Constructionism Applied to Future Learning Environments
Constructionism Applied to Future Learning Environments
Anthony R. Farley
Boise State University
An online learning environment is envisioned using constructionist learning principles as a foundation for teaching, learning, and credit. The creation and maintenance of a credential portfolio is proposed as a public entity representing accomplishments, projects completed, and courses taken. Evaluation and publication of this portfolio will form the basis upon which movement within the program as well as graduation is determined. The focus for the school is to develop the learner’s industry presence through artifact presentation and meaningful industry participation.
Constructionism Applied to Future Learning Environments
Seymour Papert’s theory of constructionism states that learning happens through the interaction of a person’s experience with their previous knowledge “in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity” (Papert, 1991, p 1). The “public entity” can be anything from the building of a model volcano to the creation of a computer game. These foundations are used to envision future online learning environments based upon constructionism and the learning theories constructionism is founded upon.
The roots of constructionism have origins in Aristotle’s Empiricism with the view that “knowledge is derived from sensory impressions” that “can be hooked together to form complex ideas” (Ertmer, 1993, p. 54). From Empiricism came Piaget’s theory of constructivism which states that that interpretations of the world are based on individual experiences and interactions (Ertmer, 1993). Constructivism centers learning in experience. Knowledge is formed when ideas are experienced and when new ideas interact with previous knowledge.
Papert took it one step further as he theorized that adding the construction of a “public entity” or artifact to be an important factor in motivating learning. Papert’s addition to constructivism of the public entity is only an extension of the ideas of constructivism. The extension of the public entity brings relevance and a reason to the learning providing not only external motivation to the learner but also an intrinsic reason for the learning to happen.
In the online school envisioned, sensory impressions and ideas are constantly scaffolded into more complex ideas through project based learning opportunities that are public in nature. Assignments, practice, and projects are all directed toward public and industry consumption and critique. At the K-12 level, the public and industry connection must be approved and vetted individuals. At the college levels the public and industry connection must move the student into the professional realm at a safe level where novice students are sheltered from mistakes made but are soon encouraged to interact professionally in their field even if at a junior level.
Online as well as brick and mortar learning environments need to reformulate the role of the instructor to that of mentor and the student to that of activist. An activist strives to create change in the world; a mentor shows the way. An activist puts themselves forward for a cause and endeavors to organize others to join a movement. The cause of mathematics, science, history, language arts, and all subjects must be taken on by the student and public works must be constructed, published, and face public interaction and manipulation.
The construction of public entities is possible in both brick and mortar schools as well as online schools. An online learning world where teaching, learning, and production are the central theme and purpose for participation and advancement is developed below.
Vogel (2006) discusses how in a virtual reality world, “Active learner involvement was necessary for experiencing presence.” Building a public entity as a first assignment promotes active learner involvement from the beginning of the student’s enrolment. The public entity that students should create must be intertwined into every aspect of the school. The first public entity should be the student’s presence within the school. The construction of an avatar to specific criteria along with a profile is the first important step in the process. Students should join groups according to common interests and participate in bulletin board discussions with students at all levels of the program, faculty, and experts in the field to elevate the conversations and bring higher stakes to participation. In this system, a student becomes a valued, albeit junior, member of important research and projects rather than an absorber of content and regurgitator of other’s ideas.
As the business and creative world becomes more decentralized, global participation across time zones through online means will be an important skill. Creating your online professional presence and credentials should be the student and the school’s primary mission. For k-12 schools, a modified version of this must be adopted due to privacy concerns. In the earlier grades, public entities should be kept private to only approved people such as staff, parents, and vetted volunteers and experts. In the high school years, an online portfolio must be built for the purpose of college admissions, internship positions, volunteer opportunities, or industry employment opportunities.
A student should build and maintain a “credential portfolio…which allows a learner to aggregate credentials from a variety of sources” (Moore, 2013, p. 75). Coursework and projects done within those courses should be awarded as credentials or digital certificates that outline what was learned and what was achieved. These should always include links, images, or depictions of the public entities created. This credential portfolio should be made available to those within the school as well as outside the school by future employers, schools, or collaborators.
Educators will grant awards to learners quickly and easily and those awards posted to the learner’s presence page. Simple virtual stickers would suffice in most cases but badges and other honors linked to criteria and artifacts would replace points and grades in larger projects and units. Narrative evaluations by instructors as well as industry experts will also play an important part of evaluation of progress through the school.
The building of this credential portfolio should be the focus of the student, the school, and each educational experience in the school. In many ways, life, work, competition, and art is creating a public entity of your personal self. We all envision a future where we can make a difference in some way, affect change in our world, and our definition of success or failure is based in our ability to do this or not. Courses prepare students for a future that may lead to the ability to make a difference in the future. However, goals that may come to fruition years removed from the course do not motivate as well as if the goals that are important are being achieved right now, in the course. School work needs to make a difference now, and students need to be engaged in real projects and endeavors that move them from novice in the industry to one of expert, guru, and leader.
The major principle of Papert’s constructionism is that knowledge happens best when the learner is constructing something, whether it is a snowman, a pamphlet, a multimedia project, or a theory about how things work. The mental processes involved in combining knowledge with new experiences and then translating the new concepts into tangible artifacts is the prime motivator for learning. This principle must permeate through the learning environment at the lesson level, the project level, the grading level, and the graduation level.
A lesson should result, at least eventually, in something tangible that is shared with others. Work that only ends up in the hands of a teacher should be viewed as possibly necessary to the reaching of the ultimate goal, but never the end product. The structure of a lesson is such that questions guide thoughtful engagement, not picking out facts or question answering that is more meant to check if the content was viewed than it is to check understanding. The posting of something tangible as a result of learning can be an opinion or a position that others can interact with as well as a reflection on the process and meaning of the work. This kind of posting of work, opinions, and reflection along with student responses is something that permeates online instruction today but it is often rote and meaningless because none of it leads to anything constructed.
The goal of each project should be to create, build, teach, advocate, inform, or entertain. Students should be encouraged and given the tools to reach the largest possible audience with their work. Students must assume the mantle of subject expert and join professional groups and movements in their field as junior learners and up and coming future stars in the craft.
Letter grades are a thing of the past. Their value is used as a stick to threaten students with but the stick equally injures motivation and learning. Students should be evaluated on their effectiveness in carrying out their projects as well as the effectiveness of the projects in achieving the goals outlined above. If grades must be given then they should be based in these principles not in the gathering of points. Students should work toward meeting criteria-based credits, certificates, and awards. The shift from today’s school is one from seat time, assignment finishing, and completed coursework to that of demonstrating knowledge and skills through artifact creation.
A graduate should leave school with a body of work that has prepared them and positioned them as valuable member of their chosen field. A rolled up piece of paper should not be the sole representation of a student’s achievement. Demonstrated and verified skills along with a body of work showing engagement in the field should be a graduation requirement as well as what the student should graduate with.
An example of the application of Papert’s constructionism is when a student builds a website for their science course that explains the science concepts they are learning using a constructivist approach. The website is the “public entity” that constructionism requires and learning happens best when the student processes the concepts and renders them understandable through illustration and explanation on the website. Another application of Papert’s constructionism is when students design and present a project to a client, expert, or the rest of the class. Papert’s theory says that the most effective way of learning is through building a model, reflecting on it, and then debugging and sharing. (Noss, 2015).
Lee & Hannafin (2016) propose a framework called “Own it, Learn it, and Share it” borrowing on Papert’s constructionism where the sharing of the work is essential to motivating learning. The ideal educational environment will be structured around this principle. When a student knows the end product of their learning will be shared, there is motivation to own their learning. This can be extended to students building tutorials, podcasts, and curating content for public and industry consumption establishing themselves as experts or at least up and coming experts in the field.
The public facing entity constructed by each student should be a web based credential portfolio and web presence including a blog that is updated as the student moves through the school. Major works should be listed and featured. Instructor, peer, and public evaluations and comments should be visible for all to see. Links to artifacts or projects participated in should be posted. Mastered skills should be listed and linked to proof, evaluations, and comments. Team members who worked on a project should evaluate and critique the work as well as the member’s contributions.
This brings up the subject of negative evaluations and comments. Work must be done with all students and staff to ensure critiques, comments, and evaluations conform to accepted norms of professional evaluation focusing on positive feedback and areas of improvement. Negative and hurtful comments cannot be a part of this public entity but areas needing improvement should be encouraged as this could show growth through the educational experience.
Each course should include constructivist projects that create a public entity. These public entities must for the basis for the learner’s web presence, credential portfolio, and blog reflections. The goal of educational institutions should be focussed on creating graduates who are already connected to industry professionals in a meaningful way and presenting an inspirational presence in their field as opposed to leaving as an inexperienced degree holder.
Education is changing to include more non-traditional learning environments such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), Udemy, Lynda.com and many others. An educational path should include work done in these courses as well as courses completed in a traditional educational setting. This can be done if the basis for advancement and graduation is the building of a credential portfolio rather than passing a list of courses prescribed by the institution. Artifacts as evidence, reflection, and narrative evaluation should be the norm for all work shown in the portfolio. Also, the availability of free coursework also opens up the opportunity for school-less education. A learner could build an online portfolio as was described above without being a member of a formal school if the infrastructure for collaboration and credentialing was available.
Learning environments of the future should be reexamined and rebuilt from the ground up using the ideas of Constructionism. The foundation of many current learning environments is based in earning grades by building up points, getting through coursework, earning degrees based on hours of work or seat time. This structure only serves to sustain the current educational environments but does nothing to prepare students to become value-adding members of the field they will be soon moving into. Emerging educational environments such as MOOCs, Udemy, Lynda.com, and many others are becoming more relevant to learners and employers than courses on college campuses because the focussed relevance and artifacts created are more aligned with work done in in the field. Also, the work done by students through alternative online experiences is often of no value to traditional educational experiences because the quality and curriculum is not controlled by the institution. Learning environments of the future must value all learning and encourage external training if it fits within a prescribed plan or at least in a peripheral manner as additions to a student’s credential portfolio.
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