We are born into a complex world. It is a world governed by physical laws, social norms, societal expectations, cultural traditions, and family dynamics. Understanding this world is an equally complex process. Many of these rules are not black and white, and they are not spelled out in a handbook presented to each new member of our species. Learning is a fundamentally human process of unravelling the nuanced, interconnected, often confusing threads that make up our world. Through this process of navigating and unravelling complexity, we construct meaning. This meaning-making process is at the heart of constructivism, which emphasizes that “humans create meaning as opposed to acquiring it” (Ertmer & Newby, 2013, p. 55). I believe constructivism offers an invaluable approach to understanding how we learn and how we can share knowledge.
The feedback loop between what we experience and what we know is how we build mental models of the complex world around us. Piaget (1936) presents this process of constructing meaning as the theory of cognitive development, which forms the underpinnings of constructivism. When we’re young, we touch and probe the world around us, and construct our understanding based on how it reacts to our sticky fingers and inquisitive senses. As we get older, we touch and probe the world through interactions on a cognitive and social level. We ask questions, challenge assumptions, and construct cause-and-effect relationships in our understanding. However, rather than progressing developmentally through cognitive stages, Egan (1997) suggests that this progression occurs through the acquisition of cognitive tools: Somatic, Mythic, Romantic, Philosophic, and Ironic. As individuals construct meaning, they progress from a big, bold, black-and-white understanding of the world towards a more fine-grained and nuanced understanding of the many shades of grey in-between. This progression enables learners to continuously revise and interpret their knowledge by applying different cognitive tools to their experiences.
Each step of the learning process is reinforced through the many experiences that inform our ideas, and although these experiences may be similar, the meaning each learner constructs in their mind is unique. Ertmer and Newby (2013) express that “learners do not transfer knowledge from the external world into their memories; rather they build personal interpretations of the world based on individual experiences and interactions” (p. 55). Their exploration of constructivism as it relates to instructional design suggests that meaningful learning activities need to be rooted in real-world contexts, and that learning needs to be an active experience rather than a passive consumption of facts. This aspect of constructivism reinforces the belief that an instructional designer cannot transfer content to students through lessons, but can create situations in which students’ experiences allow them to solve problems and construct their own understanding.
A constructivist approach is particularly powerful when applied to the learning activities I design for my computer science classes. Jonassen, as cited in Merrill (2002), expresses the need for students to “learn domain content in order to solve the problem, rather than solving the problem as an application of learning” (p. 55). Rather than teaching variables, conditionals, loops, and arrays in a linear theory-driven approach, I can design more authentic opportunities to learn by creating real-world problems to solve. In my lessons, students aren’t given a step-by-step process to solve a problem. Instead, they work with a set of coding tools, their own understanding, and access to resources to add new concepts to their repertoire. Programming is highly feedback-oriented: try something, see if it works, debug, refine the approach, and continue experimenting until a solution is reached. Programming is also a highly creative process, and constructivism is well suited to “deal with complex and ill-structured problems” (Ertmer & Newby, 2013, p. 57). This problem-solving approach allows students to increasingly branch out from their familiar set of skills by tackling problems that require new perspectives and new skills. In a rapidly-evolving world where the technologies we use a decade from now may not exist yet, it will be essential for students to be able to approach problems where both the processes and the skills required to find a solution are unknown to them.
Egan, K. (1997). The educated mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding. University of Chicago Press.
Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (2013). Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 26(2), 43–71. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.ezproxy.royalroads.ca/doi/abs/10.1002/piq.21143
Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 43–59. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf02505024
Piaget, J. (1936). Origins of intelligence in the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.