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Socio-constructivist theories are variants of constructivist learning theory. The term is also used to design certain pedagogic strategies, instructional design models, etc.

This article is a very short overview piece that should at some point be expanded quite a lot ... On the other hand, writing an introduction for educational technologists is almost meaningless, since there are so many (socio)-constructivist variants both in learning theory and pedagogical designs.

Socio-constructivist learning theory

Incorporating influences traditionally associated with sociology and anthropology, socio-constructivism emphasizes the impact of collaboration, and negotiation on thinking and learning. A central notion in socio-constructivism is assisted learning, a concept that is influenced by socio-culturalism and its concept of proximal learning. Some also would include situatedness, i.e. interaction with the social and physical context.

(1) A first form of socio-constructivism can be defined as an approach according to which individual knowledge relies on its social construction of it. (Piaget, Doise and Mugny, 1984). Especially relevant in this respect are the communication processes (learning dialogs) occurring in situations where at least two persons try to solve a problem. The social world of a learner includes the people that directly affect that person, including teachers, friends, students, administrators, and participants in all forms of activities. Accordingly, learning designs should enhance local collaboration and dialogue but also engage other actors (e.g. domain experts) to participate in certain ways. Research on collaborative learning is particularly interested in learning mechanisms that are triggered by specific collaborative activities.

(2) Some authors identify with social constructivism or socio-cultural theory and trace their ideas back to Vygotsky (1978), who focussed on the roles that society plays in the development of an individual. Assisted learning for example, occurs in the now-familiar zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978) where more able others actively scaffold the individual's performance at a level beyond which the individual could perform alone. As Butterworth (1982) pointed out, their opposition has been exaggerated. Both authors acknowledge the intertwined social and individual aspects of development, but they attribute the primacy to the individual (for Piaget) or to the social environment (for Vygotsky).

(3) Some contemporary cognitive theorists and that belong to a situated cognition school of thought (Lave, 1988) have expanded social learning to give nonsocial aspects of the environment an active role in the individual's learning as well. Rather than a solitary process, these newer perspectives assume that effective learning occurs via interaction with and support from people and physical artefacts (Suchman, 1987).

(4) Finally, distributed cognition views cognition as fundamentally 'shared' or 'distributed' over individuals. Defenders of this approach question the very discrimination between what is social and what is individual: “research paradigms built on supposedly clear distinctions between what is social and what is cognitive will have an inherent weakness, because the causality of social and cognitive processes is, at the very least, circular and is perhaps even more complex” (Perret-Clermont et al., 1991:50). The distributed cognition approach is closer to the Vygotskyan position than to the Piagetian view since it considers the group rather than individual as the primary unit of analysis (Resnick, 1991). By its focus on social structure, distributed cognition is deeply intertwined with the 'situated cognition' theory.

Many publications address the issue to what extent different theories address different facets of learning. E.g. Cobb (1994) examines whether the "mind" is located in the head or in social action, and argues that both perspectives should be used in concert, as they are each as useful as the other. What is seen from one perspective as reasoning of a collection of individuals mutually adapting to each other's actions can be seen in another as the norms and practices of a classroom community (Cobb, 1998). This dialectic is examined in more detail by Salomon and Perkins (1998), who suggest ways that these "acquisition" and "participation" metaphors of learning interrelate and interact in synergistic ways. They model the social entity as a learner (for example, a football team, a business or a family), compare it with the learning of an individual in a social setting, and identify three main types of relations:

  • Individual learning can be less or more socially-mediated learning.
  • Individuals can participate in the learning of a collective, sometimes with what is learned distributed throughout the collective more than in the mind of any one individual.
  • Individuals and social aspects of learning in both of these senses, can interact over time to strengthen one another in a 'reciprocal spiral relationship'.

Pedagogic models

Teaching strategies using social constructivism as a referent include teaching in contexts that might be personally meaningful to students, negotiating taken-as-shared meanings with students, class discussion, small-group collaboration, and valuing meaningful activity over correct answers (Wood et al, 1995). Cobb (1994) contrasts the approach of delivering mathematics as "content" against the technique of fostering the emergence of mathematical ideas from the collective practices of the classroom community. Emphasis is growing on the teacher's use of multiple epistemologies, to maintain dialectic tension between teacher guidance and student-initiated exploration, as well as between social learning and individual learning.

Key functionalities of a socio-constructivist learning environment are:

  • Reflection & Exchange
  • Scaffolding & Storyboarding
  • Facilitation & Content
  • Monitoring & Assessment
  • Production, Investigation etc.
  • Psychological support & Community.

In the last few years, socio-constructivism is often associated with scandinavian pedagogical reform. E.g. Manninen defines criteria for innovations (in vocational training) on the basis of "good learning" defined in “cognitive learning model (Engeström 1988), constructivism (eg. Duffy & Jonassen 1992), Self-Directed Learning, Open and Contextual Learning Environments (Kauppi 1995, Manninen 2000), Web-based Learning Environments and Computer Mediated Communication (eg. Paulsen 1995, Matikainen & Manninen 2000), Collaborative Learning (Johnson & Johnson 1987), Problem Based Learning (Hakkarainen & al. 1999), Transformative Learning (Mezirow 1991), Developmental work research and Activity Theory (eg. Engeström 1999), Project Based Learning (Miettinen & al. 1999), Learning at Work -approaches, and models based on Cognitive and Collective Development of Expertise (Bereiter & Scardamalia 1993, Lave & Wenger 1991).”

The authors of this report then present the following table which in our opinion also can be used to measure "innovative" constructivist learning in other settings than vocational training.

Criteria Ordinary vs. Innovative
Constructiveness Teaching does not pay much attention to how the subject matter is integrated in the existing knowledge structures of the studentTeaching and learning are clearly based on the learners active construction process and on the creation of higher level knowledge structures
ActivenessLearning environment does not support nor require the learner's own active role in the learning processLearning environment is based on the learner's active role and commitment
CooperativenessLearning takes place mainly aloneLearning is based on cooperative and collaborative principles and takes place in groups
ContextualityLearning takes place in an institution and/or is separated from the concrete situation of application of the knowledgeLearning takes place in a simulated or real-life situation, which equals the actual context where the knowledge will be applied
Problem basedStudy objectives are based on study subjects in a traditional way, and cut into separate units in the curriculumLearning approach is problem based and investigative

Ruokamo et al. (2002) in their article on pedagogical models in the design and assment of network-based university education came up with a similar list of criteria. The following list is a slightly amputated and modified copy (plase read the orginnal and from which we also removed references in Finish since not many people are fluent in that language. DSchneider also will adapt this list to the terminology used in various other articles in this wiki)

1. Constructive and Cumulative. Students build new knowledge upon the basis of their earlier knowledge (de Corte 1995; Jonassen 1995; Lehtinen 1997; Ruokamo & Pohjolainen 1999; Mannisenmäki 2000; Nevgi & Tirri 2001). The teacher should construct pedagogical scenarios in such a way that a student can build on his or her prior knowledge (Tella et al. 2001).

2. Active and Self-Directed. The roles of the students and other members of the learning community are active. The students commit themselves to objective-oriented (Uljens 1997) and sensible processing, for which they are responsible. (Jonassen 1995; de Corte 1995; Lehtinen 1997; Ruokamo & Pohjolainen 1999; Mannisenmäki 2000; Nevgi & Tirri 2001.)

2b. Sharing and Community. [category split off from 2. by DSchneider]: A learning and studying environment enables a new kind of teacher-student relationship, which emphasizes communalism and the personal expertise of the students. (Sinko & Lehtinen 1998; Manninen et al. 2000.) Students are encouraged to express new ideas and models of thinking and to engage in knowledge building activities. This way the entire community can see and profit from the 'media traces' born during the process of learning (Sharan & Sharan 1992; Vahtivuori, Wager & Passi 1999; Mannisenmäki 2000; Tella et al. 2001).

3. Cooperative and Communal. Students work together and build new knowledge in cooperation with one another while benefiting from the knowledge and skills of others (de Corte 1995; Jonassen 1995; Lehtinen 1997; Ruokamo & Pohjolainen 1999; Mannisenmäki 2000; Nevgi & Tirri 2001). Communalism is also embedded in dialogic thought (cf. Vygotsky 1934/1962; Vahtivuori, Wager & Passi 1999; Tella et al. 2001). Based on the theory of shared expertise, social interaction and communal modes of learning and studying are emphasized. The teacher as tutor is expected to maintain dialog and contact with the students in network-based education (NBE) (Passi & Vahtivuori 1998; Sinko & Lehtinen 1998; Ruokamo & Pohjolainen 1999; Manninen et al. 1999; 2000.)

4. Conversational and Interactive. A central element of the teaching-studying-learning (TSL) process on the net is dialog (Jonassen 1995; Tella & Mononen-Aaltonen 1998; Mannisenmäki 2000). Dialog and dialogic communication, i.e., comprehensive understanding of and respect for one another as well as interaction and interactivity are at the core of NBE (Tella & Mononen-Aaltonen 1998). Many different channels of communication should be used, e.g. common and shared conversation and working spaces in which documents can be worked on together (e.g. wikis).

5. Contextual and Situational. Learning tasks support meaningful solutions to the problems of the real world, or are simulated through certain case-specific or problem-based examples of the real world (Sharan & Sharan 1992; de Corte 1995; Jonassen 1995; Lehtinen 1997; Ruokamo & Pohjolainen 1998; Mannisenmäki 2000). On a side-note, gaining experiences in NBE is at least as important as in the face-to-face TSL process (Ackermann 1994; Boud & Feletti 1999; Vahtivuori 2001).

5b Simulations and Microworlds [split off from 5 by DKS]] Among other things, simulations, videos, Internet links, implementations in the microworlds and applied problem-based situations are used in the learning and studying environment (Mannisenmäki 2000). Especially promising are on-line strategic and role games that include the principles and criteria linked to the community and experience (Vahtivuori 2001).

6. Transferable. Students know how to use their knowledge and skills in other situations and how to learn, adopt and benefit from them when learning new topics (Ruokamo & Pohjolainen 1999; Mannisenmäki 2000; Nevgi & Tirri 2001). A learning and studying environment supports emerging learning skills, problem solving skills and the skills of self-directed learning. (Sinko & Lehtinen 1998; Manninen et al. 2000.) A learning and studying environment includes cognitive tools, hypertext, professional systems, and databanks that underpin meaningful learning (Mannisenmäki 2000).

7. Goal-Oriented and Purposive. Students achieve a cognitive goal proactively. They can define and set objectives of their own (de Corte 1995; Jonassen 1995; Lehtinen 1997; Ruokamo & Pohjolainen 1999; Mannisenmäki 2000). The guidance and support given by the teacher are related to goal-oriented and purposive studying (Uljens 1997; Mononen-Aaltonen 1999). Self-guidance and a genuine attempt to learn also contribute to creating a learning and studying environment (Sinko & Lehtinen 1998; Manninen et al. 2000). A learning environment includes various tools for planning and monitoring one's learning process (see self-regulation. Here, a teacher helps to support the materialization of his or her own curriculum (Manninen et al. 1999; Mannisenmäki 2000) (see learning e-portfolios).

8. Guided. Learning itself as well as the learner's assessment of his or her own skill are promoted by the teacher and by the feedback and support from other students and actors (cf. Vygotsky 1934/1962; Nevgi & Tirri 2001). Roles can become multi-facetted, e.g. students and teachers take turns in acting as guides and experts. (Tella et al. 2001.). Learning environments must provide facilities for e-tutoring and e-coaching.

9. Individual. Humans have individual learning styles and strategies. Learning and studying are always influenced by the students' prior knowledge, concepts of learning, foci of interest and motivation (de Corte 1995; Lehtinen 1997). A learning and studying environment is basically individual (Nevgi & Tirri 2001), that is, it is never the same to all students. Learners can construct their own individualized interpretation of the challenges and opportunities posed by the environment.

10. Reflective. Learners express what they have learnt and they examine the thinking processes and decisions required by the learning process (Jonassen 1995; Ruokamo & Pohjolainen 1999, Mannisenmäki 2000; Nevgi & Tirri 2001). Information retrieval and processing as well as the skills of critical assessment are emphasized in the modern learning environment (Sinko & Lehtinen 1998; Manninen et al. 2000). A learning environment includes the tools, such as diaries and the tools for a learning e-portfolio, necessary to support the assessment of one's learning and active output (Mannisenmäki 2000).

11. Abstract. Learning can be defined as the construction of new ideas at an abstract level; the development of theoretical ideas reaches from practical experience to the deeper level (Lehtinen 1997). The learning and studying environment enables students to review the socio-constructive process of abstract scientific theories and ideals (Lehtinen 1997). Here, the support given by the teacher is the more important the younger the students are.

DSchneider believes that good socio-constructivist designs do not need to be "feature-complete" according to such lists. In fact, designs including all possible features will lead to contradictions, e.g. a constructivist design putting strong emphasis on individual knowledge construction (even within a strong collaborative context) is somewhat in opposition to the idea of enculturation and apprenticeship in situated learning (Hay & Barab:2001). Also, to make sure that students can follow their preferred learning style is simply incompatible with more sophisticated collaborative storyboards that are popular in CSCL. Finally, too strong guidance conflicts with the idea that learners should learn to plan and develop learning strategies. The good question to ask is "what are the learning goals" ?

See also some of the discussion regarding discovery learning, a variant of radical constructivism.

Socio-constructivist learning environments

See various more specialized entries below for the moment.

See Also

Look at pages that point to this page or pages that point to to constructivism, situated learning, constructionism (most constructivist theories and educational designs do have a social/collaborative, situated/authentic and constructivist flavor).


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