Constructivism: A Matter of Interpretation
The theory of constructivism rests on the notion that there is an innate human drive to make sense of the world. Instead of absorbing or passively receiving objective knowledge that is "out there," learners actively construct knowledge by integrating new information and experiences into what they have previously come to understand, revising and reinterpreting old knowledge in order to reconcile it with the new (Billett 1996). The cognitive structures that learners build include procedural knowledge (how--techniques, skills, and abilities) and propositional knowledge (that--facts, concepts, propositions). Often neglected are dispositions--attitudes, values, and interests that help learners decide: Is it worth doing? Knowing how and that is not sufficient without the disposition to do.
Other key features of knowledge construction are functional context, social context, and usefulness. The process works most effectively when it is embedded in a context in which new knowledge and skills will be used. Research on thinking and learning reinforces the idea that people learn through interaction with others (Johnson and Thomas 1994). Although learning is a matter of personal and unique interpretation, it takes place within the social context. In addition, learning must be useful to the learner; intrinsic motivation emerges from the desire to understand, to construct meaning (Billett 1996).
Using a constructivist approach, teachers facilitate learning by encouraging active inquiry, guiding learners to question their tacit assumptions, and coaching them in the construction process. This contrasts with the behavioralist approach that has dominated education, in which the teacher disseminates selected knowledge, measures learners' passive reception of facts, and focuses on behavior control and task completion. A constructivist teacher is more interested in uncovering meanings than in covering prescribed material.
The concept of situated learning--that "knowledge is created and made meaningful by the context in which it is acquired" (Farmer, Buckmaster, and LeGrand 1992, p. 46)--is embedded in constructivism. Situated learning results from undertaking authentic activities guided by expert practitioners situated in a culture of practice (Billett 1994a). Studies of differences in the performance of novices and experts (Billett 1993, 1994b) demonstrate that experts organize or index their base of constructed knowledge in order to recognize patterns and solve problems in new situations. Through experience, experts amass a rich index of cognitive structures that they can easily recall and use. A constructivist method for helping novices to acquire expertise is cognitive apprenticeship.
In cognitive apprenticeship, experts model the strategies and activities needed to solve problems, and learners approximate doing the activity while articulating their thought processes. Experts coach learners with...