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During the 1990s, considerable interest has been generated in the design of constructivist learning environments. The promise of these systems to leverage capabilities of technology, empower learners to pursue unique goals and needs, and re-conceptualize teaching-learning practices has sparked both provocative ideas as well as heated debate. Yet, problems in grounding designs within established theory and research are commonplace, as designers grapple with questions regarding epistemology, assumptions, and methods. Problems in implementation and practice are also commonplace, as pragmatic constraints surface and conflicting values emerge. We suggest three key issues that are likely to dominate the constructivist learning environment landscape.
Inertia and the Tyranny of Tradition: Old Dogs, New Tricks? Although as educators we espouse support for constructivist approaches to teaching and learning, we continue to rely on familiar pedagogical approaches such as lectures, worksheets, and rote learning practices. At the moment, educators perceive such approaches as more compatible with traditional expectations and methods of student assessment and better supported by existing infrastructures. Stated differently, it is easier and more efficient to maintain current practices than to promulgate approaches for which significant shifts–epistemological, technological, and cultural–are required. (Swef, 2002) In truth, few designers have acknowledged, much less successfully negotiated, the hurdles associated with transforming a highly traditional community of educational practice.
Yet, as constructivist learning environments are repurposed to fit traditional classroom practices, mismatched theoretical foundations, assumptions, or methods may result. Instructional methods or assessment practices are often added to (or taken away from) original designs to make them more compatible with classroom pragmatics and constraints. In essence, constructivist pedagogy is applied to attain traditional goals, and the environment becomes an instance of what Petraglia ( 1998) refers to as “domesticated constructivism” (cited in Karyn, 2003).
For instance, a teacher may intend to use a constructivist environment within a climatology unit to support hypothesis generation, prediction, data collection, and analysis. The environment may also employ powerful visualization tools and complex sets of meteorology databases and resources (perhaps from the WWW) in ways that are consistent with the environment’s constructivist foundations. (Swef, 2002) Yet, as pedagogical methods are considered, they may be tempered by the prevailing cultural values of high standardized test scores and mastery learning of basic skills. Consequently, rather than engage in prediction, interpretation, and data analysis, learners instead search databases to find specific answers to questions established in advance (e.g., find the temperature in San Diego; define the greenhouse effect; what is the coldest day on record in Los Angeles). Pragmatic influences may also intervene. (Karyn, 2003) Activity may be limited to the traditional two 50-minute class meetings per week and conventional tests and assessments of the unit’s meteorology content.
Perhaps only a single computer is available, and consequently the teacher chooses to project and demonstrate the tools and resources rather than allow students to define, solve, and collaborate on weather prediction problems. (Zevenbergen, 2008)Learned Helplessness and Learner Compliance: “Will This Be on the Test?” In typical constructivist learning environments, students establish (or adopt) learning goals and needs, navigate through and evaluate a variety of potentially relevant resources, generate and test hypotheses, and so forth (Oliver, 1999). Teachers clarify rather than tell, guide rather than direct, and facilitate student effort rather than impose their own approaches.
For both teachers and learners, these represent radical departures from conventional school-based learning activities. Teachers have traditionally possessed the required knowledge, determined what is correct and what is incorrect, and set and enforced grading standards. (Goodyear, 2001) Students are told what knowledge is required, which answers are correct and which are incorrect, and the standards that separate good from bad students, average from substandard performance, and robins from bluebirds. A pact between teacher and student is tacitly struck and enforced: Good teachers make the preceding explicit and direct student effort accordingly, while good students learn quickly to detect and comply with the standards.
Research in the late 1990s on student engagement in constructivist learning environments has underscored several disturbing patterns. Land and Hannafin (1997), for instance, examined how seventh graders used the ErgoMotion (Karyn, 2003) roller coaster micro world to learn about force and motion concepts. Despite numerous and varied features and opportunities for learners to hypothesize, manipulate, and test predictions, many learners failed to either connect key concepts well or internalize their understanding. In lieu of the teacher, and perhaps in an attempt to identify what the system required of them, most relied exclusively on the explicit proxy structure provided by the system. They frequently queried the researchers as to whether or not responses were correct or whether they had “done enough yet.”
Students were dependent on, and sought compliance with, external agents to tell them what, when, and in what order to respond, as well as to judge the quality, accuracy, and completion of their efforts–skills essential to constructivist learning environments. (Kember, 2007)Similarly, numerous compliant strategies in web-based, hypermedia environments were reported among middle school (Oliver, 1999) and adult students. Learners tended to use externally provided questions almost exclusively to navigate the system and find “answers” to open-ended problems (Kember, 2007). Similarly, Karyn (2003) reported that children attempted to apply traditional strategies to presumably web-based inquiry-oriented learning tasks. They tended to view the activity as finding the correct answer to their research question and “thus reduced the task to finding a single page, the perfect source, on which the answer could be found”.
In these instances, learners invoked methods that do not typically support or promote open or inquiry-based learning–ironically the strategies required for successful performance in formal education. In the late 1990s, constructivists have emphasized the importance of scaffolding learner self regulation and strategic processes to help learners manage the complexity of the environment (Karyn, 2003). It is important to determine how learners use available scaffolds and to adapt accordingly. Without strategies appropriate to student-centered learning tasks, learners may fail to either invoke the affordances of the environment or to develop the strategies engendered by them.
The Situated Learning Paradox. “I Know What I Know.” Although prior knowledge and situated contexts enhance transfer potential (Oliver, 1999), they also engender incomplete, naïve, and often inaccurate theories that interfere with rather than support learning. Paradoxically, these are precisely the types of thinking constructivist learning environments build upon. Most learners, for instance, believe that heavier objects sink and lighter objects float; their personal experiences confirm this intuitive theory. The resulting misconceptions, rooted in and strengthened by personal experience, are highly resilient and resistant to change. Although personal theories are considered critical to progressive understanding, they can become especially problematic when learners become entrenched in faulty theories to explain events that cannot be tested within the boundaries of a system or fail to recognize important contradictory evidence. (Cunningham, 2008)Learners referenced prior knowledge and experiences that either contradicted or interfered with the environment’s treatment of the concepts of force and motion (Zevenbergen, 2008).
In one case, theory preservation seriously limited the ability to learn from the system. One student failed to either detect system-provided information or seek confirmatory data due to the intractability of his beliefs; he was so entrenched in his beliefs that he failed to seek and repeatedly overlooked counterevidence (Karyn, 2003). In another case, a learner recalled an operator remarking that roller coaster brakes and clamps would terminate a problem run immediately. Consequently, she mistakenly perceived the coaster to be slowing down around curves, falsely confirming her belief that brakes were applied when they were not. Because they were strongly rooted in personal experience and could not is tested using the available tools, faulty conceptions endured. Thus, the completeness of a system’s representation of simulated phenomena is critical because learner’s access related prior knowledge and experiences that may contradict the environment’s treatment of those concepts.
In sum, several perspectives regarding design of learning environments have emerged in response to interest in alternative epistemologies. Although considerable progress has been made to advance researchers’ understanding, many questions and issues remain. Whereas some studies have identified problems and issues related to the design and implementation of constructivist learning environments, others have reported noteworthy benefits. It is imperative that efforts continue not only to ground design practices more completely but also to better understand the promise and limitations of constructivist learning environments.
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Kember, David; Leung, Doris Y. P.; Ma, Rosa S. F.. (2007) Characterizing Learning Environments Capable of Nurturing Generic Capabilities in Higher Education. Research in Higher Education.
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