29 January 2012

constructivism or instructivism?

Who Am I as A Teacher?
When I was teaching physics, I used both the instructivist and constructivist models in my classroom. I did (and still do in my current classes) a significant amount of lecture and guided questioning; however, we also spent (spend) a significant amount of time with students doing their own independent, student-directed learning.Instructivist - When students were learning fundamental principles, there was lecture. However, I was not the only person in the room doing the talking. During lectures, I asked guiding questions, students would answer in small groups and then share their ideas. Usually, the questions drew on personal experience and were designed to expose misconceptions about the guiding principles. This is often referred to as cognitive disequilibrium (although some call it cognitive disequilibration) espoused by Piaget (see equilibration), which clearly falls under the constructivist paradigm. So, even though I was using lecture/guided thought, am I an instructivist?

Constructivist - Once students began to master those foundational principles of physics, one day a week, I turned students loose with a computer and my own version of a problem based learning project. They knew the components that were to be included in their artifact, but they were able to do everything else, from picking a topic to designing an experiment/demonstration. This kind of explicit instruction is clearly instructivist in nature.

I use my examples (the links) above to show that in practice, at least for me, the line between constructivism and instructivism is quite blurry. Everything I can think of that I have done/currently do in my classes have components of each theory.

In every class I teach, I start the semester/year with two of my favorite Nature of Science activities: The Checks Lab and The Polar Bear Game. In both activities, students come to understand some of the components of science, i.e. evidence, inference, interpretation, etc. One of the the key concepts I focus on is that we all bring a different viewpoint to the “game of science.” We look at the evidence in different ways. Our experiences change the way we view the world, clearly a constructivist viewpoint. However, I guide students to that realization through questioning, which is instructivist.

Who Am I as A Learner?
When I was a Master’s student, many of my peers were very uncomfortable when the explicit guidelines were not given for a particular project/artifact. They wanted to know exactly what was expected. I found that I learned best when I was not limited by the written expectations of a project. So that indicates to me that I am a constructivist learner, or at least I can function in the role of one. Often, I felt as though I was running a bit “rough-shod” through assignments. Without clear guidance, I felt uncertain as to what I should be doing. However, when I look back on what I learned and how I was influenced by that experience, I feel that my learning was enriched because of the lack of guidance. While I do not have any evidence to support a qualitative claim as to which type of learning/instruction is best, I have my own anecdotal evidence to show what works for me.

So Which Theory is Best?
I hate to be a fence-sitter, but I really think the answer to the question of “Which cognitive theory is best?” is “It depends!” Students of today need to learn some foundational principles of a discipline, but they also need to be able to have enough freedom to explore the ideas and concepts with which they most closely associate relevancy. I have found that with some guidance (instructivist), students can find that relevance in any topic of a discipline (constructivist). That said, the teacher must be receptive enough to his or her students to be able to know when instructivism is needed and flexible enough to give students what I like to call “learning room.”

In the hotly debated Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) article, the authors use a constructivist model to make their point. I find it ironic (not just coincidental) that the authors use their own experiences to influence their knowledge base. They came up with a question, designed an experiment and/or used other’s experiments, and interpreted the results to make a claim. They even cite their own research as evidence in favor of their claims (Sweller is referenced no less than 21 times). Does anyone else see the irony there? I do not mean to imply that this is poor practice, but when you are trying to make a point and your practice supports the opposing viewpoint, it is, to say the least, amusing.

While not explicitly stated, I supposed the mention of “novice learner” by both Downes and Kirschner, et al  indicates that everyone can agree that activities in learning need to be age-appropriate. For instance, it would not be appropriate to turn lower-elementary aged students loose on the Internet, although Dr. Sugata Mitra would likely disagree. However, if I take some high school students to a play ground with a curved slide and a merry-go-round and ask them to determine some of the basic principles of rotational motion, they might actually be able to “discover” some of them.

No doubt this debate may never be settled. It could be a bit like quantum mechanics. One of the basic concepts is that one cannot know both the position and speed of a given particle, if you know one, you change the other. This is known as the Uncertainty Principle (Heisenberg, 1927).
It is also entirely possible that we may never know whether constructivism is more correct than instructivism; or whether it is the other way around. Another idea in quantum mechanics that a particle can be in two places at once as shown in The Double Slit Experiment (Young, 1803). It may be that constructivism and instructivism are both right and wrong (depending on the circumstance). This is the more likely scenario.