September 26, 2023

Excavating knowledge

Go to Source

Photo by Steve Wheeler

Theories of learning can be useful in helping us to understand the possibilities of learning, and also to guide teachers in their pedagogical practice. But to which theories should we subscribe? Furthermore, in the digital age where every aspect of our lives is governed by technology, do the theories from the last century still have relevance? The following exploration of the theory known as ‘constructivism’ may present some clues:

Learning relies on the individual construction of reality, according to Jean Piaget. Such construction of meaning is unique to each individual, and therefore centres on each learner’s efforts to make sense of the subject. From this ‘cognitive constructivist’ perspective, learning is achieved through the twin processes of assimilation and accommodation. The latter implies that new learning is ‘bolted onto’, or constructed within, existing cognitive structures known as schemas. Although the notion of the schema is contentious, it has been largely accepted as a useful means of describing discrete cognitive processes that feature regular rules, actions and processes.

In a sense, an algorithm has much in common with a human schema, particularly because both have rules and sequences of instruction that can be followed to achieve a specific goal. Both are self contained but have the potential to be connected to larger sets of instructions. The computer algorithm is therefore a means of giving instructions to a machine that replicates the way we believe our minds function. Personal schema on the other hand, are often peculiar to the individuals that created them and this, claims Piaget, is usually achieved through solo exploration and discovery.

Alternatively, ‘social constructivism’ – at least in Vygotskiian terms – is the construction of personal meaning within a framework of social experience. Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky stressed the importance of language and culture, and argues that learning is socially mediated. His development of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) represented a model to describe the efforts and interaction between a learner and a more knowledgeable other person (MKO) to negotiate meaning together with the learner, within an achievable range of learning. Students construct their own meaning with the MKO as a guide in the process. The boundaries of the ZPD can be variable, but in most contexts, it generally reaches beyond that which learners might be able to achieve on their own.

Jerome Bruner developed ZPD theory to include the concept of scaffolded learning. Scaffolding was a metaphorical representation of the many active ways in which teachers (or MKOs) focus their efforts and expertise to support of learners at the start of their learning, but gradually fade this support as learners become more independent and competent. In the digital age, people are able to access online content that enables them to teach themselves. Although MKOs are less visible, their presence still exerts its effect, mediated through the technology in a form of ‘digital scaffolding’. The MKO in this sense is the creator of the content, and in much the same way a students reads a book, they watch a YouTube video to learn, using an artefact created by the MKO.

Piaget might disagree with this conceptualisation, contending that this is actually ‘discovery learning’ with no direct social influence. The idea of discovery learning in its various guises, has spawned some powerful, and at times contentious pedagogical practices in primary education. It maintains a focus on personal construction of meaning through exploration and experimentation, and relies less on social contexts than ZPD theory. Discovery learning, where children are left very much to their own whims on how they proceed with their learning, has received stern criticism from leading educational practitioners, but also has its supporters.

In the digital age, constructivism still holds some relevance, but can be supplemented by newer theories that reflect on the new terrains we must navigate. The advent of the Internet and associated tools such as the Web, social networks and hypermedia for example, gives us new clues about how people learn. Hypertext, for example, is non-linear and potentially chaotic in nature, drawing the user (learner) down through layers of meaning, to the endless possibilities of learning by discovering. It is ill-defined, driven by the learner, and has no boundaries or limits other than those learners imposes upon themselves. It is exploratory, rule-free and rhizomatic, where learners discover for themselves any number of divergent nodes of knowledge, and random corridors of travel.

Students using digital technology as prime learning resources can discover for themselves, and drive their own learning, but the process and outcome may be less structured than that found in formal educational processes. Students are able to explore avenues that may or may not be intended by the creators of the content, but in their nomadic exploration of hypermedia, they can discover for themselves the benefits and risks of autonomous learning. The initial digital space acts as a scaffold, but the farther away learners wander from this base – and the more mouse clicks they execute – the more vulnerable they may become to misdirection, misunderstanding, and a sense of isolation from their original aims and purposes. And yet this glorious freedom of knowledge excavation and the potential to synthesise disparate and previously dislocated concepts can be compelling.

NB: This is a development of a previous post, in which I present some recent thinking on learning and teaching in the digital age. As ever, I invite readers to exchange their views in the comments box below. Thank you for reading.

Creative Commons License
Excavating knowledge by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Read more