26 Apr How People Learn: Part 2 – Constructivist Learning Theory
Learning is not the rote memorization that is forced upon students by many teachers. The process of learning is how the learner makes meaning of new ideas and experiences by comparison to their current ideas or schemas. Experience is one of the major influences for creating meaning on the part of the learner that will be revisited.
Theories on learning can be separated into two different camps: Cognition and Behavior. Behaviorism is based on stimulus-response pairs, and the reinforcement or discouragement of a certain behavior. Behaviorism is an attractive theory because of its simplicity, ability to explain phenomena, and its basis in controlled research (Collins, 2002). A limitation of behaviorism is its focus on observable stimulus, conditions and behaviors. This narrow focus made it difficult for behaviorists to study understanding, reasoning, and thinking; ideas paramount to education (NRC, 2000).
The cognitive tradition varies from behaviorism in that it defines learning in terms of changes in the mental structures that contain information and in the procedures for operating on that information: how we learn as opposed to the observable result of what we learn (Champagne and Hornig).
One of the major theories behind cognition is the constructivist learning theory (CLT). CLT states that learners are actively building systems of meaning through their experiences, and assimilate and accommodate new information into these systems, or schemas (Slavin, 2003). The implications of this are great when considering new material in the classroom. If a student is given a reading assignment, they will make meaning of the new material based on their previous understanding. If the learner’s schema is greatly different from the new information, less of the information will be remembered, or it will be inaccurately assimilated into a previous schema (Champagne and Hornig).
Students enter a classroom with schemas that they have been building their entire life based on their experience. Because students have spent their entire life building their current schema, they are very resistant to change. Therefore, telling or narrating new information is not enough to induce a change in schema (Rowe and Holland, 1990; Saunders, 1992).
A common misconception about CLT is that a teacher should never give information. This misconception confuses a learning theory with a pedagogical decision. No matter how a student acquires new information, they will struggle to place it into a previous schema, or create a new schema for the information; this is constructive learning theory. Encouraging students to “discover” this information for themselves versus telling students the information is a pedagogical decision, either way the student must incorporate the new information (NRC, 2000). Constructivist learning theory is powerful for explaining student struggles, “discovery learning” wrongly removes the teacher’s important role during instruction.
In the last installment of How People Learn, I will discuss how Developmental and Social Learning Theories can round out our understanding of the learner. Missed Part 1? Read it here.