Sunday, August 24, 2008

towards a fingernail definition of constructionism

I've been thinking about a thumbnail definition for constructionism (with an N, not a V) but when I write it down it keeps growing.

It's a very interesting word. One issue is that the constructivism word flirts with idealism in breaking with behaviourism and in this respect the discussion should remain unfinished - because we don't actually know how the mind works and the issue of representation remains controversial, although it is part of constructivism

Here is my effort, but it is more like 4 or more fingernails than a thumbnail:

internal, meta, interactive, scaffolding, mentored bit - mental modelling, self and others: Constructionist students and teachers create mental models of their own and others knowledge state (see mental modelling all the way down)

external, social and personal bit - Learning by socially and personally meaningful doing or construction

technology, education environment bit - Some tools are better than others for learning (more appropriable, evocative and integrated)

Harel and Papert (1990) argue that some materials are better with regard to the following criteria:

  • appropriability (some things lend themselves better than others to being made one's own)
  • evocativeness (some materials are more apt than others to precipitate personal thought)
  • integration (some materials are better carriers of multiple meaning and multiple concepts)
philosophical, dangerous bit - Since we don't know how the mind works with any certainty then constructionists will inevitably flirt with idealism, the idea that all knowledge is subjective and idiosyncratic, that there is no such thing as objectivity - the need to stay grounded and to keep doing a theory to practice spiral (see ascending from the abstract to the concrete)

Another point not included is that we need to be concrete and give examples of real learning when talking about it - which I haven't done here

I have argued earlier that constructionism is a suitcase word. But I'm rethinking that. Certainly, constructionism is a complicated word but that's a bit different from what Minsky says about suitcase words, that they have multiple, different meanings. eg. "consciousness" (requires more explanation)

I wouldn't like to take out the philosophical, dangerous bit because that would create the risk of too much blindfolded walking. It's better if the word is associated with some risk rather than blandness and the thumbnail definitions tend to gravitate towards blandness through simplification, imply that this is a known known. Bland definitions such as "learning by doing" are mundane and meaningless.

I can't operate as a constructionist without all the above bits

Some more background information about this:

The constructivist word is not prominent in either Mindstorms (Paperts original book, it is not mentioned in the index) or Margaret Boden's biography of Piaget (only mentioned twice)

I think what Piaget did was treat young children as self directed learners through play etc. not as empty vessels to be filled by adults. The term "genetic epistemology" is more associated with Piaget - the evolution of knowledge structures in the young learner - it seems to mean the same thing for Piaget as constructivism

So the term did not originate with him probably but he might have been the first to investigate it as a concept wrt children learning seriously and consistently

Other theorist saw the learning ability as innate but needing time to unfold. Some still argue this, I think Chomsky (and Pinker) argues that for language development that we are preprogrammed genetically in "mentalese", a universal grammar

Also the idea of mental representation (cognitive stuctures) is attacked by the connectionists who think it can all be done with patterns - Downes also argues this

So Piaget, Papert and Minsky's position that humans gradually develop learning structures or representations over some years in childhood is still controversial - constructivism

This concept has been altered by social constructivists but also by others - constructivist idealists (radical constructivists) like Ernst von Glasersfeld

Post modernists who deny objective truth sometimes identify with constructivism

Boden makes the point that all constructivists flirt with idealism but they don't have to capitulate to it (pp. 79-80):
Piagest is aware that as a constructivist he must be careful to avoid idealism ... that he must answer the sceptic's challenge that perhaps all our so-called 'knowledge' is mind-dependent illusion ..." (elaborated further by Boden)
Wikipedia identifies Giambattista Vico or Giovanni Battista Vico (1668-1744) as the first constructivist ("truth itself is constructed") - also Kant and Dewey preceded Piaget

untangling constructionism
tidying up the constructionist suitcase (initial draft on my blog)
tidying up the constructionist suitcase (expanded version at OLPC news)
genetic epistemology
untangling Free, Sugar and Constructionism

Need to add some original Papert articles to this list

A shorter version of the above was part of a longer discussion on the IAEP list


Jecel said...

Constructionism: we build to know and to share.

Ok, so that is way too short - a lot of the important aspects you mentioned are lost. But it can be a way to start interesting conversations...

Unknown said...

"the idea that all knowledge is subjective and idiosyncratic"

Is it the knowledge that is idiosyncratic or the way it is constructed? I prefer the latter. Any robust mental model will be fairly consistent with the reality. The order in which it is constructed can be highly individual, the same end point could be reached by different learning paths.

The building blocks may differ too. For a start, it could be visual or text.