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Many educators today have been schooled in the postmodern way of thinking, abandoning the search for an "absolute truth" and instead building from widely known set rules or "local truths" (Noddings p.78). This way of thought has led to an epistemological position called constructivism. In the field of education, constructivism has dominated in the fields of science and math, with a basic premise that knowledge and meaning is constructed from the students' experiences and follows a pedagogical or cognitive order. Ultimately learning strategies that involve critical thinking skills are necessary for the student to develop their own knowledge within this epistemological view
Constructivism can be traced back to Jean Piaget. Although his work was primarily with cognitive development, his contribution to education can be seen in the learning strategies and teaching methods used today. As educators we become familiar with the work of John Dewey and parallels can be drawn between constructivism and Dewey's' beliefs about education and knowledge. Many educators today have adopted his belief that children should be responsible for their own learning. Other scholars have taken the ideas of constructivism even further. Lev Vygotsky included the social aspects of learning. He claimed that we learn more through interaction with others. This way of thought has derived what we know as "social constructivism". Ernst von Glasersfeld takes constructivism even further by his claims that knowledge is not passively received but knowledge is obtained through cognitive skills. The learner must be actively involved in the process. This philosophical view is known as "radical constructivism" today.
Characteristics of the learner can be seen in the work of Dewey and developmental democracy. He believed that human nature and learning comes from the learners' ability to develop a scientific method. They must have a biological aptitude and be stimulated by their social environment. In social constructivism each learner is viewed as having unique needs and backgrounds that are critical characteristics in the learning process. He has determined that it is with the use of these characteristics that the learner develops their own knowledge or truth. Dewey believed that education should follow a method of rational problem solving and be employed by all practitioners at all levels. It is with these teaching methods that the learner takes sole responsibility of the learning process led by the teacher to construct meaning to what they have seen or read. Many credit Dewey with the development of problem based learning that we see in many of the science and health related professional curriculum today. Certainly other higher order skills such as critical thinking are tools dependent on this type of education. Lastly, Dewey believed that successful transfer of knowledge depends on the motivation of the learner. With the skills needed to investigate concepts and ideas the learner develops the confidence needed to master challenging tasks, and with confidence, develops the motivation to attack other difficult tasks. This falls in line with the basic concept of Dewey's epistemological belief solidifying the concept that in order to solve problems the students must experience it first-hand.
In constructivism, the instructor takes on the role of facilitator and guides the learner to develop their own knowledge of the content. As a facilitator the teacher must have to skills to adapt the learning experience or steer the experience to the content intended. This can be accomplished by providing guidelines and creating an environment for learning to take place. Dewey believed it is the teachers' responsibility to engage the students in the learning process while at the same time keeping a careful regulation of thought in order to ensure a full and objective consideration of the information. He believed that learning becomes scientific when teachers replace assumptions with learned habits. It is the development of these habits that are a responsibility of the teacher, by creating a supportive learning environment, by providing supportive guidance and by challenging the student to become an effective thinker.
Vygotsky's work in social constructivism suggests that knowledge is first constructed in a social context with the help of others, and then later, assimilated by the individual (Noddings, p.16). So we can say that learning is an active process and each student learns to develop principals, concepts and facts for themselves. This process takes the student through the guesswork at the beginning of an assignment, which social constructivists' believe to be an important process, to intuitive thinking by the end. The complete process is emphasized through the social interaction of others by which, as a group, they develop meanings that are socially and culturally constructed.
We can identify several pedagogies that hold leverage in constructivist theory, many of which hold belief that learning is achieved through a hands-on approach. One approach of which applies to this case study involves the method of critical thinking. Critical thinking historically dates back as far as Socrates. Socratic questioning is a form of critical thinking (Noddings p. 85). Other philosophers and educators have discussed the use of critical thinking in education. Israel Scheffler believed that it is the teachers' responsibility to recognize their students' ability to use this strategy. John Dewey used this strategy in his work with problem based learning, which in itself is a form of critical thinking. Though many believe that the strategy of critical thinking is a way for students to gain their own knowledge, the debate remains on how to teach this strategy to students.
Critical thinking is often used in the fields of math and science. The learner demonstrates critical thinking by determining the meaning or significance of what is observed or investigated and uses that information to determine if the evidence leads to acceptable conclusions. Critical thinking is an important element in the academic curriculum of many professional fields. Especially those related to math and science. In my experience as an educator in an allied health curriculum I often ask the students to use critical thinking on a daily basis through the interpretation of information and to form a well-justified conclusion. Those of us in higher education that rely on critical thinking skills would like to see educators cultivate this skill in every stage of learning.
In the case study, Louis Fuentes is an obvious supporter of the constructivist epistemology as well as showing interest in the use of critical thinking skills. His decision to use a critical thinking exercise with a group of students that probably would not attend college or decide on careers that involved scientific inquiry is a good idea. The use of the internet today, provides endless opportunities to discover information. While his original idea was noble he probably needed to provide specific guidance into this type of inquiry. His allowing the students to enter into alternative perspectives in science is a critical tool in developing knowledge using the constructivist view. He actually encouraged alternative perspectives to be pursued by the students. Where he began to doubt himself is when the students found ideas that he, as an adult, with his on worldview thought of as false. He as the facilitator of knowledge needed to provide more complete instructions on how to evaluate scientific data and empirical studies. He needed to take on the role of coach and lead the group in the scientific questioning and the methods used to determine real from false facts.
One dynamic that was not specifically mentioned in the case study was the dimension of the groups he assigned. Careful consideration should be taken when assigning a group in order to ensure that concluding decisions about the information gained remain in check. Each group member will bring their own world-view into the project and by following strict guidelines, support the interpretation of the information. A social constructivist would say that the process of constructing an opinion of knowledge is based on a mix of experiences, perspectives and interactions between the groups while making an informed judgment. The project itself should have been constructed strict guidelines but with enough flexibility for the group to make their own informed decisions about pseudoscientific studies.
Constructivism is only one epistemological view on education and learning. Each teacher must develop their own educational philosophy. Stakeholders make it difficult to try new methods due to the movement of accountability. Educators today must follow strict curriculum guidelines that often do not allow the time for development of critical thinking skills. They must work within the boundaries set by the educational system and hope that they can achieve the delivery of content, introduce new ways of thinking and instill the desire for students to continue their attainment of knowledge through life-long learning.