Constructionist learning object

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This draft is almost entirely based on citations from Zuckerman (2006, in preparation). In some future time, we will follow up the leads and expand with some of our own words ...

The constructist Oren Zuckerman (2006, in preparation) defines a learning object as “ specifically designed to promote learning through hands-on interaction. They are popular materials in early childhood education, at school and at home.”

See also:

Zuckerman traces the history of learning objects back to Locke who in turn influenced three traditions:

  1. The "Experimenting" movement" (Rousseau - Pestalozzi - Froebel). “ Froebel's artifacts are construction kits, building materials, that promote activities that involve design and model building. His artifacts help children understand the physical world by making models of physical things, his artifacts engage children in an expressive activity, letting them express their own ideas through design and construction” (p.6)
  2. The "Simplified Reality" movement (Rousseau - Dewey): “ Dewey did not design Learning Objects, but he made it clear what would be a good learning artifact based on his views on learning environments: a simplification of real life. So good Learning Objects should help children feel a part of the adult world, the real world. Dewey's views created a revolution in early childhood environments. Children-size real-world artifacts were developed, like kitchen appliances, kitchen tools, plates, cups, and play food.” (p.6)
  3. The "Intelligent Hand" movement (Condillac - Itard - Seguin - Montessori): “ Montessori's artifacts are about abstract concepts, not the physical world. Each of her artifacts carefully designed to represent a single abstract concept. The most dominant design guideline in her works is 'isolation of properties'. She wanted to make sure that when children interact with one of her materials, the hands-on manipulation process will help them 'absorb' the abstract concept through physical interaction alone, independently, with no teachers guidance, and without any real-world analogy (like Froebel's physical analogies: a house, a train, a tree etc.)” (p.6)

From these traditions Zuckerman derived three major categories of learning objects and toys:

Construction & Design (Froebel)

Learning Objects in this category are building sets and construction kits (for 3D construction), or 2D units that connect/attach together for construction in 2D. Usually, the units are based on geometric rules, helping children explore reality through arrangement of the units in ways that resemble real-world things, such as a house, a tree, a person, a farm, an animal, or a machine - with 3D modeling, and a flower, a boat, or an animal - with 2D modeling. Geometric building blocks can be used to explore the abstract concepts encapsulated in geometry, but usually, through a design process (for example, making flowers with pattern blocks). The natural activity with these Learning Objects is modeling of real-world things.

Digital variants enable construction & design of 2D and 3D structures, involving sensing and actuation. For example, Mindstorms (LEGO) enables construction and programming of robots, Cricket (Resnick 1996) enables construction of kinetic sculptures and interactive art projects, ActiveCubes (Ichida 2004) enables construction of 3D shapes with built-in sensing & actuation, Smart Tiles and Cell Blocks (Elumeze 2005) enable construction of 2D and 3D light patterns. These Learning Objects follow Froebel's design tradition, encouraging children to design and construct models of the world.

Conceptual Manipulation (Montessori)

Learning Objects in this category are math manipulatives, geometric puzzles, number puzzles, alphabet blocks and alphabet puzzles. The main play activity in this category is matching, arranging, sorting, stacking, observing. Usually, there are no creations of structures that resemble real-world things, but rather an interactive exploration and/or problem solving. The natural activity with these Learning Objects is an interactive exploration of abstract concepts.

Digital variants in this category enable interactive, hands-on exploration of abstract concepts that involve computation or computer simulation. For example, Music blocks (neurosmith) explores dynamic musical patterns, Electronic Duplo Blocks (Wyeth 2002) explores computational logic, System Blocks (Zuckerman 2003 explores system dynamics simulation, Flow Blocks (Zuckerman 2005) explores causality over time, and Chromarium (Rogers 2002) investigates digital color mixing. These Learning Objects follow Montessori's design tradition, encouraging children to explore abstract concepts independently, through a self-guiding process, using modular, physical objects.

Reality Role Play (Dewey)

Learning Objects in this category are Pretend Play objects, Dress-up costumes, train sets, dolls and doll houses. The main play activity in this category is 'imaginative' play, in which the child pretends to be an adult, using adult tools, and taking typical adult responsibilities. Based on my definition, the play activity in this category is not similar to 'fantasy play', in which children are pretending to be fairies, knights, princesses, or dragons. The key characteristic of the 'Reality Role Play' category is 'pretending to be an adult from the child's reality'. The natural activity with these objects is social interaction and interactive exploration of adult-like activities and responsibilities.

Digial learning objects in this category enable active role-play, helping children engage in imaginative play scenarios involving adult responsibilities. Some digital objects are doing it successfully; others limit the child's imaginative play, and dictate specific play scenarios. Digital Kitchen appliances usually enhance the pretend scenario, bringing the child one step closer to the adult's life (the appliances are working). These learning objects follow Dewey's philosophy, encouraging children to engage in social interaction and play roles of the adult world around them.


  • Zuckerman, Oren (2006, in preparation), Historical Overview and Classification of Traditional and Digital Learning Objects MIT Media Laboratory, 20 Ames Street, Cambridge, MA 02139. PDF - CiteSeer Abstract.
  • Zuckerman, Oren (2010). Designing digital objects for learning: lessons from Froebel and Montessori, International Journal of Arts and Technology 3 (1) 124-135. (Access restricted).
References from the Zuckerman 2006 article
  • Dewey, J. (1897), My Pedagogic Creed, in The School Journal, Volume LIV, Number 3.
  • Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education, New York: Collier Books.
  • Doyle, Michele Erina and Smith K. Mark (1997) "Jean-Jacques Rousseau on education", The encyclopaedia of informal education HTML
  • Elumeze, N., and Eisenberg, M. (2005). SmartTiles: Designing Interactive "Room-Sized" Artifacts for Educational Computing Children, Youth and Environments 15(1): 54-66.
  • Fröbel, F. (1826) On the Education of Man (Die Menschenerziehung), Keilhau/Leipzig: Wienbrach
  • Ichida H., Itoh Y., Kitamura Y., Kishino F. (2004). ActiveCube and its 3D Applications, IEEE VR 2004, Chicago, IL, USA.
  • Itard, J.M.G. (1962). The wild boy of Aveyron. Excerpt from Indiana University's 'Human Intelligence' Website:
  • Kilpatrick H. William, in his introduction to Heinrich Pestalozzi (1951) The Education of Man - Aphorisms, New York: Philosophical Library.
  • Knight, I. F., The Geometric Spirit (1968). Reproduced from The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, Condillac, Étienne Bonnot de.
  • Lane, H.L. (1976). The wild boy of Aveyron. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • LEGO Mindstorm,
  • Locke J. 1693. Some thoughts concerning education, London.
  • Locke J., 1698, London, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chapter I
  • Montessori, M. (1916) The Montessori Method, New York: Schocken Books (1964 edition)
  • Montessori, M. (1949) The Absorbent Mind, New York: Dell (1967 edn.)
  • Montessori, M. (1952) Kinder sind anders, Klett-Cotter, Stuttgart 1952. See also at , 'Polarisierung der Aufmerksamkeit zur Normalisierung des individuellen'.
  • Muller T., Schneider R. (2002). Montessori: Educational Material for Early Childhood and Schools.
  • Pestalozzi, J. H. (1894) How Gertrude Teaches her Children translated by Lucy, E. Holland and
  • Frances C. Turner. Edited with an introduction by Ebenezer Cooke. London: Swan Sonnenschein.
  • Resnick, M., Martin, F., Sargent, R., and Silverman, B. (1996). Programmable Bricks: Toys to Think With. IBM Systems Journal 35, 3, 443-452.
  • Rogers, Y., Scaife, M. Gabrielli, S., Harris, E., and Smith, H. (2002) A Conceptual Framework for Mixed Reality Environments: Designing Novel Learning Activities for Young Children. Presence, Dec 2002
  • Rousseau, J, J. (1762) Émile, London
  • Seguin, The Museum Of Disability History online exhibit,
  • Smith K. Mark, (1997), 'Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi', the encyclopaedia of informal education,
  • Wyeth Peta, Purchase C. Helen. (2002). Tangible programming elements for young children. Proceeding of CHI 02.
  • Zuckerman O., Arida S., Resnick M. (2005). Extending Tangible Interfaces for Education: Digital Montessori-Inspired Manipulatives . In Proceedings of CHI '05, ACM Press.
  • Zuckerman O., Resnick M. (2003). System Blocks: A Physical Interface for System Dynamics Simulation . In Proceedings of CHI '03, ACM Press, pp. 810-811.