The Constructivist Turn in Education:
Assessment of the Pedagogical and Methodological Implications of Adopting a Constructivist Framework in Education
Education functions as one of the most important tools to help the individual and the larger context, that is, society, within which the individual is a part of, to achieve progress. Given this, there is a felt need to address questions related to the philosophy of education. It is important to note that every field has a philosophical foundation. These philosophical foundations function as the (1) first principles and serve as the (2) foundations for any field in question.
It may be inferred the above stated functions mirror the essential philosophical character of the diverse fields of human endeavor. It is within this sense that philosophy serves as a universally indispensable tool in the formation of any methodology and pedagogy.
Educational theories are not only philosophically grounded. This is to say that different paradigms or frameworks, and the appropriateness of such, are also affected by a particular society’s experiences, history, and ideologies.
This is because it is, after all society, which ascribes value to things such as education. Educational theory then has a normative component hence a critical analysis of an educational theory necessitates not only an understanding of the is, but more importantly, the ought dimension of education. The point that I wish to underscore is that the significant question, in this universe of discourse is, how education ought to proceed. In lieu of this, the foregoing discussion reveals the main assumptions of the constructivist framework as a pedagogy utilized in the field of education.
Education as a discipline is based on the premise that individuals possess rational capacities for understanding. In relation to this, the function of education involves awakening and developing an individual’s rational capacities. Traditional methodology, however, has rigidly connected with the substantive aspect of education evident in the emphasis on substantive aspect of learning as opposed to the quantitative aspect of learning.
This educational imbalance led to the preponderance of a culture of silence for the following reasons. First, an educational system that focuses on the substantive and quantitative aspects of learning fails to present the intrinsic value and the meaningfulness of ideas. Such a methodology leads the student to adhere to an infallibilistic epistemology and a relativistic conception of knowledge. Furthermore, such a methodology fails to develop the necessary tools needed to process meaning. A piecemeal presentation of ideas leads the child to perceive knowledge of a particular phenomenon as a given which is independent and isolated from the development of ideas or from the progression of knowledge. Such a perception contradicts the fact that knowledge emerges only through invention, re-invention, and the continuous inquiry of men in the world, with the world, and with each other. This further leads to the child’s failure to account for unity and consistency within his environment.
Furthermore, such a culture hampers both individual and societal growth for the following reasons. First, it lowers the possibility of effective communication, which is dependent upon the participant’s awareness of the framework of communication. This awareness enables the individual to consider his position within a dialectical framework thereby enabling him to shift from perceiving himself as a solitary individual to a person who recognizes his participation within the world. This recognition however is further dependent upon the individual’s ability to understand the concepts within the dialectical framework within which he operates. These abilities are not developed through the traditional educational system’s methodology.
Another reason for the impediment of societal growth is evident if one considers the role of educational institutions in the formation of political individuals wherein a political individual refers to an individual who actively participates in thought and action within the public sphere. The public sphere then becomes a venue for dialogue wherein private views are deliberated with the common good in mind. It thereby fosters an atmosphere that enables the development of active cooperation and public support in direct contrast to the compliance and passivity within the private sphere. Compliance and passivity are bred within a space that necessitates an individual’s adherence to the will of the group. Within such a location, one’s beliefs and opinions are determined by one’s membership within a group. A child, for example, who questions the main tenets of his religion will be apprehended by his elders. Answers may be supplied to the child’s questions, however the construction of these answers will still be based upon the framework of the religion that the child questions. Such a situation can be compared to that of an isolated individual who in search for answers is thrown back into his own mind thereby falling prey to the weakness of his own logic. The private sphere, in this sense, may be seen as impeding the practice of intellectual freedom since it does not tolerate the expression and communication of beliefs and opinions. Toleration here does not refer to passive noninterference. It is seen as a response to communication, which constitutes presenting an active response to another’s utterances. Intellectual freedom can only be exercised within a sphere which does not merely allow the inward reflection of one’s beliefs and opinions, it requires a space wherein one may actively express and communicate one’s beliefs and opinions. Action which refers to the capacity to create something new thereby contradicting the habitual behavior within the private sphere presupposes the existence of he public realm. In line with this, freedom is possible within the public sphere since it becomes a venue for the realization of equality by virtue of common citizenship. Such a depiction of the public sphere accounts for the occurrence of participatory politics. In this sense, each person has a responsibility to act politically. In line with these, education should facilitate the development of dispositions, which will enable the child to act politically.
As the primitive formal arm of society, educational institutions are responsible for the gradual transition of the child into the wider domain of the public sphere. This transition is made possible by the child’s acquisition of various cognitive and social skills during his academic experience. Besides these, the school also serves as the ground for social enforcement. For example, the structure of the school enables the development of particular habits in the child. Certain traits are rewarded such as dependability, consistency, perseverance, punctuality, and tact. From this, we can further state that the school is the first social institution wherein the child experiences social differentiation since children possessing the traits stated above tends to be considered by reference to an “honor system” as academically more competent compared to their peers. At a certain level, such an “honor system” proves to have an overall positive effect since it enforces the development of positive habits within a child. However, such a system also has negative effects. The emphasis given on achievement within the school has a direct effect on the child’s self-esteem. Strategies for the maintenance of self-esteem range from a child’s orientation towards success or the avoidance of failure. The latter is evident during instances of non-participation, minimum participation, and procrastination. Failures during these instances are associated with the lack of effort rather than with the child’s abilities thereby allowing the disassociation of failure with the child’s conception of his self-worth. The irony here is evident if one considers that such actions merely lead to the increase of the probability of failure. Besides negatively affecting the child’s self-esteem, the academic priority on achievement by the traditional pedagogy tends to highlight the cognitive aspects of learning which leads to the impediment of the development of creativity. In fact, it has been noted that grades cannot be used as the basis for assessing creativity and mental flexibility (Gecas, 1990, pp. 165-99). Social differentiation, however, is not merely evident in the academic aspect of the child’s life. The educational institution may also serve as the ground for identity differentiation, which may be based upon sex, gender, race, class, nationality, and other factors that may determine identity.
In line with what is stated above, since the school functions, as the immediate institution that has a direct effect on the child’s socialization process the school becomes a horizon wherein the child may systematically explore his formation as a person within a social atmosphere that provides varying possibilities. However, such an opportunity is unutilized due to the non-participatory atmosphere produced by traditional educational methodology’s emphasis on spoon-fed information, which further leads to what was stated above as the child’s inability to develop effective communication skills. In this sense, traditional education hinders societal development. Besides that, it also leads to the degradation of a democratic society.
A democratic community is characterized by equality, pluralism, and diversity. In line with these, it necessitates the existence of individuals committed to individual freedom and personal responsibility. Furthermore, it requires the existence of political sovereignty and political equality as well as the existence of a legal system that ensures stability and protection from arbitrary acts and decisions. All of these are dependent upon a democratic society’s belief in the capability of human rationality to influence human actions (March & Olsen, 1995, pp. 243-44). The possibility of the maintenance and development of a democratic society then lies in the development of an individual’s rational capacities. Traditional education, in this sense even hinders the existence of a democratic society.
From what has been stated above, it follows that if education is to fulfill its goal, which involves the holistic development of the human person there is a need for an alternative educational pedagogy, which allows the balance between both the substantive and the procedural aspects of learning. In other words, there is a need for an educational redesign, which involves an adoption of a new pedagogy and a new methodology.
There is a difference between knowing and understanding as compared to thinking and reasoning. Reason or thinking drives us beyond knowledge persistently posing questions that cannot be answered from the standpoint of knowledge, but which we nonetheless cannot refrain from asking. Reasoning is a foundational skill which helps in the development of the student’s cognitive capacities, academic skills, and intellectual creativity. Traditional educational methodology fails to consider that “here is in all education a balance between discovery and instruction, freedom and discipline, order and innovation, practice and creativity, and there must be a balance between procedure and substance” (Lipman, 1990, p.186). Such a balance may be supplied through the adaptation of constructivism as an educational framework.
Constructivism, as an educational theory may be characterized in a number of ways. Fosnot (1996) contends, is “a theory about knowledge and learning”. Motivated by social psychology, the constructivists’ view focuses on collaboration. Second, as was stated above it may be seen as an educational theory that is mainly characterized as a departure from the traditional transactional or banking model of education. Paulo Freire (1974) contends that the transactional or banking model of education where teachers deposit knowledge, information and skills to students carries along with it certain fundamental flaws. For example, such an education set up emphasizes more on memorization of facts rather than critical thinking. Freire (1970) insists that education should be dialogical. As opposed to the previous views, a more precise characterization of the constructivists’ theory of education, however, is given by Applebee and Purves. According to Applebee and Purves (1992), knowledge is “an active construction built up by the individual acting within a social context that shapes and constrains that knowledge but does not determine it in an absolute sense” (p. 738). Constructivism thus, views the human mind as an active agent in the construction of knowledge. Constructivism so construed, brings to the fore, the idea that knowledge is not something that is detached from the human mind. It is, after all, the mind that conceives and constructs them. There are variants of the constructivist view especially in the discussions regarding social facts as they constitute social reality. The aspect of Social Constructivism that is significant to the foregoing discussion was articulated by Collin as he states that constructivism refers to the view that “social reality is somehow generated by the way we think or talk about it, by our consensus about its nature, by the way we explain it to each other, and by the concepts we use to grasp it” (1997, pp. 2-3).
After characterizing Constructivism as an educational theory along with its philosophical underpinnings, we will proceed with the constructivists’ theory of education as it applies to contemporary inclusive education relative to learning and instructional theory, curriculum, equal educational opportunity and educational leadership. It is, however, necessary that we give a brief description of the methodologies and the teaching strategies involved in the constructivist educational theory before we proceed with the aforementioned issues.
In contrast to the realist theory of education, the constructivist theory of education puts premium on hand-on and activity-based teaching and learning, instead of the standard lectures and memorization. They both, however, ascribe value to empirical investigations and experiments. The essential difference though is that for the realist, such activities are done in the form of mimesis, a Greek word which means copy. On the other hand, for the constructivist, these activities are done so that students may frame their own thoughts. This is to say that, a constructivist theory of education seeks to enhance the students’ natural curiosity in such a way that they will be able to solve problems based upon how they were able to understand their thoughts. As I reckon it, this kind of knowledge is much superior to its alternatives for it exhibits a certain kind of metacognition.
Theories of learning should take into account the students’ subjective point of view. This is to say that in terms of efficiency, a theory of education must take into consideration that how a particular student understands for his/herself a particular question/problem explains the kind of answer/solution that he/she will provide. Another point that I wish to underscore has something to do with the paradigms that we use in the area of instruction. Standard lectures are still the dominant form of the teaching methods that educators use in terms of instruction. While the teacher may be able to finish discussing a number of topics in an hour of lecturing, this, however, lessens the dialogical character of education. As a matter of fact, it is an oxymoron to say that the lecturer in the foregoing discussion is discussing, for discussing involves a certain kind of dialogue.
Another important aspect about Constructivism still in terms of instruction is its emphasis on collaboration, team effort and the idea of “learning and discovering together”. This is to say that the teacher also benefits from the learning process because the process also includes the teacher such that he/she is also learning in the process. Cooperative learning is grounded on such an idea. By emphasizing collaboration, constructivism introduces the social value of knowledge to students and prepares them for their future roles in the workforce. No individual works alone, especially in the context of a fact-changing, technologically and capitally-driven world. The current paradigms of globalization and the global economy and their emphasis on mutual cooperation confirm this. There are, however, issues regarding globalization and the global economy but I will not dwell on them.
An educational system’s curriculum is essential to fulfill what I earlier called as the normative component of education. As may be inferred from the foregoing discussion, Constructivism employs a “problem-based learning approach”. Such an approach involves the students’ participation by involving them directly in the learning process by discussing among themselves a particular problem and by clarifying the issues that are significant to the problem at hand. After these, the students will be identifying certain facts about the problem and assessing them so as to provide a potential solution for the problem. Constructivism and its emphasis on dialogues provide the students with the necessary tools that they need for critical thinking to take place.
I would like to end this paper with some remarks on the value of education in relation to social and economic development. According to Robert Young, developments within the educational system highly influence democratic development since the educational system directly affects the citizen’s conception of autonomy and responsibility towards their moral and intellectual rights. Furthermore, mass educational systems are the only organized means apart from the culture industry and mass media, which can be reached by critique. Members of the educational system, for example, specifically the teachers are partially insulated from social norms and sanctions that affect the expression of opinions in the contexts of life (1989, p.42). Hence, the importance of constructivism is apparent if one considers its effects in terms of enabling equal educational opportunity as well as in developing systems that lead to the development of educational leadership. This is possible since the focus of constructivism is not so much as the content but the general framework for the presentation of ideas. It offers the possibility of achieving educational equality since it is able to transcend the social and economic restrains associated with education. An example of this is evident if we consider the fallacious argument that poor retention stems from the physical conditions of the student. Although, poverty has a direct effect on the performance of a child, through constructivism it may be pointed out that the main reason for such cases stems from the lack of emphasis on the development of the child’s ability for retention through the development of the aspect of meaningfulness of the curriculum’s content. In the same line, the development of educational leadership is more possible since the child is given the opportunity to go beyond his self and utilize the views within his horizon for the enlargement of the self.
In line with this, the educational system is able foster the development of a community which may be critical of the public sphere. These factors along with the institutions’ ability to go beyond the egocentric and sociocentric perspectives as it allows the airing of multiple perspectives enables it to be a site of a dialogical encounter, a site for change. From these it may be inferred that the importance of constructivism stems from its ability to develop the personal as well as the social aspects within the individual which are necessary for democratic growth.
Within the field of international education, the importance of constructivism is further apparent if one considers that the aforementioned theory enables the “development of new skills” (Feinberg & Solis, 1998, p. 17). This is evident if one considers that the aforementioned theory is dependent upon a rational understanding of an individual thereby eliciting this rational trait in the development of inquisitiveness as well as the development of the interrelation of the various aspects of an individual’s personality. Furthermore, it is important to note that the importance of such further lies in its ability to develop and hence enable the formation of a consensus or understanding within a multicultural [and hence diverse framework] which generally typifies conditions underlying international education.
Applebee, A. & Purves, A. (1992). Literature and the English Language Arts. Handbook of Research on Curriculum. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.
Collin, F (1997). Social Reality. New York: Routledge.
Feinberg, W. & Soltis, J. (1986). School and Society. New York: Teachers College Press.
Fosnot, C. T. (1996) Constructivism: Theory, Perspectives, and Practice. New York: Columbia University.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1984.
Young, R. (1989). A Critical Theory of Education: Habermas and Our Children’s Future. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
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