Seymour Papert & Constructionism
This article is a summary of the theory of learning known as constructionism. Constructionism was developed by Seymour Papert in the 1980s, and while similar to Piaget's theory of learning known as constructivism, it differs in several significant ways. Both believe individuals learn by constructing knowledge, but Piaget emphasized internal processes, whereas Papert believes learning is facilitated by constructing actual artifacts or objects - whether a theory, a sandcastle, or a computer program - which can then be shared and discussed with others. Papert also values the concrete and emphasizes the social nature of learning, while Piaget valued the abstract and studied learning mostly as an independent activity. These differences are discussed in greater detail, as are Papert's thoughts on the art of teaching in relation to the art of learning. Applications of constructionism in the classroom are discussed, as is the influence of the theory in the educational and research community.
Keywords Bricolage; Constructionism; Constructivism; Education theory; Instructionism; Logo; Mathetics; Papert, Seymour; Piaget, Jean
On the surface, constructionism and constructivism have much in common. Both theories of learning share the belief that individuals make meaning. In other words, knowledge is constructed through experience and is not something that can simply be transmitted from one person to the next (Kafai & Resnick, 1996). Both theories were developed by colleagues - constructivism by Jean Piaget, constructionism by Seymour Papert, who studied with Piaget in Geneva, Switzerland in the 1950s. Despite the many similarities, however, the two theories differ in significant ways. Before we investigate these differences, and define constructionism in further detail, we must first qualify this exercise with words of wisdom from Papert himself.
Many of Papert's essays on constructionism, and specifically those with the aim of defining or summarizing the theory, begin in the same way - with Papert playfully arguing that it is impossible, and indeed antithetical, for him to tell the reader what constructionism is. To do so, he claims, would "transgress the basic tenet" of his entire theory. He explains, "if one eschews pipeline models of transmitting knowledge in talking among ourselves as well as in theorizing about classrooms, then one must expect that I will not be able to tell you my idea of constructionism. To do so is bound to trivialize it" (Papert, 1991, p. 1). Rather, his intention is to "engage [the reader] in experiences" so that we construct our own idea of constructionism that is "in some sense" like his idea of constructionism. Whether the following summary attempts to engage or transmit, is perhaps for you (or Papert) to judge.
Constructionism vs. Constructivism
The first - and what is arguably the most substantial - difference between constructionism and constructivism should be characterized less as a point of conflict or disagreement and more as a shift in emphases. While both theories agree that individuals construct knowledge, Piaget focused more on mental constructions, Papert on constructions as they are manifested in objects 'in the world.' Papert calls such constructions public entities. As Kafai and Resnick (1996) explain, "constructionism suggests that learners are particularly likely to make new ideas when they are actively engaged in making some type of artifact - be it a robot, a poem, a sand castle, or a computer program - which they can reflect upon and share with others" (1996, p. 1).
Papert further underscores the importance of this principle - learning-by-making - when he retells the story of how the idea for constructionism was born. While visiting a junior high school in Massachusetts in the early 1970s, he passed an art class on the way to the math class he was scheduled to observe. This particular art class was carving soap sculptures, and after several days of 'dropping in' and admiring their art, Papert was struck by the difference between what was happening in art class and what was happening in math class. As he writes, "An ambition was born: I wanted junior high school math class to be like that. I didn't know exactly what 'that' meant but I knew I wanted it. I didn't even know what to call the idea. For a long time it existed in my head as 'soap-sculpture math'" (Papert, 1991, p. 4).
The second point of emphasis of constructionism follows logically from the first - a valuing of the concrete over the abstract. Papert is highly critical of schools and educators for what he calls a "perverse commitment to moving as quickly as possible from the concrete to the abstract" (Papert, 1993, p. 143). He further argues that the almost singular focus on abstract-formal knowledge impedes the learning of many students, and even discriminates against some. His passion for this belief is best communicated again in his own words:
"This praise for the concrete is not to be confused with a strategy of using it as a stepping-stone to the abstract. That would leave the abstract ensconced as the ultimate form of knowing. I want to say something more controversial and subtle in helping to demote abstract thinking from being seen as 'the real stuff' of the working mind" (Papert, 1993, p. 146).
Importantly, this point of emphasis again separates Papert from Piaget; Piaget valued the abstract and "emphasized how the average child…becomes detached from the world of concrete objects and increasingly able to internalize action and to mentally manipulate symbolic objects" (Ackerman, 1996, p. 26). Piaget equated development and cognitive growth with the ability to think abstractly.
When one shifts the focus of learning from the abstract to the concrete, Papert argues, the process of learning itself changes as well. Rather than being guided by a pre-set plan, or formal rules of logic, a student is guided by his or her work as it proceeds (Papert, 1991). Furthermore, students seek to understand solutions to particular problems, without worrying about universals or generality. Papert, borrowing from the work of Levi-Strauss, uses the untranslatable French word "bricolage" to describe this process. "Bricolage is a metaphor for the ways of the old-fashioned traveling tinker, the jack-of-all trades who knocks on the door offering to fix whatever is broken. Faced with a job, the tinker rummages in his bag of assorted tools to find one that will fit the problem at hand and, if one tool does not work for the job, simply tries another without ever being upset in the slightest by the lack of generality" (Papert, 1993, p. 144).
Constructionism turns conventional wisdom about intellect and learning on its head again with a shift in emphasis from the individual to the community. As Kafai and Resnick (1996) argue, "in the minds of many, Rodin's famous sculpture The Thinker provides the prototypical image of thinking: it shows a person, alone, in deep concentration" (p. 6). But constructionism - and more recently a wealth of other theories - bring more focus to the social aspect of learning. Indeed, Papert's emphasis on learning-by-making is important not only for the end-product itself, but because the product can be shared. It is the discussion, communication, critique with and by others about the product that is as important to the learning process as the making itself. Again, such emphasis distinguishes Papert from Piaget. According to Ackerman (1996), Papert's knowledge is situational and relational. She argues that "such an emphasis on the processes by which people shape and sharpen their ideas in context provides a rich counterpoint to Piaget's stage theory" (p. 27).
The main principles of constructionism suggest some corollary themes Papert has introduced when discussing learning in general. First and foremost, all of these principles - learning-by-making, communicating with others, problem-solving in specific and concrete circumstances - require time. "Giving yourself time," Papert (1996) exclaims "is an absurdly obvious principle" (p. 13). And yet, he believes, it is a principle that is blatantly violated by schools as they are currently structured. Because schools "chop time," students can't sit with a problem the way they might do in a more natural environment. Secondly, Papert argues that part of the learning process is talking about learning itself. Again, he suggests that schools, and culture in general, discourage such disclosure. He even goes so far as to argue "In most circles talking about...
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