Early Childhood Education

Constructionism

 

During the last thirty years, the role that computers and other computer- based technologies play in education has grown dramatically. Koshmann (1996), borrowing from Kuhn’s notion of scientific paradigms, identified four major paradigms in the evolution of educational technologies: computer-assisted instruction, intelligent tutoring systems, constructionism and computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL). Each of these paradigms contains different pedagogical and methodological approaches to conceive and to integrate computer-based technology in the teaching and learning process.

Constructionism might best be defined as a constructivist philosophy for educational technologies. Constructionism asserts that computers are powerful educational technologies when used as tools for supporting the design, the construction, and the programming of personally and epistemologically meaningful projects (Papert, 1980; Resnick et al., 1996). By constructing an external object to reflect upon, people also construct internal knowledge.

Constructionism is situated in the intellectual trajectory started in the 1960s by the MIT Logo Group, under the direction of Seymour Papert, based first at the Artificial Intelligence laboratory at MIT and later at the MIT Media Laboratory. Although the Logo Group members held many different research agendas and goals, the collective vision of the group rested primarily on at least four major pillars (Bers et al., 2002).

First, the group believed in the constructionist approach to education. Strongly based on Piaget’s constructivism, Papert’s theory of constructionism emphasizes the need for technological environments to help children learn by doing, by actively inquiring, and by playing. The interaction with the technological materials around them provides children the opportunity to design and make meaningful projects to share with a community.

Second, the group understood the importance of objects for supporting the development of concrete ways of thinking and learning about abstract phenomena. In this context, computers acquired a salient role as powerful tools to design, create, and manipulate objects in both the real and the virtual world. The group envisioned this technology existing not only in the form of current desktop computers, but also as tiny computers embedded in Lego-bricks that could be programmed to move and respond to stimulus gathered by touch or light sensors (Bers et al., 2002; Martin et al., 2000).

Third, the group valued the notion that powerful ideas empower the individual. Powerful ideas afford individuals new ways of thinking, new ways of putting knowledge to use, and new ways of making personal and epistemological connections with other domains of knowledge (Papert, 2000). Constructionists envision the computer as a powerful carrier of new ideas and particularly as an agent of educational change.

Fourth, the group embraced the premium of self-reflection. The best learning experiences occur when individuals are encouraged to explore their own thinking process and their intellectual and emotional relationship to knowledge, as well as the personal history that affects the learning experience. Constructionism viewed the programming of a computer as a powerful way to gain new insights into how the mind works and learns (Papert, 1993).

Papert’s constructionism became widespread in the world of education in 1980 with the publication of his pioneering book Mindstorms: Children, computers and powerful ideas (Papert, 1980). In Mindstorms, Papert advocated for providing children with an opportunity to become computer programmers as a way to learn about mathematics and, more importantly, to learn about learning. Papert argued that using a child-friendly version of the programming language LISP, called Logo or the language of the turtle, was an easy and natural way to engage students in programming. Logo allowed students to actively create artifacts in a process of discovery-based learning—a process directly aligned with the cognitive constructivist model of learning. Although Papert was one of the key researchers involved in the first implementations of Logo, the benefits of programming, in Papert’s view, would extend far beyond the world of Logo. Through the process of designing and debugging computer programs, students would develop a metacognitive approach toward problem-solving and learning.

By now there is a long-standing constructionist tradition of authoring tools and programming environments that follow the Logo steps. Some of these technological environments are designed for children’s learning about mathematics and science (Harel and Papert, 1990; Kafai, 1994; Resnick et al., 1996, 2000), for creating virtual communities to foster peer learning and collaboration (Bruckman, 1998; Resnick et al., 1996), and for designing computational environments to promote positive youth development through storytelling (Bers, 2001). Other constructionist approaches focus on creating social environments in which constructionist types of learning activities using technologies can happen (Resnick, Rusk, and Cooke, 1998).

Constructionism is rooted in Jean Piaget’s constructivism, in which learning is best characterized as an individual cognitive process given a social and cultural context. However, while Piaget’s theory was developed to explain how knowledge is constructed in our heads, Papert pays particular attention to the role of constructions in the world as a support for those in the head. Thus, constructionism is both a theory of learning and a strategy for education. It offers the framework for developing a technology-rich design-based learning environment, in which learning happens best when learners are engaged in learning by making, creating, programming, discovering, and designing their own “objects to think with” in a playful manner.

Although constructionism has both theoretical and practical limitations, namely the lack of theoretical conceptualization of the role of sociocultural theory in designing learning environments and the difficulties of applying constructionism in formal institutions such as schools (Papert and Harel, 1991), more recent developments within the constructionist paradigm, such as social constructionism, cultural constructionism, and sociocultural constructionism extend the notion of constructionism to encompass sociocultural theories.

Contemporary perspectives of constructionism encompass a philosophy and theory of learning that synthesizes the understanding of the learning process as a result of an individual’s cognitive self-organization and participation in socially and culturally organized practices. Therefore, a constructionist learning environment is one that gives the individual the freedom to explore natural interests using new technologies, with the support of a community of learners that can facilitate deeper understanding.

Further Readings: Bers, M., I. Ponte, K. Juelich, A. Viera, and J. Schenker (2002). Teachers as designers: Integrating robotics into early childhood education. Information Technology in Childhood Education 1, 123-145; Bers, M. (2001). Identity construction environments: Developing personal and moral values through the design of a virtual city. Journal of the Learning Sciences 10(4), 365-415; Bruckman, A. (1998). Community support for constructionist learning. Computer Supported Cooperative Work 7, 47-86; Harel, I., and S. Papert (1990). Software design as a learning environment. Interactive Learning Environments 1(1): 1-32; Kafai, Y. (1994). Learning design by making games: Children’s development of design strategies in the creation of a complex computational artifact. In Y. Kafai and M. Resnick, eds. Constructionism in practice: Designing, thinking and learning in a digital world. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 41-96; Koshmann, T. (1996). CSCL: Theory of practice of an emerging paradigm. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum; Martin, F., B. Mikhak, M. Resnick, B. Silverman, and R. Berg (2000). To mindstorms and beyond: Evolution of a construction kit for magical machines. In A. Druin and J. Hendler, eds. Robots for kids: Exploring new technologies for learning experiences. New York: Morgan Kaufman, pp. 9-33; Papert, S., and I. Harel (1991). Constructionism. New York: Ablex; Papert, S. (1980). Mind- storms: Children, computers and powerful ideas. New York: Basic Books; Papert, S. (1993). The children’s machine: Rethinking school in the age of the computer. New York: Basic Books; Papert, S. (1999). Papert on Piaget. “The century’s greatest minds.” Time March 29, p. 105. http://www.time.com/time/time100/scientist/profile/piaget.html; Papert, S. (2000). What’s the big idea: Toward a pedagogy of idea power. IBM Systems Journal 39(3/4). http://www.research.ibm.com/journal/sj/393/part2/papert.html; Resnick, M., Bruckman, A., & Martin, F. (1996). Pianos Not Stereos: Creating Computational Construction Kits. Interactions, 3(6), 41-50; Resnick, M., Berg, R., & Eisenberg, M. (2000). Beyond Black Boxes: Bringing Transparency and Aesthetics Back to Scientific Investigation. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 9(1), 7-30; Resnick, M., N. Rusk, and S. Cooke (1998). The computer clubhouse: Technological fluency in the inner city. In D. Schon, B. Sanyal, and W. Mitchell, eds. High technology and low-income communities. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Marina Umaschi Bers