Constructionism vs. The World

A list of partial thoughts towards understanding constructionism and learning theories in general.

(This is a work in progress in that it’s more about questions and incomplete thoughts than answers)


Short definition: Constructionism is a learning theory (maybe; see below) that extends constructivism (and social constructivism) by adding a public and creative component to the outcome. For example, constructivism is the thinking and research that goes into this blog post, while constructionism adds both the creation of the post and the publishing for my 1+ readers.

Constructionism seems to try to address the gap between constructivism and teaching practice, in at least giving a hint as to what sort of outcomes we should expect.

Constructionism is also tied to the maker initiative and learning by doing, although I don’t think it is necessarily limited to this associations.

Constructionism might be limited to domains where construction of public items is typical, e.g. computer science. I think one can add such things to other areas, e.g. blog posts about …, but maybe the model doesn’t extend.

A longer discussion about Constructionism (with a point about not providing a definition) from Situating Constructionism By Seymour Papert and Idit Harel (link to the full essay)


My little play on the words construct and constructionism already hints at two of these multiple facets–one seemingly “serious” and one seemingly “playful.” The serious facet will be familiar to psychologists as a tenet of the kindred, but less specific, family of psychological theories that call themselves contructivist. Constructionism–the N word as opposed to the V word–shares constructivism’s connotation of learning as “building knowledge structures” irrespective of the circumstances of the learning. It then adds the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe. And this in turn implies a ramified research program which is the real subject of this introduction and of the volume itself. But in saying all this I must be careful not to transgress the basic tenet shared by the V and the N forms: 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. Doing so is bound to trivialize it. Instead, I must confine myself to engage you in experiences (including verbal ones) liable to encourage your own personal construction of something in some sense like it. Only in this way will there be something rich enough in your mind to be worth talking about. But if I am being really serious about this, I have to ask (and this will quickly lead us into really deep psychological and epistemological waters) what reasons I have to suppose that you will be willing to do this and that if you did construct your own constructionism that it would have any resemblance to mine?

I find an interesting toe-hold for the problem in which I called the playful facet–the element of tease inherent in the idea that it would be particularly oxymoronic to convey the idea of constructionism through a definition since, after all, constructionism boils down to demanding that everything be understood by being constructed. The joke is relevant to the problem, for the more we share the less improbable it is that our self-constructed constructions should converge. And I have learned to take as a sign of relevantly common intellectual culture and preferences the penchant for playing with self-referentially recursive situations: the snake eating its tail, the man hoisting himself by his own bootstraps, and the liar contradicting himself by saying he’s a liar. Experience shows that people who relate to that kind of thing often play in similar ways. And in some domains those who play alike think alike. Those who like to play with images of structures emerging from their own chaos, lifting themselves by their own bootstraps, are very likely predisposed to constructionism.

(BTW Seymour Papert is the creator/discoverer/instigator of constructionism)

What this might look like: It starts with a proper environment, a sandbox. This defines some boundaries and provides raw materials, although students will bring in their own materials and may explore outside the boundaries. Then there is construction, solo or group or shared in other ways. Always there is evaluation, public with informal as students glance at others work, more formal as things are declared ‘finished’. There is self or natural evaluation as to the object meeting the desired outcome or the presented challenge. Much of what is done is done publicly, or at least it should be done with the expectation that the results will be shown publicly.

In this context, motivation is a challenging component as it would ideally be intrinsic based on a students interests and desires, but will probably need to be based on some course-level goals and thus will be somewhat extrinsically motivated by grades (or at least peer perception of grades).  Even if we throw in some problem or project based learning, hoping that finding a solution is enough motivation, there is still the issue of whether or not the student cares about the problem and its solution. (Motivation vs. Structure vs. Grades is a big enough topic for its own post.)

Learning Theories

A learning theory, the best I can tell, is a set of beliefs about how people learn. It might be based on scientific fact or experiments, or on social experience, or it may just be a framework that people use to talk about learning (and teaching). There seems to be gaps between learning theory, teaching theory and teaching practice, in that, it is unclear how theory connects to practice. (This makes me think of existence proofs in mathematics that are not constructive; you get that the answer exists, but the result or theorem or proof provides no direction as to how to find it.)

Another possible perspective is that a learning theory is a link between neuroscience and teaching practice in the language of educators.

Learning theories are also models for how people learn, and as such are incomplete, and, as is often said about models, always wrong.  However, they can be useful.

Following the modeling idea: one use of modeling is as a substitute or as a universal.  In this case, we can think of any learning theory as something to judge a teaching practice by, through considering the impact of the practice on the model substituting for a real class or student.  Or, we can decide that the theory is the ‘real thing’ and only evaluate practices against the theory.  My thoughts here are linked to how we evaluate numerical algorithms in general. We usually define the model computer and the aspects we are going to measure, e.g. speed (in terms of flops) and stability (in terms of theoretical round-off error).  In this limited context, we can determine the properties of an algorithm, just like if we limit our perspective to the one formulated by the theory, we can evaluate different teaching practices.

One more: Learning Theory = Model = Framework, and as such it decides (a) what is relevant, (b) what we measure and (c) how the elements interact with each other and the world.

Evaluation of learning theories or of practices based on a learning theory is difficult. I can think of various properties that one could measure, but I’m not sure how we could compare things.  For example, there’s some idea of efficiency in terms of learning progress versus learner or teacher time or effort. Obvious questions: over what time period? what type of learning is measured? do we measure novice or expert effort? There’s also how widely it works. I have a thought experiment for this: if method/theory A could reliably produce excellent results but in only 80% of the students, while it bombed for 20%, would that be a good method/theory?  How about against method/theory B that produces a mix of good and average results but for all students. (You are limited to choosing A or B, you can’t mix them).

A Theory of Learning Theories

Playing loose with it all, if we are more interested in a framework for discussion and evaluation and less interested in the accuracy of the framework, then I’d say there may be some sense of a ‘Learning Theory Framework’ by which we do construct and judge learning theories. For example, we might not agree on specific outcomes, but we would agree that there should be desired outcomes and the theory should somehow be effective in reaching those outcomes, i.e. it should address the problem that it is proposed to solve. Similarly,  we have some limits on the distribution of the workload, and a theory should be efficient in some way (with respect to given resources). We might have a disagreement on this, but I would expect a theory to have a fairly broad application across student levels and subjects. There are other factors that could be involved.

Such a framework, flawed or not, allows comparison and classification, and thus some hope of sense making.

Back to Constructionism

So, in such an imagined framework, where does constructionism sit? In terms of addressing ‘learning’ it seems to hit the high points of various accepted theories (e.g. constructivism) and practices (e.g. peer instruction).  It is probably not the most efficient method, although if practiced across multiple scales of time and subject, it might develop as a more efficient scheme, and the improvement in relevant technologies and students’ familiarity with such, could also improve it’s efficiency. It is a flexible theory although it might be somewhat restrictive in subject (although that’s not so clear). In classification, constructionism sits in the constructivist branch, but has stronger ties to classroom practice than some of it’s sister theories.