Constructing learning in the digital age

From a cognitive constructivist perspective, learning is achieved through the twin processes of assimilation and accommodation. The latter implies that new learning is 'bolted onto', or constructed within, existing cognitive structures known as schemas. Learning relies on the individual construction of reality, according to Jean Piaget. Such construction of meaning is unique to each individual, and therefore centres on each learner's efforts to make sense of the subject.

In a sense, an algorithm has much in common with a schema, particularly because both have rules and sequences of instruction that can be followed to achieve a specific goal. Both are self contained but have the potential to be connected to larger sets of instructions. The computer algorithm is therefore a means of giving instructions to a machine that replicates the way we believe our minds function. Personal schema on the other hand, are often peculiar to the individuals that created them usually through solo exploration and discovery.

Alternatively, social constructivism - in Vygotsky's terms - is the construction of personal meaning within a framework of social experience. Lev Vygotsky stresses the importance of language and culture, and argues that learning is socially mediated. His notion of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is a model to describe the efforts and interaction between a learner and a more knowledgeable other person (MKO) to negotiate meaning within a realistic range of learning. The learner constructs his own meaning with the MKO as a guide in the process. The boundaries of the ZPD can be variable, but in most contexts, it is generally more extensive than learners can achieve on their own.

Jerome Bruner developed ZPD theory to include the concept of scaffolded learning. Scaffolding was a metaphorical representation of the many active ways in which teachers (or MKOs) focus their efforts and expertise to support of learners at the start of their learning, but gradually fade this support as learners become more independent and competent.

The idea of discovery learning also originates with Piaget, and has provided some powerful, but at times contentious pedagogical practices in primary education. It maintains a focus on personal construction of meaning through exploration and experimentation, and relies less on social contexts than ZPD theory.

Hypertext is non-linear and potentially chaotic in nature, drawing the user (learner) down through layers of meaning, to the endless possibilities of learning by discovering. It is ill-defined, driven by the learner, and has no boundaries or limits other than those the learner imposes upon herself. It is exploratory, rule-less and rhizomatic, where the learner discovers for herself any number of divergent nodes of knowledge, and random corridors of travel.

Learners with digital technology can discover for themselves, and drive their own learning, but it will be less structured than formal educational processes. They are able to explore avenues that may or may not be intended by the creators of the content, but in their nomadic exploration of hypermedia, learners discover for themselves the benefits and risks of autonomous learning. The initial digital space acts as a scaffold, but the farther away the learner wanders from this base - and the more mouse clicks he executes - the more vulnerable he may become to misdirection, misunderstanding, and a sense of isolation from his original aims and purposes. And yet this glorious freedom of knowledge excavation and the potential to synthesise disparate and previously dislocated concepts can be compelling.

Photo by Till Krech on Wikimedia Commons

Creative Commons License
Constructing learning in the digital age by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Michele Ricci said…
We are introducing coding and robotics embedded in the artistic or literature part of the curriculum in a couple of primary schools in Milan. We are designing lessons based on discovery learning as it tunes the speed to the one required by the learner avoiding to have to focus on the skills of a teacher which may not be experienced enough at the beginning (this is a common problem everywhere). However the learign context for discovery learning has to be conceived and designed by the teacher and requires a lot of preparation if we want to be in line with learning objectives. The risk of discovery learning may be a difficult transition towards deep learning but I have the impression that if the learning environment and context is designed by the teacher then it helps to reach deep learning. The problem is that if it is not designed and guided it tends to pull away from deep learning if the student is so young. Would you agree Steve? I appreciate your advice. Thanks
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your comments and questions Michele, as always. My thoughts are that discovery learning has its place in education, particularly in areas where learners need to explore and ask 'what if?' questions and take risks without boundaries or sanction. There are other areas of education where learners need tighter scaffolding, and in which content is more important. This is a spectrum in which a variety of theories and approaches might be adopted depending on context, level, subject, individual learning needs etc. In the latter, learning outcomes might be critical, while in the former, learning outcomes are largely determined by the learners. So I agree, but with some reservations, depending on the above factors.
Michele Ricci said…
Thanks Steve. Have a great day

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