Constructivism highlights

I appreciated reading Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007) this week. They made many good points about today’s social context for learning. I found a few points particularly relevant to my practice. First, Merriam, et al. highlight some researchers’ suggestions to “…confront ‘the totalizing gaze of the ideology of globalization as an inevitable force of nature because it negates the centrality of human agency (p. 15).” Second, they emphasize, “to survive in the global economy, an organization needs to evolve into a ‘learning organization’ whereby new and expansive patterns are permitted, allowing employees to learn individually and collectively (p. 16).” I agree that globalization and its dominant players can (and do) steamroll over large sections of the world’s populations, and that as educators we have a role in promoting “human agency” at individual and collective levels, by promoting not just acquisition of concrete skills but the development of critical thinking, learning to learn, examination of the status quo, and the building of “learning organizations.” At my most recent job (a non-profit global health organization) we were keenly aware of the need to become a true learning organization, and were taking steps toward building learning into organizational structures when I left. For example, we were exploring a supportive supervision/supervisor as coach model, with ongoing evaluation as part of the model as well.

I found this week’s articles a bit of a plunge into deep waters, particularly the Stetsenko and Packer articles. Even though a 602 colleague and I are doing the constructivism presentation this week and have done some extra research on constructivism in preparation, when reading this week’s articles I felt that I had jumped from the shallow “introduction” end of the pool straight to the deep “in-depth analysis of variations on constructivist theory” end of the pool . However, I was able to glean some key points that help me to understand constructivism and its application a bit better.

First, I appreciated Karagiorgi and Symeou’s (2005) point that constructivist instructional strategies should support the development and negotiation of meaning by creating “…a rich context within which meaning can be negotiated, and ways of understanding can emerge (Hannafin et al., 1997)” (from Karagiorgi & Symeou, 2005, p. 19). The authors name role-playing games, simulations, and case studies as examples of instructional strategies that can create this rich context. I have used such strategies myself as an adult educator and have experienced how they can help learners to construct new meaning together.

In his article “Is Vygotsky Relevant? Vygotsky’s Marxist Psychology (2008),” Packer describes Vygotsky’s view of a “new” psychology: “Vygotsky was extending a powerful line of analysis. Marxism had already provided the knowledge needed to control social organization and make a new kind of society. What was now needed—and now possible—was “the mastery of our own being”: the control of human psychological organization and the making of “the new man.” According to Vygotsky, the focus of the new general psychology would be “the laws . . . which govern the bodily and mental existence of men themselves.” Knowledge of these laws would make man “architect of his own fortune” (Hegel, 1812/1904, p. 271) (p. 16). Vygotsky even believed that this new psychology would bring about the “artificial creation of a new biological type” of human being. He emphasized the social nature of our consciousness, as a product of the interaction between a person and her/his environment (Packer, 2008, pp. 22-23). This helped me to understand the roots of cognitivists’ beliefs that knowledge is constructed together by learners (rather than received as an “input” from the outside). It was interesting to read about Vygotsky’s idealism and the belief that a “new psychology” could create a new type of human being (similar to Marxist beliefs about creating a new society). While that may not be possible, it seems that Vygotsky has indeed influenced and moved psychology and learning into new realms (and away from behaviorism).

The Stetsenko and Arievitch (1997) article was the steepest climb for me. I feel that more exposure to the theorists mentioned in the article would allow me to grasp the authors’ arguments more fully. However, I did take away the following: “The metaphor “child as Robinson Crusoe” is replaced by the notion of shared activities, co-operation between the individual and other people. The focus is on the inherently contextualized nature of any developmental process, and hence, on the embeddedness of human development in culturally and historically defined contexts. This is an assumption that stresses social inter-action as playing a decisive role in the production of mental capacities, which are unavailable to the isolated individual. This assumption emphasizes mutuality, cooperation, communication, and social embeddedness of the self and of the individual’s development (p. 162).” Also, in describing a few main lines of social constructivist research, Stetsenko and Arievitch point out, “Rogoff conceptualized learning that results in the child’s cognitive development as the process of the child’s guided participation in culturally organized activity with a more skilled partner. The central idea is that children’s cognitive development is inseparable from their social environment (p. 167).” While I cannot claim to fully understand the distinctions that Stetsenko and Arievitch detail, I appreciated these important reminders of the underlying constructivist belief that knowledge is built through shared activity and social interaction, and embedded in human beings’ fundamentally social nature and the social context in which they live.

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Constructivism highlights

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