Digital Media in Education

research in new media learning environments

in: Constructionism: Research Reports and Essays

Seymour Papert works and research in education are still great references to frame the evolution of constructionist approaches in education.

This book presents a collection of essays and reports over methodological approaches to education and education research based in constructionism.

The main point of this book is to be present constructionism as a learning theory that supports the importance of “context” and self-conscience in the construction of a public entity for learning activities and for “building knowledge structures”.

S. Papert starts this book making a general presentation of the subject and structure of the book. With a double meaning chapter, Situating constructionism, he presents both the framework of constructionism and the main focus on situating learning to increase knowledge construction within the general paradigm defined by constructivist psychological theories. Papert claims that constructionism defines a better learning approach for everyone than the “intructionalist” practices that are still prevalent in school, and that constructionism “is the only framework that has been proposed that allows the full range of intellectual styles and preferences to each find a point of equilibrium.”  p.3

One important idea here addressed that will further be explored in a chapter with Sherry Turkle is the conviction that learning-by-making (presented as the simplest definition of constructionism) descends from two main ideas:

  • Bricolage as a working strategy – where students can let them self-guide by the work as it proceeds instead of staying with the pre-established plan.
  • Closeness to objects – defined as one of the most important parameters to distinguish learning styles. People that have object oriented learning style require proximity to physical objects. Those that are more at ease with some distance to objects and choose more abstract and formal ways of learning.

Using LEGO and a simple object oriented programming language called Logo allows exploring several issues related to this closeness to learning. Several authors in this book present activities with these two components LEGO/Logo that illustrate the difference between using computer as content delivery media and as media for knowledge production.

In this book, Papert also leaves an important message related to his stance concerning the use o computers in education. Taking into account that that learning in school is largely a technical act, he believes that computers and “technology should be the instrument for the achievement of a less technical form of education.” p.18. In the second chapter, Perestroika and Epistemological Politics he develops the idea that supports that activities with computers are the key to let teacher focus on orient and personalize learning to students instead of following rigid curriculums or syllabus.

Learning as a technical act:Learning is an activity that is in the origin a natural act but it becomes technical in school, as technical ways of thinking are used and the teacher is cast to the role of a technician carrying out procedures set by a syllabus or curriculum designed hierarchically, and dictated from above.

The second part of the book shows some examples of research models that explore learning through design, play and programming.  In the chapter Software Design as Learning all of these learning situations are studied in a project that compares the learning outcomes of a class that was engaged for a semester in the design and production of an educational software to teach fraction and two other classes that followed the regular mathematics curriculum. In this study the computer is already seen “as a medium for expression” and as a technology to “think with”. One of the most significant activities made by students in these classes is to “thinking about their own thinking and other people’s thinking” in this study the main conclusion is that in this processes students “facilitate their own learning”. This activity as described and analyzed by the authors promoted:

  • Metacognitive awareness – children’s thinking about their own thinking;
  • Cognitive control – planning, self-management, and thinking about these processes;
  • Metaconceptual thinking – children’s thinking about their own knowledge and understanding of concepts.

The skills that the authors believe where supported:

  • problem-finding skills;
  • cognitive flexibility;
  • how to control distractions and anxiety;
  • practice of continual evaluation;
  • to monitor their own processes;
  • to become articulate about general planning and specific design tasks.

”The idea is that learning benefits from a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity” p.3

Attributes concerning learning objects:

  • Appropriability – some things lend themselves better than others to being made one’s own;
  • Evocativeness – some materials are more apt than others to precipitate personal thought;
  • Integration – some materials are better carriers of multiple meanings and multiple concepts.

Some methodological research approaches where questioned and the authors came to believe that most conclusions are based in the researchers own intuitions:

“Did the simple fact of spending some 70 hours programming representations in Logo contribute to the results? Was the “moral climate” in the project largely responsible? Or the fact that the teacher felt she was part of something important or simply different? “ p.65

In another chapter Michel Resnick and Stepthen Ocko address the importance of design in human activity and the relatively low focus given in school classrooms. They present several examples of children’s activities with the Lego/Logo machines that lead them to conclude that they were developing richer and more robust models on mathematics and physics. They concluded saying that:

“Children do not learn a new concept when they are taught the definition. Rather, they must experience and re-experience the concept in different contexts. Through these experiences, children gradually reorganize their intuitions into more complete models.” p.146

The authors believe these methods are not easy for the teacher to implement, being time consuming and requiring lot of dedicated attention to developing new activities and providing personal feedback to students, but they believe the effort is worthwhile by the effectiveness.

Constructionism places a high priority on making projects personal. p.151

“In our experience, design activities have the greatest educational value when students are given the freedom to create things that are meaningful to themselves (or others around them).”  p.144

Xylophones, Hamsters, and Fireworks, other chapter written by Michel Resnick presents his experience using LOGO/Lego kits with teachers. It mainly presents the success of a workshop for teachers that allowed teachers to understand the possibilities of the application and devices presented in the kit. Also gave the opportunity for teachers too feel alternative ways of learning in the role of students. Resnick’s focus is the success of the workshop even in a completely lose environment where teachers were invited to do whatever they liked as a project. This liberty made possible collaborative work and great enthusiasm and motivation. Some teachers found for the first time how fun learning could be.

In the first chapter of the third part, Sherry Turkle and Seymour Papert focus the importance of the computer for a change in our ways of thinking and as consequence in the way of learning and teaching.  The authors present several examples in their own studies and in studies developed by other researchers that define two learning styles based in the way people engage with objects. In Piagetian terms, concrete thinking stage develops in close relationship to objects, while the next stage of abstract thinking has no dependence on objects and can be completely symbolic. In a clear critic to the sequential and hierarchical view of Piaget, the authors propose the reevaluation of the concrete and abstract thinking as different styles that have their own value and that have their own importance.

Concrete and abstract thinking demand different learning styles and different educational approaches. In this chapter, the authors adopt the used terms “soft” and “hard” to distinguish some characteristics of these styles:

  • Soft – Concrete thinking; closeness to objects; undisciplined; emotional involvement, anthropomorphization of objects; flexibility; nonhierarchical categorization; openness to experience of close connection with the object of study. The term also goes along with cognitive values based on the capacity for insisting on negotiation, relationship and attachment.
  • Hard – Abstract thinking; distance to objects; systematic planning; logical and hierarchical categorization; rule based.

“Perhaps everyone is really “soft” after all, and ” hard” is a construct that is dropped when it is not needed for acceptability or prestige or functionality. Others might simply say that icons are “easier”.” p.187

Although while analyzing the evolution of computer programming the authors tend to believe that the initial dominant hard approach seems to be turning soft. The main example presented is the change of the operative systems interface that (at the time) was starting to be object oriented with the desktop metaphor that presented visual icons representing files to be dragged and dropped by the user.  This kind of change, done through object-oriented programming, is one of the things that makes the computers a good environment for both styles of learning to coexist.

“The conventional route into formal systems, through the manipulation of abstract symbols, closes doors that the computer can open. The computer, with its graphics, its sounds, its text and animation, can provide a port of entry for people whose chief ways of relating to the world are through movement, intuition, visual impression, the power of words and associations. And it can provide a privileged point of entry for people whose mode of approach is through a close, bodily identification with the world of ideas or those who appropriate through anthropomorphization. The computational object, on the border between the idea and a physical object, offers new possibilities.”  p.181

So the computer is presented as a medium that can help to include both soft and hard learning styles in one single learning environment.

The authors preview the importance of an object oriented shift in computers to allow its use as an expressive medium:

“On a more down-to-earth level, there is every reason to think that revaluing the concrete will contribute to a computer culture that treats the computer as an expressive medium and encourages differentiated styles of use and relationship with.” p.188

The authors take also the stance of valuing the role of education on humanizing our technological tools, considering the importance of more soft approaches both for students and for the used tools:

“The role of feminist studies in the nascent computer culture is to promote the recognition of diversity in how we think about and appropriate formal systems and encourage the acceptance of our profound human connection with our tools.“ p.188,189

Each of these two different styles has a gender connotation. Soft approach related to feminine, ad hard approach related to masculine. The authors seem to find a pattern in classes they have studied. Girls most of the times have soft approaches while boys seems to be favored hard approaches (60% of girls have more soft styles while only 30% of the boys adopt soft approaches)

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