Learners Conceptions Of Knowledge Education Essay

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Constructivism as an epistemological view of knowledge acquisition emphasizes knowledge construction rather than knowledge transmission. The role of the learner is conceived as one of building and transforming knowledge. While there are several interpretations of what constructivist theory means, most agree that it involves a dramatic change in the focus of teaching and learning, putting the students' own efforts to understand at the center of the educational enterprise. Also in the light of this theory of language learning, some scholars view foreign / second language learning as a constructivist venture and construction of knowledge as the basis for foreign language.(Wolff,1994)

Principles of constructivist learning theory and the instructional potential inherent in the computer may challenge traditional notions of sequencing in instructional design.  In the constructivist framework, learning occurs by exposing students to primary sources within a situated context, and encouraging them to see relationships (Brooks & Brooks, 1993).  The emphasis shifts from instruction by the teacher to construction by the learner. Learning happens in an idiosyncratic manner as each student uses his/her unique prior experience as the lens through which new information that creates dissonance is interpreted, and new knowledge is constructed (Reagan & Osborn, 2002).  Sequencing is not as important as responding to learners' needs as they arise in the context of the learning situation. (LeBow, 1993).

Constructivists take issue with positivist, outcome-oriented empirical approaches to learning.  They emphasize that real learning is neither rational, nor objective, but circuitous, responding to trial and error attempts at understanding, and that it is firmly embedded in a social-emotional context (Brooks & Brooks, 1993). 


Noam Chomsky is identified with the Innatist or Nativist theory. As seen in the discussion under the age factor, Chomsky claims that children are biologically programmed to acquire language, as they are for other biological functions such as walking, which a child normally learns without being taught. While the environment supplies people who talk to the child, language acquisition is an unconscious process. The child activates the Language Acquisition Device (LAD), an innate capability or blueprint that endows the child with the capability to develop speech from a universal grammar.

The Natural Approach

The Natural Approach, with echoes of the 'naturalistic' aspect of the Direct Method, was developed by Krashen and Terrell (1983). It emphasised "Comprehensible Input", distinguishing between 'acquisition' - a natural subconscious process, and 'learning' - a conscious process. They argued that learning cannot lead to acquisition. The focus is on meaning, not form (structure, grammar). The goal is to communicate with speakers of the target language.

Krashen summarises the input hypothesis thus:

We acquire language in an amazingly simple way - when we understand messages. We have tried everything else - learning grammar rules, memorizing vocabulary, using expensive machinery, forms of group therapy etc. What has escaped us all these years, however, is the one essential ingredient: comprehensible input (Krashen 1985: vii).

Unlike Chomsky, moreover, Stephen Krashen's linguistic theories had a more direct relationship to language learning and acquisition, thereby bringing them to the attention of language teachers around the world.

Krashen, along with Terrell, developed the "input theory," which stresses maximum amounts of passive language or what Krashen (1979) refers to as 'i+1' (input + 1), language input that is just a little beyond the learner's current level of comprehension. Krashen contends that through context and extralinguistic information, like a mother talking to her child, hence the 'natural approach', learners will climb to the next level and then repeat the process. The message is more important than the form. The input is one way, from the teacher, and learners will participate when ready.

Communicative Language Teaching

Influenced by Krashen, approaches emerged during the 1980s and 1990s which concentrated on the communicative functions of language. Classrooms were characterized by attempts to ensure authenticity of materials and meaningful tasks.

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) emerged as the norm in second language and immersion teaching. As a broadly-based approach, there are any number of definitions and interpretations, but the following interconnected characteristics offered by Brown (2001: 43) provide a useful overview:

Classroom goals are focused on all of the components (grammatical, discourse, functional, sociolinguistic, and strategic) of communicative competence. Goals therefore must intertwine the organizational aspects of language with the pragmatic.

Language techniques are designed to engage learners in the pragmatic, authentic, functional use of language for meaningful purposes. Organizational language forms are not the central focus, but rather aspects of language that enable the learner to accomplish those purposes.

Fluency and accuracy are seen as complementary principles underlying communicative techniques. At times fluency may have to take on more importance than accuracy in order to keep learners meaningfully engaged in language use.

Students in a communicative class ultimately have to use the language, productively and receptively, in unrehearsed contexts outside the classroom. Classroom tasks must therefore equip students with the skills necessary for communication in those contexts.

Students are given opportunities to focus on their own learning process through an understanding of their own styles of learning and through the development of appropriate strategies for autonomous learning.

The role of the teacher is that of facilitator and guide, not an all-knowing bestower of knowledge. Students are therefore encouraged to construct meaning through genuine linguistic interaction with others.

The communicative approach was developed mainly in the context of English Second Language (ESL) teaching. The question must be asked, however, how universal can its application be? Decoo (4.3) points out that one can relatively easily reach a fair level of communication in English, which has a relatively simple morphology ( e.g. simple plurals with 's', no adjectival agreement, no gender markers, etc). Neither is mastery of the highly irregular orthography of English a priority in an oral communication approach. French, for example, requires mastery of an enormously greater number of elements to reach a similar first year communicative level (different articles in front of nouns, gender, adjectival agreement, numerous verbal forms etc.). It is fatal for the progression and motivation of the learner to ignore this complexity. With Irish, the apparently simple notion "Where do you live?" is not rendered by a simple question form of the verb 'to live', but by an idiom denoting state "Cá bhfuil tú i do chónaí?" ("Where are you in your living?") linking it not with a verbal construction, but with the other idioms denoting state by means of the preposition, personal adjective, and noun construction, "i do luí, shuí, etc.". This construction, and the other distinctive features of Irish, are not inordinately difficult when taught in structural context, but it is different to English and other languages and requires appropriate adaptation if the communicative approach is to be adopted. The same can of course be said about other languages as well.

Constructivist Theories of Learning

Purely cognitivist theories have now developed into Constructivist theories of learning. Cohen and Manion (2004:167) explain that:

"At heart there is a move away from instructing and instructivism and towards constructivism".


"signals a significant move from attention on teaching to attention on learning; classrooms are places in which students learn rather than being mainly places in which teachers teach. Teachers are facilitators of learning (Cohen & Manion 2004: 167)

Cognitive constructivism Jean Piaget (1896-1980)

Piaget (1952 The Origins of Intelligence) is concerned with how the learner develops understanding. Children's minds are not empty, but actively process material. The role of maturation (growing up) and children's increasing capacity to understand their world in terms of developmental stages is central to his view.

Children are constrained by their individual stage of intellectual development. They cannot undertake certain tasks until they are psychologically mature enough to do so.

There is an emphasis on discovery learning rather than teacher imparted information

The readiness to learn, when learners are to progress, is different for each individual

The idea of a linear development through stages has been widely used in the design and scheduling of school curricula.

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934)


While Piaget hypothesized that language developed to express knowledge acquired through interaction with the physical world, for Vygotsky, thought was essentially internalised speech, and speech emerges in social interaction.

Vygotsky and Bruner are identified with Social Constructivism which places more emphasis upon the role of language and how understanding and meanings grow out of social encounter.

"For Vygotsky , learning is a social, collaborative and interactional activity in which it is difficult to 'teach' specifically - the teacher sets up the learning situation and enables learning to occur, with intervention to provoke and prompt that learning through scaffolding " (Cohen & Manion 2004:168).

Vygotsky is identified with the theory of the "Zone of Proximal Development" (ZPD). 'Proximal' simply means 'next' and the ZPD is the distance or gap between a child's actual level of development as observed when working independently without adult help and the level of potential development when working in collaboration with more capable peers or adults. The other person in not necessarily teaching them how to perform the task, but the process of interaction and enquiry makes possible new understandings or a refinement of performance. For Vygotsky, therefore, the development of language and articulation of ideas is central to learning and further development. The learner's current level reflects the importance of prior influences and knowledge. The learner is 'stretched' and ZPD is about "can do with help". The teacher's role is to place learning in the ZPD.

Jerome Bruner (1915-)


Bruner is one of the key figures in the so-called 'cognitive revolution' that displaced behaviourism. Influenced by Piaget but later, and to a greater extent, Vygotsky (whom he is credited with having introduced to the West), he saw learning as an active knowledge-getting process in which learners construct new ideas based upon their current and past knowledge (Bruner Acts of meaning 1990) Learning how to learn is a central element, the process of learning is as important as the product, and social interaction is crucial. While concerned primarily with young children, much of Bruner's theory holds true for adult learners as well.

Extending Piagetian theory, Bruner suggested three modes of thinking which increasingly overlap each other:

the Enactive, where learning takes place through actions, manipulating objects and materials;

the Iconic, where objects are represented by images which are recognised for what they represent, but can also be created independently;

the Symbolic, words and numbers, which represents how children make sense of their experiences and language becomes an increasingly important means of representing the world, enabling thinking and reasoning in the abstract.

"Teachers need to be aware of the ways in which learning can be enhanced by using these three modes. At the enactive level, we can see the importance of the use of drama, play, total physical response and the handling of real objects. The iconic mode would be brought into play through the use of pictures, or words in colour. At the same time, learners begin to use the symbolic mode as they use the target language … to express ideas in context"

(Williams & Burden Psychology for Language Teachers CUP 1997: 26-27)

Bruner's term Scaffolding (Wood, Bruner, and Ross 1976) has come to be used for the support for learning provided by a teacher to enable a learner to perform tasks and construct understandings that they would not quite be able to manage on their own as the learner moves towards mastery and autonomy, when the scaffolding is gradually phased out. It enables the teacher to extend the pupil's work and active participation beyond his current abilities and levels of understanding within the ZPD.

Common elements of scaffolding include:

defining tasks

direct or indirect instructing

specification and sequencing of activities

modelling and exemplification; simplification



provision of materials, equipment and facilities

other environmental contributions

As well as scaffolding provided by the teacher, students collaborating in small groups can provide scaffolding for each other - ICT would be a prime environment for such work. This would exemplify and emphasise Vygotsky's view that learning is a social as well as an individual activity.

David and Heather Wood developed the theory of Contingency in instruction.


Contingency developed from work on face-to-face tutoring. It attempts to strike a balance between:

ensuring that learners solve for themselves as many of the problems in a task as possible,


intervening when the task is too difficult in order to avoid prolonged failure

The goals of contingent tutoring in assisted problem solving are:

* The learner should not succeed too easily

* Nor fail too often.

The principles are:

* When learners are in trouble, give more help than before (scaffolding)

* When they succeed, give less help than before (fading)


Constructivism is a theory and as such is open to critique as differing little from common sense empiricist views, or as providing misleading and incomplete views of human learning (Fox 2001). An overly enthusiastic endorsement of constructivism might reduce the teacher's role to that of a facilitator, with the students in 'discovery mode'. This is unlikely to be wholly satisfactory in Higher Education, either for teachers or learners, and an element of instructivism is to be expected. Nevertheless, Fox acknowledges that "the greatest insight of constructivism is perhaps the realisation of the difference made by a learner's existing knowledge and values to what is learned next, both in facilitating and inhibiting it (ibid. 33).