Posts Tagged ‘constructivism’

Stahl, Koschmann & Suthers (2006, p. 9) write, “CSCL locates learning in meaning negotiation carried out in the social world rather than in individuals’ heads”. I think that this statement is… misguided. If learning is happening anywhere, it is happening within individuals’ heads. Individuals are definitely a part of the social world, but to point out the social aspect of learning at the expense of individual learning is nothing short of a dismissal of constructivism.

There are two main forms of constructivism, and they are mutually compatible. (Note: I wrote this post before reading Akkerman et al (2007) and that has changed my way of thinking somewhat. For an update, please read this post Cognitive and socio-cultural perspectives on group cognition: Can the two be reconciled?)

The first to appear was cognitive constructivism, as theorized by Jean Piaget1. Piaget was the first constructivist; he came up with the idea of constructivism, and he named it and described it.  At the time it was simply “constructivism” and Piaget said, “I am a constructivist. I think that knowledge is a matter of constant, new construction, by its interaction with reality, and that it is not pre-formed. There is a continuous creativity” (Piaget, n.d., in Papert, 2000, p. 2). According to Piaget, the two processes that make up the construction of knowledge are assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the absorption of new information and experiences by one’s existing cognitive structures. In this case, the new knowledge “fits” the existing structures so there is no need for modification of those structures. However, when the new knowledge does not “fit” the existing structures, the structures themselves can be altered to accommodate the new information. (Another possibility is that the new information will be ignored.) The final result of assimilation and accommodation is equilibrium, which lasts until we again experience cognitive conflict. According to Piaget, this system of assimilation and accommodation explains human learning from infant to adult.

We may ask where the new knowledge comes from. It comes from others – thru books, thru interactions with other people, thru searches on the Internet. It comes from interacting with society, and while Piaget believed the locus of construction to be in the individual, Vygotsky believed it was in society. Vygotskian constructivism is therefore known as sociocultural constructivism.

What do we find when we examine the two theories? The most crucial difference comes in the differences in weight that the two theorists placed on the role of society in learning. Piaget’s model of the social aspects of development link successful social experience with intellectual development, and referred to the importance of effective collaboration between pupils and the influence of culture and communication in learning (Smith, 1989, cited in Wood & Bennett, 1997). However, Piagetian constructivists (cognitive constructivists) focus on the individual as the cognizing subject. Individuals actively construct their own knowledge on the basis of new experiences interacting with existing cognitive structures.

For Vygotskian constructivists, the social world has primacy over the individual. Social constructivists see society as the bearer of cultural heritage without which the development of mind is impossible (Cole & Wertsch, 2004). Vygotsky saw learning as necessarily taking place within society and puts the emphasis on social interaction as the means by which learners construct knowledge.

However, both theorists did focus on the position of the individual learning in society. Piaget saw construction as taking place within the individual, who later tests his knowledge for viability by interacting with others. For Vygotsky, it occurs in the reverse order – the learning itself takes place in a social context and is then internalized by the individual (Dockett & Perry, 1996).

How, then, are we to resolve the issue of whether it is society or the individual in which the locus of learning resides? I say that it resides in the individual’s head, and that we as individuals are a part of society, and the societal impact on our learning cannot be ignored. Neither can we ignore the fact that when we walk away from a discussion from which we have learned something, either by assimilation or by accommodation, that the learning we have accomplished resides in our head. The constant comparing and contrasting of new information with our own knowledge takes place in our head. While the construction of the meaning took place with another individual, and may not have occurred without that interaction, the actual change that takes place is in the head of the individual.

So I’d like to point out that ignoring the construction of meaning in the heads of individuals is about as blind as ignoring the fact that one does a great deal of one’s learning with others. I see them as two sides of the same coin; the individual in society. You cannot take the individual out of society, and you cannot take learning out of the head of the individual.

So while we in CSCL are exploring how individuals learn in groups, I think that we must remember that groups are indeed made of individuals, and that while the construction of knowledge (i.e. learning) takes place because of and during interactions with others, that learning is quite definitely taking place within the head of the individual. We must look at both aspects of learning: the individual and the social. Social systems are made of nodes connected to each other. We cannot focus on the connections at the expense of the nodes; they are integral, and cannot be separated from each other.

References

Cole, M. & Wertsch (2004). Beyond the Individual-Social Antimony in Discussions of Piaget and Vygotsky.  Retrieved from http://www.massey.ac.nz/~alock//virtual/colevyg.htm

Dockett, S. & Perry, B. (1996). Young Children’s Construction of Knowledge, Australian Journal of Early Childhood 21(4), p. 6-11.

Papert, S. (1999). Child Psychologist Jean Piaget. Time Special Edition 2000. Retrieved from http://www.ordiecole.com/piaget2.html (audio translation provided courtesy of the University of Geneva’s Archives: Jean Piaget).

Smith, L. (1989). Changing Perspectives in Developmental Psychology. In C. DesForges (Ed.), Early Childhood Education, Monograph Series No. 4, Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

Stahl, G., Koschmann, T., & Suthers, D. (2006). Computer-supported collaborative learning: An historical perspective. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (pp. 409-426). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from http://GerryStahl.net/cscl/CSCL_English.pdf

Wood, E. & Bennett, N. (1998). Teachers’ Theories of Play: Constructivist or Social Constructivist? Early Child Development and Care 140 p. 17-30.


1 Piaget’s work is impossible to summarize because of the incredible volume of it. Go to Google Scholar and type in Piaget. You don’t need to type in his first name; there was only one Piaget. You’ll notice that the first page is entirely books, articles, monographs, etc. by Piaget. On the first page of Google Scholar only, he has been cited 39,861 times. Click on page 5, and 10, and 15. Click on page 20. Really, go do it now. I was amazed when I found that there is almost no end to Piaget. Has anyone else in history produced as much as this one man from Neuchatel, Switzerland? Has anyone else in history ever been cited this much? You may note that Vygotsky has an impressive 29,980 citations on his first page of Google Scholar. And we must remember that Vygotsky died at the very young age of 37. So perhaps it is unfair to compare them. And since they both wrote about the most important theory of learning ever explained, I won’t compare them more than is necessary, for they together make the whole that is known as constructivism. But Piaget came up with it first.

January 5

(First I’d like to situate this journal entry physically – I’m in Toronto now! We are here for 5 days (we were in N.B. for Christmas with my family) and went to the Ontario Science Center yesterday and met good friends last night and will do so again tonight. Toronto is great – so many things to do, such a rich and international culture! We leave on Saturday for Vancouver and Whistler (skiing) and 5 days later we’ll be in Tokyo for 5 days before heading home to Kitami. I anticipate having little to no Internet access in Tokyo (we stay at an old but lovely hotel) so I’m trying to do as much posting now as possible to make up for any gaps later on.)

In this first week of my new course, I’m amazed by the strengths that classmates are bringing to our online forum/community of practice. The level of tech ability, experience and the collaboration so far will surely make this one of the most rewarding classes I have taken at OISE. It will also revitalize my interest in using CMC in my own classes. The problem is that my classes are Spoken English classes, not written, so while I can use a blended format, there are limitations on what I can do.

This week’s readings bring up an article called Wikis as constructivist learning environments that my colleague Rick Lavin (a wiki guy) and I wrote in 2005. I do see the possibility of wikis being used in socially constructive ways, but I think that they are limited. Of the 6 requirements below for online socially constructed learning (from our article but not available at wikisalon anymore), I think that while wikis and forums both meet all of these to some extent, forums are much better for social negotiation. Multiple perspectives and collaboration opportunities also seem to be better represented by forums.

1. Multiple modes of representation

2. Collaboration opportunities

3. Experience with multiple perspectives

4. Learner centered

5. Learner relevant

6. Social negotiation

For me, after 8 online courses, I have to say that there is no way that I could have learned this much from my peers in an online class, and I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have learned like this in a wiki either. Wikis certainly are useful and have a place in education, but I see them as only one of many tools (e.g. blogs have great potential for transformation). But forums are discussions, discussions are dialogue, and dialogue is central to critical pedagogy, which is my great passion and also the focus of my dissertation. Here is a comment made about how Freire saw dialogue,

“Dialogue wasn’t just about deepening understanding – but was part of making a difference in the world. Dialogue in itself is a co-operative activity involving respect. The process is important and can be seen as enhancing community and building social capital and to leading us to act in ways that make for justice and human flourishing.”

Because dialogue is the central means of communication in online forums, I recognize its value for not only changing an individual’s ideas, but also its potential for changing the world.