As the assumption that coronavirus has come to stay gains ground, the shifting of education to a digital realm is a natural choice. It seems as if the model of virtual learning is now all set to gain a degree of permanence. Even the government intends to set up virtual universities which will ostensibly help in letting the teaching-learning process go on.
However, it is feared that critical thinking fostered by a collaborative learning environment, which is the benchmark of a productive education system, may be sacrificed at the altar of online learning. At this crucial juncture, it is time to seek a paradigm shift in the basic process of education ~ from “teaching to learn” to “helping to know”.
Constructivism is the theory that says that learners construct knowledge rather than just passively take information. This theory asserts that students learn best when engaged in learning experiences rather than passively receiving information. Because knowledge cannot be directly imparted to students, the goal of teaching should be to provide experiences that facilitate the construction of knowledge.
Constructivist view of learning usually means encouraging students to use active techniques such as experiments, real world problem solving etc. to create more knowledge and then to reflect and talk about what they are doing and how their understanding is changing. The teachers encourage them to constantly assess how the activity is helping them gain understanding. By questioning themselves and their strategies, students can become expert learners.
The concept of constructivism has its roots in classical antiquity. Socrates’ dialogues with his followers in which he asked directed questions that made his students realise for themselves the weaknesses in their thinking are still an important tool in the way constructivist educators assess their students’ learning and plan new learning experiences.
The psychological roots of constructivism began with the developmental work of Jean Piaget who proposed four stages in human development ~ the sensorimotor stage, the preoperational stage, the concrete operational stage and the formal operational stage. Learners learn the best when they are at their proximal stage of development. Learning involves metacognition which reflects on one’s learning process.
The nature of the learning task is crucial for learning to take place. For Piaget, the development of human intellect proceeds through adaptation and organisation. Adaptation is a process of assimilation and accommodation where external events are assimilated into existing understanding, but unfamiliar events which do not fit with existing knowledge are accommodated into the mind, thereby changing its organisation.
Piaget’s hypothesis that learning is a transformative rather than a cumulative process is still taken to be of prime importance. Children do not learn a bit at a time about some issue until it finally comes together as understanding. Instead, they make sense of whatever they know from the very beginning. This understanding is progressively reformed as new knowledge is acquired, especially new knowledge that is incompatible with their previous understanding. This transformative view of learning has been greatly extended by neo-Piagetian research. The implication of this theory and its application have shaped the foundation of constructivist education.
Constructivists like Driver, Posner, Novak and Osborne assume that learning is an adaptive process in which the learners’ conceptual schemes are progressively reconstructed so that they are in keeping with a continually wider range of experiences and ideas. The learners must actively construct new information into their existing mental framework for meaningful learning to occur.
Constructivism provides a new theory of learning as also a new theory of teaching. This theory calls for a major change from teacher-centred direct interaction to student-centred, understanding-based teaching. In contrast to the traditional conceptualisation of teaching, constructivist teaching considers the student as an active learner and the teacher as the guide in the learning process. The theory is based on the idea that children learn better by actively constructing knowledge and by reconciling new information with previous knowledge.
A constructively oriented curriculum presents an emerging agenda based on what children know, what they are inquisitive about and the teachers’ learning goals. The individual learner has an important role in determining what would be learned. The learner actively creates, interprets and reorganises knowledge in individual ways. The teacher has to provide a eugenic learning environment and facilitate negotiations. Thus, children can learn more and enjoy learning more when they are actively involved, rather than passive listeners.
Constructivist teaching can be an interesting and exciting way to teach because students would be engaged in learning activities they appear to enjoy. Learners would work harder and what they learn would mean more to them if they are discovering their own ideas and devising their own questions.
Out of negotiations will come a sense of ownership in learners for the work they are to do, and, therefore, a commitment to it. Rejecting the common practice of telling students what to do, a constructivist teacher would engage their trust and invite them to participate in a common process that would allow them to be involved in decisions about their learning.
Constructivist assessment engages the students’ initiatives and personal investments in the journals, research reports, physical models and artistic representations. Engaging the creative instincts develops their ability to express knowledge through different ways. Students are also more likely to retain and transfer the new knowledge to real life experience.
Student empowerment may be aided by encouraging them to be active learners. By asking their own questions, the students acquire more consciousness of and control over their thinking. Constructivist teachers also develop the skill to empower the students and to make them feel competent. The constructivist propositions suggest a set of instructional principles that may guide the practice of teaching and design of learning environments in virtual mode too. It is important that mere accommodation of the constructivist perspective will not suffice. It should also be supported by the creation of powerful virtual learning environments that optimise the value of the underlying epistemological principles.