Constructivist Learning Theory
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The notion of constructivism as a learning theory was pioneered by Jean Piaget, one of the most profound educational theorists in our history. The general assumption of this learning theory and educational strategy is that individuals learn as a result of the combination of their experiences and their ideas; these elements combine to give people a greater sense of meaning in the world around them, enabling them to learn and grow as a result of what they encounter on a routine basis.
Constructivism identifies each individual as a unique learner, with their own unique needs and abilities and stages of development. They are a complex, multifaceted individual that requires different techniques and methodologies than the individual sitting next to them. Because of this, the responsibility for learning falls on the individual, not the educator in the public education system. They need to incorporate their own needs and experiences into the equation, taking advantage of the educational environment and moving forward in their own way.
Constructivist Learning in the Classroom
In a Constructivism classroom, the educator is little more than a facilitator, providing individuals with the framework by which they can enable themselves to learn. They encourage individuals to work together, asking questions to solve various problems as they might arise. They encourage students to become “experts” on a particular topic, using their knowledge to educate their peers. In each pedagogical theory strategy implemented in the name of constructivism, however, individuals are given the opportunity to gauge their own educational and academic progress, using their unique ideas and experiences in the process.
But what are the responsibilities of nursing educators/faculty in implementing a constructivist approach? Although there are some guidelines that can be easily followed there are, at times, no set rules. Constructivism provides an overall way to look at knowledge and knowing: it tells us that prior knowledge, new perceptions, and human goals are factors in creating new and individual knowledge. It does not tell us how to construct the specifics of our curriculum or deal with the differences in our students, but it sets the stage for further study and understanding. And it raises further questions, as schools in America are microcosms.
Although this may be the case, there are still several important steps that instructors and educators can utilize when implementing a constructivist approach in the classroom. According to Waite-Stupiansky (1997) the following principles are essential guidelines to use throughout the development of a curriculum because they address the big picture of how a constructivists learning environment should look and function:
- Instructors should be organized but flexible when developing the schedule, curriculum and assessment tools. The goal for constructivist programs is for students to form their own cognitive structures and connections within their thinking. Therefore, the classroom environment must allow for student’s creative thinking and problem solving.
- Instructors should build opportunities for children to learn from each other as they develop the curriculum. Building understanding does not happen in isolation; it happens as a result of learning together. Students learn from each other as they question, watch and speak to on another. Each student contributes to the learning process.
- Instructors must allow for choices that lead to autonomy. Constructivist programs build opportunities for decision making and self-directed learning
- Instructors should approach the curriculum and instruction in a problem-solving inquiry mode. Students and teachers should approach new topics with a hunger to learn more.
- Instructors need to assess continuously and naturally. Assessment in a constructivist program is the glue that connects teaching and learning.
Piaget and Constructivist Learning Theory
Piaget believed in the unity of cognitive development and physical maturation. In order to effectively teach students, instructors must not only remain aware of their student’s stage of development, but of the organic whole of their development—mind and body—in the same manner that teaching and learning become an integrated whole in a constructivist setting.
In the constructivist approach, emphasis can easily be placed on learning in a comprehensive way. When a curriculum adopts a unified constructivist approach, allowing for the totality of the student, the end result will be a greater awareness in educating the entire person. Every opportunity is an opportunity to learn, to organize information and leave room for the acquisition of new knowledge. Every aspect of the curriculum will become an opportunity to learn. One of the foundations of constructivism is learning based on experience. When an educational setting adopts this as a pillar, then the students who go forth from that setting will be equipped to learn from their future experiences.