Monday, September 19, 2011

Making peace with constructivism: towards a landscape of coherence

~Narratives of coherence by George Siemens (
~Teaching in Social and Technological Networks (
~Constructivist Learning Theory (

For some time I've struggled with constructivism. Surely, I've wondered, there's a lot of knowledge that's just better passed on in the old way -- taught directly by a person who understands it well. Would I want to entrust my body to a surgeon who'd completely constructed his/her own learning? Would I want to buy a house wired by a completely self-taught electrician?

Unfortunately, for some students, when their teachers implement a constructivist model, they abandon the role of instructional leader in the name of giving students responsibility for their own learning. Such teachers laud the value of peer-to-peer sharing and helping, but what they fail to see is that often the stronger students just take over the instructional role they (the teachers) have abdicated -- that of providing direct teaching to those who need it. (I suspect that in some constructivist classes, there's plenty of direct instruction going on. It just isn't emanating from the teacher.)

A few days ago, I came across the term "narrative of coherence". Aha, I thought, here's the secret that will save me| I thought it would fill in the middle ground between traditional delivery and extreme constructivism with some vision of how to infuse learning experiences with an underlying narrative that would give students' explorations coherence. But when I read the articles (top 2 above) more thoroughly, I realised the phrase was used as a sort of educational pejorative.

'Narrative of coherence', it seems, is a way to describe what traditional teachers do. They work out the setting, plot, characters, and theme and tell the whole story to their students who learn it by listening and studying it over and over until they know it by heart. Reaching the end of a lesson is like coming to the end of a chapter when a bedtime story is being read. Learners learn to wait until the next lesson to find out what happens next. The problem isn't so much that students don't learn the story (for many do and have), but that they hear only one story with an ending that always comes out the same way.

I firmly believe that well-crafted learning experiences must offer COHERENCE. I grew up as a teacher when 'discovery learning' and 'concept formation' were the progressive ways to teach. We believed back in 1974 that this was the way to put an end to the 'learn & forget' cycle (sound familiar???) because learning would become a sequence of 'aha' moments. I remember one day trying to lead a young fellow through the process of discovering how to do long division. I patiently laid out the bread crumbs that should have resulted in the magic moment of concept formation, but it just bewildered him. Finally he pleaded: "Please, miss, would you just teach me how to 'dibide'? I just want to know how to dibide!!!" So I did it the old way and after a few practice examples, he went away relieved and happy. For me it was a lesson learned.

But perhaps it was one I learned too well. Over the years I became a great educational story-teller, and my kids learned my narratives well, but for many that's where their understanding and questioning began and ended. Job well done, I thought -- but in retrospect it seems like a job only partially done.

So this morning I've been working on a new metaphor -- 'landscape of coherence'. I once read that mathematicians see a landscape of math. Like a virtual world, for them math has geography that is navigable and can be learned, enjoyed, used, enhanced, changed, and perhaps even destroyed. I think perhaps this metaphor has some power for educators as well. Perhaps the middle ground I've been seeking between narratives of coherence and radical constructivism is 'landscape of coherence'.

This landscape has important landmarks with some pathways connecting them, but the way you move around in it your way is determined sometimes by need, sometimes by signposts, and sometimes by interest. Instead of leading students down one garden path or telling them one story, teachers have to make informed decisions about what the critical landmarks are and then ensure the students understand & master those. As a complement to more traditional learning, we make the students responsible for working out their own meaningful connections, and we make time for sharing, comparing, crowd sourcing, and reflection (when we contribute our own perspectives as one of many).

When you revisit a learned landscape after a while, it's still familiar because it was extensively and intensively explored. You can revisit old landmarks and retrace old paths, but you'll also appreciate how the big picture has changed with time.

(Video Link: Rotating Earth Animation)

The key then is for the teacher not to refrain from making any decisions, but to give up on trying to teach everything to everybody in case they might needed it sometime -- because it never takes anyway. Our job is to do the much harder work of being selective -- of making better decisions about what the important landmarks are-- and to then ensure our students know how to fulfill their role in this new paradigm.
And so I think I've finally made peace with constructivism. I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks.

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