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On Constructionism

Any educational activity, whether it's technology based or not, should be designed based on
informed assumptions about how people learn. For instance, lectures are based on the
principle that knowledge can be transmitted from one person to another simply by one
person telling that knowledge to another, a so-called transmission model of learning. That
may or may not be true, but it is one theory. There are lots of educational theories that
evolved over the years, as researchers try to understand and explain how people learn best
and in what context. And many of the theories have been tested over time. Now, we're
going to talk about one theory called constructionism. It was developed here at MIT by
Seymour Papert, and it encourages a kind of learning activity that is very different from the
transmission model of lectures. Papert said that everything can be understood by being
constructed. So this is an educational theory that posits that learning takes place best when
you're constructing objects in the real world. Given that it's kind of silly to talk about
constructionism, let's try something. After I explain, pause the video and try it. So look
around you, wherever you are-- in the library or at your desk or in your bed watching your
iPad. Grab any three objects that are near you. Then try to build something with them. But
something tall. Once you've done that, tear it down and build something else with the same
objects. OK, ready? Pause the video and do it. OK, you're back. Great. If you really did hit
pause and build something, what you just did, that was constructionism. You may not feel
like you learned anything, but I bet you did. You not only literally constructed a tower, but
you also constructed knowledge about the relative weights and heights of your objects, their
slipperiness and stability, and how things balance on the surface you used. You may even
have constructed some understanding of other ways to use these objects. So this theory of
constructionism evolved from another educational theory called constructivism, which is
not a coincidence, since Papert himself studied with Jean Piaget, who in turn created the
idea of constructivism. Constructivism is basically the idea that knowledge is created
through genuine experiences to provide context for that knowledge. When people talk
about experiential learning, hands-on learning, or project-based learning, they're talking
about concepts that have their roots in constructivism. So before we dive deeply into
constructionism, let's understand what constructivism is, and what other theories inform
that work.

Welcome. Today we're here with Professor Susan Yoon, who's a professor at the University
of Pennsylvania. She's been working for years with educational technology in science
education, complex systems in informal environments and formal environments. A lot of
that work has explored constructivism and constructionism, and that's what she's going to
be talking to us about today. Thanks for being with us. You're welcome. Pleasure to be here.
All of your work has been based on the theory of constructivism. Can explain what
constructivism is? Sure. So constructivism is a kind of learning theory that postulates that
people construct information while going about living in the world. Jean Piaget was the
most famous developmental psychologist who talked about learning being an active
construction. And so it's a dynamic process that requires one to collect information,
reorganize, and constantly reorganize their information in their brain. And he came up with
this theory of cognitive schema. And what one does is constructs, takes in the information
and creates what we call mental maps in the brain. And those mental maps grow and
change over time. So if one comes to you and says, what is a family? We have a mental
image or a map of what a family is in our brain. Much like when you're reading a
newspaper and you read the word "evolution," if you've graduated high school, hopefully
you have a schema about evolutionary theory. So this is prior to Piaget and others like him
at the time. Prior to those researchers, the learning theory that was prevalent was
behaviorism. And behaviorism posited that the brain was just like an empty slate, an empty
vessel where instruction can be poured into the brain, and somehow magically we would
learn it. And of course, we know that the brain or human cognition is quite a bit more
complex than that. People come to any learning situation with very strong, robust
conceptions about the world or phenomenon that they experience. And they sometimes
come with their robust misconceptions. And understanding what that schema looks like,
that mental map in the brain, is important for us as instructors to be able to pinpoint where
their understanding is strong, where it's less strong, and where we can help them grow in
their understanding. So what would that look like in practice, if we might compare a
behaviorist instructional approach to a constructivist instructional approach? So typically,
when you walk into a behaviorist classroom, the teacher is standing in front of the
classroom writing on the board. And students have their notebooks open, possibly a
textbook beside their notebook, and they're taking notes from the teacher. Now in a
constructivist classroom, you might see students potentially working in small groups,
picking out ideas that the teacher has provided for them, or ideas that they have generated
on their own. And they will go about doing some investigation on how to answer these
questions. And the teacher in those environments act as a facilitator, and so the teacher will
typically listen to what the students are saying and tune into where the student is, where
their understanding is at that particular moment, and evaluate that, and ask further questions
to help them work out what they're thinking.