I just finished teaching a course on designing constructivist learning environments, and I learned a thing or two about constructivism. For the most part, I took a fairly practical view of the subject – we constructed an understanding of experiential learning, reflective practice, action learning, problem-based learning, developmental relationships, communities of practice, transformative learning, appreciative inquiry and a few other techniques. We were able to document a number of concrete applications of these techniques for real business problems, and the proposals the students came up with seemed like powerful approaches. What I learned through these exercises is that these techniques are challenging to initiate and implement – we needed to give careful thought to how to craft a constructivist approach to learning, sometimes doing some rather non-constructivist tasks like defining roles and responsibilities, setting up logistics, and (egad!) setting broad goals. It’s a balancing act between letting the learners control the environment and structuring enough of a framework to advance the organizational initiative we are trying to support.
Along the way, I figured out that constructivism is more about how people learn than it is about how we teach. We can certainly set goals and design activities and environments for a specific purpose (at least we can in my version of constructivism), but we can’t know for sure what our learners are taking away from the encounter. I’ve always thought it odd that I felt I had a constructivist mindset, but still liked techniques that are put forward by people obviously in other camps (especially cognitivist thinkers). What I finally figured out is that in some instances, cognitivists and constructivists might facilitate the same type of activity, but what the two camps believe about how people are actually learning (in the recesses of their minds) is worlds apart. When we practice an activity over and over, cognitivists might say we’ve building our ability to recall something from long term memory, while the constructivists would say we’ve built up our own version of meaning. Some readers will say “duh!” – but this conclusion was something of an ah-ha moment for me.
Another idea that was greatly reinforced for me is the importance of reflection. Many constructivist theories explicitly mention reflection as part of the learning process (experiential learning, action learning, transformative learning), and all real learning seems to require that extra bit of deep thinking that isn’t just a haphazard lessons learned exercise. Time for reflection can be hard to come by these days. I’m going to be doing some additional reading and thinking on the practice of reflection, hoping to find some additional reflection techniques and practices to weave into my teaching and learning in the future.
On the more theoretical side, I had the class read parts of Kenneth Gergen’s An Invitation to Social Construction. It gave us the opportunity to debate “facts” and discuss whether constructivists would have us believe that there is nothing about which we can be sure. That kind of debate is well and good for philosophers and theorists, but for business people and teachers who are trying to help people learn, not so much. Still, I recommend the reading – it will really get you thinking!!
PS. For more of that reflection time I mentioned earlier, I highly recommend hanging out on the beaches of Cape Cod – my favorite place to re-energize, and my vacation destination next week.