I am fascinated by learning, by how we learn, by what might be going on inside my head and inside my mind, and how experimenting and making things might be at the root of all of these. I would call myself a constructivist educator.
What is constructivism?
This is a theory of learning that comes from the work of psychologist Jean Piaget who believed that all learning involves making sense of and creating mental models of the world around us. He believed that there is no single “real world out there” and that each of us constructs our own version of reality based on our existing models. We take in new information (stimuli) from experiences and update our models; through assimilation – “fitting the new into the old” and accommodation – “changing to fit the new”.
If you are a constructivist (and I think this is the central part of my approach to teaching) then you believe that knowledge cannot be transmitted from teacher to learner. Instead, teachers create the environment in which learners have experiences from which they construct their learning. A richly resourced learning environment allows learners to discover for themselves what others have already discovered. A great lecturer may present a set of ideas or an argument in a clear and powerful way but it is the learner who connects with these ideas and refines their own models of the world. Engaging directly with concepts and tools, applying them to problems, discussing and reflecting on what these ideas mean will be more helpful to learning than simply listening or reading; indeed it is the struggle to make sense (in relation to what I already know) where the learning is constructed.
In the 1980s a former student of Piaget, Seymour Papert, went further and suggested that in order for learning to be effective the learner had to do more than just construct models in their mind. He argued that they needed to externalise their learning into objects, physical models, artefacts and representations. Papert was the creator of the Logo programming language and I had the pleasure to meet him in the early 80’s while working on parallel research helping teachers and children represent ideas using another language called Prolog. Both projects provided tools for learners to make representations of ideas and both believed that through the act of making, learners would construct their own learning. Papert called his revised version of constructivism, constructionism.
I was a constructivist (although I did not know the term) well before I started to work with Prolog and my own education, from a very early age was characterised by making, experimenting, explaining and storytelling. Indeed I was extremely lucky to have attended an experimental laboratory school Jordanhill Primary School from the age of four. Although others remember it as a very traditional school with emphasis on rote learning in arithmetic and grammar I remember it as highly innovative with lots of project based experiences and encouragement of my own learning.
A second immersion into the constructivist paradigm came a few years later. My physics and chemistry lessons in secondary school (this time in Cambridge in the early 70s) were shaped by the Nuffield Foundation. The Nuffield Science Projects highlighted an experimental hands-on approach and while learners cannot be expected to deduce all of science from simple experiments, these experiments ground the theory that can then follow. Once again I was extremely lucky to have gifted teachers by my side and they used what we did in the laboratory as reference points not only to the scientific principles we were exploring but also to the scientific experimental method we were using. Separating the what of what we did from the how has guided me well over the subsequent years.
The third phase of my induction into constructionism and constructivism came as I started to learn about and with computers in the mid 70s. Learning programming is a bit like learning to swim and although there is plenty of theory it is impossible to learn without doing. The core skills I remember learning (through practice) include abstraction, data modelling, simplification, debugging, testing and continuous iterative improvement.
What is going on inside the constructivist learner’s mind?
What’s going on inside the constructivist learner’s mind?As a child develops they learn things by sensing the world and fitting information from their senses into models they have already created. They make connections, categorise objects, feelings and behaviours – these patterns are known as schemas. They see a dog and create connections with the shape and form of a dog and perhaps the sound of the word dog. A second dog is observed and confirms their model of what dogs are like. Additional dogs will further reinforce the model and perhaps allow the model to be refined to identify types of dogs or behaviours of dogs. Their feelings about dogs (and those of others) will be added to their personal dog schema. The role of their parents or other children will be to provide extra stimuli (reactions) that they will incorporate into their own knowledge models about dogs.
This process continues all the time with new experiences assimilated into existing models or models changed to accommodate new experiences.
I am convinced that this model is equally appropriate to explain learning in children and adults and also perhaps to provide interesting insights into learning in teams. I’ll explore more of these soon but first a summary of how I use these ideas in my own work.
How do I do constructivist and constructionist education?
My job as an educator is to design experiences that will help people construct these models. My approach (that later formed one of the foundations for Hyper Island) is to use the following:
- Give learners something really interesting to do. Solving real problems, big problems and open ended problems is much more compelling than solving toy problems.
- Get them working together in teams. Most constructivists believe that learning is inherently social and that solving things together allows multiple perspectives to be shared.
- Give them or help them find rich resources to stimulate towards diverse solutions. I believe strongly that progress is made by building on the work of others and that short videos, articles, interviews, guides etc help people find ways to construct their solutions. Don’t confuse this with instruction. It may be helpful to provide a mini lecture as a video but less so to pause problem solving groups to instruct them for an hour.
- Make some of these resources tangible. I particularly like concept cards as a device with learners selecting and sorting these to stimulate their thinking. This feels like giving them a vocabulary or a cast of characters to work with.
- Provide tools for construction. There are limitless tools for describing, modelling and making sense of ideas from canvases and pictures to construction kits and programming. Fill the world of learners with these tools and give them choices.
- Facilitate groups with great questions. The role of an educator becomes that of a co-learner or co-explorer and the priority is to ask open-ended questions that help learners come unstuck, see opportunities and test out their ideas.
- Make things playful and memorable. Solving problems should be an enjoyable experience and I believe strongly that we remember and value positive sessions where interesting conversations happen.
- Provide them with opportunities to choose. They should feel in control of their learning and make individual or group choices.
- Expect frustration and confusion. Big problems do not have simple solutions and groups may become irritated and conflicted as they dive into them. This is in fact a good thing as you are challenging their existing models. Recognise that it is tiring for both teams and facilitators and give them breaks, support their frustrations and celebrate progress.
- Help them deconstruct big problems into small pieces. I learned this from programming and it is highly helpful as a general facilitation technique. Don’t simplify for them but prompt them to see the components in their problem and to consider how they might think about those.
- Construct a red thread for them by linking problems together. I believe in the power of a curriculum to organise a journey for the learners and see my role as designing multiple small experiences that together build a bigger picture. I enjoy creating components that generate opposing outcomes forcing them to reconcile different views of the world.
- Really avoid telling them the answers. If you feel you know the answers then the problems you are solving together are not interesting enough. It’s OK to share solutions that others have come up and allow them to contrast theirs but avoid there being one simple destination to which they must all go.
- Spend time with them reflecting on what they have achieved and the processes they have used to get there. Reflection is one of the most powerful tools we have in unpacking our learning and it should become a part of regular practice. Facilitate deeper reflection through great questions.
- Reflection should also explore their team dynamics and behaviours but this should only be one aspect of how they gain insights from their problem solving.
- Be flexible with time and read the group for when more (or less) time is needed. Be prepared to abandon activities that you have planned if there is a need to explore a previous activity in more depth.
- Let them share and celebrate both their outcomes and their insights.
- Give them time to work alone as well as time in groups big and small. Each of us is an individual and will construct our own models as well as providing stimulus for others to construct theirs. I find that allowing people time to think alone and then bringing these ideas together is much more powerful that forcing people to think together immediately.
- Use technology carefully and consider the effects of technology in supporting individuals and teams in their learning. Take care not to promote a simple tool to be the centre of every session as this drives away creativity.
- Find ways to involve very diverse people in different projects and make sure that different voices get heard. Don’t allow groups to fall into a pattern that is repeated very time.
- Spend time reflecting on your designs, your sessions, the resources you create for learners, their outcomes and insights and your own learnings.
This feels like a draft list that will grow over time. What do you think? Where should I take this next?