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 differenc
es 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