In an article billed as a “field guide” to constructivism, three authors from the sciences focuses on cognitive constructivism and aims to equip faculty with what they need in order to determine how constructivist a learning activity is. The authors propose that constructivist activities can be identified using four essential criteria.
If the term is unfamiliar, it's an educational theory about knowledge and learning. Most college teachers have heard the term. But if asked to define it clearly and succinctly, most could not. The term and the theory it represents carry political connotations. Early on, some thought that constructivism was about students making meaning, as in constructing knowledge for themselves. For those in the sciences and other fields where the knowledge base is more fixed, that made no sense at all. Students should not be able to decide how something functions when how it works is an already well-established fact.
In an article billed as a “field guide” to constructivism, three authors from the sciences attempt to set the record straight by differentiating between cognitive constructivism and social constructivism. “Cognitive constructivism is a theory that describes learning as taking new ideas or experiences and fitting them into a complex system that includes the learner's entire prior learning. In other words, students arrive with pre-existing ‘constructs,' and in order to learn, must modify these existing structures by removing, replacing, adding, or shifting information in them.” (p. 31) Social constructivism “describes how the facts that a society believes to be true are ‘constructed' through social interactions.” (p. 31)
This field guide focuses on cognitive constructivism and aims to equip faculty with what they need in order to determine how constructivist a learning activity is. The authors propose that constructivist activities can be identified using four essential criteria.
Eliciting prior knowledge—If students construct knowledge by modifying or contributing to their existing mental constructs, then learning cannot start until that prior knowledge has been engaged. If students don't do that and don't bother trying to fit new content into what they already know, what they are learning doesn't make much sense and they are inclined to simply memorize whatever they think the teacher wants them to know. Activities that elicit prior knowledge “encourage them [students] to think about what they already know or to attempt to solve a problem in the relevant topic.” (p. 32) The goal of constructivist activities is to get students to demonstrate their prior knowledge in ways that the teacher can observe. That makes it easier for the teacher to suggest how the new knowledge might fit with what the student already knows.
Creating cognitive dissonance—“Only when the students realize that their prior knowledge is insufficient or inappropriate to understanding something will the students become motivated to modify their constructs.” (p. 33) Activities that create this dissonance often result in confusion, frustration, and anxiety. Students don't understand—what the teacher is telling them doesn't make any sense, and what they do know isn't helping them solve the problem. As unpleasant as these feelings may be, they are what motivates students to modify their mental constructs. That requires breaking neural connections and making new ones, which takes mental energy.
Application of new knowledge with feedback—The new construct must be tested. It needs to be applied to a problem so that the student can see whether it works. As the new construct is being tested, it can be fine-tuned. Minor adjustments can be made so that it works better and explains even more. Sometimes learners can make these adjustments, but often they are helped with formative feedback from the teacher. Also, the immediate application of a new construct reinforces the learning that has just occurred.
Reflection on learning, or metacognition—At this point constructivist learners step back and analyze both what they have learned and how they have learned it. The more learners do this, the more efficient their future learning will be. Teachers promote this with activities that ask students “to explain what they have done, how they did it, and why it was important.” (p. 34) The reflection involves more than simply reporting what they have done. It's the explaining why that is key.
The authors' idea is that you can take these four criteria and use them to determine whether learning has occurred and to what degree an activity is constructivist. The criteria are useful and do help clarify an area about which there has been much confusion.
Reference: Hartle, R.T., Baviskar, S., and Smith, R. (2012). A field guide to constructivism in the college science classroom: Four essential criteria and a guide to their usage. Bioscene, 32 (2), 31–34.
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