Building Knowledge, Creating Scaffolds: Constructivist theory of learning
It has been established for some time now that learners are not blank slates ready to be “filled with knowledge,” but are actively engaged in constructing knowledge for themselves, building on existing knowledge.
This model of how people learn negates the premises of earlier models which had the learner in a passive role, receiving instruction and knowledge from the teacher as the expert. This constructivist theory is founded on the ideas of Vygotsky’s Social Development theory, which emphasises the importance of social interaction and relationship with more knowledgeable others, in learning. This emphasis is on the social and apprenticeship experience (observing and learning from knowledgeable others, being “scaffolded” in the learning process). While Vygotsky’s theories were originally applied to children, they are now regarded as equally applicable to adult learning – a process of “scaffolded” construction of knowledge. The work of Knowles on adult learning principles reflects this constructivist philosophy.
From the constructivist point of view, learning is a very individual endeavour in which each person is uniquely creating their knowledge based on their existing knowledge and their hypothesis creation. This leads to strategies to ensure that a teachers’ approach is inclusive, addresses diversity, and is student-centred. This theory also casts teachers in the role of facilitator and co-creator of learning, rather than a transmitter of knowledge.
To learn more about constructivist learning theory, try Teachnology.
Thinking back to your results from the TPI quiz, does your approach to teaching align with constructivism? If so, what strategies do you use to encourage students to construct their own meaning and knowledge? If not, do you think your field does or does not lend itself to a constructivist approach to teaching?
The role of metacognition
Along with the rise of constructivist approaches to learning has been a growing awareness of the importance of the learner’s metacognition skills to their success as learners. Constructing their own knowledge, learners need to be self-regulating, and aware of the processes they are engaged with in order to learn. Metacognition, or “thinking about thinking” involves the learner’s critical awareness of their own thinking and learning. It can be encouraged by showing learners strategies to monitor and improve their learning practices, and to accurately self-assess their knowledge and skills.
If you would like to find out more about metacognitive skills and how to encourage their development students, go to the Vanderbilt University page on Metacognition.
The active learning model has also arisen out of constructivism, in line with the central tenet of the student being actively engaged in creating their own knowledge. Active learning means that students are cognitively engaged in the learning, making connections, making sense and constructing knowledge themselves. Rather than being passive recipients, activities such as problem solving and group collaboration or discussions have them actively creating their knowledge and understanding. Research has shown that active learning does result in both deeper learning and retention of knowledge.
For further information there is an excellent summary with good references, on the Pearson website.
Here is a very recent article that provides good background on the ideas around active learning, plus results of research which demonstrates the impact on student attitudes and learning efficacy:
Rocher, A., 2018, “Active Learning Strategies and Academic Self-efficacy relate to both Attention Control and attitudes towards plagiarism” in Active Learning in Higher Education, 1-14, 2018.
Active learning is the basis of the popular idea of the “flipped classroom” – see our previous Coffee Course dedicated to this topic.
The idea of “scaffolding” is a very useful one – provide supports for students to learn new concepts and skills, with supports being strategically diminished as students gain confidence as self-directed learners. This might take the form of practice quizzes, hints that pop up or appear in context in online environments, the provision of templates and exemplars, taking the learning or skill developments in steps that build on each other, and providing targeted and timely feedback.
Creating opportunities for group collaboration and peer support can also provide the social aspect of learning – learning that comes from observing and communicating with others. This of course can be done online using discussion forums, wikis and blogs, as well as face to face in work groups. Approaches such as problem-based and project-based learning are often used for ensuring active, constructivist learning. The “flipped classroom” approach is one example of constructivism in action.
Berkeley University has a great list of types of active learning activities that could be used, on their Centre for Teaching and Learning page.
What types of things do you think will assist students in your courses to develop metacognition skills?
Have you tried to “flip” your classroom? What kind of activities have you tried in order to engage your students and have them active in their own learning?
Of course everything we have covered is theory, some of it having been evidenced in more or less convincing ways, and all of it contested. They are frameworks and points of view that can be useful to us in conceptualising and planning our teaching programs, but they are never absolute truths. We hope you found something useful to take away from the last five days!