Behaviourism never quite felt ‘right’ to me as an account of what goes on in my head when I’m learning. I’d like to move on to a theory that feels more natural.
What is it?
Constructivism, or specifically here cognitive constructivism*, was a response to behaviourism as an explanation for what learning is and how it takes place. Accepting that we can’t observe learning directly, constructivist theory supposes that in interacting with the world, learners construct mental models or schemes, connecting new knowledge with what they already know through links which are entirely personal and individual to themselves. These associations aren’t necessarily hierarchical or even particularly logical, and may result in two individual learners having entirely different understandings of the same thing.
Learning is therefore not passive reception and accumulation of knowledge; it is actively constructed and made meaningful by the learner themselves. Learning is a change in their mental constructs as a result of new knowledge – organising, expanding and refining these mental maps. That new knowledge might reinforce and fit seamlessly into the structure already constructed, needing only to be assimilated by the learner, or it might challenge the existing knowledge structure, which will then need to adapt to accommodate and make sense of this new understanding.
Constructivism therefore places great emphasis on the role of prior knowledge in learning, encouraging teachers to begin by activating prior learning so that it can be built on, used to make sense of and adapt to the new. Start with what the students know. Prior learning is not simply reproduced, but reconstructed when the learner recalls it. Piaget is the main theorist associated with this theory and although he’s best known for his work on child learning, constructivism applies perhaps just as much to adults who have more experience and knowledge and bigger and more complex mental models!
Because of the emphasis on the learner’s creation of links between old and new knowledge, the pedagogy often associated with this theory positions the teacher’s role as facilitating the learner in actively discovering connections and principles themselves, rather than telling them – constructivist pedagogy places much more emphasis on the learner’s role than that of the teacher, compared to behaviourism.
How might it relate to Learning Development?
Learning Developers stand outside the curriculum. Lecturers will know what was last taught in the module or degree programme, but beginning a session with prior knowledge becomes rather harder for us, as we often have no idea what students have been learning! However, it’s no coincidence that Learning Development has historically been bound up with transition to higher education, widening participation and remedial connotations. As A-Levels are no longer primarily conceived of as preparation for university level study, the transition to HE has been spoken of more and more as a ‘gap’ which needs to be overcome, not just for those students who don’t come from families with a history of HE participation, but for the majority. We’ll probably all be familiar with despairing cries from academic colleagues of ‘They’re supposed to know this already!’ ‘What do they teach them at school?’ ‘It’s not my job to teach this!’. Whatever is assumed to be the correct ‘prior learning’ for university entrance is not perceived to be there, and whatever the rights and wrongs of it, Learning Developers have frequently been called on to remedy this, whether it’s writing skills, the ability to read and navigate longer text, or to think critically and study independently. Whatever you think of the assumption that Learning Developers’ role is to supply the ‘prior learning’ which ought to have been there so that academic staff can then activate and build on it, that’s what we’re often expected to deal with!
Constructivism may also explain issues with student engagement. It demands that the learner do one of two things on encountering new knowledge: assimilate it into existing mental structures, or accommodate the mental model to fit it. Students may however conceive of learning mostly in terms of acquisition and assimilation, and they may not realise that learning can sometimes mean unlearning what thought they knew, or reconfiguring it. Learning Developers often teach fundamental skills: thinking, reading, writing. However, this doesn’t mean that they are basic skills! What we teach is generally not remedial basic literacy, but more complex, nuanced and multifaceted academic literacies – a more advanced level. This is presented, however, in very similar terms to basic literacy: we teach “thinking”, “reading”, “writing”. Little surprise, then, if students think: “I already know this. I learned how to think/read/write at school! I don’t need this”. Thinking purely in terms of learning as assimilation, there’s little adaptation of their existing mental schema that needs doing. It doesn’t look new, and therefore may well reinforce existing approaches to study which aren’t appropriate to university level. What we’re actually trying to do, though, is to get them to experience how this skill will be practiced differently and look different in this new context, and therefore change their mental schema of thinking, reading or writing to accommodate this, to unlearn and relearn what it means to study. If what we’re offering looks superficially too much like what’s already there, students won’t engage.
Should we as teachers manage to create a situation where learners are faced with the realisation that they need to rewrite their mental maps of ‘study skills’ at university, then we need to support and encourage students as they make sense of the new knowledge that challenges their received wisdom, long-held convictions and deep-rooted ‘common sense’. This can be quite unsettling, as these fundamental skills are ones which are very closely bound up with identity, and therefore self-esteem. “Maybe I’m not as bright as I thought” “But I thought I could write”. “I used to love reading!” We might tell students that there’s a misapprehension in the way they’re going about their studies, and they might on one level accept this, but according to this model of learning, this will involve some profound unpicking of complex and very personal mental models, a risky-feeling, unnerving process that can strike deep. It’s more than a matter of saying “oh, ok then” and moving on. As Learning Developers, we need to offer safe situations in which students can experiment, unlearn and rebuild.
How might we teach it to students?
If you’ve ever encouraged students to brainstorm or make a mind map, you’ve asked them to apply constructivist principles. We might also promote a thoughtful response to encountering new knowledge by asking them to reflect on in what ways new knowledge fits with what they already know, and in what ways it challenges it and makes them rethink. I certainly think we could be discussing the possible impacts of new learning more, that it may have unexpected consequences, and that’s a natural part of learning!
How can we apply it ourselves in the classroom?
If you’ve ever asked students to reflect at the start of a session on what they understand a term like ‘criticality’ to mean, or think about other situations outside of class in which they’ve been critical, then constructivist pedagogy has been in play. For subject teachers, revisiting past learning at the start of a lecture or seminar can play the dual function of stimulating prior learning in the minds of the students and also allowing the lecturer to assess how much they have retained from last time. For learning developers, who tend to see students as one-offs, there will have been no ‘last time’ – in this case, it plays the very valuable role of allowing us to gather information about the course we’re supporting and where students are at, where they’re coming from, as well as prompting them to review and ready prior knowledge ready to extend it. It helps us to assess what they will need from the session and pitch it appropriately, which, if we’re responding in a student-centred way, we won’t necessarily know in advance. Our application of constructivist principles tend towards the reflective!
Given that students may reject new knowledge if superficially it looks too much like what they already know, we need to be facilitating experiential learning. We can create situations in a workshop to allow students to bump up against areas where their current conception of, say, reading, is not working for university study, recognise this for themselves and realise the need to adapt. Telling them isn’t enough!
I also find it helpful in designing activities. Learning Developers teach workshops, not classes: by definition, focussing on learning by doing, through experience. When I taught foreign languages, I was trained to explain the grammar rule, then get students to apply and practise it. This transmission-and-drilling seems too behaviourist to me for a learning developer. My approach to activity design now tends to be open-ended and unstructured. When, for example, teaching academic writing, I offer a text, ask students to reflect on how well it ‘works’ for them as readers, and then discover and derive the principles themselves, constructing their own meaning out of their experience.
Constructivism also comes into the second of the 5 Ps of LD: pertinent factors. These factors may be things the student wants you to bear in mind in a one to one, such as a specific learning difficulty, past experiences or personal circumstances that impact on their learning. But we also need to be looking a bit deeper together, to look at what learning means to the student, co-creating a meaningful account of what’s going on, which will involve some examining of those mental models and personal associations.
*Cognitive constructivism sees learning as a very individual affair, but of course, we don’t learn in isolation. Later theorists were to bring in the role of other people in learning and add a social dimension – Social Constructivism coming up soon!