What is constructionism? An introduction

Constructionism is the driving methodology at the heart of developing people for EPWF’s main, or flagship programs. Constructionist learning can be applied in all kinds of learning environments, including schools at all levels, universities, non-formal education, rural development, industrial development - even meditation practice.
Constructionism is a model of learning developed in the 1960s by Professor Seymour Papert at The Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Constructionism was introduced to Thailand by Suksapattana Foundation, where EPWF made the start-up grant.
Professor Seymour Papert
Nongtakian Klong is narrow but deep to transport water by vitational flow to higher ground   Professor Seymour Papert

What is constructionism exactly, and how does it work?

Constructionism replaces the traditional instructionism teaching and training model with a new methodology and vocabulary. Gone are ‘teachers’ who present lessons, which usually have been designed by school authorities, to passive ‘students’ whose role it is to listen and try to remember what they have just heard. Instead, ‘facilitators’ assist ‘learners’ to begin to understand something that is of interest or importance to the learners. : facilitators who facilitated learners learning in a more customized way, learners having a passion for learning their subject of choice, learning in holistic manner combining many disciplines in a just in time way to create something useful and/or meaningful, project style learning over weeks or months, learn from one’s mistake and humbleness in one’s knowledge, learners are also facilitators of other learners.
Professor Papert has explained constructionism this way:
“... knowledge is built by the learner, not supplied by the teacher.... the learner must be engaged in the construction of something external or at least shareable ... a sand castle, a machine, a computer program, a book.”
You can’t teach people everything they need to know..... The best you can do is position them where they can find out what they need to know when they need to know it.” Seymour Papert
Whereas not against “good traditional instruction” at the appropriate time, there are many other ways to gain knowledge.

The Constructionist way is through learning from an external situation (e.g. seeing a klong delivering water from a dam, drawing a worm’s eye view of the undulating terrain and the klong, and thereby understanding the flow of the water by gravity along a level klong floor.) Chart klong, dig klong, filled klong
There are 3 key elements which interplay with each other in whatever sequence is appropriate to the situation:
  • The idea and knowledge internal to ourselves (e.g. of the klong)
  • The external drawing on paper (e.g. of the klong) which is shareable and deepens the knowledge (“Learning by Doing” on paper)
  • The external construction of the klong which is shareable and gives experiential knowledge which improves the next planning cycle. (Learning by Doing in actual practice)
The " internalization of what is outside" and the "externalization of what is inside" represents a developmental cycle.
Dig Nongtakian
Pohdang Weir at Lamart River to hold water for Nongtakian Klong.   Seeing Pohdang Weir at Lamart River delivering water from a dam to hold water for Nongtakian Klong.
Conceptual drawing of project to send water along Klong to high ground.
Nongtakian Klong is narrow but deep to transport water by vitational flow to higher ground   Conceptual drawing of project to send water along Klong to high ground. 
Nongtakian Klong is narrow but deep to transport water by vitational flow to higher ground  Digging Nongtakian Klong; narrow but deep to transport water by vitational flow to higher ground  
Nongtakian finished
The end of the Nongtakian Klong of length 2 km.  Filled Nongtakian Klong, the end of the Nongtakian Klong of length 2 km.

Some of the ‘Big Ideas’ of constructionism

Learning by Doing : People learn better when learning is part of doing something they find really interesting. The best learning comes when the learner can use what she learns to make something she really wants – in other words, to carry out a project. Teachers as traditional instructionists are thus replaced by facilitators, or persons who are there to help the learner learn by doing.

The first key factor to learning is the desire to learn.

What each person wants to learn is different. For example, some people want dykes for retaining water while others want dykes for a road.

In academic studies, we learn to pass exams or to obtain pre-requisites for the next course. In Constructionist Learning, we learn knowledge to use. It is accepted that we may need to pre-learn some basic knowledge to lay a foundation for what we need to learn, but that still falls into the need to learn basics so that we can learn something to use. This is “just in time knowledge”.
Data or information is not knowledge, especially data in a domain (field) we do not know. New data must be linked to data or knowledge which we know for the new data to be knowledge. In other words, new knowledge must be related to other knowledge that we know. The knowledge is learned more quickly and more deeply the more there are old knowledge links to the new knowledge. So in order to learn, we need to start from something we know or can learn, and then we move step by step in knowledge (“the next step”). Different people will have different starting points, and “the next step” for each person may be different. Some people may need to learn more slowly in smaller “mini next steps”.

How we learn is also different. A big difference is right brain and left brain learning. Some can think in tables and multi-dimensions, others can only think linearly, others may think instinctively.
Use of Technology: Technology, especially the digital technology of computers and similar devices, lets learners do and make more interesting and complicated things, from which they can learn even more. Knowing digital technology is now as important as knowing how to read and write. Even more important, however, is that computers and the Internet give learners the tools they need to learn about everything else they need to know. With all the world’s mathematical and scientific formulas just a click away on a smart phone, there is no need to memorize most of them in school anymore. Instead, learners need to know how to find the formula they need and then how to apply it to the problem they are trying to solve. Technology thus serves learners on a ‘need to know’ or ‘just in time’ basis for multi-disciplinary learning and problem solving.
Papert’s Constructionism coincides with “The Digital Age” and “The Age of Information Technology”, which as the name implies has great information implications for “Life Long Learning”.
  • To be computer illiterate is to be illiterate to the information on the World Wide Web. Constructionism specifically recognizes the opportunities for Constructionist Learning and Facilitation in The Digital Age.
  • How can computer technology be used as a building material to analyze and present data as information/wisdom?
  • How can computer technology be used to facilitate (distance) learning? The Khan Academy is a prime example. G3 technology closes the distance for information and face to face facilitation.

    A great disparity is the unequal access to digital connectivity between urban and rural populations.
In The Digital Age, information technology develops very fast and the ability to learn to use the new information technology to learn other things or to get information (e.g. weather and crop prices) becomes a critical competitive advantage. Hence the ability to learn becomes a self-promoting key competitive factor.

During the last century, without “the innovation of the discipline of management, the accumulating body of thought and practice that makes organizations work”, none of the technical, engineering and medical innovations to make our life better and life span longer could have taken hold so rapidly or spread so widely, or may even not have happened. (Joan Magretta) “The only road out of poverty is through business. Not through praying or charity. The only people who can help the poor are business people, who can help them to foster business skills.” (Mechai Viravaidya) Management at the right level is for everybody and can be learned with every learning program.
One of the key outcomes of Constructionism, Management, and Information Technology is to make information transparent which gives the opportunity for Good Governance in our society at all levels. However, we see that in every culture, Good Governance does not always promote community benefit and business fair play vs. self-interest and individual and corporate greed. Hard Fun: Learning is better when it is enjoyable. ‘Fun’, however, does not mean ‘easy’. Successful people in all walks of life work very hard at what they like: for them, learning is hard fun. Easy learning is not challenging and not fun. Difficult learning is challenging and “hard fun”.
Take the Time for Project-Based Learning: Life is not like school, where someone tells you what to do and when to do it all day long. Projects that produce something useful or meaningful to the learner take time – weeks or even months. Learners must learn to manage their time themselves if they want to do anything important. We need to take “the proper time to learn”. A major problem with the institution of “school” is the time schedule of the 50 minute class period which is suitable for teaching and teacher organization but not necessary optimal for learning. For example, a computer class or art painting class may be too short to last only one hour. But the classical teaching module may be optimal at one hour being the attention span for one way absorption of information by lecture mode for children and adults.
Learn from Mistakes: In Professor Papert’s words, and perhaps most importantly of all, “You can’t get it right without getting it wrong.” Learners need the freedom to fail, and then to learn from their mistakes. Along the way, learners need always to be humble and modest about what they think they know. This does not mean indiscriminate trial and error, although this is not precluded. It does not mean we do not try to get it right. It does not mean we do not try to get it perfect, but we must also know the correct level of perfection, otherwise we are burdened with the luggage of perfectionism. The learner is not afraid to make a mistake; a mistake is an opportunity for learning – at least learning the wrong way … and maybe the right way also.
Everyone Learns, All the Time: Learners must take charge of their own learning. No one can tell or teach everything anyone needs to know. Individualized, customized learning needs to lead to a passion for lifelong learning for those things connected to the learner’s life or interests. Thus, facilitators, unlike traditional ‘chalk and talk’ teachers, are always learning something new along with their learners. And of course learners facilitate other learners. In fact, the best lesson of all for learners may be watching their facilitators and other learners struggling to learn.
Constructionism is “Learning about Relationships”. To get out of the “teacher –student” mindset, we have “Facilitators and Learners”.
  • The facilitator has more knowledge and skills but not all knowledge and skills, e.g. Bangkokian facilitators are learning about water and farming. So the facilitator is a co-learner.
  • Facilitators and learners share knowledge and help each other and reflect on each other’s work.
  • The facilitator is also learning to facilitate better all the time.
  • Facilitators and learners respect for others.
  • Facilitators and learners are humble in their knowledge.
  • Facilitators do unto themselves what they do to their student learners.
Development of facilitators: Another important issue about facilitators is that facilitators should develop new facilitators on the job, thereby questioning the need for extensive teacher training colleges. A facilitator need not be “fully trained” before they start to develop new facilitators; facilitators do what they can in helping learners and developing new facilitators.
Emergent design: There needs to be a plan … even though it will change. The facilitator has to have a ‘lesson plan’. The plan will be merged with the inputs of the learners and a lesson outcome will emerge, giving rise to the term emergent design. The lesson plan almost always has to be adapted and modified during the lesson or project. The lesson plan hardly ever comes out unchanged in a constructionist environment.