Constructionism and the Future of Learning

18 Apr 2019, 2800 Words

This is the (lightly edited) written transcript of a talk I gave a few weeks ago at Experience Haus’ conference, The Future of Learning. I hope to condense it down into a more digestible essay soon.

The talk is about constructionism, a learning theory that’s been around since the 1950s that I think more people should know about.

Here’s me giving the talk:

Here’s the talk:

1 - “The Future” — technological change vs cultural change

What’s going to be different between now and The Future? The two things we control are technological change and cultural change.

When we think of The Future, the images in our head are of technological change. Space travel, flying cars, controlling computers with our minds. Maybe this is because of the media, or perhaps because these things are tangible and easy to imagine.

Cultural change is harder to imagine, but I think it’s way cooler. There’s something nice about the idea that we can improve society by figuring things out and then convincing other people of those things.

Of course — in reality, technology affects culture and vice versa.

2 - A brief history of ed-tech

1922: Motion pictures

Thomas Edison predicted that motion pictures would revolutionise the education system and replace textbooks. He said: “We get 2% efficiency out of schoolbooks as they are written today. Through the medium of the motion picture, it should be possible to obtain 100% efficiency”.

1945: Radios

Radio instruction was going to be the next big thing. William Levenson, the director of the Cleveland public schools’ radio station, said that “The time may come when a portable radio receiver will be as common in the classroom as is the blackboard.” These were the first devices referred to as “teaching machines”.

1968: TVs

President Lyndon Johnson said that the one requirement for a good and universal education is “an inexpensive and readily available means of teaching children”. Hundreds of millions were spent on televised learning systems, only to be ditched when they were eventually found ineffective.

2008: Interactive whiteboards

Fast-forward to when I was in school, the hey-day of interactive whiteboards. They were pretty novel at first — we were all excited to use them in front of the class. But this wore off quickly because they weren’t truly interactive — it was the same instruction, delivered in a slightly different medium. Just a whiteboard with a pen that never runs out.

There’s always a lag between the invention of a new medium of communication, and the development of content that’s native to that medium. The first motion pictures, for example, were actually just theatre plays recorded on tape. It took a while before the medium was fully realised, and before we started using it to its fullest.

With motion pictures, we’re started to push the boundaries of the medium. When it comes to new mediums for learning, though, we’re not even close.

There are probably technological gains to be made in learning, but we don’t seem very good at making them.

What about cultural gains in learning? Well, at the same time as those failed ed-tech developments, a chap called Seymour Papert was cooking up an interesting theory about learning and education.

I want to make the case that this theory is a key to unlocking some serious gains when it comes to learning and education, and that this theory should be at the center of how we think about the future of learning.

3 - Instructionism vs Constructionism

A lot of focus in education is on teaching — improving how we instruct students. This approach is called “Instructionism”. It sees people as “empty vessels” to be filled with knowledge, given the right instruction, by the right teacher, at the right time.

This is the default way that we think about knowledge and teaching in our culture, and I think it’s because of metaphors we use. We talk about knowledge as being transmitted from one person to another, and passed down through the generations.

In reality, however, learning isn’t a process of transmission but a process of reconstruction. We don’t copy knowledge from others and paste it into our minds. Instead, when we’re exposed to new knowledge, we reconstruct **it in our own way, in our own heads.

While teaching is important, Seymour Papert thought that what’s much more important is learning.

According to Papert, the best way for children to learn is through constructing their own mental models of the world around them. And the key to helping them do this is by making learning an active and engaging process — learning isn’t something that happens to us, it’s something we actively do.

4 - Constructing Constructionism

I know this sounds really abstract. And it is — we’re talking about learning how to learn. So instead of trying to teach you about it, let’s explore the topic together from different angles, so that we can each build up our own mental model for what constructionism means.

Let’s construct our own constructionism.

The Dark Room metaphor

Learning something new is like exploring a room. You don’t really know anything to begin with, so the room is pitch black. You slowly walk through, fumbling around. You bump into things. You trip over things. You’re not sure exactly what the things are, but you can feel out their shapes. You slowly build up a map of the room in your head. Eventually, you find the light switch and turn it on, and everything comes together — it all makes sense.

That’s one way to find out what’s in the room.

Another way is for someone to take a picture of what’s inside, and just show you. On the face of it, this accomplishes the same thing, much faster — you get to know what’s in the room. But in reality, this understanding is much more brittle. Chances are, if someone showed you a picture of the same room from a different angle, you wouldn’t recognise it.

This is one way to think about constructionism. By exploring the room on your own, you build up your own 3d-model of it in your head, and you can freely manipulate this model as required. Whereas if all you’ve seen is a picture — and this is what instructionism is closer to — you can’t use that knowledge in the same way.

Principle 1: Learning through making

One of the big ideas behind constructionism is that learning happens best through experience. It happens best through actually doing or making something.

It’s better to explore the room because being actively engaged in the experience helps us develop our own mental model of it.

When you’re doing a task that you’re actively engaged with, learning happens as a by-product. Almost by accident.

If you had to narrow Seymour Papert’s contributions down to one thing, it would probably be Logo — an educational programming language that lets you program a turtle to draw out a path on the computer screen. Schools all around the world use Logo as part of their maths and computing courses.

Papert once got a letter from a girl in Costa Rico who used Logo to draw a picture of a bird — she sent him a photo of it. It clearly meant something to her, since she went through the trouble of sending it to America.

Now, if you’d asked this girl what she was doing, she probably wouldn’t have said “I’m programming a computer”, and she also wouldn’t have said “I’m doing mathematics”. She would have said something like “Oh, I’m making a bird”, or “I’m making a picture to send to America”.

But if you look at what this girl was actually doing, she describing a set of curves that would end up looking like a bird. She was very much doing mathematics.

Principle 2: Learning in a personal way

Learning experiences should be personal to each learner. In the case of the girl using Logo, she drew a bird because that was meaningful to her, and so the underlying mental models she developed will have been imbued with a particular meaning and significance.

If every student in that class was forced to draw a bird, many of them would have thought it was a pointless exercise. “I don’t care about birds, why do I have to draw a bird?”. By allowing each student to draw something personal to them, each is much more actively engaged in the task. This strengthens the process of building their own mental models.

Papert’s gears

From the age of 2, Seymour Papert was really into the mechanics of cars. Playing with gear systems was his favourite thing. When he was young, he became really good at simulating gears in his head — after playing with them enough, he could tell in his head that if you turn this gear this way, it’ll turn that gear that way.

Papert reckoned that working with these gears did more for his mathematical development than anything he learned in primary school. When he learned about multiplication tables, he saw them as gears. When he learned about linear equations, like 3x + 4y = 10, he saw them as gear differentials.

Playing with gears let him develop a rich mental model that helped him understand a whole range of maths concepts. Crucially, this was only possible because he really liked gears. He loved gears! Papert says himself that he associates this feeling — love — with gears, and therefore also the maths concepts he attached onto them.

His learning wasn’t just a cognitive process, it was an emotional process too. And that was only possible because he learned in a way that was deeply personal to him.

The take-away from this story isn’t that we should all play with gears — it’s that we should each find our own metaphorical gears.

Hard fun

Constructionism might seem like some new-age hippy scheme where everyone plays all the time, and there’s no discipline or hard work. We’ve got a girl drawing a bird here, someone playing with gears over there… surely this can’t be the future?

It’s true that many attempts at making learning less coercive and more engaging do end up taking the meat and substance out of it (and also just aren’t effective). The failed attempts at bringing movies and TVs into the classrooms speak to this.

But constructionism as an approach shouldn’t be immediately tarnished with that same brush. It’s not about making learning fun; not in the usual sense of the word.

We might describe playing video games, or playing football, as “fun”.

Learning a musical instrument… it’s got its fun moments, but a lot of the day-to-day isn’t “fun”. The same goes for writing — it’s great when an idea comes together nicely, but most of the experience isn’t fun, per se. And actually, if you talk to people who play video games professionally, or play football professionally, they probably don’t think of it as “fun”.

So there’s this category of things that are definitely worthwhile, and enjoyable on a macro scale, but not quite “fun”. Papert calls these things “hard fun”, and that’s what learning should be.

Everyone likes to be stretched and challenged, but it has to be in the right way for each person.

To summarise:

Constructionism is about helping people develop their own mental models for things.

The best circumstances under which to do it, are when it’s self-motivated and personally meaningful to the learner. And the best way to do it is through experiencing and making things.

5 — The Future of Learning

How do we make constructionism part of the future of learning? And does technology have a role to play?

Technology is making self-driven learning more accessible

Most of us go through three different learning stages in our lives.

The first stage starts when we’re born. In this stage we learn entirely through exploration. Everything we know about the world comes from touching things, playing with things, and putting things in our mouths. And it’s all self-driven. Parents probably play some part here, but by and large, the baby is controlling its own learning.

Eventually, we start being exposed to things that we can’t touch, play with, or put in our mouths. As a result, we go from learning by exploration to learning by instruction. This stage of learning is defined by schooling. If we now want to know something, we have to find an adult to teach us. In Papert’s words, “when you go to school, the trauma is that you must stop learning, and accept being taught”.

If you survive stage 2, stage 3 is really just about going back to stage 1.

It’s about going back to learning through exploration. As adults, we develop random interests in things which we pursue because we want to. No one’s telling us what to learn or how to learn it.

Today, technology is short-circuiting stage 2. Kids are free to explore all of human knowledge, without relying on adults to tell them things.

When I look back on my childhood and teenage years, the biggest turning point was getting my own computer with Internet access — it transformed my life. I ended up playing a lot of World of Warcraft. But I also learned design, and programming, and got into tech. I’m not sure what I’d be doing in life right now if I hadn’t learned the skills that I learned online as a teenager, just through exploring the web.

The ways that people end up getting into programming are great case studies in constructionist learning.

Neopets was, at one point, the most popular game in the world. In it, you could join clubs called guilds, and each guild could have its own “home page”. You could put anything you wanted there. Crucially, if you had slick custom graphics, and used custom HTML to arrange them nicely on the page, you’d set your guild apart and earn a lot of clout amongst other players.

Creating a homepage for my Neopets guild was my first foray into coding. And I’m not alone in this:

Neopets is digitally native, but even when it comes to bog-standard instruction — reading about things on Wikipedia or watching lectures on YouTube — if we’re doing it out of our own personal curiosity, then the learning is much more meaningful.

So just giving more people the access and freedom to explore the Internet will lead to more learning of the kind that we want people to do.

As always, the first industry to realise the gains is the technology industry itself, since they’re the ones making these things. You can see this by the sheer number of different apps and tools available for learning how to code. But this eventually trickles down and out into other disciplines too, as it’s already started to.

Technology is enabling new learning experiences

Things get really interesting once we develop more tools, like Neopets, that enable an element of “making stuff” during the learning process.

Minecraft is a great example of this. It’s a whole world in which you’re free to explore and create whatever you want. You can even build electronic circuits in Minecraft, and some people have gone as far as building working computer processors within the game.

It’s actually being used in over 100 countries around the world to teach students everything from maths and computing to the environment and storytelling. Since it’s centered around makings things, and since it gives the kids the freedom to explore things in their own way, it’s much more engaging than traditional methods.

It’s still early days. I didn’t manage to find any rigorous studies that compare outcomes from playing Minecraft compared to traditional methods (those will take time), but the teachers who do use it seem to love it.

So, yes, technology is playing a huge role in the future of learning, but not through any fancy new ed-tech product. Just via the good ol’ fashioned Internet.

6 — The future of your learning

On a personal level, what can you do to improve the future of your own learning?

If it isn’t already clear, I think you should take the constructionist approach.

If you’re trying to learn something new yourself, even through normal means of instruction, the fact that it’s self-motivated and driven by your own curiosity is a great start.

Take it to the next level by incorporating experience into your learning. Don’t just study something, make something.

thanks for reading!

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