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Psychological constructivism and social constructivism have differences that suggest different ways for teachers to teach most effectively.
The theoretical differences are related to three ideas in particular:
1. The relationship between learning and long-term development of the child
2. The role of generalisations and abstractions during development
3. The mechanism by which development occurs
The relationship between learning and long-term development of the child
In general, psychological constructivism emphasises the way that long-term development determines a child’s ability to learn, rather than the other way around. The earliest stages of a child’s life are thought to be rather self-centred and to be dependent on the child’s sensory and motor interactions with the environment. When acting or reacting to his or her surroundings, the child has relatively little language skill initially. This circumstance limits the child’s ability to learn in the usual, school-like sense of the term.
As development proceeds, of course, language skills improve and hence the child becomes progressively more ‘teachable’ and in this sense more able to learn. But whatever the child’s age, ability to learn waits or depends upon the child’s stage of development.
From this point of view, therefore, a primary responsibility of teachers is to provide a very rich classroom environment, so that children can interact with it independently and gradually make themselves ready for verbal learning.
Alternatively, social constructivists emphasise the importance of social interaction in stimulating the development of the child. Language and dialogue therefore are primary, and development is seen as happening as a result – the converse of the sequence by psychological constructivists.
Obviously a child does not begin life with a lot of initial language skill, but this fact is why interactions need to be scaffolded by more experienced experts, i.e. people capable of creating a zone of proximal development in their conversations and other interactions.
In the preschool years, the experts are usually parents. After the child begins school, the experts broaden to include teachers.
A teacher’s primary responsibility is therefore to provide very rich opportunities for dialogue, both among children and between individual children and the teacher.
The role of generalisations and abstractions during development
Psychological constructivism tends to see a relatively limited role for abstract or hypothetical reasoning in the life of children, and even in the reasoning of youth and many adults.
Abstract thinking, according to psychological constructivism, emerges relatively slowly and relatively late in development, after a person accumulates considerable concerted experience.
Social constructivism sees abstract thinking emerging from dialogue between a relative novice (a child or youth) and a more experienced expert (a parent or teacher). The more this type of dialogue occurs, then the more the child can acquire abstract thinking skills. The dialogue must, of course, honour a child’s need for intellectual scaffolding or a zone of proximal development.
A teacher’s responsibility can therefore include engaging the child in dialogue that uses potentially abstract reasoning, but without expecting the child to understand the abstractions fully at first, e.g. young children can not only engage in science experiments like creating a volcano out of baking soda and water, but also discuss and speculate about their observations of the experiment. They may not understand the experiment as an adult would, but the discussion can begin moving them toward adult-like understandings.
The mechanism by which development occurs
In psychological constructivism, development is thought to happen because of the interplay between assimilation and accommodation—between when a child or youth can already understand or conceive of, and the change required of that understanding by new experiences.
Acting together, assimilation and accommodation continually create new states of cognitive equilibrium.
A teacher can therefore stimulate development by provoking cognitive dissonance (conflict) deliberately: by confronting a student with sights, actions or ideas that do not fit with the student's existing experiences and ideas.
In practice the dissonance is often communicated verbally, by posing questions or ideas that are new or that students may have misunderstood in the past. But it can also be provoked through pictures or activities that are unfamiliar to students, e.g. engaging students in a community service project that brings them in contact with people who they had previously considered ‘strange’ or different from themselves.
In social constructivism, development is believed to happen largely because of scaffolded dialogue in a zone of proximal development. Such dialogue is by implication less like ‘disturbing’ students' thinking than like ‘stretching’ it beyond its former limits.
The image of the teacher therefore is more one of collaborating with students' ideas rather than challenging their ideas or experiences.
In practice, however, the actual behaviour of teachers and students may be quite similar in both forms of constructivism. Any significant new learning requires setting aside, giving up or revising former learning, and this step inevitably therefore ‘disturbs’ thinking, if only in the short term and only in a relatively minor way.
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