How should we learn? What is the best way to teach a child? These are questions that many intellectuals have asked and tried to answer for years, many of whom have published theories on what they believe is the best way for children to learn. As mentioned by (Wheeler, 2012) the transmission model of learning is still dominating our classrooms today. This model assumes that learning is dependent on the teacher, that they are present to repeat facts. Children are viewed as an apathetic vessel waiting to be filled with knowledge. The transmission model suggests assessment is based on whether the information communicated by the teacher has reached the child and how effectively. However this idea of teaching is not representative of all schools and of the many teachers that adapt their teaching in order to gain the best from their class.
Les Vygotsky introduced the idea that each child has the potential to access a Zone of Proximal Development which is the area beyond the child’s current knowledge. The zone is defined as; “The distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978). Vygotsky explained that with the assistance of either a peer or an adult the child will be able to extend their own zone of proximal development, which is basically the area of knowledge that the child didn’t not have which they can now access. This theory would support the idea of group work specifically dyadic grouping where the close working partnership between two pupils, one of which being considered to be of a higher level than the other; will allow them to discuss and come to a suitable conclusion on how to complete a task. In addition to this the pupils will learn from each other and enhance their skills in communication and the subject concerned. “What is in the zone of proximal development today will be the actual development level tomorrow that is what a child can do with assistance today she will be able to do by herself tomorrow” (Vygotsky, 1978).
Constructivism is a theory of learning and an approach to education that lays emphasis on the ways that people create meaning of the world through a series of individual constructs. Constructivists believe that the knowledge a child has is built up through a series of schemas or a cognitive framework and that what is taught is only a stepping stone that influences further learning. What children learn arises through the construction of concepts that make sense through their real life experiences and reflections upon said experiences. In the idea of constructivism we are creators of our own knowledge. When we come across a new idea we have to reconcile it with previous knowledge and experiences, this could lead to the formation of new knowledge or we may disregard the new idea. Some criticisms of this method of teaching suggest that there is no active role for the teacher in the classroom and that their “expert knowledge” is deemed surplus to requirements. I would argue that the role of the teacher has in fact changed and they are seen today as facilitators of learning. In traditional methods the teacher will stand at the front of the class, delivering a lecture of facts matching those set by the curriculum. In a constructivist classroom the facilitator will help guide the child and help them arrive at their own conclusion, through a series of enquiry based lessons which allow children to solve problems, formulate ideas and arrive at conclusions that they can reflect upon. In this view of teaching the child is an active participant in the learning process rather than a passive recipient of facts. Children are given the opportunity to construct their own knowledge and become actively engaged in their learning; consequently resulting in learning through real life experiences, collaborative work and their own findings. (Brooks, 1999) stated that, “as long as there were people asking each other questions, we have had constructivist classrooms. Constructivism, the study of learning, is about how we all make sense of the world.” The theory of constructivism was developed by the work of Piaget and he has inspired many people.
One man who modernised the idea of “Learning by Making” was Seymour Papert. It was his ground-breaking work that has resulted in the widespread use of information technology in our classrooms today. He is an expert on how technology can provides us with new ways to learn and a pioneer of artificial intelligence. Jean Piaget was a major influence for Papert and in fact they worked together for a number of years. Piaget viewed Papert as his best student and is said to have remarked, “No one understands my work better than Seymour Papert.” Piaget helped to define constructivism and develop this theory; however Papert further built upon this idea and came up with his idea of constructionism. What is constructionism? (Kafai & Resnick, 1996) defined it as “a learning theory and a strategy of education, built upon the ideas of Piaget.” however although true this is a vague definition. Papert (1991) himself describes constructionism as “building knowledge structures,” or has he said “learning by making.” This is also described as learning by design, the idea that the learner or designer will gain more from engaging in an activity that result in the creation of something that is meaningful to them. The object created will have clear learning outcome but will be formed from contexts and skills taken from the child’s experiences.
In this learning theory the teacher is acting as a facilitator and as (Papert, 1993) said, “The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge.” Children are given the opportunity to investigate through creating programming or designing using real life applications. The teacher will set targets and only guide the children towards the correct path but it is through their own chosen strategy that children will come to a conclusion. Learning by making could begin as research, a class discussion, a game and develop into the creation of a portfolio, detailing evidence that the child has an understanding of a particular topic. Throughout the process the children are encouraged to test their ideas, evaluating them and adding improvements if necessary. Papert give us an insight into how we as teachers can rethink education, dream up new learning environments and give children access to new tools, media, and technologies that they can use to develop their own learning.
Vygotsky’s research was based on the idea that with the aid of other people as resources we can extend our cognitive potential. Constructionism or learning by making share similarities to this theory. It promotes collaborative work among learners, with groups sharing ideas in order to aid their inquiry and further their learning. Traditional learning expects the child to take in an abundance of facts many of which will seem boring and pointless to said child. Learning through making allows children to use their own strategies to learn. These strategies will be based on the child’s own understanding and this may not be the same as the teacher. However it is what works for them and when the learning is given a real life context it becomes meaningful. If something seems pointless why should a child remember it, give it a context, give it a point!
Sources, references and further reading
- Ackerman, Edith, “Piaget’s Constructivism, Papert’s Constructionism: What’s the difference?” Available online: http://www.learning.media.mit.edu/content/publications/EA.Piaget%20_%20Papert.pdf (Accessed 16th January 2013).
- Kafai, Y., & Resnick, M. (Eds.). (1996). Constructionism in practice: Designing, thinking and learning in a digital world. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Papert, S. & Harel, I. (1991). Situating constructionism. In Constructionism: Research reports and essays.
- Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms. Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas. New York: Basic books
- Papert, S. (1993). The children’s machine: Rethinking schools in the age of the computer. New York: Basic Books.
- Papert, S., & Harel, I. (1991). Situating constructionism. In S. Papert & I. Harel (Eds.), Constructionism. New York: Ablex Publishing.
- Vygotsky, L. (1978). Interaction between learning and development. From: Mind and Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Wheeler, S. (2012) Learning by Making. Available online: http://steve-wheeler.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/learning-by-making.html?m=1(Accessed 16th January 2013).