Thursday, June 22, 2023

Techniques of Teaching: Constructivism Learning Theory: Theoretical Overview


If you're diligent in studying numerous learning theories, reading academic research, books, and papers, you might find yourself feeling more lost the more you read. That's often the initial reaction when diving into the realm of learning theories!

Let's set aside practical applications for now and focus on the theories themselves. Just understanding what "constructivism" is can be confusing enough. There's constructivist philosophy, constructivist teaching, constructivist learning methods, traditional constructivism, individual constructivism, social constructivism, and so on. Even when looking for representative figures of constructivism, different researchers have different perspectives (for example, is Dewey considered a pragmatist or a constructivist?). If you delve deeper, you'll likely find yourself entangled in a web of complexity and eventually forget the most important question:

"How can we utilize these learning theories to improve student learning outcomes?"

So, allow me to explain constructivist learning theory in a relatively straightforward manner shortly. Our focus is on the practical application of teaching, where theories serve as the foundation for our practices. If you're interested in the finer details of the theories, feel free to explore national doctoral and master's theses databases or Google Scholar!

Two Examples for Constructivist Learning Theory

Let's start with an example. Have you ever been to Iceland? I assume most people are familiar with this country, and you may have gained knowledge about Iceland from Google or travel books. But is that knowledge equivalent to experiencing Iceland firsthand? Taking it a step further, watching videos can provide you with a deeper understanding of Iceland through visuals, but does that represent the entirety of the country? Perhaps when you actually visit Iceland, you'll gain an even deeper understanding. If you were to live there and experience daily life, your understanding would deepen even further. Moreover, different individuals who travel to Iceland may have different experiences...

Looking back, where does your experience and understanding of Iceland come from? Books? Videos? Or is it derived from your own personal encounters? Do books, videos, or travel alone represent knowledge? Or is it because you interpret books, videos, or travel through your own experiences that knowledge is constructed and stored within you?

Taking it a step further, is it possible for someone else's storytelling or teaching to help you grasp the feeling of facing Iceland's magnificant mountains and waters?

If this example is still not clear enough, let's consider another example related to learning: presentation skills.

The course on professional presentation skills is one of my core and most proficient areas. Let's assume you have little to no experience in presentations. Is it possible for you to learn presentation skills by carefully reading the 10 recommended books I provided? Or perhaps by watching 10 classic videos on presentation techniques?

Or let's streamline it further. If I teach you all the knowledge and experiences about presentation skills throughout a whole day, will you learn presentation skills?

I know what word has been on your mind: "practice!" Yes, regardless of how many books you read, how many videos you watch, or how many times I teach you, without your own practice, none of it will be absorbed or meaningful!

So, let's pause and reflect: Were those presentation books, videos, or courses and teachings considered "presentation knowledge"? Or is it because of your participation, practice, and the experiences within the process that truly create your own "presentation knowledge"?

Through these two examples, using a constructivist approach (interpret it yourself), I'm attempting to help you understand the essence of constructivism: "Knowledge is not objectively existent but is rather constructed by the learners themselves through active participation, experiences, and reflection!" With this foundation, let's proceed to introduce three notable figures in constructivist theory.

John Dewey

A prominent figure in the early 20th century, John Dewey had a profound influence on education. He believed that education should involve "learning by doing" and "learning from experience." According to him, teaching should not be disconnected from life, and knowledge is not solely confined to neatly organized doctrinal texts. Instead, learning should occur through active participation, hands-on experience, problem-solving processes, and interactive engagement with the environment. Through reflection, valuable knowledge is generated. Dewey viewed knowledge as derived from the process of problem-solving, which involves five steps: 1. Identifying the problem; 2. Diagnosing the problem; 3. Proposing hypotheses for problem-solving; 4. Inferring the hypotheses to determine their effectiveness; 5. Testing and verifying the hypotheses.

Dewey's educational theory has had a profound impact on practical instruction and problem-based learning (PBL) approaches.

Jean Piaget

You read that correctly! We previously introduced this master in the context of cognitive learning theory, and he is also considered a pioneer of constructivism. In fact, constructivism emerged as a development from cognitive learning theory. The distinction lies in their perspectives on knowledge, whether it is objective (as in the case of external sources like books that can be taught) or subjective (requiring learners to interpret and construct knowledge themselves, resulting in diverse interpretations of the same knowledge). Through observing children, including his own, Piaget proposed the theory of cognitive development, which describes different developmental stages in children at various ages. He also believed that knowledge is continuously constructed through the dynamic interaction between children and their environment, through processes of assimilation and accommodation, expanding cognitive schemas. This perspective of "individuals actively interacting with the environment to construct knowledge" sparked further research and exploration into constructivism.

There was another master who passed away prematurely but was born in the same year as Piaget. He proposed a highly practical perspective on teaching: the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). We'll delve into this topic in our next article...

Note 1: Writing theoretical papers like this can be quite challenging!

Note 2: Can you guess why I chose this photo? (It's a tough one!)

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