Friday, April 07, 2006
Bruner’s Views on Learning
A major theme in the theoretical framework of Bruner is that learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current and past knowledge. The learner chooses and permutes the knowledge, constructs hypotheses, makes decisions, and while performing these he relies on his cognitive structuring. His cognitive structure caters for grasping the meaning and organization of the experiences, and enables him to “go beyond the given information”
When the instruction is considered, the instructor should try and encourage the student to discover the principles themselves. This should be achieved through engagement of learners and teacher in an active conversation. Teachers should be able to transform the materials to be learned in such a way that it suits the learners’ cognitive level. The way of presenting the materials should be spiral not linear so that it allows both learners to contemplate and construct gradually upon what they have learned.
Bruner (1966) states that a theory of instruction should address four major aspects: (1) predisposition towards learning, (2) the ways in which a body of knowledge can be structured so that it can be most readily grasped by the learner, (3) the most effective sequences in which to present material, and (4) the nature and pacing of rewards and punishments. Good methods for structuring knowledge should result in simplifying, generating new propositions, and increasing the manipulation of information. In his more recent work, Bruner (1986, 1990, 1996) has expanded his theoretical framework to encompass the social and cultural aspects of learning as well as the practice of law.
Bruner notes that “language is the most important tool for cognitive growth”. He investigated how adults use language to mediate the world for children and help them to solve problems. Talk that supports a child in carrying out an activity, as a kind of verbal version of fine tuned help has been labeled as “scaffolding”. Children need space for language growth. Routines and scaffolding are to types of language-using strategies that seem to be especially helpful in making space for children. Mothers who used scaffolded talk made the children interested in the task, simplified the task by breaking it into smaller steps, kept the child on track onwards completing the task by reminding the child what the goal was, pointed out what was important to do or showed the child other ways of doing the parts of the tasks, controlled the child’s frustration during the tasks, demonstrated an idealized version of the task. Moreover, good scaffolding was tuned to the needs of the child and adjusted as the child became more competent. (Cameron, 2002:8-10)
For the classroom settings ,Wood (1998) suggested that teachers can scaffold children’s learning in various ways: to attend what is relevant, adopt useful strategies, remember the whole task and goals teachers can suggest, praise the significant, provide focusing activities, encourage rehearsal, be explicit about organization, remind, model, provide part-whole activities. Also classroom language and routines occurring everyday can provide opportunities for language development. They would allow the child to actively make sense of new language from experience and provide space for language growth. Routines will open up many possibilities for developing language skills.(Cameron, 2002:8-11)
Vygotsky’s main concern is that social interaction and social context, a world full of other people, who interact with the child from birth onwards, are essential in the cognitive development. He states that "Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals." (Vygotsky, 1978:57).
Next, he points out at the idea that the potential for cognitive development is limited to a certain time span, which he names the “zone of proximal development”. (ZPD) In addition, full development during ZDP depends upon full social interaction. The range of skill that can be developed with adult guidance or peer collaboration exceeds what can be attained alone. It is of very fact that other people play important roles in helping children to learn, providing objects and ideas to their attention, talking while playing and sharing while playing, reading stories, asking questions. In a wide range of ways, adults mediate the world for children and make it possible for them to get access to it. The ability to learn through instruction and mediation is characteristic of human intelligence. By the help of adults children can do and understand more than they can on their own. (Cameron, 2002:5-8) Actually, Vygotsky proposed the notion of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) to give a new meaning to ‘intelligence’. Instead of measuring intelligence by what a child can do alone, Vygotsky suggested that intelligence could better be measured by what a child can do with skilled help.
Vygotsky attempted to shed light on consciousness which develops as a result of socialization. While learning a language the first utterances have a communicational purpose, but once internalized they become “inner speech”. Young children can often be observed talking to themselves and act as if they carry out tasks or play, in what is called private speech. As children get older they gradually speak less and less loud, and differentiate between social speech for others and ‘inner speech’, which continues to play an important role in regulating and controlling behavior. Wertsch (1985) emphasizes that internalization for Vygotsky was not just transfer but also a transformation; being able to think about something is qualitatively different from being able to do it. In the internalizing process, the interpersonal, joint talk and joint activity, later becomes intrapersonal, mental action by one individual. Development can be seen as internalizing from social interaction. Language can grow as the child takes over control of language used initially with other children and adults.
Although Vygotsky’s theory is currently most noted for his central focus on the social, and modern developments are labeled ‘sociocultural theory’, he did not neglect the individual or individual cognitive development.(Cameron, 2002) In Vygotskian terms, language provides the child with a new tool, opens up new opportunities for doing things and for organizing information through the use of words as symbols. The infant begins with using single words, but these words convey whole messages. As the child’s language develops, the whole undivided thought message can be broken down into smaller units and expressed by putting together words that are now units of talk. The word is a recognizable linguistic unit for children in their first language and so they will notice words in the new language. The new language is first used meaningfully by teacher and pupils, and later it is transformed and internalized to become part of the individual child’s language skills or knowledge. Children’s foreign language learning depends on what they experience. Within the ZPD, the broader and richer the language experience that is provided for children, the more they are likely to learn. The activities that happen in classroom create a kind of environment for teaching, and as such, offer different kinds of opportunities for language learning. Part of teaching skill is to identify the particular opportunities of task or activity, and then to develop them into learning experiences for the children. (Cameron, 2002:5-20)
The Social Development Theory of Vygotsky has got many implications in many theories like Social Cognitive Theory, Situated Learning Theory and Constructivism. The key components explained in Vygotsky’s theory have been broadened later by many researchers.
Jean Piaget was primarily interested in how knowledge developed in human organisms. Cognitive structuring of the knowledge was fundamental in his theory. According to his theory, cognitive structures are patterns of physical or mental action that underlie specific acts of intelligence and correspond to stages of child development. He has integrated both behavior and cognitive aspects in one developmental theory. In his theory he put forward four primary developmental stages. They are sensorimotor, preoperations, concrete operations, and formal operations. In the sensorimotor stage (0-2 years), intelligence takes the form of motor actions. Intelligence in the preoperation period (3-7 years) is intuitive in nature. The cognitive structure during the concrete operational stage (8-11 years) is logical but depends upon concrete referents. In the final stage of formal operations (12-15 years), thinking involves abstractions. (Cameron, 2002)
When it comes to the educational reflections of his theory, Paiget sees the child as “continually interacting with the world around him/her solving problems that are presented by the environment” and learning occurs through taking action to solve the problems. Moreover, the knowledge that results from these actions is not imitated or from birth, but “actively constructed” by the child. In this way thought is seen as deriving from action; action is internalized, or carried out mentally in the imagination, and in this way thinking develops. For Piaget, action should be praised as fundamental to cognitive development, and development is the result of two ways, which are assimilation and accommodation. When the action occurs without causing any change in the child assimilation happens; on the contrary, when the child adjusts himself to the environment in some ways, accommodation is involved. Both of these adaptive processes occur together, despite they are very different; they are initially adaptive processes of behavior, but become processes of thinking. Cognitive development consists of a constant effort to adapt to the environment in terms of assimilation and accommodation. Mclaughlin (1992) reports that “Accommodation is an important idea that has been taken into second language learning under the label ”restructuring” used to refer to the re-organization of mental representations of a language. In this sense, Piaget's theory is similar in nature to other constructivist perspectives of learning.
From a Piagetian viewpoint, a child’s thinking develops as gradual growth of knowledge and intellectual skills towards a final stage of formal, logical thinking.( Cameron, 2002) Thoroughly, according to his notion of discrete stages and the idea that children cannot do certain things if they have not yet “reached” that stage should be considered as well. For, children cannot achieve to perform some cognitive or physical actions until maturation. Consequently, learning materials and activities should involve the appropriate level of motor or mental operations for a child of given age; asking students to perform tasks that are beyond their current cognitive capabilities should be avoided.
Child is seen as an active learner and thinker, as a sense maker who is constructing his own knowledge by thriving with objects and ideas. Moreover, “(the child) actively tries to make sense of the world… asks questions… wants to know… Also from very early stage, the child has purposes and intentions”. Donaldson 1978:86) However, child’s sense making is limited by their experience, so, teachers should employ teaching methods that actively involve students and present challenges
From Piaget’s theory we can interpret the classroom and classroom activities as creating and offering opportunities to learners for learning. This view coincides with ‘ecological’ thinking that sees events and activities as offering affordances or opportunities for use and interaction that depend on who is involved. (Cameron2002:5)
Piaget has related cognitive development of an individual and his environment. Thus, he has made it possible for later theoreticians to prepare frameworks for other theories, like Constructivism, standing on his views.
emphasises learning and not teaching
encourages and accepts learner autonomy and initiative
sees learners as creatures of will and purpose
thinks of learning as a process
encourages learner inquiry
acknowledges the critical role of experience in learning
nurtures learners natural curiosity
takes the learner's mental model into account
emphasises performance and understanding when assessing learning
bases itself on the principles of the cognitive theory
makes extensive use of cognitive terminology such as predict, create and analyze
considers how the student learns
encourages learners to engage in dialogue with other students and the teacher
supports co-operative learning
involves learners in real world situations
emphasises the context in which learning takes place
considers the beliefs and attitudes of the learner
provides learnersthe opportunity to construct new knowledge and understanding from authentic experience
cognitive learning and thinking,
thinking about thinking,
learner initiated inquiry and exploration,
1. skills which the student cannot perform
2. skills which the student may be able to perform
3. skills that the student can perform with help
Scaffolding allows students to perform tasks that would normally be slightly beyond their ability without that assistance and guidance from the teacher. Appropriate teacher support can allow students to function at the cutting edge of their individual development. Scaffolding is therefore an important characteristic of constructivist learning and teaching.
Multiple perspectives, authentic activities, real-world environments these are just some of the themes that are frequently associated with constructivist learning and teaching. There were many similarities between the perspectives of different researchers in this brief review of the literature.
The following section presents a synthesis and summary of the characteristics of constructivist learning and teaching as presented by the above review and as suggested by the previous section on constructivist theory. These are not presented in a hierarchical order.
1. Multiple perspectives and representations of concepts and content are presented and encouraged.
2. Goals and objectives are derived by the student or in negotiation with the teacher or system.
3. Teachers serve in the role of guides, monitors, coaches, tutors and facilitators.
4. Activities, opportunities, tools and environments are provided to encourage metacognition, self-analysis -regulation, -reflection & -awareness.
5. The student plays a central role in mediating and controlling learning.
6. Learning situations, environments, skills, content and tasks are relevant, realistic, authentic and represent the natural complexities of the 'real world'.
7. Primary sources of data are used in order to ensure authenticity and real-world complexity.
8. Knowledge construction and not reproduction is emphasized.
9. This construction takes place in individual contexts and through social negotiation, collaboration and experience.
10. The learner's previous knowledge constructions, beliefs and attitudes are considered in the knowledge construction process.
11. Problem-solving, higher-order thinking skills and deep understanding are emphasized.
12. Errors provide the opportunity for insight into students' previous knowledge constructions. 13. Exploration is a favoured approach in order to encourage students to seek knowledge independently and to manage the pursuit of their goals.
14. Learners are provided with the opportunity for apprenticeship learning in which there is an increasing complexity of tasks, skills and knowledge acquisition.
15. Knowledge complexity is reflected in an emphasis on conceptual interrelatedness and interdisciplinary learning.
16. Collaborative and cooperative learning are favoured in order to expose the learner to alternative viewpoints.
17. Scaffolding is facilitated to help students perform just beyond the limits of their ability.
Assessment is authentic and interwoven with teaching.
1. Provide experience with the knowledge construction process;
2. Provide experience in and appreciation for multiple perspectives;
3. Embed learning in realistic and relevant contexts;
4. Encourage ownership and voice in the learning process;
5. Embed learning in social experience;
6. Encourage the use of multiple modes of representation;
7. Encourage self-awareness in the knowledge construction process (p.11).
1. sensitivity toward and attentiveness to the learner's previous constructions;
2. diagnostic teaching attempting to remedy learner errors and misconceptions;
3. attention to metacognition and strategic self-regulation by learners;
4. the use of multiple representations of mathematical concepts;
5. awareness of the importance of goals for the learner, and the dichotomy between learner and teacher goals;
6. awareness of the importance of social contexts, such as the difference between folk or street mathematics and school mathematics (and an attempt to exploit the former for the latter) (p.485).
1. Embed learning in a rich authentic problem-solving environment;
2. Provide for authentic versus academic contexts for learning;
3. Provide for learner control;
4. Use errors as a mechanism to provide feedback on learners' understanding (pp.59-61).
1. Create real-world environments that employ the context in which learning is relevant;
2. Focus on realistic approaches to solving real-world problems;
3. The instructor is a coach and analyzer of the strategies used to solve these problems;
4. Stress conceptual interrelatedness, providing multiple representations or perspectives on the content;
5. Instructional goals and objectives should be negotiated and not imposed;
6. Evaluation should serve as a self-analysis tool;
7. Provide tools and environments that help learners interpret the multiple perspectives of the world;
8. Learning should be internally controlled and mediated by the learner (pp.11-12).
Jonassen (1994) summarizes what he refers to as "the implications of constructivism for instructional design". The following principles illustrate how knowledge construction can be facilitated:
1. Provide multiple representations of reality;
2. Represent the natural complexity of the real world;
3. Focus on knowledge construction, not reproduction;
4. Present authentic tasks (contextualizing rather than abstracting instruction);
5. Provide real-world, case-based learning environments, rather than pre-determined instructional sequences;
6. Foster reflective practice;
7. Enable context-and content dependent knowledge construction;
8. Support collaborative construction of knowledge through social negotiation (p.35).
What are some guiding principles of constructivist thinking that we must keep in mind when we consider our role as educators? I will outline a few ideas, all predicated on the belief that learning consists of individuals' constructed meanings.
- Learning is an active process in which the learner uses sensory input and constructs meaning out of it. The more traditional formulation of this idea involves the terminology of the active learner (Dewey's term) stressing that the learner needs to do something; that learning is not the passive acceptance of knowledge which exists "out there" but that learning involves the learner s engaging with the world.
- People learn to learn as they learn: learning consists both of constructing meaning and constructing systems of meaning. For example, if we learn the chronology of dates of a series of historical events, we are simultaneously learning the meaning of a chronology. Each meaning we construct makes us better able to give meaning to other sensations which can fit a similar pattern.
- The crucial action of constructing meaning is mental: it happens in the mind. Physical actions, hands-on experience may be necessary for learning, especially for children, but it is not sufficient; we need to provide activities which engage the mind as well as the hands (Dewey called this reflective activity.)
- Learning involves language: the language we use influences learning. On the empirical level. Researchers have noted that people talk to themselves as they learn. On a more general level. There is a collection of arguments, presented most forcefully by Vigotsky, that language and learning are inextricably intertwined. This point was clearly emphasized in Elaine Gurain's reference to the need to honor native language in developing North American exhibits. The desire to have material and programs in their own language was an important request by many members of various Native American communities.
- Learning is a social activity: our learning is intimately associated with our connection with other human beings, our teachers, our peers, our family as well as casual acquaintances, including the people before us or next to us at the exhibit. We are more likely to be successful in our efforts to educate if we recognize this principle rather than try to avoid it. Much of traditional education, as Dewey pointed out, is directed towards isolating the learner from all social interaction, and towards seeing education as a one-on-one relationship between the learner and the objective material to be learned. In contrast, progressive education (to continue to use Dewey's formulation) recognizes the social aspect of learning and uses conversation, interaction with others, and the application of knowledge as an integral aspect of learning.
- Learning is contextual: we do not learn isolated facts and theories in some abstract ethereal land of the mind separate from the rest of our lives: we learn in relationship to what else we know, what we believe, our prejudices and our fears. On reflection, it becomes clear that this point is actually a corollary of the idea that learning is active and social. We cannot divorce our learning from our lives.
- One needs knowledge to learn: it is not possible to assimilate new knowledge without having some structure developed from previous knowledge to build on. The more we know, the more we can learn. Therefore any effort to teach must be connected to the state of the learner must provide a path into the subject for the learner based on that learner's previous knowledge.
It takes time to learn: learning is not instantaneous. For significant learning we need to revisit ideas, ponder them try them out, play with them and use them. If you reflect on anything you have learned, you soon realize that it is the product of repeated exposure and thought. Even, or especially, moments of profound insight, can be traced back to longer periods of preparation.
- Motivation is a key component in learning. Not only is it the case that motivation helps learning, it is essential for learning. This idea of motivation as described here is broadly conceived to include an understanding of ways in which the knowledge can be used. Unless we know "the reasons why", we may not be very involved in using the knowledge that may be instilled in us. Even by the most severe and direct teaching.
The latest most fashionable word in education is "constructivism," applied both to learning theory and to epistemology---both to how people learn, and to the nature of knowledge. We need to think about our work in relation to theories of learning and knowledge. So, what is constructivism, what does it have to tell us that is new and relevant, and how do we apply it to our work?
As a philosophy of learning, constructivism can be traced at least to the eighteenth century and the work of the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico, who held that humans can only clearly understand what they have themselves constructed. Many others worked with these ideas, but the first major contemporaries to develop a clear idea of constructivism as applied to classrooms and childhood development were Jean Piaget and John Dewey.
For Dewey education depended on action. Knowledge and ideas emerged only from a situation in which learners had to draw them out of experiences that had meaning and importance to them (see Democracy and Education, 1916). These situations had to occur in a social context, such as a classroom, where students joined in manipulating materials and, thus, created a community of learners who built their knowledge together.
Piaget's constructivism is based on his view of the psychological development of children. In a short summation of his educational thoughts (To Understand is to Invent, 1973), Piaget called for teachers to understand the steps in the development of the child's mind. The fundamental basis of learning, he believed, was discovery: "To understand is to discover, or reconstruct by rediscovery, and such conditions must be complied with if in the future individuals are to be formed who are capable of production and creativity and not simply repetition." To reach an understanding of basic phenomena, according to Piaget, children have to go through stages in which they accept ideas they may later see as not truthful. In autonomous activity, children must discover relationships and ideas in classroom situations that involve activities of interest to them. Understanding is built up step by step through active involvement.
The Russian Lev. S Vygotsky is also important to constructivism, although his ideas have not always been clear to the English-reading public both because of political constraints and because of mistranslations. Some commentators believe that Vygotsky is not a constructivist because of his emphasis on the social context in learning, but others see his stress on children creating their own concepts as constructivist to the core. Mind in the Society (English translation, 1978) is a popularization of some of his ideas for an American audience; also available is a collection of shorter works, The Vygotsky Reader (ed. Rene van der Veer and Jaan Valsiner, 1994). Vygotsky believed that children learn scientific concepts out of a "tension" between their everyday notions and adult concepts. Presented with a preformed concept from the adult world, the child will only memorize what the adult says about the idea. To make it her property the child must use the concept and link that use to the idea as a first presented to her. But the relation between everyday notions and scientific concepts was not a straight development to Vygotsky. Instead the prior conceptions and the introduced scientific concepts are interwoven and influence each other as the child works out her own ideas from the generalizations that she had already and that have been introduced to her.
Constructivism is a theory of knowledge with roots in philosophy, psychology and cybernetics. Such is the definition provided by constructivist's leading theorist, E. von Glasersfeld (1989). As von Glasersfeld (1995) comments:
“Constructivism does not claim to have made earth-shaking inventions in the area of education; it merely claims to provide a solid conceptual basis for some of the things that, until now, inspired teachers had to do without theoretical foundation.”
Von Glasersfeld's musings remind us that theory and practice exhibit a curious interplay which is sometimes unpredictable and, sometimes, unexplainable. His comments remind us as well that constructivism is more than a theory of learning. It is a way of looking at the world that is broad enough to allow for multiple interpretations and yet, defined sufficiently to allow for a perspective that can explain complex and abstract phenomenon and which can guide our actions. We tend to take for granted and accept unquestioningly the use of terms such as 'true', 'real', 'worlds'. Consideration of the complexities behind these everyday words seems far removed from the daily practice of the classroom and more like the fodder of philosophers such as Socrates.
Constructivism reminds us that these are not only important philosophical notions. On the contrary, they can significantly affect how we see the world and, more importantly, how we behave in it. Perhaps an important challenge for educational reform is to begin to question and come to a greater understanding of the philosophy, theory and epistemology that presently informs educational practice. Understanding what our behaviors and practices mean can of times be both revealing, and, hopefully, useful.
Von Glasersfeld (1995) indicates in relation to the concept of reality: "It is made up of the network of things and relationships that we rely on in our living, and on which, we believe, others rely on, too" (p.7). The knower interprets and constructs a reality based on his experiences and interactions with his environment. Rather than thinking of truth in terms of a match to reality, von Glasersfeld focuses instead on the notion of viability: "To the constructivist, concepts, models, theories, and so on are viable if they prove adequate in the contexts in which they were created" (p.7).
If we accept constructivist theory (which means we are willing to follow in the path of Dewey, Piaget and Vigotsky among others), then we have to give up Platonic and all subsequent realistic views of epistemology. We have to recognize that there is no such thing as knowledge "out there" independent of the knower, but only knowledge we construct for ourselves as we learn. Learning is not understanding the "true" nature of things, nor is it (as Plato suggested) remembering dimly perceived perfect ideas, but rather a personal and social construction of meaning out of the bewildering array of sensations which have no order or structure besides the explanations which we fabricate for them.
In general, constructivism tends to be more holistic and less mechanistic than traditional information-processing theories (Cunningham, 1991). People make sense out of their world by taking in information from the environment and assimilating it into their pre-existing schemas and understandings (Bransford & Vye, 1989). Learners undergo conceptual change by directly confronting misconceptions (Wilson & Cole, 1991a). Some constructivists have aligned themselves with the situated cognition movement (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989), asserting that because cognition depends on our experience base, cognitive apprenticeships and other authentic teaching methods are preferable (Clancey, 1992). The roots of many constructivist beliefs are traceable to postmodern philosophies which depart from the rationalist, objectivist, and technocratic tendencies of modern society.