The theory of constructivism has its roots in psychology, philosophy, science and biology. It is a post-structuralist theory of evolution and development. The term ‘constructivism’ was coined by Jean Piaget. The theory deals with knowledge construction and learning and talks about how structures, language activity and meaning are developed. Cognitive development and deep understanding are the goals of constructivism.
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The two concepts that are featured prominently in this theory, learning and knowledge are interlinked. Learning is complex and is non – linear in nature. Learning is not a response to a stimulus. The learner plays an active part where through self- regulation and culturally developed tools and symbols they create big ideas. These ideas are generalized across experiences and challenge earlier conceptions. During the process of learning an individual tries to make sense of his existing understanding of the world by comparing and contrasting it with the new information that he receives. This conflict of new versus old is then resolved and new models/ representations of reality are constructed through reflection and abstraction.
Knowledge is the outcome of efforts to construct meaning and occurs through learning. Knowledge was once viewed as a collection of facts and information that was retrieved through rote memory. According to this theory, knowledge involves organizing information and forming conceptual foundation within which new knowledge can fit. One’s knowledge is never static, it is adaptive in nature and transforms with each new discovery. In order to ensure understanding, learners look for patterns within the realms of experience and develop personal explanations for natural phenomena and construct their own versions of reality.
According to Piaget, the process of constructing knowledge involves organizing personal experiences in terms of preexisting mental schemes. Constructivism views learning as changes that happens in an individual through the processes of assimilation and accommodation.
Example: A child, who is able to successfully identify cars, has a conceptual framework in his mind to define what cars are, their characteristics, etc. He uses this framework to identify cars of different shapes and sizes. When he sees a car with unique features, he simply adds this information to his pre-conceived definition of a car. This is assimilation.
Whenever we encounter a new idea or experience, we compare it with what we already know or have experienced. New ideas that are familiar to us because they are similar to what we already know are added/assimilated without any major reorganization to our existing framework. We simply add to our preexisting schema. This assimilation reinforces current knowledge.
Example: If the child who has a conceptual framework for cars suddenly sees a truck, he may think at first that it is also a car. But then he realizes that there are differences and the truck does not fit into his classification framework. He has to develop a new framework to fit trucks. He accommodates his thinking to fit new information. This is accommodation.
Whenever we encounter an idea or experience that does not fit into our existing framework, a state of cognitive imbalance or disequilibrium is created. The discomfort provokes us to change previous ways of thinking in order to establish balance between new knowledge and old knowledge. The current thinking is reorganized and new conceptual frameworks are developed to replace earlier ones. A preexisting schema is significantly changed or we construct a brand new schema.
Constructivism in Education
Constructivism encourages matching the child’s developmental level to the types of knowledge being taught and actively involving the learner. Students should have a contextually meaningful experience. The goal of constructivist learning is self-sufficiency, shared exchange of social relations and empowerment.
The principle of constructivism is reflected in Confucius’s proverb where he says that hearing alone leads to forgetting, seeing may help remember but only by doing will one understand.
Constructivism promotes advanced and refined thinking. Constructivism is against the banking of knowledge in which children are banks where coins of knowledge are put in and expected to be returned the same way. This leads to rote learning and surface level understanding of a concept. Constructivism trains children to find solutions to problems that act as an impediment to achieving a goal. Children need to develop the ability to absorb information from multiple sources and then use reasoning to come to their own conclusions. This is called intellectual autonomy.
In a constructivist classroom setup, the teacher is not the supreme possessor of knowledge who transfers knowledge into a student. Rather a teacher is an enabler who encourages students to raise questions, develop solutions and defend their ideas. The construct of a teacher varies from that of the student. The role of the teacher is to appreciate the unique perception that the student contributes and to create more experiences for the student. Soon patterns will emerge and students will be able to generalize and slowly the intended concept will be learnt. Motivation to continue learning is effective only by leading students to experience the pleasure of solving a problem seen and chosen as one’s own.