In my previous article (‘The delivery metaphor of teaching and learning’) I outlined some of the problems of treating knowledge as something to be ‘delivered’ or ‘transmitted’ to students. In this view of teaching and learning, the teacher’s role is to transmit knowledge and information, the learners’ role is simply to receive it.
One of the drivers of a ‘delivery’ approach to teaching and learning is teachers’ worries that the curriculum is ‘overstuffed’ and they have so much to ‘cover’ that they cannot afford to spend time on active learning methods such as discussion, problem-based learning or research and inquiry. This kind of ‘coverage’ is the enemy of understanding and making learning meaningful. The need to cover everything in the curriculum means that most students will probably not develop understanding and deep knowledge.
Students can be given information and knowledge but how, or indeed if, they make sense of it is more difficult to ascertain. Gordon Wells1concludes that the conception of teaching as simply the transmission of knowledge is mistaken and asks us to consider learning as the ‘guided reinvention of knowledge’. He further states that: “… it is not possible simply by telling, to cause students to come to have the knowledge that is in the mind of the teacher. Knowledge cannot be transmitted. It has to be constructed afresh by each individual knower.” Constructivist theory, as we shall see, reminds us that we need to help students to connect new learning to their previous learning and experiences and to make personal sense of it.
Constructivist approaches to learning provide an antidote to the delivery metaphor. Constructivism is based on a different set of metaphors around ideas of building and, particularly, the building of knowledge, such as construction, building, scaffolding and making. John Biggs and Catherine Tang2 usefully extend this construction metaphor when they write about ‘bricks’ of knowledge. Less able students, or those whose intention is simply to pass the course or module, will simply collect ‘bricks’ of unconnected knowledge. They hope they will gather a sufficient number of the right bricks to pass an assessment. Students who seek greater, and lasting, knowledge and understanding, will use these bricks to make a building of knowledge and understanding in which the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. If they forget the ‘contents’ of an individual brick, they can probably recover it by reference to the bricks surrounding it and its place in the structure.
Constructivism draws on the work of a wide variety of philosophers, psychologists and educators and also the work of gestalt psychologists. Gestalt refers to people’s tendency to organise sensory information into figures and whole forms. Instead of receiving bits and pieces of unrelated information, students need to make sense of knowledge and ideas by seeing them as a connected whole.
Students need to see the ‘big picture’ of what they are going to learn. To use a jigsaw analogy, we should ensure that students can see the picture on the box before they start to assemble the pieces. Part of the lecturer’s job is to help students get the ‘big picture’ and to encourage them in the development of frameworks for learning and for understanding the fundamental concepts of their discipline, if necessary at the expense of covering excessive content. A constructivist approach to learning is most helpful if we want our students not only to learn but also to understand. Constructivism is based on the idea that learning is a result of mental construction whereby new information is connected to what we already know and our mental frameworks adapt and develop. Constructivist theory suggests that we must provide, and help learners to create, frameworks for learning. It is student-centred insofar as it is based on the notion that students have to construct meaning for themselves, they cannot simply be given it. Constructivism requires students to be active and teachers to use methods which will encourage students’ active participation.
A key element of constructivism is that students actively construct their own knowledge from experience. The Russian psychologist and educator, Lev Vygotsky developed the theory of social constructivism. In essence, this theory suggests that people build knowledge together and collaboratively. Social constructivism emphasises the importance of language and interaction in learning and intellectual development and the ways in which, through dialogue, ideas are developed, shared, analysed and evaluated. Social constructivism is the antithesis of the ‘delivery’ metaphor in that it requires teachers to be actively involved with students by helping them to see how things can be fitted together (as well as recombined, adapted extended and changed) and providing scaffolding to help them reach new heights.
- Wells, G. (1986) The Meaning Makers: children learning language and using language to learn London: Hodder and Stoughton
- Biggs, J. and Tang, C. (2011) Teaching for quality learning at university (4th Ed.) Maidenhead: Open University Press