Tuesday, April 6, 2010

why I am not a constructionist

and why you should expect more from my model for integrating technologies into the classroom

I recently showed some colleagues my developing model for integrating computational technologies into the classroom. "This is," one person said, "a really nice constructionist model for classroom instruction."

Which is great, except that I'm not a constructionist.

Now, don't be offended. I'll tell you what I told my colleague when she asked, appalled, "What's wrong with constructionists?"

Nothing's wrong with constructionists. I just don't happen to be one.

a brief history lesson
Let's start with some history. Constructionism came into being because two of the greatest minds we've had so far converged when Jean Piaget, known far and wee as the father of constructivism, invited Seymour Papert to come work in his lab. Papert later took a faculty position at MIT, where he developed the Logo programming language, wrote Mindstorms, one of his canonical books, and laid the groundwork for the development of constructionism.

Here's a key distinction to memorize: While constructivism is a theory of learning, constructionism is both a learning theory and an approach to instruction. Here's how the kickass constructionist researcher Yasmin Kafai describes the relationship between these terms:

Constructionism is not constructivism, as Piaget never intended his theory of knowledge development to be a theory of learning and teaching.... Constructionism always has acknowledged its allegiance to Piagetian theory but it is not identical to it. Where constructivism places a primacy on the development of individual and isolated knowledge structures, constructionism focuses on the connected nature of knowledge with its personal and social dimensions.

Papert himself said this:
Constructionism--the N Word as opposed to the V word--shares constructivism's connotation to learning as building knowledge structures irrespective of the circumstances of learning. It then adds the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity whether it's a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe.

Examples of constructionist learning environments include the well known and widespread Computer Clubhouse program, One Laptop Per Child, and learning environments built around visual programming tools like Scratch and NetLogo.

why I am not a constructionist
Constructionism is really neat, and some of the academics I respect most--Kafai, Kylie Peppler, Mitch Resnick, Idit Harel, for example--conduct their work from a constructionist perspective. A couple of things I like about the constructionist approach is its emphasis on "objects to think with" and some theorists' work differentiating between wonderful ideas and powerful ideas.

Constructionist instruction is a highly effective approach for lots of kids, most notably for kids who haven't experienced success in traditional classroom settings. But as Melissa Gresalfi has said more than once, people gravitate to various learning theories when they decide that other theories can't explain what they're seeing. Constructionism focuses on how a learning community can support individual learners' development, which places the community secondary to the individual. I tend to wonder more about how contexts support knowledge production and how contexts lead to judgments about what counts as knowledge and success. If it's true, for example, that marginalized kids are more likely to find success with tools like Scratch, then what matters to me is not what Scratch offers those kids that traditional schooling doesn't, but what types of knowledge production the constructionist context offers that aren't offered by the other learning contexts that fill up those kids' days. I don't care so much about what kids know about programming; I'm far more interested in the sorts of participation structures made possible by Scratch and other constructionist tools.

If you were wondering, I'm into situativity theory and its creepy younger cousin, Actor-Network Theory. So what I'm thinking about now is what sorts of participation structures might be developed around a context that looks very much like the diagram below. Specifically, I'm wondering: What sorts of participation structures can support increasingly knowledgeable participation in a range of contexts that integrate computation as a key area of expertise?

why I'm mentioning this now
My thinking about this is informed of late by what I consider to be some highly problematic thinking about equity issues in technology in education. A 2001 literature review by Volman & vanEck focuses on how we might just rearrange the classroom some to make girls feel more comfortable with computers. For example, they write that

to date, research has not produced unequivocal recommendations for classroom practice. Some researchers found that girls do better in small groups of girls; some researchers argue in favor of such groups on theoretical grounds (Siann & MacLeod, 1986, Scotland; Kirkup, 1992, United Kingdom). Others show that girls perform better in mixed groups (Kutnick, 1997, United Kingdom) or that girls benefit more than boys do from working together (Littleton et al., 1992, United Kingdom). Other student characteristics such as competence and experience in performing the task seem in any case to be equally important, both in primary and secondary education. An explanation for girls’ achieving better results in mixed pairs is that they have more opportunity to spend time with the often-more-experienced boys. The question, however, is whether this solution has negative side effects. It may all too easily confirm the image that girls are less competent when it comes to computers. Another solution may be that working in segregated groups compensates for the differences in experience. Tolmie and Howe (1993, Scotland, secondary education) argue strongly for working in small mixed groups because of the differences they identified between the approaches taken by groups of girls and groups of boys in solving a problems.

For the love of pete, the issue is not whether girls feel more comfortable working in small groups or mixed groups or pairs or individually; the issue is why in the hell we have learning environments that allow for these permutations to matter to girls' access to learning with technologies.

Also, just for the record, the gender-equity issue in video gaming cannot be resolved just by building "girl versions" of video games, no matter what Volman and vanEck believe. They write:

Littleton, Light, Joiner, Messer, and Barnes (1992, United Kingdom, primary education) found that gender differences in performance in a computer game disappeared when the masculine stereotyping in that game was reduced. In a follow-up study they investigated the performance of girls and boys in two variations of an adventure game (Joiner, Messer, Littleton, & Light, 1996). Two versions of the game were developed, a “male” version with pirates and a “female” version with princesses. The structure of both versions of the game was identical. Girls scored lower than boys in both versions of the game, even when computer experience was taken into account; but girls scored higher in the version they preferred, usually that with the princesses.

I don't think that the researchers cited by Volman and vanEck intended their work to be interpreted this way, but this is exactly the trouble you get into when you start talking about computational technologies in education: People think the tool, or the slight modification of it, is the breakthrough, when the breakthrough is in how we shift instructional approaches through integration of the tool--along with a set of technical skills and practices--for classroom instruction.

Looking at my developing model, I can see that I'm in danger of leading people to the same interpretation: Just put this stuff in your classroom and everything else will work itself out. This is what happens when you frontload the tool when you really mean to frontload the practices surrounding that tool that matter to you.

This is the next step in the process for me: Thinking about which practices I hope to foster and support through my classroom model and deploying various technologies for that purpose. I'll keep you posted on what develops.

One last note
I've included here a discussion about why I'm not a constructionist along with a discussion of gender equity issues in education, but I don't at all want anybody to take this as a critique of constructionism. I declare again: Nothing's wrong with constructionism. I just don't happen to be a constructionist. Also, I think a lot of really good constructionist researchers have done some really, really good work on gender equity issues in computing, and I'm just thrilled up the wazoo about that and hope they can find ways to convince people to stop misinterpreting constructionism in problematic ways.

References, in case you're a nerd
Joiner, R., Messer, D., Littleton, K., & Light, P. (1996). Gender, computer experience and computer-based problem solving. Computers and Education, 26(1/2), 179–187.
Kafai, Y. B. (2006). Constructivism. In K. Sawyer (Ed.), Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 35-46). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Kirkup, G. (1992). The social construction of computers. In G. Kirkup and L. Keller (Eds.), Inventing women: Science, gender and technology (pp. 267–281). Oxford: Polity Press.
Kutnick, P. (1997). Computer-based problem-solving: The effects of group composition and social skills on a cognitive, joint action task. Educational Research, 39(2), 135–147.
Littleton, K., Light, P., Joiner, R., Messer, D., & Barnes, P. (1992). Pairing and gender effects in computer based learning. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 7(4), 1–14.
Papert, S., & Harel, I. (1991). Situating Constructionism. In Papert & Harel, Constructionism. Ablex Publishing Corporation. Available online at http://www.papert.org/articles/SituatingConstructionism.html.
Siann, G., & MacLeod, H. (1986). Computers and children of primary school age: Issues and questions. British Journal of Educational Technology, 2, 133–144.
Tolmie, A., & Howe, C. (1993). Gender and dialogue in secondary school physics. Gender and Education, 5(2), 191–210
Volman, M., & van Eck, E. (2001). Gender Equity and Information Technology in Education: The Second Decade. [10.3102/00346543071004613]. Review of Educational Research, 71(4), 613-634.

my model, in case you were wondering


Rafi said...

Interesting stuff. The post did leave me with a big question that's been brewing in me for a while though - does one need ally oneself with a particular learning theory in order to be do good learning sciences research, design innovative learning environments, facilitate effective classroom discussion, or create sound educational policy? Rather than "being a constructionist", can't one simply use constructionist methods when they're most appropriate? Or, better yet, use constructionism in concert with situativity when she encounters something that neither explains perfectly on its own (such as online fanfiction or fansubbing communities?)

I see dangers in holding too closely to identities - they often get politicized, cause sensitivity and internal turmoil when it isn't warranted, or just allow us to fall into our base instincts to huddle into tribes that are disinclined to challenge internal assumptions (not to mention generally preventing ultimate happiness.

There are certainly positive and useful identities to have to be sure, but it would seem to me that in terms of learning theories, my inclination is to believe that we'd be more effective in whatever role we find ourselves if we considered them tools to be applied in relation to specific problems rather identities to be taken on in relation to... what? Is it just a matter of having a useful heuristic by which to quickly categorize yourself or others based on practices, words, and beliefs?


Jenna McWilliams said...

I recently observed a discussion between two very, very well respected learning theorists who took different perspectives on the issue you raise here. One took a similar position to yours, while the other argued that not aligning yourself with one learning theory amounts to cherrypicking. And of course, there are lots of people who stand on each side. I think it's like picking the approach that best suits your interests: It'll either make sense to draw from multiple theories, or it won't.

adamaig said...

@Rafi, alignment matters at a practical level because it helps maintain consistency. If you don't ground your work in a theory, it also makes it harder to make convincing statements about why an effect might be observed, what contributes to that effect, etc. At a philosophical level--my PhD is the first place I have encountered any philosophy of science, regardless of a Physics BS, and Comp. Sci. MS--alignment helps bridge across philosophy, theory, and practice. This however doesn't mean that the intersections of learning theories shouldn't be explored, and there are some nice articles that try to do that in attempts to bridge from the individual to the social. Looking forward to seeing you soon.

@jennamcwilliams I really would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the following two pieces on the RAPUNSEL project (Flanagan, Howe, and Nissenbaum, 2005, 2007), and this piece: Turkle, S., & Papert, S. (1990). Epistemological pluralism: Styles and voices within the computer culture. Signs, 16(1), 128-157. For me this piece was a nice view, and points to some of what underlying issue is in my opinion, and doesn't read like the articles you pointed to which seem focused on the superficial.

Melissa said...

why would cherrypicking be bad thing in this context?

Jenna McWilliams said...

Well, in my view drawing from multiple (often conflicting) learning theories makes it easier to end up with a less rigorous, less robust theory to explain learning. It's like saying "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" or "I never called myself a maverick": It opens you up to accusations that your pants are, in fact, on fire.

Additionally, I don't think it's feasible to draw from the two major competing camps of learning theories, sociocultural and cognitivist, because I believe they exist in irreconcilable contradiction to each other. Others believe differently, though, including many many people whose intellect I respect greatly, so I'm open to the possibility of changing my mind.

adamaig said...

@Melissa cherry picking tends to mean--in practice--that the important assumptions and nuances are forgotten or ignored, which ultimately undermines the claims a researcher would want to make. Because designs should be instantiations of theory driven hypotheses, this ends up being a violation of scientific rigor--regardless of conducting design studies or not. If you can figure out a coherent way to articulate the justification for a design, then you aren't really cherry picking, you're establishing an argument which should have filled in those gaps in accounted-for assumptions and nuances in the process of arguing for the design.

However, if someone is presenting a design which has a lot of disconnected components with no articulable theory for why they are all present it suggests the designer hasn't really thought through what they are doing, and its hard to contribute to science that way. On the other hand, maybe you throw a few things together and ask "what emerged?" which can lead to interesting findings, but it is really hard to do that right and contribute to scientific understanding.

My 0.02$

Rafi said...

@jenna Yeah, I guess whether it's ok to synthesize, use select parts from, and/or occasionally but not always use different learning theories has to do with whether a given theory is mutual exclusive with another theory. Or, perhaps, whether part of a theory is mutually exclusive with part of another theory.

@adamaig From my personal experience I'd agree that it's important to be grounded in a certain theory or practice and the frameworks that come along with them. Continued application of a given framework allows one to fully understand it in context, and also to see what its limits are. I'd imagine it's not useful to go and try to synthesize or explore intersections between learning theories before one has sufficient grounding in at least one theory. At the same time, I've found that every framework has it's limitations, and part of the challenge of people seeking to explain the world is to push up against those limitations and find explanations at those edges of understanding. Looking forward to seeing you too!

Jenna McWilliams said...

Now that that's been settled, does anyone want to comment on the actual contents of my post?

Melissa said...

I'd like to ask one more question...ahem-hem...how are theories created? I think that synthesizing theories or cherry-picking is perhaps how past theories and future ones are and were created...or started...or discussed...or further synthesized...How else can progress be made?

Jenna McWilliams said...

Agreed--but I don't believe that theories about learning can be synthesized across the two major camps: sociocultural and cognitivist. Each set of theories takes certain truths to be self-evident, and the truths in themselves conflict. These guys can't even agree on what knowledge, learning, or cognition are--and if you have to spend your time debating these terms you're never going to get to the heart of the issues that matter to learning scientists.

Additionally, there's a point at which the argument 'runs out.' It's possible that the argument 'runs out' when you have to start explaining why you believe learning is x and not y. The answer, in the place where the argument runs out, is something like this: "I just do. I just believe this because it aligns with my personal experiences and my research interests and the things that I think matter most about educational research."

Christian Briggs said...

I'm going to throw in an analogy that might be helpful. Or not helpful. Or ignored altogether. I think i'm agreeing with your last point, though, @Jenna.

If you and i are working on separate theories of "glass fullness," your theory might focus on the water (it's half full), and mine on the air (it's half empty), but at the end of the day (or the beginning of the next) we're both still staring at the same glass and some water, and the theory to which Melissa will gravitate is the one that helps her to achieve her goal, whether that be to understand hydrodynamics, to slake a thirst, to understand human optimism, or to predict the social outcome of a spillage incident.

2 cents.

Larry said...

Hi Jenna
My 2 cents worth is to accept the uncertainty and "tension" at the borders of the competing views and to tack back and forth, not cheery pick, but rather embrace alternative discourses with their historical and sociocultural tensions. By reading the historical roots of the competing theories and the underlying assumptions it often creates a dialogical space where a synthesis MAY start to form that sees the competing theories as dialectical and really in a figure/ground pattern. For example Martin Packer has shown that both social constructuionism and sociocultural theory are concerned with epistemology [knowledge construction] and that all epistemologies have ontological assumptions that are foundational to their theories. He would point out that all knowledge is situationally constructed and contextual and HISTORICAL constructions.
Both social constructionism and sociocultural theory have historical roots in continental philosophy.


Alison said...

Hi Jenna,

coming from an teacher stand-point, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said:

" People think the tool, or the slight modification of it, is the breakthrough, when the breakthrough is in how we shift instructional approaches through integration of the tool--along with a set of technical skills and practices--for classroom instruction."

Something that has really got me thinking this semester is that too many people think that just because a teacher is utilizing technology in their classroom they are automatically put in the "cutting-edge-technology-using-awesome-great-teacher-club" when it's not even really about the "using" of the technology as it is, why/how is the technology supporting the learning. It doesn't matter how many pieces of technology can be stuffed into a classroom, without the consideration that the technology is very little if not for the theory, framework and instructional goals behind it, would be setting up any user/implementor for failure. And not that failure is always a bad thing (shout out to Maggie!), but I think what a lot of people forget to ask when considering using technology in the classroom is "what is the best way to use this software/hardware to accomplish the goals I have set?"

I really wish/hope that classes like P574 were available to educators because it would bring about a whole new perspective to using technology in the classroom.

nice reflection!


Maggie Ricci said...

Hey Jenna,
Alison and I were talking about just the issue of putting the tool on a pedestal, as if it is the thing that is going to solve all of your problems. It is indeed about deciding what you want to accomplish - how should your students be different when they have left your class (to paraphrase my colleague, George Rehrey)?

I also had some problems reading the Volman and Van Eck article. I have had to admit to myself that I actually have a very white male view of the world (for a woman), but enough with the hand-wringing already. Girls, sometimes you just have to tell the guys off. As for the Carstarphen and Lambiase paper, I admit that I have only recently been baptized into the whole ethnographic research thing, but at some point we are going to have to characterize some of these case studies in a more quantitative way. Really, 33 women and 10 men? To quote Eric Mazur, "the plural of anecdote is not data".

And thanks for some nice definitions of constructivism and constructionism.


Marisol Villacres said...

Hi Jenna,

I wish I had read your post before last Thursday's class. There was something about last week's readings that bothered me a lot but I just couldn't put my finger on exactly what it was. You said it in class but I was thinking on my own discomforts and didn't get what you meant back then. Reading your post made it clear for me: the readings don't seem to care about context.

Although I haven't decided yet about my stand on constructionism or constructivism, I agree with your point of view when you say:

"If it's true, for example, that marginalized kids are more likely to find success with tools like Scratch, then what matters to me is not what Scratch offers those kids that traditional schooling doesn't, but what types of knowledge production the constructionist context offers that aren't offered by the other learning contexts that fill up those kids' days"

Just like Maggie and Allison point out, it is about supporting knowledge production (and I'd add, in a specific context) an then figuring out (if it's necessary), how technology can support it.


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