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Constructivist Theory

Constructivism is the label given to a set of theories about learning which fall somewhere between cognitive and humanistic views. If behaviorism treats the organism as a black box, cognitive theory recognizes the importance of the mind in making sense of the material with which it is presented. Nevertheless, it still presupposes that the role of the learner is primarily to assimilate whatever the teacher presents. Constructivism — in its "social" forms — suggests that the learner is much more actively involved in a joint enterprise with the teacher of creating new meanings. So we can distinguish between "cognitive constructivism" which is about how the individual learner understands things, and "social constructivism", which emphasizes how meanings and understandings grow out of social encounters—see Vygotsky below.

In this sense, conversational theories of learning fit into the constructivist framework. The emphasis is on the learner as an active "maker of meanings". The role of the teacher is to enter into a dialogue with the learner, trying to understand the meaning of the material to be learned to that learner, and to help her or him to refine their understanding until it corresponds with that of the teacher.

One strand of constructivism may be traced to the writings of John Dewey, who emphasized the place of experience in education. Another starts from the work of Piaget, who demonstrated empirically that children’s minds were not empty, but actively processed the material with which they were presented, and postulated the mechanisms of accommodation and assimilation as key to this processing.

But the most significant base of a social constructivist theory were laid down by Vygotsky [1896-1934] (1962), in his theory of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). He observed that when children were tested on tasks on their own, they rarely did as well as when they were working in collaboration with an adult. It was by no means always the case that the adult was teaching them how to perform the task, but that the process of engagement with the adult enabled them to refine their thinking or their performance to make it more effective. (See Daniels (1996) for an introduction to Vygotsky.) 

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