Constructivist learning environments

The ascendancy of constructivist epistemology is perhaps epitomised by the US National Research Council's publication of How People Learn (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000), a text which summarises decades of research into thinking, learning, and teaching.

epistemology

Theory of knowledge; a branch of philosophy that is concerned with the nature and origins of knowledge and asks the question 'how do we learn?'

Useful links

How People Learn (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000) is...

A central pedagogical tenet of How People Learn is that to shift our focus from teaching to learning, we need to shift our concern from instructional design to the design of learning environments. This is not just a semantic trick. In contrast to traditional approaches which focus on the design and delivery of teaching, How People Learn urges the use of design approaches which support the development of environments that foster and support active learning in collaborative communities (a theme that will arise repeatedly in this course).

instructional design

'The systematic and reflective process of translating principles of learning and instruction into plans for instructional materials, activities, information resources, and evaluation' (Smith & Ragan, 1992).

The authors of How People Learn specify four characteristics of constructivist learning environments. Constructivist learning environments, they argue, should be:

Practical tip

Shifting your focus from what needs to be taught to what needs to be learned...

  • Learner-centred
  • Knowledge-centred
  • Assessment-centred
  • Community-centred.

Assessment

Assessment refers to learner performance; it helps us decide if students are learning and where improvement in that learning is needed.

In the following activity, click on each of the four characteristics of constructivist learning environments to learn more.

Learner-centred, knowledge-centred and assessment-centred learning environments can be seen as taking place within the wider scope of community-centred learning environments. Let's explore these four characteristics in more depth.

Key terms

Negotiation of meaning: From a constructivist perspective, meaning...

Practical tip

Perhaps the best learning design is the integration of strategies from each of...

PROGRAMME | Teaching Online
COURSE | Mastering Online Pedagogy
UNIT | 1 : How people learn
PAGE TITLE | Constructivist learning environments

Learner-centred

Learner-centred learning environments are focused on learning and learners – and what they bring to the learning environment – not on teaching and teachers, and are grounded in the constructivist notion that learners bring unique knowledge, experience, and ways of knowing to the learning experience, and so experience and understand the same educational activities differently. They explore and value the multiple perspectives and divergent understandings of unique individuals.


Knowledge-centred

Knowledge-centred learning environments support the development of deep conceptual understanding of complex topics. Spiro and Jheng (1990) likened such development to learning a landscape by exploring it from a variety of perspectives. Knowledge-centred design similarly supports in-depth explorations of big ideas, through learning activities that include opportunities for reflection, discussion, and feedback. It puts less emphasis on breadth, and concentrates instead on learning in context, on the development of complex knowledge, and on authentic problem solving and disciplinary practice.


Assessment-centred

Assessment-centred learning environments put particular emphasis on the ongoing provision of meaningful feedback – formative assessment– to learners and, importantly, teachers. By contrast, summative assessment comes at the conclusion of learning, outside of learning, and is designed to evaluate what the learner has learned. Formative assessment is provided as assistance and support for ongoing growth and is meant to keep the learner engaged; summative assessment is frequently the endpoint of learning, the 'grade' that is a marker that learning, such as it is, has been evaluated and the student is ready to move on. Because constructivists believe that knowledge construction results from ongoing reflection, they deem continual self assessment to be an essential part of learning. Effective self assessment is generally formative and an important dimension of our ability to reflect or 'think about thinking' (metacognition), a concept that we will return to later in this course.


Community-centred

Community-centred learning environments support the development of community on two distinct levels. On one level, course-based environments support the social construction of knowledge within relatively small, tight-knit learning communities, thereby valuing collaboration, the negotiation of meaning, and respect for multiple perspectives around which knowledge is constructed. The goal here is the development of a trusting and supportive environment that promotes substantive interaction. At another level, community-centred learning environments connect to students' larger community and the larger society and culture, potentially enhancing learning when it is related to learners' interests and experiences, drawn from authentic, 'real world' problem solving.

Source: Reprinted with permission from J. D. Bransford, A. L. Brown & R. R. Cocking, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition (2000) by the National Academy of Sciences, Courtesy of the National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.

This activity has given you a good overview of the four elements of constructivist learning environments. Consider for a minute what kinds of activities might meet each of these criteria.

You should now have a good overview of the four elements of constructivist learning environments. For a more detailed dissection, refer to the 'Download' pod at the end of this section.

In the following activity, you will be presented with a number of learner-centred, knowledge-centred, assessment-centred, and community-centred activities. In each case, click the activity at the top and then click the column in which it belongs. At the end, click 'View feedback' to see our thoughts.

Let's explore examples of learning activities that could be used in each of the four constructivist learning environments.

Portfolio activity

Consider how you can make your online courses more learner-centred...

Learner-centred environments

Learner-centred environments are designed for the active construction of knowledge by and for learners. What students bring to the learning environment and what they are actually learning (as opposed to what they are being taught) are central to the notion of learner-centredness. Example activities could include:

  • Learners are asked to make a prediction about the trajectory of an arrow and teacher uses these predictions to uncover and deal with their misconceptions.
  • Teacher leads a discussion of Huckleberry Finn designed to bring out and value students' multiple perspectives on the novel.
  • Teacher helps learners to see that many of their forms of everyday speech are examples of a very high form of literacy.

Knowledge-centred learning environments

Knowledge-centred learning environments are those which support students' deep investigations of big ideas through generative learning activities which include opportunities for reflection, discussion, and feedback. Example activities could include:

  • Teacher gives a pre-assessment to uncover the understandings learners are bringing to her class.
  • Course on Shakespeare emphasises depth by covering just one play from a variety of perspectives and ending in a performance.
  • Learners are required to keep a 'reading journal' in which they keep track of what they do and don't understand, and to bring the issues they uncover to class.

Assessment-centred learning environments

Assessment-centred learning environments provide frequent, ongoing, and varying opportunities for assessment, including opportunities for revision and for self and peer assessment. Example activities could include:

  • Learners are encouraged to redo a written assignment for a higher mark based on teacher feedback.
  • Physics teacher requires students to keep 'problem-solving portfolios' in which they document the processes they used to solve authentic physics problems assigned for homework.
  • Final statistics assessment gives students a data set and ten questions about it that students answer using their choice of statistical tools.

Community-centred environments

Community-centred environments value collaboration, the negotiation of meaning, respect for the multiple perspectives around which knowledge is constructed, and connections to the local community and culture. Example activities could include:

  • Learners are asked to find and share examples of how Calculus is used in the 'real world.'
  • Students on a computing course work in groups to produce web pages for local non-profit organisations.
  • Collaborative groups discuss a 'real world' issue and 'report out' their solutions to the larger group.
Source: Reprinted with permission from J. D. Bransford, A. L. Brown & R. R. Cocking, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition (2000) by the National Academy of Sciences, Courtesy of the National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.

Of course, in the real world, constructivist learning environments are at once learner-centred, knowledge-centred, assessment-centred, and community-centred. They are all of the above, not only by alternating amongst activities that focus on each of the elements but also by employing materials and activities that address aspects of them all.


Useful links

Practical tip

Shifting your focus from what needs to be taught to what needs to be learned is an important step in any teaching delivery format. One simple technique is to revisit the learning outcomes you have defined for your course. Do they describe what and how much content you intend to deliver or are they focused on the learning you want the students to experience? John Biggs (1996) has argued that aligning learning outcomes with student activity and assessment can help to frame a shift to a more student-orientated course. By the way, this shift does not always come easily since we've often worked with one orientation for so long. Over time, and with practice, it will become the new way you view every educational interaction.

Key terms

Negotiation of meaning: From a constructivist perspective, meaning does not reside solely inside (or outside) the individual, but is derived through a continuous set of negotiations between the individual and others. This negotiation is mediated by language, culture, and technologies that enable and constrain different understandings of the world.

Practical tip

Perhaps the best learning design is the integration of strategies from each of the models in your course. Consider where, from the student perspective, they would benefit from a learner-centred approach? For example, ask the students to reflect on their life experiences and relate an example from their background that may be an example of one of the concepts being discussed.

This enables the learner to share their personal background and ideas and provides the teacher with a better understanding of their students. In other aspects of the course, a knowledge-centred approach may be a better fit. For example, you may design activities that require the learner to more thoroughly understand the course content and demonstrate their understanding by applying the concept to a real-life scenario.

At critical junctures throughout the course, you may employ assessment-centred techniques that provide the learner with the opportunity to assess their own progress as well as provide you with important metrics of the progress of the class. Finally, a team-orientated project may allow the class to participate in community-centred learning by each taking responsibility for some dimension of the assignment.

Portfolio

Duration: 20 minutes

Consider how you can make your online courses more learner-centred, knowledge-centred, assessment-centred, and community-centred.

Download the attached document to record your thoughts, or use the relevant page of your Teaching Online portfolio.