieved. In this guise, learning is seen as synonymous with good grades which are, in turn, seen to be good forms of extrinsic motivation (Shepard, 2000). However, social constructivist perspectives require much more than a mere reorientation of the interrelationship between teaching, learning and assessment; at their heart they see the latter as embedded within the learning and teaching process. As Shepard (2000, p. 8) notes, ‘good assessment tasks are interchangeable with good instructional tasks’. Assessment thus needs to be reconstrued from the means by which reward might be conferred to a source of insight and help for all involved in the learning and teaching interaction. Within a social constructivist perspective, assessment seeks to consider how and why pupil positions do not successfully mediate into the social domain; that is, how and why pupil responses do not ‘fit’ with current socially agreed interpretations. In support, contemporary assessment theory identifies a number of factors more likely to both develop the quality of pupil learning and reinforce the view that assessment, as distinct from testing, is an aspect of the learning and teaching process rather than an adjunct.
Increasingly calls are being made to distinguish between the assessment of learning (testing) and assessment for learning. In the latter sense, social constructivism offers suitable insights into describing and constructing theories and processes. The inter- psychological basis for knowledge construction requires a dynamic learner – teacher interaction and provides possible insights into three assessment issues. First, and drawing on Vygotsky’s theory of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) (the difference between that which a learner can do independently and that which can be achieved with the support of a more significant other), whilst it should be obvious that support from a significant other provides rich opportunities for teaching, the redesignation of assessment as a dynamic, integral and ongoing part also of learning bolsters links between all three. Specifically, by providing assistance during teaching episodes which are in themselves viewed as assessment opportunities, teachers not only teach, they gain insights into what has been constructed and how this might be extended and modified. The social constructivist view of knowledge as constructed inter-psychologically creates a forum for dynamic and ongoing development. Moreover, the ZPD opens up possibilities for peer assessment, whereby pupil communities of practice provide opportunities for and requirements to share thought processes. Such ways of drawing on the distributed expertise of all in the class (Sutherland et al., 2004) offer a rich seam of learning opportunities.
Secondly, the conversational requirement of inter-psychological knowledge creation utilizes pupils’ implicit theories and perspectives as the basis upon which further learning is to be built. ‘Instructional conversations’ (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988), as interactive, dialogic enterprises, uncover that which has hitherto remained fully or partially hidden so that constructed ideas and beliefs might be pondered for complexity, meaning and implication. Assessment in such forms provides a touchstone upon which those engaged in dialogue might agree on that which successfully predicts and that which requires further development and thought.
Thirdly, and following on from the above two points, simply assigning to assessment the role of the attribution of right and wrong requires the identification and correction of student errors. Conversely, assessment as learning and teaching provides a number of opportunities for feedback and ‘feeding forward’. In this vein, errors might be ignored when inconsequential, or forestalled by offering hints or asking leading questions (Shepard, 2000). Quintessentially, the teacher provides support and guidance whilst diagnosing student interpretation to inform and direct further action (Driver et al., 1994). Care must be taken, however, for if pupils perceive that teacher questioning is not genuine (i.e. to all intents and purposes a ‘test’), they may become less concerned with sharing their learning strategies and thought processes and more concerned with anticipating and meeting the teacher’s need for a correct answer.
Although in the behaviourist paradigm the above methods might well be seen as good teaching techniques, they would have no place in the assessment period of a tripartite teaching – learning – assessment cycle. To counter this, perhaps further thought should be given to reconceptualizing assessment in divergent terms (Torrance & Pryor, 1998), in which it is seen to provide information about what the learner knows, understands or can do, rather than merely seeking clarification about whether such learning might have occurred. From a theoretical perspective, divergent assessment is social constructivist in its orientation, accomplished as it is jointly from an intention to illuminate that which can be done with support (i.e. in the ZPD). Practically, divergent assessment is non-judgemental, yields insights into understanding and prompts meta-cognition. More importantly, it recognizes the need to involve pupils in self- and peer assessment through the use of discursive and collaborative learning and teaching strategies.
This article has attempted to shed light both theoretically and practically on a theory of learning: social constructivism, a term which has pervaded the annals of educational theory for some time. However, whilst it seems to offer a number of intriguing possibilities for teaching practice and associated practices, it requires further deliberation and thought for two reasons.
First, social constructivism specifically speaks of an underlying epistemological basis. Indeed, the pedagogical position promoted by social constructivism reaffirms an intricate relationship between learning and teaching and epistemology. Related teaching practices are in effect a response to social constructivism as a theory of knowledge. However, this is itself a potentially major issue: in decrying realist interpretations, social constructivist epistemology locates knowledge, not as an objective, context-devoid discovery, but rather as a contextually-driven intrapersonal creation.
Whilst it might seem less problematic to judge knowledge in such terms at the postdoctoral level, during primary school education to talk of knowledge as receiving ‘validity’ due to its ability to predict seems rather odd. Yet if we examine this further we can see that such a position is not entirely problematic. All primary teachers will be able to discuss a time when a pupil explained a new concept or idea in a way that, objectively speaking, was not ‘correct’, but which nevertheless gave a deep insight into how that pupil comprehended and relayed their knowledge. In such circumstances teachers will agree that the knowledge forms so articulated are evidence of understanding and learning. However, it is interesting that such responses seem to become less frequent and acceptable as pupils age. Whilst this might be due to, for example, altering conceptions of childhood, it cannot be denied that educational policy is also responsible. The competitive environment which is now prevalent in contemporary primary education seeks to validate pupil progress through the adoption of simplistic cause-and-effect models of learning. In an effort to stay ahead of other schools and achieve higher league table status, teaching is all too often reduced to a mechanistic ritual designed to ensure that pupils are able to perform on externally driven tests. In this vein, social constructivist epistemology has problems: how can attempts at ‘objective truth testing’ (SATs) fit with a belief that knowledge is not absolute but rather that the veracity of statements is less to do with internal structure and cohesion and more to do with the socio-cultural realm in which they are expressed?
Secondly, social constructivist pedagogy requires a reappraisal of the learner – teacher relationship. Notwithstanding the previous discussion, moves to reorient teacher – pupil interactions cut against a history that judges the former as knowledgeable and in charge and the latter as adults-in-waiting. Thus, in effect the very construction of pupil and teacher identity is challenged. Even so, what should be clear from this article is that whilst this relationship does indeed need to alter, teachers still teach and learners still learn. In support, concepts such as the Zone of Proximal Development specifically describe a role for the ‘significant other’.
In an attempt to gain support for social constructivism as an epistemology upon which pedagogy might be built, this article has drawn attention to current educational theorizing whilst at the same time indicating how it is supportive of the general ideas and principles promoted within the paradigm in question. In this way it is hoped that educationalists will begin to question some of the taken-for-granted epistemological assumptions that seemingly underpin performance-driven educational policy. Perhaps what has been stimulated is discussion (the intention): an invitation to debate.
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