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Constructivism is an important, key learning theory (or perspective) that says learners actively build new knowledge by accessing past experiences, which are then used for new information and situations. Implied in this perspective is the initiative shown by learners to ask questions as new information is incorporated into their understanding of something. Put another way, knowledge is not passively received by listening or reading but is more of an active, experiential process. As a theory of learning, constructivism was originally described by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget who said that learners construct their sense or understanding of something by building on their previous or existing mental models. Learners then actively incorporate new ideas and adapt them for their own understanding. Understanding is subjective in constructivism because it is created by the learner using new information and previous knowledge rather than the new information just being absorbed. The theory suggests that knowledge is always cumulative and a sum total of all experience.
There are two main schools of constructivism: cognitive and social constructivism. Cognitive constructivism focuses on how learners come to understand something based on their learning style and cognitive development. It implies that teachers, in their efforts to understand a learner’s existing cognitive abilities, can guide their discovery and understanding of something but that students must take some personal responsibility for the process. Social constructivism, a concept pioneered by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, focuses on how social interactions help learners construct understanding. The learner engages in a collaborative process to construct new meaning. Social constructivism is illustrated in the use of social networks to create new meaning and understanding through peer-to-peer collaboration and the incorporation of previous knowledge from multiple sources.
In constructivism, past experience is critical to the learner for encounters with new ideas and information are used as a foundation. Each new experience is approached with pre-existing "mental models" or the sum total of one's knowledge. This provides a basis from which to accommodate new information and build new knowledge. The philosophy is currently popular in medical education due to problem-based learning which mirrors some of the real-life problems that arise in the practice of medicine. In online learning, PBL is well-suited to the sharing of case-studies and scenarios which can then be solved through discussion and debate. Key learning theorists in this area are Vygotsky, Piaget, Dewey and Bruner. Constructivism is not a new concept; its roots can be traced back to the work of 18th century philosopher Giambattista Vico.
Why is constructivism important?
Teaching methods in higher education are changing. One component of curriculum redevelopment is a change in focus from transmitting information onto students (literally "downloading" information online and during lectures) to something more interesting and interactive. In traditional classes, instructors transmit information to students who listen passively and their understanding of this content is later tested. In interactive classes, students are more involved in their learning and reach new levels of understanding through discussion, debate and negotiation of complex ideas. Constructivism is important because it places responsibility on the learner to ask questions and seek assistance if they do not understand something.
In addition, constructivist teaching fosters more critical thinking and aims to motivate learners so they are more actively involved in class. Zemelman tells us that learning in all subject areas involves inventing and constructing new ideas. Constructivist theories and activities should be incorporated into all classrooms, and instructors should work to create a learning environment where learners can construct their own understanding. Fosnot recommends that a constructivist approach can be used to create learners who are autonomous and inquisitive. A constructivist approach frees teachers from the burden of teaching everything so that students can make some of their own decisions.
Accommodation & assimilation
Accommodation is the reframing of new experiences into the mental capacity of the individual. Individuals conceive how the world operates; when things do not operate as expected, these new perceptions must reframe expectations with outcomes. Assimilating is about incorporating new experiences into the old. This causes an individual to develop a new perspective on something, to rethink what was once understood and to evaluate what is new. Uultimately, the goal is to alter one's perception in new and expected ways.
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