When I was in college, getting prepared to become a teacher, I remember having a professor who introduced me to the idea of constructionism by presenting it as a step beyond constructivism. I remember my professor at the time talking about the visionary educator and mathematician Dr. Seymour Papert from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) and how he spent four years working under Jean Piaget at the International Centre of Genetic Epistemology at the University of Geneva. During this time, Papert was influenced by Piaget’s work on how children make sense of their world. Piaget described constructivism as the process of constructing a unique system of knowledge through an individual process of internal cognitive construction of ideas. Papert expanded on this premise of constructivism by describing constructionism in terms of helping the students to produce more physical creations—rather than just ideas—that can be seen and critiqued by others.
Papert wrote: “Constructionism shares constructivism’s connotation of learning as ‘building knowledge structures’ irrespective of the circumstances of the learning. It then adds the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe.”
It is this idea of learning by doing what caught my attention as a future teacher, but most attractive to me was the endless possibilities that new technologies presented as described by Papert on his landmark book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas (1980), a book that, for some people, became a seminal work on technology and learning. For me, reading that book gave me the insight to combine my passion for learning and technology in a way that was incredibly promising. I think Dr. Papert was a visionary who was way ahead of his time. Dr. Papert, well before the dawn of the personal computer era, predicted children using computers as creative tools for enhancing learning. At the core of his constructionist philosophy was the idea that children create knowledge from experience and how they can use digital technologies as tools that boost creativity in order to augment the ways people think, express, and communicate new ideas.
Mitchel Resnick, an M.I.T. professor and a former student of Dr. Papert, said, “Seymour Papert was the first person to see that the computer could be used to support children’s learning and development. He had a vision that the computer could allow children to actively construct knowledge.” Paper believed that when children are challenged through exploration and discovery, they can learn a tremendous amount, and by bringing computers and new technologies to the equation, it could have an exponential effect on learning.
Seymour Papert understood the power of human curiosity and creativity and how new technologies can enhance our potential. He reminds us of the importance of experiencing, experimenting, and learning from our mistakes. Papert wrote in his book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas:
“Many children are held back in their learning because they have a model of learning in which you have either ‘got it’ or ‘got it wrong.’ But when you program a computer, you almost never get it right the first time. Learning to be a master programmer is learning to become highly skilled at isolating and correcting bugs … The question to ask about the program is not whether it is right or wrong, but if it is fixable. If this way of looking at intellectual products were generalized to how the larger culture thinks about knowledge and its acquisition we might all be less intimidated by our fears of ‘being wrong.’”
It is about having the right mindset when approaching teaching and learning. It also tells us of creating the right learning environment, one that is rich in opportunities for exploration and creativity rather than one that will provide students with the pre-cut knowledge, whether they want it or not. This is precisely what helped me develop academic vocabulary in meaningful, lasting ways.
The author Gary Stager, former student of Dr. Papert, shares in his book Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom that when Seymour Papert created the Constructionist Learning Laboratory at The Maine Youth Center, he outlined Eight Big Ideas Behind the Constructionist Learning Lab to help visitors understand the constructionism hands-on approach to facilitating learning. The following information was presented in a one-page document to those visiting the classrooms:
The Eight Big Ideas Behind the Constructionist Learning Lab
By Dr. Seymour Papert
The first big idea is learning by doing. We all learn better when learning is part of doing something we find really interesting. We learn best of all when we use what we learn to make something we really want.
The second big idea is technology as a building material. If you can use technology to make things you can make a lot more interesting things. And you can learn a lot more by making them. This is especially true of digital technology: computers of all sorts including the computer-controlled Lego in our Lab.
The third big idea is hard fun. We learn best and we work best if we enjoy what we are doing. But fun and enjoying doesn’t mean “easy.” The best fun is hard fun. Our sports heroes work very hard at getting better at their sports. The most successful carpenter enjoys doing carpentry. The successful businessman enjoys working hard at making deals.
The fourth big idea is learning to learn. Many students get the idea that “the only way to learn is by being taught.” This is what makes them fail in school and in life. Nobody can teach you everything you need to know. You have to take charge of your own learning.
The fifth big idea is taking time – the proper time for the job. Many students at school get used to being told every five minutes or every hour: do this, then do that, now do the next thing. If someone isn’t telling them what to do they get bored. Life is not like that. To do anything important you have to learn to manage time for yourself. This is the hardest lesson for many of our students.
The sixth big idea is the biggest of all: you can’t get it right without getting it wrong. Nothing important works the first time. The only way to get it right is to look carefully at what happened when it went wrong. To succeed you need the freedom to goof on the way.
The seventh big idea is do unto ourselves what we do unto our students. We are learning all the time. We have a lot of experience of other similar projects but each one is different. We do not have a pre-conceived idea of exactly how this will work out. We enjoy what we are doing but we expect it to be hard. We expect to take the time we need to get this right. Every difficulty we run into is an opportunity to learn. The best lesson we can give our students is to let them see us struggle to learn
The eighth big idea is we are entering a digital world where knowing about digital technology is as important as reading and writing. So learning about computers is essential for our students’ futures BUT the most important purpose is using them NOW to learn about everything else.
As you can see from the list, the first big idea is: learning by doing. Papert says, “We all learn better when learning is part of doing something we find really interesting, and when we learn to make something we really want.” This is reaffirmed by those teachers that use hands-on activities that promote a higher order of thinking and problem-solving creative experiences in the classroom. This also applies to the process of learning a new language and acquiring new academic vocabulary. Students learn best by using the new word in new engaging and meaningful situations. These situations could be framed in a project that has the goal of purposely creating new products or artifacts. These artifacts could be in the form of PowerPoint presentations, foldables, essays, videos, etc. In the process of construction, learners go through a natural metacognitive sequence while manipulating the newly created artifacts and ideas. This process of physical and cognitive manipulation can enable children to concretely understand big and much more complex ideas. New digital technologies offer an enormous amount of possibilities to do this, and I will be covering some of them in posts.
For more information about the work of Seymour Papert, I invite you to visit the website dailypapert.com created by Dr. Gary Stager. The main idea I learned from Dr. Papert is that we need to facilitate learning of new concepts and ideas by designing learning experiences that allow the students create final products in a playful but challenging environment while we help them to make connections and create ‘aha’ moments. Additionally, using technology is a marvelous way to make it engaging and challenging. The following video created by the LEGO Foundation is “a celebration of the ideas and visions of Dr. Seymour Papert” as part of their relationship over the years. A relashioship that took Papert’s vision, the potential of the LOGO programming language and the endless possibilities offered by the LEGO bricks to created new educational products such as LEGO Mindstorms (covered in my previous post).
How Constructionism and a Supportive Principal Made me a Better Teacher
During my third year as a bilingual teacher in Texas, I was lucky to get a new principal in the elementary school I was working at the time. This new principal gave me the freedom to try different ways of facilitating learning for my ELLs, and that was how I started connecting the dots and rescuing those dusty ideas from my days in college about Papert’s constructionism and using technology as a creative tool. Armed with these new ideas and knowing that I had a principal that was supportive, I pushed myself to move out of my comfort zone, understanding that I would be making some mistakes on the way—but with a lot of chances of being successful. I was moved by my passion for facilitating learning and my desire of helping my students become successful. As you can imagine, it worked. I was designing classes that would require my students to work on projects such as video production, coding, multimedia presentations. My students were leaning, having fun and feeling motivated to explore and create new things while constructing new knowledge.
That’s why I think the role of administrators and instructional coaches is so crucial in the educational system. I know many teachers that are passionate about teaching, but they are hesitant of trying new things because they are afraid of failing or being reprimanded by administrators for not following the pre-established guidelines by the school district. On the other hand, I know of school districts encouraging teachers to implement new strategies and models of instruction such as blended learning, flipped classroom, maker spaces, coding, digital storytelling, or robotics, but forgetting to provide the support or training necessary for the teachers to start trying many of them.
As a teacher, I want to invite you to try new things; don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Start with small, manageable and straightforward projects that will help you build the confidence and expertise to embark yourself on bigger and more challenging endeavors in the future. Reach out to your principal or the Instructional Technology Department at your school district. I’m sure they will be happy to help you. Or you can contact me anytime, and I will do my best to help you incorporate new technologies into your everyday instruction.
If you are in the area of Dallas or McAllen, I want to invite you to a full-day workshop covering how to use free multiplatform technologies through hands-on experiences that encourage problem-solving and the acquisition of academic language. For more information about my workshops go here. I hope to see you there.
Keep teaching with passion!