Monday, October 6, 2008

Applied Education; Contructivism

    I've always been a learner who appreciated a teacher who would provide alternative ways of understanding. Multiple epistemological options has provided me a a student and as a teacher. I published a post that discussed my teaching philosophy because i thought it would help me put my thoughts in context and also allow you to see why and where these philosophies came about. 
I think this idea of authentic learning is incredibly important and essential to generating a full  knowledge.  I remember when i was in grade school i constantly earned A's in every subject with little to no effort needed. I loved learning and reading and answering questions was like a game for me. Not a challenging game in the least, but i made it fun. I'd have to ask all my teachers for extra credit assignments, they got so tired of it they told me to do projects on my own of my choice and they'd give me credit. I handed in at least 30 extra assignments a day. I would do things like re-draw all the images in the sciences books, carefully coloring and shading the various parts of a cell and and perfectly printing the name of each part. I loved this. I really wasn't learning anything- but i thought i was. 

I thought because i was the top of the class and the highest GPA i knew the most. We had ben studying plants and how to identify them based on the structure and color etc. I was getting perfect scores. We went on a hike just outside the classroom (clearly this was in Montana) to find the various plants. I wasn't the first done, and i had a hard time identifying what plants were the "babies" of which other plants. 

Eventually my teacher noticed that i was great at short term memorization and because i loved doing work and i was getting good grades, but she also noticed i wasn't really learning the material long term and understanding how it all functions on a bigger picture. She told me she would no longer accept extra credit from me and started testing me differently. She gave almost every test to me after school and most were outside, in a lab, or with things i could touch. I all of a sudden wasn't doing as well. I had to learn how to memorize material in an authentic real world application kind of way for me to do well. Based on this new way of assessing me, my teacher showed me that being smart was more than just reading and memorizing and being able to draw anything i learned. My teachers name was Mrs. Cubas and to this day i am grateful to her. Once i realized i had to use my brain in a different way it was very stimulating and felt as though i had really been understanding things for the first time. 

When i teach i remember Mr. Cubas and how her teaching changed the way i learned forever. I want to be this for my students and when we discuss things in class or read articles such as this, i am reminded of those moments and that right there is the proof that it matters, that is does make a difference, that it must be used in education. I did like how the article was structured and how it offered various way to be great "real Life" teachers. However, i think we need to think about the "real world" problem that many teachers didn't have these kinds of experiences and that teaching and education has been delivered so long in certain way that just delivery of rules and standards and ideas is not enough. We must discuss the importance of implementation. Is this a passing article, an idea we discuss one night and all nod our heads to, but then that is it? How do we ensure this happens in our classrooms? Many of my classmates are beautifully successful individuals in positions of power. My power is only as a college instructor, which is great, but those of us who have a greater ability (based on the power of position) to make change must use our positions to better the condition. Likewise, those of us with a less powerful position (like me) need to inspire and pressure those in power to create education for our educators and challenge them to make those changes not just sit and nod in agreement but facilitate a real progress.

Mrs. Cubas allowed me to be a participant in my knowledge. She allowed me to construct meaning and engage in education in new  ways. This constructivist way of educating is refreshing and beneficial to many. I looked online to get a better feel for this area. Below are some interesting things i found.

Constructivist Learning Theory

The Museum and the Needs of People
CECA (International Committee of Museum Educators) Conference
Jerusalem Israel, 15-22 October 1991
Prof. George E. Hein
Lesley College. Massachusetts USA
The latest catchword in educational circles is "constructivism, " applied both to learning theory and to epistemology---both to how people learn, and to the nature of knowledge.1,2 We don't need to succumb to each new fad, but we do need to think about our work in relation to theories of learning and knowledge. So we need to ask: what is constructivism, what does it have to tell us that is new and relevant, and how do we apply it to our work? As far as I can see, there is nothing dramatically new in constructivism: the core ideas expressed by it have been clearly enunciated by John Dewey among others, but there is a new, widespread acceptance of this old set of ideas. and new research in cognitive psychology to support it. I would like to give a brief exposition of ideas central to constructivism and widely accepted today by educators. curriculum developers and cognitive psychologists, and then suggest what they mean for museum educators.

What is meant by constructivism? The term refers to the idea that learners construct knowledge for themselves---each learner individually (and socially) constructs meaning---as he or she learns. 3 Constructing meaning is learning; there is no other kind. The dramatic consequences of this view are twofold;

1) we have to focus on the learner in thinking about learning (not on the subject/lesson to be taught):

2) There is no knowledge independent of the meaning attributed to experience (constructed) by the learner, or community of learners.

Let me discuss the second point first because, although it appears radical on an everyday level, it is a position which has been frequently adopted ever since people began to ponder epistemology. If we accept constructivist theory (which means we are willing to follow in the path of Dewey, Piaget and Vigotsky among others), then we have to give up Platonic and all subsequent realistic views of epistemology. We have to recognize that there is no such thing as knowledge "out there" independent of the knower, but only knowledge we construct for ourselves as we learn. 4 Learning is not understanding the "true" nature of things, nor is it (as Plato suggested) remembering dimly perceived perfect ideas, but rather a personal and social construction of meaning out of the bewildering array of sensations which have no order or structure besides the explanations (and I stress the plural) which we fabricate for them.

I'm sure that many of you have had philosophy courses which have exposed you to these concepts, and you may accept this basic premise that there is no such entity as a Ding an sich whether or not we can perceive it. Yet we all tend to remain closet realists, and refute Bishop Berkeley, as Samuel Johnson did, by kicking the stone and feeling real pain. The more important question is, does it actually make any difference in our everyday work whether deep down we consider knowledge to be about some "real" world independent of us, or whether we consider knowledge to be of our own making? The answer is yes, it does make a difference, because of the first point I suggested above: in our profession our epistemological views dictate our pedagogic views.

If we believe that knowledge consists of learning about the real world out there, then we endeavor first and foremost to understand that world, organize it in the most rational way possible, and, as teachers, present it to the learner. This view may still engage us in providing the learner with activities, with hands-on learning, with opportunities to experiment and manipulate the objects of the world, but the intention is always to make clear to the learner the structure of the world independent of the learner. We help the learner understand the world. but we don't ask him to construct his or her own world.

The great triumph of Western intellectual history from the Enlightenment until the beginning of the 2Oth century rested on its ability to organize the knowledge of the world in a rational way independent of the learner, determined by some structure of the subject. Disciplines were developed, taxonomic schemes established, and all these categories were viewed as components of a vast mechanical machine in which the parts could be explained in terms of their relationship to each other, and each part contributed to making the whole function smoothly. Nowhere in this description does the learner appear. The task of the teacher was to make clear to the learner the working of this machine and any accommodation to the learner was only to account for different appropriate entry points for different learners.

However, as I have indicated above, constructivist theory requires that we turn our attention by 180 degrees we must turn our back on any idea of an all-encompassing machine which describes nature and instead look towards all those wonderful, individual living beings---the learners---each of whom creates his or her own model to explain nature. If we accept the constructivist position we are inevitably required to follow a pedagogy which argues that we must provide learners with the opportunity to: a) interact with sensory data, and b) construct their own world. 5

This second point is a little harder for us to swallow, and most of us constantly vacillate between faith that our learners will indeed construct meaning which we will find acceptable (whatever we mean by that) and our need to construct meaning for them; that is, to structure situations that are not free for learners to carry out their own mental actions, but "learning" situations which channel them into our ideas about the meaning of experience. A common example of the unresolved tension is our attitude towards museum tours which explain exhibits to the visitor. I have repeatedly asked museum professionals if they personally enjoy guided tours, and they almost universally tell me that they try to avoid them at all costs. Yet, at CECA meetings (and this one is no exception) our colleagues frequently give us extensive guided tours through galleries, insisting on presenting the expert guide's interpretation, pace and selection to influence the viewer's perception and learning. It is this tension between our desire as teachers to teach the truth, to present the world "as it really is", and our desire to let learners construct their own world which requires us to think seriously about epistemology and pedagogy. 6

Principles of learning
What are some guiding principles of constructivist thinking that we must keep in mind when we consider our role as educators? I will outline a few ideas, all predicated on the belief that learning consists of individuals' constructed meanings and then indicate how they influence museum education.

1. Learning is an active process in which the learner uses sensory input and constructs meaning out of it. The more traditional formulation of this idea involves the terminology of the active learner (Dewey's term) stressing that the learner needs to do something; that learning is not the passive acceptance of knowledge which exists "out there" but that learning involves the learner s engaging with the world. 7

2. People learn to learn as they learn: learning consists both of constructing meaning and constructing systems of meaning. For example, if we learn the chronology of dates of a series of historical events, we are simultaneously learning the meaning of a chronology. Each meaning we construct makes us better able to give meaning to other sensations which can fit a similar pattern. 8

3. The crucial action of constructing meaning is mental: it happens in the mind. Physical actions, hands-on experience may be necessary for learning, especially for children, but it is not sufficient; we need to provide activities which engage the mind as well as the hands.9 (Dewey called this reflective activity.)

4. Learning involves language: the language we use influences learning. On the empirical level. researchers have noted that people talk to themselves as they learn. On a more general level. there is a collection of arguments, presented most forcefully by Vigotsky, that language and learning are inextricably intertwined. 10 This point was clearly emphasized in Elaine Gurain's reference to the need to honor native language in developing North American exhibits. The desire to have material and programs in their own language was an important request by many members of various Native American communities.

5. Learning is a social activity: our learning is intimately associated with our connection with other human beings, our teachers, our peers, our family as well as casual acquaintances, including the people before us or next to us at the exhibit. We are more likely to be successful in our efforts to educate if we recognize this principle rather than try to avoid it. Much of traditional education, as Dewey pointed out, is directed towards isolating the learner from all social interaction, and towards seeing education as a one-on-one relationship between the learner and the objective material to be learned. In contrast, progressive education (to continue to use Dewey's formulation) recognizes the social aspect of learning and uses conversation, interaction with others, and the application of knowledge as an integral aspect of learning. 11

6. Learning is contextual: we do not learn isolated facts and theories in some abstract ethereal land of the mind separate from the rest of our lives: we learn in relationship to what else we know, what we believe, our prejudices and our fears. 12 On reflection, it becomes clear that this point is actually a corollary of the idea that learning is active and social. We cannot divorce our learning from our lives. 13

7. One needs knowledge to learn: it is not possible to assimilate new knowledge without having some structure developed from previous knowledge to build on. 14 The more we know, the more we can learn. Therefore any effort to teach must be connected to the state of the learner, must provide a path into the subject for the learner based on that learner's previous knowledge. 15

8. It takes time to learn: learning is not instantaneous. For significant learning we need to revisit ideas, ponder them try them out, play with them and use them. This cannot happen in the 5-10 minutes usually spent in a gallery (and certainly not in the few seconds usually spent contemplating a single museum object.) If you reflect on anything you have learned, you soon realize that it is the product of repeated exposure and thought. Even, or especially, moments of profound insight, can be traced back to longer periods of preparation.

9. Motivation is a key component in learning. Not only is it the case that motivation helps learning, it is essential for learning. This ideas of motivation as described here is broadly conceived to include an understanding of ways in which the knowledge can be used. Unless we know "the reasons why", we may not be very involved in using the knowledge that may be instilled in us. even by the most severe and direct teaching.

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