Constructivism and Critical Pedagogy
"A philosophy that views learning as an active process in which learners construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world through action and reflection. Constructivists argue that individuals generate rules and mental models as the result of their experiences with both other human subjects and their environments and in turn use these rules and models to make sense of new experiences.
Three important concepts emerge from this definition:
- Knowledge is socially constructed. It is not something that exists outside of language and the social subjects who use it. Learning--obtaining knowledge and making meaning--is thus a social process rather than the work of the isolated individual mind; it cannot be divorced from learners' social context.
- Learning is an active process. Students learn by doing rather than by passively absorbing information.
- Knowledge is constructed from experience. Students bring prior knowledge into a learning situation, which in turn forms the basis for their construction of new knowledge. Upon encountering something new, learners must first reconcile it in some way with their previous ideas and experiences. This may mean changing what they believe, expanding their understanding, or disregarding the new information as irrelevant.
In this framework then, learning is not a process of transmission of information from teacher to student, a model which positions the student as a passive receptacle, but an active process of construction on the part of the learner that involves making meaning out of a multiplicity stimuli.
In practice, educators use active techniques (experiments, real-world examples, problem solving activities, dialogues) to introduce students to information and issues and then encourage students to reflect on and talk about what they did and how their understanding is changing. The teacher makes sure she understands the students' preexisting conceptions and guides activities to address and build on them. Constructivism also often utilizes collaboration and peer criticism as a way of facilitating students' abilities to reach a new level of understanding.
Relationship to Critical Pedagogy
Many of the characteristic tenets of critical pedagogy are consistent with a constructivist approach to education. Long before Paulo Freire (1921-1997) wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), which contains his famous critique of the "banking concept of education" (education that revolves around the actions of teachers who "deposit" knowledge into their passive students), John Dewey (1859-1952), generally considered the founder of "progressive" education and constructivist educational theory in the United States, rejected teaching practices that positioned students as passive receptacles, such as the rote learning of isolated facts, advocating instead for a pedagogical approach that involved students' active engagement with each other and with the world. Like Freire, who embraced both "problem posing" and dialogic educational practices, Dewey emphasized the importance of active social learning environments, rather than one-sided lectures, and argued that learning involves the active construction of knowledge through engagement with ideas in meaningful contexts, rather than the passive absorption of isolated bits of information. And just as Freire maintained that education must engage with the language and experiences of learners, drawing upon their thematic universes, Dewey had also argued that learning takes place within meaningful contexts that allow students to build upon the knowledge they already have. Both argue that educators need to understand the experiences and world views of their students in order to successfully further the learning process. Moreover, both associate learning with critical reflection, with actively seeking after truth and applying it to future problems. They also draw a connection between critical reflection and politics, with Freire linking critical reflection with the fight against oppressive social conditions and Dewey linking it to responsible and ethical democratic citizenship."
So, if in fact learning is not about the "transmission of information" from teacher to student, and in no way do I believe it is, then why are so many of our classrooms and beliefs about education in this country working under that model? Why are we stuck in a system that was set up to train workers during the Industrial Revolution? We all need to work to bring our pedagogy into the 21st century and engage our students with relevant ideas that matter to them. We need to actively involve them and get them excited about what is going on in the classroom, not keep them in hard, straightback chairs when what they want to do is move. We need to practice "critical reflection," so we are helping them to think for themselves and not training them to be good standardized test takers. We need to integrate the arts across the curriculum and grade levels to engage our students and energize our classrooms.