Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Constructionism



In preparation, please read the suggested readings (above) and discuss with your group:
* What ideas in the readings interested or resonated with you?
* How could you apply these ideas to help others learn in your own work, family, or community?


Jean Piaget wrote, "every act of teaching deprives the child an act of discovery."

In his 1994 book, The Children's Machine, Seymour Papert uses the above quote to highlight a major point of a chapter labeled, Instructionism versus Constructionism. In short, Paper discusses the notion of changing educational paradigms by emphasizing creating content (constructionism) rather than direct instruction (instructionism). 

I am a big believer in the philosophical framework of constructivism, especially in relation to education. Constructivist thinking holds that knowledge is actively created via social interaction. Active participation is thus essential to make learning relevant and applicable. I think this approach is both meaningful and empowering to children. It shows them they are important and crucial components to the learning process. Teachers do not hold all the keys, they do.


Papert calls for something more. He call for constructionism. This builds on the constructivist idea, but takes it further. While the constructivist approach builds abstract knowledge, Papert advocates for students working together to create materials. He wants to make education more concrete by meshing constructed knowledge with physical, creative outputs. In many ways, he is reversing the established thought process. Learning is expected to get more abstract as students get older. This is how school is accepted as becoming more challenging. Papert believes that students should move from abstract to concrete; creating products, inventions, and dealing with problems in a hands on manner. This is intuitive to the learner and supports the natural affinity to tinker.


Unsurprisingly, he finds great hope in computers and computer programming. Computer programming moves from the abstract to the concrete. It allows thinkers to experiment with their ideas to create their own projects. Programming and similar activities resemble more natural learning processes; there are multiple correct paths, there is not one defined right answer, creators must always tweak the product, and the process allows for a high degree of self-interest. Learners must use a tool-kit of approaches, be flexible, and be creative problem-solvers. This is in direct contrast to instructionism where one person, usually a teacher, offers one path to success, modeled on his/her choosing.


Papert uses the analogy of bricolage to describe the outcome of educational systems based on a constructionist approach. He writes:

"Bricolage is a metaphor for the ways of the old-fashioned traveling tinker, the jack-of-all trades who knocks on the door offering to fix whatever is broken. Faced with a job, the tinker rummages in his bag of assorted tools to find one that will fit the problem at hand and, if one does not work for the job, simple tries another without ever being upset in the slightest by the lack of generality."
The image of an intellectual MacGyver pops up to my mind. I see an eager learner willing to make mistakes and curious to solve any problem put in front of her. A learner less interested in finding the answer the book or teacher wants, but more interested in finding an answer to a question they themselves pose. I also see a learner who disappears in the modern classroom where standardized tests and instructions are the norm. How can a learner like this develop if we need more "teaching" time and less student free time?

A wonderful extension to this idea is Dale Daugherty and the Maker Movement he started. For him, constructionism goes beyond the computer to just about anything. Anything we can imagine. Daugherty argues for maker's spaces where students have the materials to create, tinker, and explore to their heart's deepest desire. Instead of being idle consumers of both materials and knowledge, one is called to be an inventor, an artist. These spaces leave no choice but total student engagement. Boredom is not an option. In a telling paragraph he speaks to how these spaces will help reinvigorate innovation:
“Formal education has become such a serious business, defined as success at abstract thinking and high-stakes testing, that there is no time and no context for play. If play is what students do outside school, then that is where the real learning will take place and that is where innovation and creativity will be found.” (full article)

It takes imagination and curiosity from educators to transform education into such places of inquiry for our children. We must be the constructionists ourselves. 


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