Explain the fundamental ideologies of constructivism.

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5

Individualized Knowledge Construction

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you should be able to do the following:

  • Explain the fundamental ideologies of constructivism.
  • Describe social constructivism and this perspective’s views of learning.
  • Compare and contrast situated cognition and the foundational ideas of cognitivism.
  • Explain the premise and variables associated with sociocultural theory.
  • Discuss how problem-based learning supports constructivist-based learning theories.

Introduction

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Introduction

Have you ever:

  • considered how your culture, social, and physical interactions affect how and what you assign meaning to?
  • learned a skill or professional role under the guidance of a more experienced peer?
  • desired to learn in a more self-directed, meaningful way?

The material in this chapter will address an area of learning theory that consists of constructivist-based principles, which we can use to help understand the significance of these types of questions. Foundationally, constructivism is a theory that supports the view that humans learn by connecting new information to their existing knowledge and that the knowledge is individualized, personalized, and reflective of one’s own perception of the information learned. For example, as you learn more about the field of psychology, the knowledge that you gain will be built (constructed) upon your previous understanding. Your understanding, in essence, is shaped by your initial perceptions about psychology, which may differ from another person’s perception of psychology. Thus, someone who considers how a concept could be applied only in psychological counseling may have more difficulty understanding how the same concept applies in other areas, such as organizational or educational psychology. Additional theories have been developed based on the foundations of constructivism. Social constructivism, situated cognition, and sociocultural theory (SCT) are some of the other theories based on constructivism, and they will be considered in this chapter.

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An aspect of constructivist thought is the idea of learning that builds upon previous understanding and knowledge.

Constructivist-based theories suggest that one’s environment plays a role in meaningful learning, as do socially oriented cognitive theories (discussed in Chapter 4). Constructivist theories, however, also suggest that learners are not just passive receivers of information but are active participants in their knowledge development, and this idea is a key component of the theories that support the perspective of individualized knowledge construction.

As mentioned in earlier chapters, theoretical propositions are not always accepted by all learning theorists. Constructivism, and the theories based on its foundations, is no exception. The notion that a learner’s knowledge is personalized is controversial because the assumptions of constructivism are difficult to prove or disprove (Phillips, 2000); it is considered by some as a subjective notion. Specifically, logical positivism, which is based on a perspective that argues that problems should be answered only through empirical research, suggests that constructivism, whether as a theory or a pedagogical strategy, is ideological—that it lacks solid findings obtained through controlled observation or experimentation (Gross & Levitt, 1994; Matthews, 1992). Researchers aligned with other theoretical frameworks (e.g., behaviorism or cognitivism) also have suggested that the notion of individualized knowledge construction through discovery learning (drawing from one’s personal experiences to discover information) is a reflection of the values within education that were popular in the mid-20th century, such as child-centered instruction (Zhenlin, 2009), rather than a viable learning theory.

Additionally, cognitive theory suggests that the instructor or counselor is the crucial part of successful knowledge acquisition, and that discovery learning (a foundational proponent of constructivism) would be far too unstructured for effective knowledge development (Bulgren, Deshler, & Schumaker, 1997; Rosenshine, 1997). Yet, research has suggested that these arguments regarding the role of the instructor and discovery are not entirely accurate ones because constructivist ideas have proven to be effective in applied settings, such as the classroom (Brooks & Brooks, 1999) and in instructional design. Thus, you should continue to use critical thinking while evaluating the information included in this chapter and come to your own conclusions about the perspectives of constructivist-based theories.

The concepts and perspectives presented in this chapter align with the view that individuals are active participants in the process of learning—that knowledge, and thus reality, is unique and personalized to each individual. The readings and areas of theory have been chosen to help support your understanding of the different frameworks that can be applied to discussions about knowledge construction:

  • Sections 5.1 and 5.2 will help you establish an understanding of the core elements of constructivism and social constructivism and how the concepts associated with these perspectives support the belief that learners are participants in the knowledge acquisition process.
  • Section 5.3 presents a cognitivist view that acknowledges the situational effects on learning, which is supported by constructivism’s ideology.
  • Section 5.4 addresses sociocultural theory, which focuses on language development as a key component of learning, suggesting that the interactions we experience can affect this process.
  • Section 5.5 considers problem-based learning (PBL), a type of learning activity endorsed by constructivists, and the application example further supports how constructivist ideologies look in action.

The prominent differences in the theoretical models presented in these readings will be the associative and specific nature of how, and to what extent, social, cultural, and physical variables influence the learning process.

As you evaluate the different theoretical frameworks, consider the findings that are presented, whether details might be missing, and if the findings support the argument that successful knowledge acquisition is more than the strict adherence to laws that often guide research. Ask yourself questions as you read, such as the following:

  • Is learning merely based upon the memory acquisition of the learner?
  • Can successful learning take place through attention and schema development alone?
  • Do we learn better when we actively do something than when we just read or listen?
  • Do constructivist-based theories reflect effective knowledge acquisition propositions?

These are just some of the many questions that should be considered when evaluating the suggestions presented based on constructivist principles and theories.

5.1 Constructivism

It is important to understand that constructivist-based theories do not disprove cognitive or behaviorist theories. Instead, previous theories are used in conjunction with the foundation that learners should be the center of the process, organizing their own knowledge, based on their own reality. Constructivism is viewed both as a theory and as a teaching strategy. Both of these views can be construed as truths because the theory supports how we create knowledge and the aligned teaching strategies promote this endeavor and are hence applicable and vital to learning settings (Brooks & Brooks, 1999). Mascolo and Fischer (1995) have further suggested that “constructivism is the philosophical and scientific position that knowledge arises through a process of active construction” (p. 49), which is promoted by constructivist educational leaders.

The excerpts in this section are from Applefield, Huber, and Moallem (2000). The authors discuss three types of constructivism and consider how learners construct knowledge. They also summarize some of the constructivist-based theories that will be elaborated upon in later sections of the chapter. As you read, note that these authors emphasize constructivism in the context of classroom interactions; however, such strategies are also relevant in a multitude of other learning contexts. The constructivist framework offers trainers, educators, counselors, and other mentors practical strategies for encouraging effective learning.

Excerpts from “Constructivism in Theory and Practice: Toward a Better Understanding”

By J. M. Applefield, R. Huber, and M. Moallem

Three Types of Constructivism

[. . .] Within constructivism there are different notions of the nature of knowledge and the knowledge construction process. Moshman (1982) has identified three types of constructivism: exogenous constructivism, endogenous constructivism, and dialectical constructivism.

In exogenous constructivism or radical constructivism there is an external reality that is reconstructed as knowledge is formed. Thus one’s mental structures develop to reflect the organization of the world. The information processing conceptualizations of cognitive psychology emphasize the representation view of constructivism, calling attention to how we construct and elaborate schemata and networks of information based on the external realities of the environments we experience.

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When a teacher allows students to discuss, argue, and understand a topic, it is an example of dialectical or social constructivism. The students are interacting with each other, learning different points of view, and finding meaning in a particular topic.

Endogenous constructivism or cognitive constructivism (Cobb, 1994; Moshman, 1982) focuses on internal, individual constructions of knowledge. This perspective, which is derived from Piagetian theory (Piaget, 1970, 1977), emphasizes individual knowledge construction stimulated by internal cognitive conflict as learners strive to resolve mental disequilibrium (see Chapter 4). Essentially, children as well as older learners must negotiate the meaning of experiences and phenomena that are discrepant from their existing schema. Students may be said to author their own knowledge, advancing their cognitive structures by revising and creating new understandings out of existing ones. This is accomplished through individual or socially mediated discovery-oriented learning activities (such as the use of graphic organizers, labs, or group work).

Dialectical constructivism or social constructivism (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Rogoff, 1990) views the origin of knowledge construction as being the social intersection of people, interactions that involve sharing, comparing, and debating among learners and mentors. Through a highly interactive process, the social milieu of learning is accorded center stage and learners both refine their own meanings and help others find meaning. In this way knowledge is mutually built. This view is a direct reflection of Vygotsky’s (1978b) sociocultural theory (SCT) (discussed further in section 5.4), which accentuates the supportive guidance of mentors as they enable the apprentice learner to achieve successively more complex skill, understanding, and ultimately independent competence.

The fundamental nature of social constructivism is collaborative social interaction in contrast to individual investigation of cognitive constructivism. Through the cognitive give and take of social interactions, one constructs personal knowledge. In addition, the context in which learning occurs is inseparable from emergent thought. This latter view, known as contextualism in psychology, becomes a central tenet of constructivism when expressed as situated cognition, which is discussed in section 5.3. Social constructivism captures the most general present perspective on constructivism with its emphasis on the importance of social exchanges for cognitive growth and the impact of culture and historical context on learning. [. . .]

Constructing Knowledge

[. . .] There is an important similarity among most constructivists with regard to four central characteristics believed to influence all learning (and can be identified in other theoretical frameworks):

  1. Learners construct their own learning
  2. The dependence of new learning on students’ existing understanding
  3. The critical role of social interaction
  4. The necessity of activities that allow learners to discover meaningful knowledge through exploration of real-world problems, or authentic learning tasks (Bruning, Royce, & Dennison, 1995; Pressley, Harris, & Marks, 1992)

For learners to construct meaning, they must actively strive to make sense of new experiences and in so doing must relate it to what is already known or believed about a topic. Students develop knowledge through an active construction process, not through the passive reception of information (Brophy, 1992). In other words, learners must build their own understanding. How information is presented and how learners are supported in the process of constructing knowledge are of major significance. The preexisting knowledge that learners bring to each learning task is emphasized too. Students’ current understandings provide the immediate context for interpreting any new learning. Regardless of the nature or sophistication of a learner’s existing schema, each person’s existing knowledge structure will have a powerful influence on what is learned and whether and how conceptual change occurs.

Dialogue is the catalyst for knowledge acquisition. Understanding is facilitated by exchanges that occur through social interaction, through questioning and explaining, challenging and offering timely support and feedback. The concept of learning communities has been offered as the ideal learning culture for group instruction (Brown, 1994; Brown & Campione, 1994). These communities focus on helping group members learn, by supporting one another through respectful listening and encouragement. The goal is to engender a spirit and culture of openness, exploration, and a shared commitment to learning.

Situated cognition or learning (discussed further in section 5.3) is a concept advocated in social constructivist approaches and is a natural extension of the importance attached to the context, social and cultural, in which learning is believed to be born. Knowledge is conceived as being embedded in and connected to the situation where the learning occurs. As a consequence, thinking and knowledge that is constructed are inextricably tied to the immediate social and physical context of the learning experience. And what is learned tends to be context-bound or tied to the situation in which it is learned (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Evidence for the situational nature of learning can be seen in numerous cases where students’ school learning fails to transfer readily to relevant tasks outside of school. Brown et al. (1989) chronicle how people can acquire rather sophisticated mathematical operations in one setting and yet be quite unable to apply those same operations in another setting.

Just how teachers and peers support and contribute to learning is clarified by the concepts of scaffolding, cognitive apprenticeship, tutoring, and cooperative learning and learning communities (Brown, 1994; Rogoff, 1998). Cognition is viewed as a collaborative process, and modern constructivist thought provides the theoretical basis for cooperative learning, project or problem-based learning, and other discovery-oriented instructional approaches, all of which appeal to the powerful social nature of learning. As students are exposed to their peers’ thinking processes, appropriation of others’ ideas and ways of thinking is possible. Therefore, constructivists make extensive use of cooperative learning, a strategy that encourages small groups of learners to work together on tasks, as well as peer tutoring, believing that students will learn more readily from having dialog with each other about significant problems.

A second key concept derives from Vygotsky’s concept of zone of proximal development (ZPD) (discussed further in section 5.4) (Kozulin, 1986). When children work on tasks that cannot be accomplished alone but can be successfully completed with the assistance of a person competent in the task, they are said to be working within their zone of proximal development. (See Figure 5.1.) Children working in cooperative groups will generally encounter a peer who possesses a slightly higher cognitive level, one within the child’s zone of proximal development.

Figure 5.1: Zone of proximal development (ZPD)

ZPD indicates an area of development that should be supported by a more experienced expert to maximize knowledge acquisition.

Adapted from “Piaget’s Theory of Child Language and Thought,” by L. S. Vygotsky, in L. S. Vygotsky (Ed.), E. Hanfmann & G. Vakar (Trans.), Thought and Language (pp. 9–24), 1962, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Copyright 1962 by L. S. Vygotsky. Adapted with permission.

The concept of cognitive apprenticeship is analogous to that of apprenticeships in many occupations where one learns on the job by closely working with a master. The master models behavior and gives feedback and gradually allows the novice increasing opportunity to independently exercise the skills of the profession. A substantial aspect of the learning is the socialization into the norms and behavior of the profession. The experience of teachers and physician interns demonstrates the shadowing and modeling that occurs during this critical period in the development and induction into these professions. More generally, one can say that a cognitive apprenticeship relationship exists between teachers and students to the extent that teachers provide scaffolding for students, through the use of step-by-step guiding of the new knowledge from less complicated to more (Schweisfurth, 2013). At the same time that students are given complex, authentic tasks such as projects, simulations, and problems involving community issues, they are also given sufficient assistance to achieve the desired outcomes. [. . .]

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According to constructivist thought, learners should be challenged by thoughts and ideas, generating their own questions and assumptions. Learning occurs through reflection.

Since constructivists believe that the learner must transform or appropriate whatever is learned, one can say that all learning is discovered. To appropriate new understandings from one’s social environment and to become an efficient maker of meaning requires the adoption of specific intellectual skills, ones that should be modeled from more competent adults and peers. Thus generative learning strategies (learning-to-learn) may be explicitly taught to students or may be discovered by students as they are trying to find strategies for solving problems. For example, students have been guided to generate their own questions and summaries and analogies during reading (King, 1992a; Kourilsky & Wittrock, 1992; Wittrock, 1991) and while listening to lectures (King, 1992b). Reciprocal teaching (Palincsar & Brown, 1984) is a successful method for teaching reading comprehension in which metacognitive skills, including question generation, prediction, and summary, are taught through teacher modeling, followed by student enactment of the same metacognitive behaviors. The goal is to encourage self-regulated learning, by helping learners develop effective learning strategies and knowledge of when to use them. [. . .]

The more traditional approach to instruction involves isolating the basic skills, teaching these separately and building these incrementally before tackling higher-order tasks. This is an essentially objectivist and behavioral approach to instruction, although cognitive information processing views often lead to similar instructional practices. Constructivists turn this highly sequential approach on its head. Instead of carefully structuring the elements of topics to be learned, learning proceeds from the natural need to develop understanding and skills required for completion of significant tasks. Learning occurs in a manner analogous to just-in-time manufacturing, where raw materials are received just prior to their use rather than held in expensive inventories. [. . .]

Constructivism in Practice

[. . .] Although constructivism is a theory about learning rather than a description of teaching, some important strides toward defining the relationship between theory and practice have been made. The following pedagogical recommendations, while general in nature, have been derived from fundamental constructivist principles of learning (Confrey, 1990; Brooks & Brooks, 1993; Fosnot, 1996).

  1. Learners should be encouraged to raise questions, generate hypotheses, and test their validity.
  2. Learners should be challenged by ideas and experiences that generate inner cognitive conflict or disequilibrium. Students’ errors should be viewed positively as opportunities for learners and teachers to explore conceptual understanding.
  3. Students should be given time to engage in reflection through journal writing, drawing, modeling, and discussion. Learning occurs through reflective abstraction.
  4. The learning environment should provide ample opportunities for dialogue, and the classroom should be seen as a “community of discourse engaged in activity, reflection, and conversation” (Fosnot, 1989).
  5. In a community of learners, it is the students themselves who must communicate their ideas to others, defend them, and justify them.
  6. Students should work with big ideas, central organizing principles that have the power to generalize across experiences and disciplines.

[. . .] The overriding goal of the constructivist educator is to stimulate thinking in learners that results in meaningful learning, deeper understanding, and transfer of learning to real-world contexts. To accomplish this goal, a constructivist framework leads teachers to incorporate strategies that encourage knowledge construction through primarily social learning processes, in which students develop their own understanding through interactions with peers and the teacher. In addition, in order to make manifest and link new knowledge to learners’ current understanding, the constructivist teacher selects authentic tasks and uses more ill-defined problems and higher-order questions. A significant problem tackled by small groups of students promotes involvement, curiosity, and heightened motivation. [. . .] The learner’s primary goal in this environment is to become a more active learner, to interact with peers, and to always view learning as a search for meaning. [. . .]

Source: From The High School Journal, vol. 84 Copyright © 2000 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu

Discovery Learning

Discovery learning is an element of constructivism that was first presented in section i.4. This approach to learning allows learners to explore and uncover knowledge on their own. Discovery learning also emphasizes that learners must connect new information to their previous experiences. Borthick and Jones (2000) have provided the following description of discovery learning: “Learning theorists characterize learning to solve problems as discovery learning, in which participants learn to recognize a problem, characterize what a solution would look like, search for relevant information, develop a solution strategy, and execute the chosen strategy” (p. 181).

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Discovery learning emphasizes questioning, interpretation, curiosity, and reflection. This allows learners to connect new information to past experiences or knowledge.

The next excerpt in this section is from Dalgarno, Kennedy, and Bennett (2014). They consider how constructivism as a pedagogical approach can include discovery learning. The reading also evaluates the basis for using constructivist-based strategies within learning or training environments. Consider the following strategies for instruction that encourage discovery learning:

  • Interpret artwork.
  • Include manipulatives (e.g., graphic organizers, concept maps, lab experiments).
  • Pause during instruction to allow questions.
  • Apply learning to personal experiences.
  • Use gaming techniques.
  • Introduce a question, allow learners to discover their own answers, and then have a discussion.
  • Encourage problem solving.
  • Encourage curiosity.
  • Encourage reflection.
  • Be open to “try again” opportunities.

As you read, consider how the identified strategies support the constructivist viewpoints.

Excerpts from “The Impact of Students’ Exploration Strategies on Discovery Learning Using Computer-Based Simulations”

By B. Dalgarno, G. Kennedy, and S. Bennett

The notion of discovery learning has its origins in the 1960s, with Jerome Bruner one of the first to articulate in detail the potential benefits of instructional approaches with discovery learning at their core (Bruner, 1961). There are a range of related learning design approaches that are similar to or draw on elements of discovery learning, including exploratory learning (De Freitas & Oliver, 2006; Reilly, 1974), inquiry learning (Kuhn, Black, Keselman, & Kaplan, 2000; Rutherford, 1964) and problem-based learning (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980). See Table 5.1 for more about these three types of learning. [. . .] The idea that learning involves active knowledge construction has been used in support of inquiry-based learning approaches in the sciences, including discovery learning involving the use of computer-based simulations (De Jong & Van Joolingen, 1998). [. . .]

Table 5.1: Types of learning that emphasize discovery

Type Description
exploratory learning The purposeful process of exploring how the learner’s current knowledge may be related to a new concept
inquiry learning Often led by a facilitator, the process of asking questions, posing scenarios, or presenting problems through which the learner is guided toward an understanding of new concepts
problem-based learning The process of presenting an open-ended problem that allows the learner to acquire experience in problem solving and increase his or her knowledge about a concept

© Bridgepoint Education, Inc.

A key element of constructivist theories of learning, and one that underpins discovery learning and related instructional approaches, is the idea that each person forms his or her own knowledge representation, building on his or her individual experiences—an idea generally attributed to Piaget (1973). According to constructivist theory, this knowledge representation is constantly reviewed and revised, as inconsistencies between the learner’s current knowledge representation and experience are encountered through active exploration (Bruner, 1962; von Glasersfeld, 1984). Piaget (1973) explains the learning process in terms of equilibration. Equilibration begins with the construction by the individuals of their own internal knowledge representation, or in Piaget’s terms, they accommodate their knowledge representation or schema to fit with their experience. Subsequent experiences that are consistent with this knowledge representation are then assimilated into this schema. New experiences that do not fit with their current knowledge representation result in a further accommodation of their schema to fit with this new experience. Clearly, such an account of the learning process, with its emphasis on constructing and reconstructing an individual knowledge representation through active exploration, has a natural fit with the idea of discovery learning. [. . .]

Source: Dalgarno, B., Kennedy, G., & Bennett, S. (2014). The impact of students’ exploration strategies on discovery learning using computer-based simulations. Educational Media International, 51(4), 310–329. Published by Taylor & Francis. Copyright © 2014 Routledge.

A key aspect of constructivist theory is that learners construct their own knowledge, which affects one’s memory development and recall. (The construction of knowledge has also been applied to other learning theories that will be discussed in upcoming sections of this text.) As outlined in this section, constructivism is a theory based on the belief that one’s knowledge is actively constructed and influenced by a person’s environment (Applefield et al., 2000; Dalgarno et al., 2014). Both sets of authors also provide practical strategies that can be used in learning environments and note additional frameworks that include constructivist foundations. Situated cognition (section 5.3) and problem-based learning (section 5.5) will build upon the information about constructivism presented in section 5.1.

Social constructivism (also called dialectical constructivism), the focus of section 5.2, considers how the social aspect of our surroundings influences this construction by suggesting that although we each have the ability to regulate our knowledge acquisition, social mediators can influence all learners without their conscious recognition of the impacts. These effects also blur the line between psychology and sociology (the study of society), and thus open a plethora of considerations for understanding how a person learns and how a person learns most effectively.

5.2 Social Constructivism

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5.2 Social Constructivism

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Social interactions can both help and hurt knowledge acquisition. If there is a common goal or interest (e.g., a study topic), then a group of students studying together will most likely aid in new and retained knowledge.

Social constructivism suggests that a learner’s knowledge is based on social interactions—how learners experience and share their environments. This perspective supports the notion that the harmony between individuals and their society both positively and negatively affects successful learning. For example, socially constructed knowledge about the game of basketball would be supported more effectively by playing basketball and socially interacting with others who play. The importance of this basketball knowledge could be negatively affected if one is socially interactive with people who are uninterested in the subject.

As discussed in section 5.1, constructivism suggests that there is no shared reality but that reality is created by the individual (von Glasersfeld, 2001). Social constructivism further suggests that reality not only is created by the individual, but also is created through his or her interactions with others. Meaning in an individual’s reality is thus based in his or her society and culture. For example, a person who lives in the rural areas of Wyoming would have a decisively different perceived reality than someone who lives in the Bronx, New York City. Social constructivism encourages such individualized meanings, suggesting that there being two truths does not imply that one of the two truths is false or flawed.

The excerpts featured next are from Kim (2001). The article clarifies the differences between the original theory of constructivism and social constructivism by considering an additional variable: social interaction. Constructivism suggests that an individual’s previous knowledge can affect the acquisition of all new knowledge; social constructivism suggests that an individual’s previous social interactions are also crucial to all knowledge development.

Excerpts from “Social Constructivism”

By B. Kim

[. . .] Social constructivism emphasizes the importance of culture and context in understanding what occurs in society and constructing knowledge based on this understanding (Derry, 1999; McMahon, 1997). This perspective is closely associated with many contemporary theories, most notably the developmental theories of Vygotsky and Bruner (section 5.4), and Bandura’s social cognitive theory (discussed in Chapter 4) (Schunk, 2000).

Assumptions of Social Constructivism

Social constructivism is based on specific assumptions about reality, knowledge, and learning. To understand and apply models of instruction that are rooted in the perspectives of social constructivists, it is important to know the premises that underlie them.

Reality: Social constructivists believe that reality is constructed through human activity. Members of a society together invent the properties of the world (Kukla, 2000). For the social constructivist, reality cannot be discovered: It does not exist prior to its social invention.

Knowledge: To social constructivists, knowledge is also a human product, and is socially and culturally constructed (Ernest, 1999; Gredler, 1997; Prawat & Floden, 1994). Individuals create meaning through their interactions with each other and with the environment they live in.

Learning: Social constructivists view learning as a social process. It does not take place only within an individual, nor is it a passive development of behaviors that are shaped by external forces (McMahon, 1997). Meaningful learning occurs when individuals are engaged in social activities.

Intersubjectivity of Social Meanings

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People living in a large, bustling city may have intersubjectivity because they share common living situations, experiences, or interests. This may differ for a rural community.

Intersubjectivity is a shared understanding among individuals whose interaction is based on common interests and assumptions that form the ground for their communication (Rogoff, 1990). For example, individuals living in an urban community might have a shared understanding about what a community is and what it does, which potentially differs from the shared understanding among individuals in rural communities. Communications and interactions entail socially agreed-upon ideas of the world and the social patterns and rules of language use (Ernest, 1999). Construction of social meanings, therefore, involves intersubjectivity among individuals. Social meanings and knowledge are shaped and evolve through negotiation within the communicating groups (Gredler, 1997; Prawat & Floden, 1994). Any personal meanings shaped through these experiences are affected by the intersubjectivity of the community to which the people belong.

Intersubjectivity not only provides the grounds for communication but also supports people to extend their understanding of new information and activities among the group members (Rogoff, 1990; Vygotsky, 1978b). Knowledge is derived from interactions between people and their environments and resides within cultures (Schunk, 2000; McMahon, 1997). The construction of knowledge is also influenced by the intersubjectivity formed by cultural and historical factors of the community (Gredler, 1997; Prawat & Floden, 1994). When the members of the community are aware of their intersubjective meanings, it is easier for them to understand new information and activities that arise in the community.

Social Context for Learning

Some social constructivists discuss two aspects of social context that largely affect the nature and extent of the learning (Gredler, 1997; Wertsch, 1991): historical developments inherited by the learner as a member of a particular culture. Symbol systems, such as language, logic, and mathematical systems, are learned throughout the learner’s life. These symbol systems dictate how and what is learned.

The nature of the learner’s social interaction with knowledgeable members of the society is important. Without the social interaction with more knowledgeable others, it is impossible to acquire social meaning of important symbol systems and learn how to use them. Young children develop their thinking abilities by interacting with adults.

General Perspectives of Social Constructivism on Learning

Social constructivists see as crucial both the context in which learning occurs and the social contexts that learners bring to their learning environment. There are four general perspectives that inform how we could facilitate the learning within a framework of social constructivism (Gredler, 1997):

Cognitive tools perspective: Cognitive tools perspective focuses on the learning of cognitive skills and strategies. Students engage in those social learning activities that involve hands-on project-based methods and utilization of discipline-based cognitive tools (Gredler, 1997; Prawat & Floden, 1994). Together they produce a product and, as a group, impose meaning on it through the social learning process.

Idea-based social constructivism: Idea-based social constructivism sets education’s priority on important concepts in the various disciplines (e.g., part-whole relations in mathematics, photosynthesis in science, and point of view in literature) (Gredler, 1997, p. 59; Prawat, 1995; Prawat & Floden, 1994). These “big ideas” expand learner vision and become important foundations for learners’ thinking and on construction of social meaning (Gredler, 1997).

Pragmatic or emergent approach: Social constructivists with this perspective assert that the implementation of social constructivism in class should be emergent as the need arises (Gredler, 1997). Its proponents hold that knowledge, meaning, and understanding of the world can be addressed in the classroom from both the view of individual learner and the collective view of the entire class (Cobb, 1995; Gredler, 1997).

Transactional or situated cognitive perspectives: This perspective focuses on the relationship between the people and their environment. Humans are a part of the constructed environment (including social relationships); the environment is in turn one of the characteristics that constitutes the individual (Bredo, 1994; Gredler, 1997). When a mind operates, its owner is interacting with the environment. Therefore, if the environment and social relationships among group members change, the tasks of each individual also change (Bredo, 1994; Gredler, 1997). Learning thus should not take place in isolation from the environment.

Social Constructivism and Instructional Models

Instructional models based on the social constructivist perspective stress the need for collaboration among learners and with practitioners in the society (Lave & Wenger, 1991; McMahon, 1997). Lave and Wenger (1991) assert that a society’s practical knowledge is situated in relations among practitioners, their practice, and the social organization and political economy of communities of practice. For this reason, learning should involve such knowledge and practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Gredler, 1997). Social constructivist approaches can include reciprocal teaching, peer collaboration, cognitive apprenticeships, problem-based instruction, webquests, anchored instruction, and other methods that involve learning with others (Schunk, 2000). For example, based on social constructivism, an instructor who encourages students with different backgrounds to work together in a collaborative way (e.g., a group project) increases the likelihood that students will explore information from multiple points of view.

Source: Kim, B. (2001). Social constructivism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Used by permission of Michael Orey.

Social constructivism is a framework that emphasizes society as a key moderator of how meaning is constructed. To a social cognitivist, knowledge is considered useless if it has no meaning within one’s socially interactive environments. For example, what if you left the country to attend school and when you returned 10 years later, you no longer spoke your native language? Does what you say to those around you have meaning? A constructivist would suggest that the knowledge you have gained (the new language) will not have meaning in your previous environment (unless you stumble upon another person who knows this new language). (See Applying Skeptical Inquiry: Shaped by the World Around Us for another example of how our prior experiences with others can shape how we perceive the world around us.) Social constructivism, however, is not the only theoretical framework with foundations that apply constructivist ideologies.

In section 5.3, we will discuss situated cognition, a theory that also suggests that knowledge is based on interacting situational variables in our environment. This theory provides an additional example of how models for learning seemingly mesh important variables from different psychological camps (e.g. behaviorist, cognitivist, and constructivist) more frequently. One important difference between situated cognition and social constructivism is the attention to language as the socially moderated key to meaning in knowledge that is emphasized in situated cognition theory.

Applying Skeptical Inquiry: Shaped by the World Around Us

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Our backgrounds affect how we process information in our environment. Would everyone who sees this man have the same perception about him?

Every learner has a unique background of experiences. It is important to remember that part of who we are is what we know, and each of us might know different things. Consider the nearby image. If you were asked to write a story about this image, do you think it would match someone else’s story? The man in this image could represent something different to you than he does to someone else. Maybe one story describes this man as a game hunter, but another story might indicate that this man is homeless. The image might even trigger different personal beliefs or emotions among those who see it.

Questions

  1. Have you ever judged a person’s actions as unacceptable based on your own notions about acceptable behaviors?
  2. Did you consider that perhaps what that person was doing was common and acceptable in his or her own culture?

5.3 Situated Cognition

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5.3 Situated Cognition

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Depending on the context of the sentence in which the word sow is written, a person may picture someone sowing seed or a female pig. This is an example of social cognition.

As was mentioned in section 5.1, situated cognition presents similar ideologies as constructivism does, and it further explores the relationships among what is learned, how it is learned, and how it is applied. Situated cognition suggests that knowledge is also determined by the contexts in which it is applied and that language is a key moderator of knowledge meaning. For example, consider homophones, words that have the same pronunciation but can have different spellings and meanings. If your friend mentions that she saw some cranes today, what might you take cranes to mean? Your interpretation of this word could vary. Perhaps you live in a geographic region that has large populations of cranes (birds). Or perhaps you live in an area where large buildings are being constructed and there are several construction cranes (machines used to move heavy objects). As another example, if the word sow was written, and not spoken, your understanding of the word would depend on how it is used in a sentence because sow could refer to a female pig or to the process of planting seeds.

There is also a word used within learning and educational psychologies that exemplifies this concept of context dependence: humanism. Depending on the domain one is studying, humanism could mean something different and be associated with different ideas. When used in discussions about religion and philosophy, humanism will have a different meaning than the same term has in discussions about learning. (These associations with humanism will come up again in Chapter 6.) An understanding of situated learning is a useful perspective to keep in mind when considering how humans learn, and it reminds learners to carefully address content when they develop their schemata.

The excerpts featured in this section are from Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989). The reading introduces us to a theory that suggests that knowledge development is individualized and based on one’s environments, similar to constructivist theory. Situated cognition is based on constructivist principles (Confrey, 1990; Brooks & Brooks, 1993; Fosnot, 1996). (See “Constructivism in Practice” in section 5.1.) Situated cognition argues that learning is dependent on the meaning derived from the social, physical, and cultural contexts in which it is applied.

Excerpts from “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning”

By J. S. Brown, A. Collins, and P. Duguid

[. . .] Recent investigations of learning challenge the separating of what is learned from how it is learned and used. The activity in which knowledge is developed and deployed is now argued as not separable from or ancillary to learning and cognition. Nor is it neutral. Rather, it is an integral part of what is learned. Situations might be said to coproduce knowledge through activity. Learning and cognition, it is now possible to argue, are dependent on the context in which they are applied. [. . .]

Situated Knowledge and Learning

Miller and Gildea’s (1987) work on vocabulary teaching has shown how the assumption that knowing and doing can be separated leads to a teaching method that ignores the way situations structure cognition. Their work has described how children are taught words from dictionary definitions and a few exemplary sentences, and they have compared this method with the way vocabulary is normally learned outside school.

People generally learn words in the context of ordinary communication. This process is startlingly fast and successful. Miller and Gildea note that by listening, talking, and reading, the average 17-year-old has learned vocabulary at a rate of 5,000 words per year (13 per day) for over 16 years. By contrast, learning words from abstract definitions and sentences taken out of the context of normal use, the way vocabulary has often been taught, is slow and generally unsuccessful. There is barely enough classroom time to teach more than 100 to 200 words per year. Moreover, much of what is taught turns out to be almost useless in practice. They give the following examples of students’ uses of vocabulary acquired this way:

“Me and my parents correlate, because without them I wouldn’t be here.”

“I was meticulous about falling off the cliff.”

“Mrs. Morrow stimulated the soup.”

(Note that the dictionary definitions that the students used in writing these sentences are as follows: Correlate—be related one to the other; meticulous—very careful; stimulate—stir up. They were given these definitions with little or no contextual help, so it would be unfair to regard the students as foolish for using the words as they did.)

Given the method, such mistakes seem unavoidable. Teaching from dictionaries assumes that definitions and exemplary sentences are self-contained “pieces” of knowledge. But words and sentences are not islands, entire unto themselves. Language use would involve a constant confrontation with ambiguity, polysemy, nuance, metaphor, and so forth were these not resolved with the extra-linguistic help that the context provides (Nunberg, 1978).

Prominent among the intricacies of language that depend on extra-linguistic help are indexical words—words like I, here, now, next, tomorrow, afterwards, this. Indexical terms are those that “index” or more plainly point to a part of the situation in which communication is being conducted. They are not merely context sensitive; they are completely context dependent. Words like I or now, for instance, can only be interpreted in the context of their use. Surprisingly, all words can be seen as at least partially indexical (Barwise & Perry, 1983).

Experienced readers implicitly understand that words are situated. They, therefore, ask for the rest of the sentence or the context before committing themselves to an interpretation of a word. And they go to dictionaries with situated examples of usage in mind. The situation as well as the dictionary supports the interpretation. But the students who produced the sentences listed had no support from a normal communicative situation. In tasks like theirs, dictionary definitions are assumed to be self-sufficient. The extra-linguistic props that would structure, constrain, and ultimately allow interpretation in normal communication are ignored.

Learning from dictionaries, like any method that tries to teach abstract concepts independently of authentic situations, overlooks the way understanding is developed through continued, situated use. This development, which involves complex social negotiations, does not crystallize into a categorical definition. Because it is dependent on situations and negotiations, the meaning of a word cannot, in principle, be captured by a definition, even when the definition is supported by a couple of exemplary sentences.

All knowledge is, we believe, like language. Its constituent parts index the world and so are inextricably a product of the activity and situations in which they are produced. A concept, for example, will continually evolve with each new occasion of use, because new situations, negotiations, and activities inevitably recast it in a new, more densely textured form. So a concept, like the meaning of a word, is always under construction. This would also appear to be true of apparently well-defined, abstract technical concepts. Even these are not wholly definable and defy categorical description; part of their meaning is always inherited from the context of use.

Learning and Tools

To explore the idea that concepts are both situated and progressively developed through activity, we should abandon any notion that they are abstract, self-contained entities. Instead, it may be more useful to consider conceptual knowledge as, in some ways, similar to a set of tools. Tools share several significant features with knowledge: They can only be fully understood through use, and using them entails both changing the user’s view of the world and adopting the belief system of the culture in which they are used.

First, if knowledge is thought of as tools, we can illustrate Whitehead’s (1929) distinction between the mere acquisition of inert concepts and the development of useful, robust knowledge. It is quite possible to acquire a tool but to be unable to use it. Similarly, it is common for students to acquire algorithms, routines, and decontextualized definitions that they cannot use and that, therefore, lie inert. Unfortunately, this problem is not always apparent. Old-fashioned pocket knives, for example, have a device for removing stones from horses’ hooves. People with this device may know its use and be able to talk wisely about horses, hooves, and stones. But they may never betray—or even recognize—that they would not begin to know how to use this implement on a horse. Similarly, students can often manipulate algorithms, routines, and definitions they have acquired with apparent competence and yet not reveal, to their teachers or themselves, that they would have no idea what to do if they came upon the domain equivalent of a limping horse.

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A student who is taught mathematics, such as trigonometry, will not acquire competence and knowledge unless he or she uses this tool, or skill, often.

Learners who use tools actively rather than just acquire them, by contrast, build an increasingly rich implicit understanding of the world in which they use the tools and of the tools themselves. The understanding, both of the world and of the tool, continually changes as a result of their interaction. Learning and acting are interestingly indistinct, learning being a continuous, lifelong process resulting from acting in situations.

Learning how to use a tool involves far more than can be accounted for in any set of explicit rules. The occasions and conditions for use arise directly out of the context of activities of each community that uses the tool, framed by the way members of that community see the world. The community and its viewpoint, quite as much as the tool itself, determine how a tool is used. Thus, carpenters and cabinet makers use chisels differently. Because tools and the way they are used reflect the particular accumulated insights of communities, it is not possible to use a tool appropriately without understanding the community or culture in which it is used.

Conceptual tools similarly reflect the cumulative wisdom of the culture in which they are used and the insights and experience of individuals. Their meaning is not invariant but a product of negotiation within the community. Again, appropriate use is not simply a function of the abstract concept alone. It is a function of the culture and the activities in which the concept has been developed. Just as carpenters and cabinet makers use chisels differently, so physicists and engineers use mathematical formulae differently. Activity, concept, and culture are interdependent. No one can be totally understood without the other two. Learning must involve all three. Teaching methods often try to impart abstracted concepts as fixed, well-defined, independent entities that can be explored in prototypical examples and textbook exercises. But such exemplification cannot provide the important insights into either the culture or the authentic activities of members of that culture that learners need.

To talk about academic disciplines, professions, or even manual trades as communities or cultures will perhaps seem strange. Yet communities of practitioners are connected by more than their ostensible tasks. They are bound by intricate, socially constructed webs of belief, which are essential to understanding what they do (Geertz, 1983). The activities of many communities are unfathomable, unless they are viewed from within the culture. The culture and the use of a tool act together to determine the way practitioners see the world, and the way the world appears to them determines the culture’s understanding of the world and of the tools. Unfortunately, students are too often asked to use the tools of a discipline without being able to adopt its culture. To learn to use tools as practitioners use them, a student, like an apprentice, must enter that community and its culture. Thus, in a significant way, learning is, we believe, a process of enculturation [. . .], the conscious or unconscious adoption of the behavior and belief systems of new social groups. [. . .]

Learning Through Cognitive Apprenticeship

[. . .] Introduced in section 5.1, cognitive apprenticeship (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989) embraces methods that stand in contradiction to the idea that knowledge is relatively unfixed and unaffected by the activity through which it is acquired. Cognitive apprenticeship methods try to enculturate students into authentic practices through activity and social interaction in a way similar to that evident—and evidently successful—in craft apprenticeship. [. . .]

The development of concepts out of and through continuing authentic activity is the approach of cognitive apprenticeship—a term closely allied to our image of knowledge as a tool. Cognitive apprenticeship supports learning in a domain by enabling students to acquire, develop, and use cognitive tools in authentic domain activity. Similarly, craft apprenticeship enables apprentices to acquire and develop the tools and skills of their craft through authentic work at and membership in their trade. Through this process, apprentices enter the culture of practice. So the term apprenticeship helps to emphasize the centrality of activity in learning and knowledge and highlights the inherently context-dependent, situated, and enculturating nature of learning. And apprenticeship also suggests the paradigm of situated modeling, coaching, and fading (Collins et al., 1989), whereby teachers or coaches promote learning, first by making explicit their tacit knowledge or by modeling their strategies for students in authentic activity. Then, teachers and colleagues support students’ attempts at doing the task. And finally they empower the students to continue independently. The progressive process of learning and enculturation perhaps argues that Increasingly Complex Microworlds (see Burton, Brown, & Fischer, 1984) can be replaced by increasing complex enculturating environments. [. . .]

In essence, cognitive apprenticeship attempts to promote learning within the nexus of activity, tool, and culture that we have described. Learning, both outside and inside school, advances through collaborative social interaction and the social construction of knowledge. Resnick has pointed out (1988) that throughout most of their lives people learn and work collaboratively, not individually, as they are asked to do in many schools. Lampert’s (1986) and Schoenfeld’s (1985, 1991) work; Scardamalia, Bereiter, and Steinbach’s teaching of writing (1984); and Palincsar and Brown’s (1984) work with reciprocal teaching of reading all employ some form of social interaction, social construction of knowledge, and collaboration. [. . .]

Source: Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, S. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42. Copyright © 1989 SAGE Publications.

As a learning theory, situated cognition differs from other theories in that the meaning of knowledge is more specifically about the role of language development. Words are the basis for communication, which in turn affects the social interactions we experience. The construction of knowledge suggested by situated cognition identifies that learning opportunities are contextually dependent and affect one’s reality and thus the meaning that one assigns to new knowledge. An additional constructivist-based theory, sociocultural theory (SCT), will be the topic in section 5.4, where we will continue to evaluate the different constructivism and constructivist-based theories that can help us better understand how we learn.

5.4 Sociocultural Theory

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5.4 Sociocultural Theory

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Sociocultural theory introduces the idea that language development is a result of social interactions and activities that individuals and then groups participate in. There is a social, cultural, and physical impact on language that a society develops.

Sociocultural theory (SCT), first introduced in section 5.1, takes a closer look at language development and considers how our interactions affect learning and the construction of knowledge. Specifically, SCT places much emphasis on the effects of language in the learning process. For example, throughout history, languages have been adapted to satisfy specific needs, limitations, and social situations—environments that influence learners. Urban Dictionary (http://www.urbandictionary.com) would be an example of this adaptation. This resource catalogues words and phrases used among different social groups, but most of these words are not officially recognized by academic resources such as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. But even words in Urban Dictionary are not officially recognized words until they are consistently used by others and assigned meanings through interactions. As an additional example, consider SMS language or textese (also known by several other names: txt-speak, txtese, txt, txtspk, txtk, texting language, txt lingo, SMSish, txtslang, and txt talk). This is the language developed by groups to communicate using mobile phone text messaging or Internet-based communication such as email and instant messaging. In these contexts, learners identify and apply spellings, abbreviations, or symbols that they might not use in other situations.

The excerpt featured in this section is from Alavinia, Aslrasouli, and Rostami (2014) and introduces us to SCT. SCT provides us with an additional understanding of how the individualized and unique activities we participate in affect our knowledge acquisition. Unlike other theories, however, SCT more deliberately interconnects the process of learning with the individualized contexts in which we engage. Theorists posing SCT suggest that the contextual variables (social, cultural, and physical) are not simply moderators of what and how we learn. Rather, these variables are the pendulum for what and how we learn, influencing the key learning means: language. SCT promotes the active engagement of learners with the environment to encourage effective and meaningful learning.

As you read the following section, take note of the words that come to mind that you might use only within your unique environments, such as among your friends, family, or workplace. These are the learned languages that have derived meanings based on your social circles.

Excerpts from “Reappraisal of the Pivotal Role of Social Interactionist Perspectives in Furthering Learners’ Reading, Attitudinal Dexterities”

By P. Alavinia, M. Aslrasouli, and M. Rostami

[. . .] According to Wu (1998), sociocultural theory (SCT) is a theory of the development of higher functions that emphasizes close association of culture, cognition, and development. (See section 5.1.) “Unlike the psychological theories that view thinking and speaking as related but independent processes, sociocultural theory views speaking and thinking as tightly interwoven” (Lightbown & Spada, 2006, p. 47). [. . .] Vygotsky’s concept of SCT is, indeed, based on mental development through mediation, which means that the “human mind is always and everywhere mediated primarily by linguistically based communication” (Lantolf, 2002, p. 104). Furthermore, as Lantolf (2004) maintains, SCT

is not a theory of the social or of the cultural aspects of human existence. . . . It is, rather, . . . a theory of mind . . . that recognizes the central role that social relationships and culturally constructed artifacts play in organizing uniquely human forms of thinking. (cited in Lantolf & Thorne, 2006, p. 1)

Scaffolding

One of the fundamental axioms within Vygotsky’s SCT, scaffolding (first mentioned in section 5.1) was originally introduced by Bruner (1966) and Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976). As Schweisfurth (2013) holds, scaffolding entails the “process of building from a lower starting level towards the learner’s potential through the intervention of another,” and that “sustained dialogue is central to the process of scaffolding, as is careful and understanding modelling by the teacher” (p. 23). Berk (2002) defines scaffolding as

a changing quality of support over a teaching session in which adults adjust the assistance they provide to fit the child’s current level of performance. Direct instruction is offered when a task is new; less help is provided as competence increases. (p. 261)

[. . .] In the scaffolding process students are not passive receivers of information; rather, “they are the active learners and therefore, their zone of proximal development (ZPD) should be maximized through the help of their peers and teacher in an integrated activity” (Ellery, 2005, p. 18). Clark and Graves (2005) considered scaffolding as an effective strategy and stated that scaffolding is so effective because “it enables teacher to keep a task whole, while students learn to understand and manage the parts, and presents the learner with just the right challenge” (Clark & Graves, 2005, p. 571).

Vygotsky (1978a) also underscored the role of interaction in the processes of language development. “He concluded that language develops primarily from social interaction. He argued that in a supportive interactive environment, children are able to advance to higher level of knowledge and performance” (cited in Lightbown & Spada, 2006, p. 20). [. . .]

Mediation and Self-Regulation (SR)

In addition to scaffolding and ZPD, there are a number of other significant concepts that underlie Vygotsky’s SCT model. Two of the most paramount notions in this regard are the Vygotskian principles of mediation and self-regulation. Lying at the heart of Vygotsky’s SCT is the concept of mediation, which is defined by Huong (2003) as “the mechanism through which external, socio-cultural activities are transformed into internal, mental functioning. Mediation is the instrument of cognitive change” (p. 33). Moreover, as Williams and Burden (1997) declare, the notion of mediation underscores “the part played by other significant people in the learners’ lives, who enhance their learning by selecting and shaping the learning experiences presented to them” (p. 40).

The term self-regulation (SR) is another fundamental component of sociocultural theory. In education, self-regulation refers to students’ ability to manage their own learning and involves several aspects that lead students to appropriately respond to their environment (Bronson, 2000). Zimmerman (1994) believes that “SR refers to learning that occurs when individuals are metacognitively, motivationally, and behaviorally active participants in their own learning process” (p. 3). Teachers may be interested in training the students who can ultimately become independent, active, and self-regulated learners. Students’ active involvement and awareness develop their self-regulation. [. . .]

Source: Alavinia, P., Aslrasouli, M., & Rostami, M. (2014). Reappraisal of the pivotal role of social interactionist perspectives in furthering learners’ reading, attitudinal dexterities. Procedia—Social and Behavioral Sciences, 98 (Proceedings of the International Conference on Current Trends in ELT), 153–160. Copyright © 2014 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.

As with other theories in this chapter, sociocultural theory (SCT) emphasizes that learners are active and engaged in the learning process. SCT also maintains that learning is individualized and based on social, physical, and cultural indicators from the learner’s environment. These indicators help the learner create meaning. Vygotsky’s ZPD, as well as scaffolding, mediation (reciprocal engagement), and self-regulation (SR) are concepts associated with SCT. (See Reinforcing Your Understanding: Sociocultural Theory in the Classroom for a demonstration of one teacher’s take on using SCT to teach young learners.) Table 5.2 provides some example of these concepts in action.

Table 5.2: Examples of SCT concepts in the real world

Concept Description Example
zone of proximal development (ZPD) When an individual is unfamiliar with a concept or application, the person is said to be working in his or her zone of proximal development. A new nurse who works with a mentor until the job requirements are understood and practiced with efficiency
scaffolding When an individual attaches new knowledge to previous knowledge To understand constructivism, it is important to first understand the foundations of cognition, hence, more effectively bridging information processing to perceptually constructed meaning.
mediation The effects of a person who is presenting new knowledge It is easier to learn from someone who is passionate and knowledgeable about what he or she is teaching than it is to learn material from a person who finds the information boring or unimportant.
self-regulation (SR) An individual’s ability to self-monitor, self-assess, and self-motivate. It’s suggested that an individual with this skill will have increased performance. When someone is finding it difficult to understand a new concept, he or she might ask questions, do increased research about the subject, or practice more often.

© Bridgepoint Education, Inc.

Reinforcing Your Understanding: Sociocultural Theory in the Classroom

The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is an important consideration for one’s own learning and when supporting other learners. The video provided in this feature demonstrates how a grade-school teacher, Fe MacLean, uses aspects of ZPD and scaffolding when she works with her class. In this example, she asks the students in the class to use their personal experiences with sledding in the snow, an in-class demonstration using a ramp, and unique narratives to help the students understand concepts related to motion. The use of real-life experiences supports learning effectiveness by encouraging active engagement that supports the scaffolding process.

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5.5 Problem-Based Learning

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5.5 Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based learning (PBL) is an approach to learning that encourages active engagement by the learner and is an example of an authentic learning task that is promoted by constructivist-based theories (section 5.1). PBL encourages learners to be more effective problem solvers and to have more control of their learning. A key component of this method is that learners must consciously apply what they already know to new concepts, building upon their knowledge to make the most of their learning opportunities. Groupwork is also a critical component. For example, chemistry students often participate in laboratory environments, in addition to the more traditional lectures and reading assignments, to learn the subject matter.

The excerpts included in this section are from Wiggins, Chiriac, Abbad, Pauli, and Worrell (2016). The selection highlights core elements and goals of problem-based learning (PBL). Familiarity with PBL can also reinforce your understanding of how constructivist-associated theories differ from behaviorism and cognitivism. As you read, consider how you could apply the information to your own (and others’) learning experiences.

Excerpts from “Ask Not Only ‘What Can Problem-Based Learning Do For Psychology?’ But ‘What Can Psychology Do For Problem-Based Learning?’ A Review of the Relevance of Problem-Based Learning For Psychology Teaching and Research”

By S. Wiggins, E. H. Chiriac, G. L. Abbad, R. Pauli, and M. Worrell

Problem-based learning (PBL) is more than a pedagogical method (sometimes referred to as a didactic approach). It is an orientation to teaching and learning falling under the broad umbrella of student-centered, inquiry-based, or active learning approaches (Barrett, 2005; Hmelo-Silver, 2004). PBL was pioneered in the 1960s in the Medical School at McMaster University, Canada (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980) [. . .]. The fundamental principle of PBL is to equip students with an investigative approach and to develop a greater sense of responsibility for their learning. As the main processes of PBL are rooted in problem solving, self-directed learning, and group interaction, this places psychology very much at the center of how PBL works and how it may be understood as a teaching and learning approach. [. . .]

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When students problem solve, either working together or individually, they are able to have control in their learning, building upon past knowledge and using new skills when challenges arise. This is an example of problem-based learning.

PBL places open-ended problems rather than defined curriculum content at the heart of learning (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980; Hmelo-Silver, 2004). A problem in PBL is an issue that is investigated, discussed, and analyzed, which could take the form of a puzzle, a scenario, or a case study (Barrett, Cashman, & Moore, 2011). As there are no fixed and final solutions and numerous ways to solve these problems, students can study the same problem but learn different things from their engagement with it. The problems are used to stimulate the learning of students who are normally required to work collaboratively in small groups in order to identify what is “unknown” about the problem. Students will then conduct individual research to obtain content information, before returning to the group to collectively devise an appropriate response and a possible and plausible “solution” to the problem. As students are required to actively take responsibility for what and how they learn, PBL is not simply another method of teaching and relies on a very different philosophical approach to more tutor-centered pedagogies (Dolmans, Wolfhagen, van der Vleuten, & Wijnen, 2001; Savin-Baden, 2000, 2003). It also necessitates a fundamental revision of the roles of students and teachers, respectively. The main goal of PBL is to help students become self-directed learners, who are able to seek out, apply, and reflect critically on knowledge, especially as this applies to professional contexts (Hmelo-Silver & Barrows, 2006; Hung, Jonassen, & Liu, 2008). [. . .]

PBL is often imagined as a single general education strategy, but in reality there are a number of PBL models (Barrows, 1986), as can be illustrated by the Aalborg (Kolmos, Fink, & Krogh, 2006), Maastricht seven-step (van Berkel, Scherpbier, Hillen, & van der Vleuten, 2010), and open-ended PBL (Boud, 1985; see also Davidson & Howell Major, 2014) models, with the former including project-based PBL. These models differ in terms of whether they require a tutor at every session (Maastricht) or not (Aalborg), whether they involve many short problems (Maastricht) or longer projects (Aalborg and project-based PBL), and whether there are a series of steps to be followed (Maastricht) in terms of guiding collaborative work in groups. There are also variations in how PBL is integrated into curricula, ranging from PBL approaches underpinning a whole program of study through to the use of PBL in a single module or session. Savin-Baden (2000), when outlining the different models and modes of PBL, notes that the decision over which specific model to use will, in part, be dependent on the discipline within which it will be used. In addition, those disciplines with more specific and clearly defined core curricula may find it harder to adopt the open-ended approaches to knowledge acquisition and transfer inherent in PBL. [. . .]

Source: Wiggins, S., Chiriac, E. H., Abbad, G. L., Pauli, R., & Worrell, M. (2016). Ask not only “What can problem-based learning do for psychology?” but “What can psychology do for problem-based learning?”: A review of the relevance of problem-based learning for psychology teaching and research. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 15(2), 136–154. Copyright © 2016 SAGE Publications

Problem-based learning (PBL), although an instructional strategy, offers information about how to apply constructivist-based strategies to one’s own learning opportunities. PBL emphasizes learning environments that encourage learners to discover possible answers themselves, rather than simply presenting the information to the learners. Finding answers using one’s own construction of the problem is an ideal environment for learners. Strategies for applying PBL include presenting learners with open-ended problems, encouraging questions, suggesting that there are no fixed processes or solutions, and nurturing opportunities for group interactions. In addition, PBL introduces variables that become applicable to our Chapter 6 discussion about humanism and learning: self-regulation, self-directed learning, and authentic learning.

Summary & Resources

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Summary & Resources

Chapter Summary

This chapter introduced you to theories that suggest learners construct their own knowledge through social, cultural, and physical indicators in the environment and that these indicators are variables that should be not simply considered by the learner, but actively attended to as well. Constructivism, social constructivism, situated cognition, and sociocultural theory (SCT) identify additional areas, each of which is unique to the respective theory’s models, to consider when evaluating how humans learn. These frameworks have both supporters and critics among academic communities, scholars who either agree or disagree with constructivist-based views. The notions that truth is but a perception, that knowledge is truth only when used in the suitable situation, and that knowledge is constructed based on an individual’s social interactions are concepts that establish differentiation from a purely cognitivist point of view. But as was mentioned at the beginning of the chapter, constructivism, and the unique theories that are bound by similar constructs, though different, should not be seen as a framework that aims to disprove or replace cognitivist or behaviorist perspectives. It does, however, offer constructs that consider different views of how we learn. Constructivist-based perspectives encourage us to take into consideration the diversity, and social implications, of our country, schools, and workforce when evaluating learners’ needs. In addition, theories offer numerous practical applications to create a more effective learning process, such as graphic organizers, scaffolding activities, and collaborations that take individuals’ zones of proximal development into consideration.

These frameworks, which focus more on individual-based learning, suggest that by being attentive to the different ways that the same information might be perceived by different individuals, you can be better equipped to help yourself and other learners to more successfully acquire knowledge. The following strategies can be used to help achieve this objective:

  • Offer learners choices in activities.
  • Facilitate rather than lecture.
  • Allow learners to explore potential answers to questions.
  • Encourage learners to work in groups.
  • Offer opportunities for peer-to-peer instruction.
  • Design activities that encourage learners to reflect on their outcomes.
  • Allow learners to share their perceptions of the learning environment.
  • Support learners’ alternative views.
  • Allow learners to take part in creative projects and real-life simulations.

Key Ideas

  • Constructivism suggests that learners construct their own knowledge based on their own perceptions of reality.
  • Some learning theorists do not agree that constructivism is a valid theory, citing that the theory is too subjective.
  • Constructivism suggests applicable strategies for effective learning in educational contexts.
  • Discovery learning is a process of using one’s own past experiences and knowledge to discover new information.
  • Social constructivism emphasizes that an individual’s interactions with others and society influence the individual’s perceptions of reality, thus influencing his or her knowledge.
  • Situated cognition suggests that knowledge is embedded in and connected to the situations in which learning occurs.
  • Situated cognition encourages learners to be aware of how knowledge may be connected with the circumstances in which it is applied.
  • Cognitive apprenticeship focuses on the skill needed and emphasizes the role of a mentor to teach a novice in an authentic environment.
  • Sociocultural theory (SCT) emphasizes the importance of being mindful of the association of culture, cognition, and development in association with one’s knowledge development.
  • Sociocultural theory (SCT) views language as the key means by which to connect meaning to learning.
  • The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is an area of development in which a skill or concept is just beyond the learner’s current level but can be attained with the help of a more knowledgeable peer or mentor.
  • Scaffolding, the process of efficiently building new knowledge upon prior knowledge, is influenced by an individual’s culture, social interactions, physical context, and preexisting knowledge.
  • Problem-based learning (PBL) is a learning strategy associated with constructivist-based theories that encourages group interactions, problem solving, and self-discovery.

Additional Resources

The theory of constructivism, and the numerous models based on its framework (e.g., social constructivism, situated cognition, and sociocultural theory), can help you identify learning strategies that will help you strengthen your own knowledge acquisition. An understanding of the social, cultural, and physical contexts of the learning opportunity can also encourage you to consider how you, and others, construct knowledge. Visit the following websites to further your understanding of the topics and individuals that were introduced in this chapter. Some resources may also be accessible via your university library.

Constructivism

Situated Cognition

Problem-Based Learning

Key Terms

authentic learning tasks

cognitive apprenticeship

cooperative learning

dialectical constructivism

endogenous constructivism

exogenous constructivism

intersubjectivity

logical positivism

mediation

problem-based learning (PBL)

scaffolding

self-directed learners

self-regulation (SR)

situated cognition

sociocultural theory (SCT)

zone of proximal development (ZPD)

 

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