constructivism

Keith Burnett responded to my response on his preference for being a Guide on the Side as opposed to Sage on the Stage:

I’m both in different parts of the lesson. I think that many people assume that PowerPoint use implies Sage role, and I was trying to provide counterexamples.

That Burnett did well, and it's also clear that he plays both roles, choosing the role appropriate to a student's stage in the learning process.

Unlike Burnett, however, not everyone seems to understand that both roles are appropriate. If you google the words "sage stage guide side", you'll find more than a few links to titles saying "Guide on the side, not Sage on the stage." Here's a typical example from the Internet Time Group:

an instructor’s energy should be channeled to become the medium whereby the discovery of learning is facilitated in a student-centered environment. No longer a "sage on the stage, " the online instructor becomes a "guide on the side," helping others to discover and synthesize the learning material.

Discovery learning is simply re-inventing the wheel. The time spent in "discovering" could be better spent using the wheels that have already been designed.

Here's another one, an excerpt from an article in College English by Alison King:

In most college classrooms, the professor lectures and the students listen and take notes. The professor is the central figure, the "sage on the stage," the one who has the knowledge and transmits that knowledge to the students, who simply memorize the information and later reproduce it on an exam-often without even thinking about it. This model of the teaching- learning process, called the transmittal model, assumes that the student's brain is like an empty container into which the professor pours knowledge. In this view of teaching and learning, students are passive learners rather than active ones. Such a view is outdated and will not be effective for the twenty-first century, when individuals will be expected to think for themselves, pose and solve complex problems, and generally produce knowledge rather than reproduce it.

There's some truth in this perspective. We've all had classes in which we took notes, crammed for an exam, and regurgitated information on the exam. The problem, however, is that this is a caricature of lecturing. Not all lecturers assume that students are empty containers, and not all use lecture as their only mode of teaching. Interestingly, the same people who promote this perspective are often the same ones who give presentations in lecture mode at a conference.

Again from the excerpt:

According to the current constructivist theory of learning, knowledge does not come package in books, or journal, or computer disks (or professors' and students' heads) to be transmitted intact from one to another. Those vessels contain information, not knowledge. Rather, knowledge is a state of understanding and can only exist in the mind of the individual knower; as such, knowledge must be constructed--or re-constructed--by each individual knower through the process of trying to make sense of new information in terms of what that individual already knows. In this constructivist view of learning, students use their own existing knowledge and prior experience to help them understand the new material; in particular, they generate relationships between and among the new ideas and between the new material and information already in memory (see also Brown, Bransford, Ferrara, and Campione 1983; Wittrock 1990).

And again, we can say, yes, students construct their understanding and in terms of previous experience. However, this does not mean that they cannot "generate relationships" from the information in lectures to their own experiences. If lectures are "bad," so are books and any other "containers" of information.

When students are engaged in actively processing information by reconstructing that information in such new and personally meaningful ways, they are far more likely to remember it and apply it in new situations. This approach to learning is consistent with information-processing theories (e.g., Mayer 1984), which argue that reformulating given information or generating new information based on what is provided helps one build extensive cognitive structures that connect the new ideas and link them to what is already known. According to this view, creating such elaborated memory structures aids understanding of the new material and makes it easier to remember.

It's not clear that one way of engaging with new information is more likely to be remembered than another. This is an interpretation. Anderson and Schunn in their article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: no magic bullets" (pdf) note that it is much more likely that any better remembering is due to more "time on task" rather than the notion of self-constructing as opposed to learning from provided examples, and they write:

There are no magical properties conveyed upon a knowledge structure just because it was self-generated. If all things were equal it would be preferable to have children learn by generating the knowledge (due to the redundant encoding). However, because of difficulties of generation and dangers of misgeneration, things are not always equal and it can be preferable to tell the knowledge.

None of this is to oppose the "guide on the side" perspective. Rather, there is a time and place for being a sage and for being a guide. Repeating mantras is no more than educational indoctrination.

Jason, reporting about Mike O'Connell's article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, has a post worth reading on this issue and ends nicely on this note:

In short, I think we need to get beyond the “sage” and “guide” dichotomy, and use both for truly effective teaching. One cannot just impose a set teaching style when it doesn’t work. It behooves teachers at all levels to consider what really works (or what might really work), drawing upon the makeup of individual classes and individual students to make the course truly memorable and meaningful. Otherwise, we’re just playing with techniques, and using unwitting students as guinea pigs.

Although I've long favored group work in learning to write, I wonder if much of that group work has been wasted because the students didn't have sufficient guidance, but were "discovering" how writing worked. Richard Mayer (professor of psychology at UCSB) in "Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning" (pdf) argues that students need guided discovery. He writes:

The research in this brief review shows that the formula constructivism = hands-on activity is a formula for educational disaster.

And concludes with:

Activity may help promote meaningful learning, but instead of behavioral activity per se (e.g., hands-on activity, discussion, and free exploration), the kind of activity that really promotes meaningful learning is cognitive activity (e.g., selecting, organizing, and integrating knowledge). Instead of depending solely on learning by doing or learning by discussion, the most genuine approach to constructivist learning is learning by thinking. Methods that rely on doing or discussing should be judged not on how much doing or discussing is involved but rather on the degree to which they promote appropriate cognitive processing. Guidance, structure, and focused goals should not be ignored. This is the consistent and clear lesson of decade after decade of research on the effects of discovery methods.

Mayer's article concurs with Laurence Musgrove's advice on designing writing assisgnments (see "Pitching Writing") and Anderson's work on effective time on task (see "Learning with Examples"). That is, insufficient guidance can promote time off-task, that is, wasted time. Still, I have a problem with this dichotomizing of "learning by doing" and "learning by thinking". Imagine a surgeon who could cognitively select, organize, and integrate knowledge about the correct surgical procedure but couldn't physically do it. Knowledge is embodied, not embrained. So I might rephrase one of his sentences as:

Methods that rely on thinking, organizing, or integrating knowledge should be judged not on how much thinking, organizing, or integrating is involved but rather on the degree to which they promote appropriate doing.

Recently, several people have agreed with my claim, "Confusion is the beginning of learning," but disagreed with "Satisfaction is the end of learning." (See "Thoughts" in the sidebar.) One considered satisfaction to be the reward of learning, and thus the motive to continue learning. Another said that satisfication leads to exploring new avenues of knowledge and learning. They and one other considered the second claim to be negative; that is, dissatisfication, a negative term, is not appropriate for approaching learning, a positive term. After all, how many people enjoy being in a state of discomfort?

I imagine that they are referring to the sense of pleasure, a hormonal high, that results from accomplishment, whether overcoming some struggle or solving a puzzle. That pleasure can enable one to struggle and work through some confusion again, which can lead to "exploring new avenues" of learning.

Satisfaction for me, however, indicates a state of equilibrium rather than a sense of pleasure.

Learning from a radical constructivist, or Piagetian, perspective occurs through the interactive processes of assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the adding of new knowledge to old by “reduc[ing] new experiences to already existing sensorimotor or conceptual structures” without changing the structures; accommodation is the modifying of old knowledge to accommodate the new or the creation of new cognitive structures, patterns of thought, and behavior. Accommodation occurs when new experiences that cannot be reduced to existing experiences create a perturbation that, leading to reflection on the situation and activity, may, in turn, cause either a change in prior cognitive structures or the creation of a new schema (von Glasersfeld, 1995b, p. 63). Both assimilation and accommodation, individual in nature and based on experience, are driven by the process of equilibration, a process of self-regulating the mental tension between the two, between internal mental states and external reality.

From the viewpoint of activity theory, learning is a process driven by contradictions, contradictions in the activity of learning between students and institutional influences or between classrooms and other activity systems. To learn and develop means to resolve or transform these contradictions (instead of merely shifting them elsewhere) at individual and system levels. In other words, learning means that one cannot be satisfied with the status quo.

From a third theory, complexity theory, adaptation, and I include learning, requires an organism to be on the edge of chaos, where forces of order and disorder interact in a balanced way. Satisfaction would be a force of stability in this model, and confusion, a force of disorder. Complete confusion would be disruptive to learning, as would be total satisfaction. Complete confusion brings anarchy, while total satisfaction with the status quo has no motivation to change, to learn.

From these theoretical perspectives, satisfaction cannot lead to learning. Then, again, neither can too much confusion. Rather, learning is recursively driven by the desire for satisfaction (or equilibrium), a desire once reached, leads to new dissatisfactions, and thus more learning. Pedagogically, then, instruction must keep students balanced on the edge of dissatisfaction with their present state of understanding.

I came across this folk story at a testing blog, "Know Enough to be Dangerous":

The Three Tradesmen

A great city was besieged, and its inhabitants were called together to consider the best means of protecting it from the enemy.

  • A Bricklayer earnestly recommended bricks as affording the best material for an effective resistance.
  • A Carpenter, with equal enthusiasm, proposed timber as a preferable method of defense.
  • Upon which a Currier stood up and said, "Sirs, I differ from you altogether: there is no material for resistance equal to a covering of hides; and nothing so good as leather."

Every man for himself.

Rather than "Every man for himself," I would say "Every man from himself." That is, it refers to individuals' (and theorists') chains of experience that constrain their ability to think and learn, much like my son's interpreting situations in terms of his own experience, and again showing the viability of radical constructivism as a theory.

von Glasersfeld, drawing upon Piaget, was the architect of radical constructivism. According to this theory,

  • Knowledge is not passively received either through the senses or by way of communication;
  • Knowledge is actively built up by the cognizing subject;
  • The function of cognition is adaptive, in the biological sense of the term, tending towards fit or viability;
  • Cognition serves the organization of the experiential world, not the discovery of ontological reality. (Radical Constructivism: A Way of Knowing and Learning, 1995, p. 51)

These four principles refute that notion that one can access--or make progress toward increasingly accurate representations of--objective reality or truth. Rather, we simply construct models and revise those models as we interact with our environment. So, radical constructivists use the term "viability" to represent how well one's models fit one's experiences with the environment. For this reason, "good" teaching results from the ability to listen to one's students and respond to them in ways that help them construct viable models for their school experiences.

Similarly, "good" theory building results from the ability to listen to other theorists and respond to them in ways that helps one create a new model that is perceived to fit our experiences better than our previous models.

A few weeks ago, my wife related to me these questions from our son when he learned she was expecting:

Son (to mom): "How did the baby get there? Did you eat him?"

Similar to the story of the three blind men stating their opinions of the elephant's nature, academic theories derive from interpretations of experience--not from objective perceptions of reality.

I noted this earlier in "Is there anything new under the sun?"

learning to write involves a process of reflecting and acting on contradictions between students’ existing schemas and their present experiences.

... The concept of viability reminds us that reality cannot be directly perceived.

Although learning anything is a processing of resolving contradictions, or in Piaget's terms, a process of equilibrating between assimilation and accommodation, that learning remains an adaptation to experience rather than an insight into reality.

This is not an "anything goes" theory. Try jumping off the Empire State Building. Rather, it's acknowledging that at best we "see in a mirror dimly." What I'm wondering is how we apply this theoretical perspective practically to our other theories. When we say to "listen carefully" to our students, do we really see with more light?

Here's an interesting story from Idries Shah's book Tales of the Dervishes:


One dark night a dervish was passing a dry well when he heard a cry for help from below. 'What is the matter?' he called down.

'I am a grammarian, and I have unfortunately fallen, due to my ignorance of the path, into this deep well, in which I am now all but immobilized.' responded the other.

'Hold, friend, and I'll fetch a ladder and rope,' said the dervish.

'One moment please!' said the grammarian. 'Your grammar and diction are faulty; be good enough to amend them.'

'If that is so much more important than the essentials,' shouted the dervish, 'you had best stay where you are until I have learned to speak properly.'

And he went his way.


This story reminds me of the psychology study, which I mentioned in an earlier posting, "Emotion overrules reason," that found that staunch Democrats and Republications are "both adept at ignoring facts,"

The study points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making.

As someone said thousands of years ago, "There is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9), at least when it comes to understanding human behavior. Our pet theories can "immobilize" us, preventing us from seeing others' perspectives (see again "Everybody's an Expert" by Louis Menand).

So, where does this take us? For me, I return to a paper I wrote on the application of radical constructivism to writing in another language. Radical constructivism is based on Jean Piaget's work and is a perspective on knowing by Ernst von Glasersfeld, who asserted that knowledge is constructed actively by an individual in a way that fits one's experience, that provides a viable explanation of one's experience.

In looking at how students learn, many simply accept that learning is "merely a straightforward process of building upon students’ prior experiences and filling in schemas with new data, or knowledge. Rather, learning to write involves a process of reflecting and acting on contradictions between students’ existing schemas and their present experiences."

In looking at how teachers interact with students, we might believe "that these contradictions should be resolved in favor of the teacher’s “correct” model. The concept of viability reminds us that reality cannot be directly perceived. Teachers, as well as students, construct models representing their experiences rather than an actual reality. Thus, the student’s schema may not only be coherent according to his or her experiences but may also be insightful and effective. ... [Thus], we must listen closely to hear what is productive in the students’ models and build from there (Confrey, 1991, 1998)."

So, although this notion may not be new, still it is worth repeating: Listening may be a instructor's most valuable asset for learning how to teach.