July 17, 2020

Supporting students to construct their own individual learning


Philosophical ideas have a great influence in the way teaching and learning is developed through time. As new theories develop, we may notice how differently our parents’ education system was, compared to ours or our children. What in the past recalling dates and facts was paramount, today the emphasis is on reflexion and experimentation based on a constructivist view of the world.

Constructivism is a theory, based on observation and scientific study, about how people learn. It is based on the idea that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. When we encounter something new, we have to reconcile it with our previous ideas and experience, maybe changing what we believe, or potentially discarding the new information as irrelevant. In any case, we are active creators of our own knowledge. To do this, we must ask questions, explore, and assess what we know.

In the classroom, the constructivist view of learning can point towards a number of different teaching practices. In the most general sense, it usually means encouraging students to use active techniques (experiments, real-world problem solving) to create more knowledge and then to reflect on, and talk about what they are doing and how their understanding is changing. The teacher makes sure she understands the students’ pre-existing conceptions, and guides the activity to address them and then build on them.

It is seen as a spiral process. When students continuously reflect on their experiences, they find their ideas gaining in complexity and power, and they develop increasingly strong abilities to integrate new information.

One of the teacher’s main roles becomes to encourage this learning and reflection process. The teacher functions more as a facilitator who coaches, mediates, prompts, and helps students develop and assess their understanding, and thereby their learning. Teachers help students to construct knowledge rather than to reproduce a series of facts. The constructivist teacher provides tools such as problem-solving and inquiry-based learning activities with which students formulate and test their ideas, draw conclusions and inferences, and pool and convey their knowledge in a collaborative learning environment.

Constructivism promotes social and communication skills by creating a classroom environment that emphasizes collaboration and exchange of ideas. This transforms the student from a passive recipient of information to an active participant in the learning process.

Constructivist theories assume that every learner has a unique perspective, so the concept of the global ‘average’ learner is rejected (Bednar et al., 1992). Empowering students to make choices about how and what they will learn results in a shift from having all students learning the same things to allowing different students learn different things. In the opposite case, ‘without a level of persistence and mindfulness in the cognitive process, any benefits of the process become questionable’ (Greening, 1998).

Teachers must present students with information and experiences that threaten their ‘misconceptions’ and offer support to this reflective process. Since learning occurs as an act of cognitive restructuring, students’ metacognitive capabilities are augmented (adapted from Greening, 1998). Correspondingly, the focus is on the students’ skills of reflexivity and not on remembering (Bednar et al., 1992).

In conclusion, it is important for students learning at school or at home, to develop skills that will transfer to multiple contexts. Memory has a place in education as it is essential to remember some basic concepts. However, skills like reflection and communication may open the door to jobs that have not yet been created.