Why I am not a social-constructivist

Atharva Tulsi >at Unsplash

I have never believed in social-constructivism. At least not the way the educational anthropologists’ definition of the phenomena has been distorted and contorted into current practice. Social-constructivists justifiably argue that knowledge is often constructed through social interaction. Further, they state that the social and cultural context in which that learning occurs is significant. I just don’t believe that it necessarily requires in-person encounters. And I don’t think it applies to all forms of learning and disciplines.

Atharva Tulsi at Unsplash

The fetishism of ‘group-work’, which has continued to grow since the 1980s on the back of skimming the literature about social constructivism, and further enabled through digital tools in developed economies, has been applied to nearly all disciplines and all levels. This simply doesn’t make sense. Socialisation matters for children in K-12 as they learn diverse social skills through subject-based curriculum; at least in theory. Group-work, applied to much of the University curriculum has been poorly conceived. Rich courseware should provide a  transparent socio-cultural context for its learning. It rarely does. Unless the intention is to refine and extend the processes of socialisation for University students, students can, and should, be empowered to mediate the knowledge through their own socio-cultural reality.

When I read, listen, or watch something I am engaged in learning from another human being. Often this learning is asynchronous, sometimes time-displaced to an extreme degree, but there is still evidence of a voice. How well crafted the learning is, will depend on the coherent nature of that voice, but there is always a voice. At the Open University in the early 2000s Course Teams worked hard to ensure that no matter how many course authors might contribute to a course, there was a consistent ‘voice’. I just don’t believe that it is appropriate to assume that an individual’s learning is enhanced somehow by having ‘horizontal’ conversations with others who are at the same level of learning as themselves. I agree that one can learn from others. That is not the same as saying one necessarily learns with peers.

Personally, I believe we should be designing learning experiences, and courseware, that the individual student can deploy in their own context. If learners ‘want’ to learn with others, with whānua (family/community) or colleagues, they can do so. We may want to encourage them to mobilise people around their own learning, and to build networks to support their learning journey. This would be a truer representation of their lifelong learning experience going forward.

I don’t believe we should force students to ‘come and learn with us‘. To do so is to perpetuate an arcane model of learning that reinforces notions of power and privilege. It’s a model of learning that centralises access to knowledge, and maintains the notion of gatekeepers to learning. We should empower and enable learners through our courseware, not enslave them through it.

Photo by Atharva Tulsi on Unsplash

 

Author: Simon Paul Atkinson

30 Years as an academic practitioner, educational developer, educational technologist, e-learning researcher, strategic advisor. Simon is now an Educational Strategst and Consultant. Experienced presenter and workshop facilitator. Formerly the Head of Learning Design at the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. Previous roles included Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning (BPP University), Academic Developer (London School of Economics), Director of Teaching and Learning (Massey University - College of Education), Head of Centre for Learning Development (University of Hull), Academic Developer (Open University UK)

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