Monday, April 06, 2009

Constructivism and Online Learning, part 1

A confession. I am a constructivist.

Constructivism is the belief that learners construct mental models of the world, and then integrate new information into those models. Learners need to direct the learning process, because they know where their mental models need work. This integration is an active process, where the learner has to seek out the knowledge, examine it, determine how and where it fits, reject it if it isn't sound. It is about as far away from a traditional learning model, where the teacher is the font of knowledge and determines what is going to be learned.

For a long time I didn't even know what the name of this was. I hadn't heard the term constructivism. But I grew up in a family that revered self-directed learning. As a child and young adult, I spent the summers studying some topic of my own choosing. One year it was falconry. Not a lot of need for falconry in suburban Dallas, Texas in the late 1960s. But that's what I wanted to learn about. Another year it was folklore, the oral tradition and nursery rhymes. I would read everything we had at the Garland Public Library on my subject of choice. Sometimes that wasn't much. It would have been great if there had been a way that someone could have helped me to construct a framework to think about these subjects, or a way I could have discussed my ideas with others. But I did learn how to dig into something for myself, and I didn't have to apologize to anyone for being interested in kind of weird stuff.

Being able to learn on one's own, to direct a program of study, was much appreciated in my family. Here is a story about my father's uncle. (Warning: this is not the History Channel. I have adjusted the "facts" to suit my need, and over time I don't even remember how much I adjusted the facts. I do this all the time. Some people may call this "lying". I call it "story-telling.")

Ok... So, my grandfather and my great uncle had a dairy business. Grandpa was good with the housewives, and Uncle Lawrence was good with the cows. Grandpa was handsome and smooth and a good enough business man that he retired very early and left southern New York and moved his family to someplace nice -- San Diego -- while he was quite young and still enjoying life. Uncle Lawrence was good with the cows.

One day, Uncle Lawrence had a question about the education that his childern were receiving. So, after tending to the cows, he hitched up his overalls and made his way to the School Board meeting. Uncle Lawrence didn't have the advantage of much formal education -- he had not finished high school. In those days people did that, they quit school and went to work to support their families. So when he got down to the School Board meeting, he was a man who knew how to work hard, who wasn't educated and was good with the cows. Family lore has it that the School Board men weren't very hospitable to Uncle Lawrence. Maybe they chuckled at his un-educated, go0d-with-cows ways. They embarrassed him. Uncle Lawrence returned home.

But as I said earlier, Uncle Lawrence knew how to work hard. So he decided to work hard at becoming educated. He visited the free public library and he read and studied. Eventually he became the President of the School Board.

The moral of the story to me was always clear: Education isn't only what happens at school. As long as there is a free public library, there is no need for me to ignorant. Hard work, study and reading are all it takes.

In this series of reflections, I will discuss how Constructivist theory can be implemented into the development of online learning. I encourage you to share your thoughts -- this isn't just me talking, it should be one side of a dialogue. So, please, pipe up as you think of stuff. The conversation with help us both.


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