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A constructivist pedagogy for career and technology education

A Constructivist Pedagogy For Career And Technology Education

In this article, I explored tenets of constructivism that could be directly applied to the Career and Technology Education Standards for Career and Technology Education Teachers. This article provides a proposed constructivist pedagogy for the Vocational Technology studies. Though I do not consider myself to be a strict- constructivist teacher, when I compared my educational philosophy to this proposed pedagogy, I realized how much the study of constructivist theory and practice had influenced my beliefs and methods of instruction. As a future Technology Education educator, I applied these constructivist principles to my own teaching style and methods.

A Constructivist Pedagogy for Career and Technology Education

The National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium states: "career studies should be taught in manners that are consistent with a constructivist view of learning" (NASDCTEC, 1999, p. 7). While this may sound good in theory, one underlying problem exists: the lack of a clearly defined, agreed-upon constructivist pedagogy. This article will (1) explore the definition and variations of constructivist theory, (2) present a pedagogy for constructivist teachers of career and technology studies, and (3) compare and relate those pedagogies to the existing standards for powerful career and technology studies as defined by the NASDCTEC.

Defining Constructivism

"Constructivism is a topic on the conference programs of virtually all prominent national educational organizations and has been widely described and analyzed in professional journals" (Brooks, 1999). Constructivist theory has been presented in a variety of contexts, and institutions of higher education are implementing constructivist teacher education programs nationwide (Brooks, 1999). So, what exactly is constructivism? The answer is not clear, and depending upon different researchers, authors, or theorists, a differing answer would be given.

Defining constructivism requires that a theory be explored. Constructivist theory is the belief that all learners are actively engaged in their learning process or knowledge acquisition. This further expands to include the idea that as learners, "we construct our own understandings of the world in which we live" (Brooks, 1999). This understanding relies heavily on the learner’s prior knowledge and experiences, which directly influence the way that the learner will ‘construct’ his or her new knowledge. Questioning and research of exactly what or who influences the construction process has brought about different forms of constructivism. The three forms of constructivism to be explored in this essay are radical, social, and cognitive constructivism(s).

The Radical Constructivist Approach to Learning

The term radical constructivism was first coined by Ernst von Glasersfeld in 1974 (von Glasersfeld, 1974). Von Glasersfeld based his theory on the 18th century works of Giambatista Vico, and the later 20th century theories of Jean Piaget (von Glasersfeld, 1989).

The radical constructivist perspective holds that all knowledge is constructed by the subject, or learner. Radical constructivists believe that knowledge is a subjective creation from the subject’s experiences that has been demonstrated to be viable (von Glasersfeld, p. 123). Viable here means "to fit"--in other words, the learner creates knowledge based on his or her experiences that fit into his or her understanding of reality.

In a radical constructivist model of knowledge, reality is what each subject understands it to be, based on their knowledge, experience, and goals. Von Glaserfeld argued that a subject cannot truly "know" reality, they can only know their understandings of reality as it fits their experiences and affects their lives. Therefore, the subject adapts what knowledge he or she finds valuable or important to their perception of reality. In other words, the subject will use new knowledge in a way that is useful to them, based on their cognitive constructs. Furthermore, our understanding of reality will be different from other’s understandings, since we all base our own realities of the world upon our own individual cognitive constructs and personal experiences.

One might ask how this new knowledge becomes a part of the subject’s cognitive construct. Radical constructivists base their theory of knowledge construction on Piaget’s theory of cognitive development (von Glasersfeld, 1995). Radical constructivism holds that individual subjects organize their experiences in schemes. When a subject lacks any mental confusion, they are in a state of equilibrium—their schemes are satisfied. When the subject encounters a new event or experience, one of two things happen.

One, the subject already will have schemes in place that explain the new event. In this case assimilation, or taking in the new knowledge, occurs and the subject remains in a state of equilibrium. However, if schemes are not in place that will satisfy the new experience or event, the subject will then enter disequilibrium. Unable to remain in this state of cognitive confusion, the subject will then accommodate: reorganize or create a new scheme, to fit his or her perception of reality. This is where construction occurs. With the new scheme created, the subject returns to equilibrium. This process of disequilibrium, accommodation, and creating new schemes is known to radical constructivists as adaptation (von Glaserfeld, 1995).

One component of radical constructivism of significant importance is the role social "others" play in the development of new knowledge. In radical constructivism, "others" refers to something, including people, in the environment to which the subject must adapt (von Glasersfeld, 1995). Others create events that cause perturbation in the subject, leading to the development of new knowledge. Others also give the subject a way of validating knowledge already in place through assimilation.

Understanding and implementing radical constructivist principles requires that one acquire a totally new way of thinking. Although many of the principles are philosophical in nature, after studying the ideas put forth by radical constructivist thinkers a person can begin to apply those tenets into their own theories of teaching and learning, especially in relation to the importance of making subject matter relevant to individual students’ lives. As a radical constructivist would argue, the subject will only take what knowledge is viable in their reality.

Social Constructivism and Vygotsky

The social constructivist view of knowledge is that new knowledge is created through social interactions. Reality in social constructivism is determined by a social consensus based on social interactions. Through social consensus, the group (within which the learner is a part) will determine what is "truth" and what knowledge is valuable based upon whether the new knowledge is functional, useful, and works for the social group.

The roots of social constructivism are planted in the works of Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist and philosopher (1896-1934), developed a theory of learning in which the influences of social and cultural contexts played the key role in the creation of new knowledge.

A basic tenet of social constructivist theory is the importance of language in the creation of new knowledge (Prawat & Floden, 1996). When two or more people engage in dialogue, social interaction takes place. Three parts of social interaction that influence knowledge construction are action, interaction, and transaction. Action can be interpreted as what the individuals are doing, such as body language, tone of voice, physics, and behaviors. Interaction is how the individuals are responding to one another, i.e. what they are doing in response to what the other person is saying or doing. Transaction is what both individuals walk away from the situation with—both will leave the situation somehow changed.

During this social interaction, individuals are influenced by prior knowledge and experiences that both individuals bring to the situation; the cultural context within which the interaction occurs; each individuals own culture; primary language of each individual, and colloquial code. All of these influences affect the knowledge construction process, and cause the individuals to negotiate. Through negotiation, each individual must give up a part of their beliefs or perspectives and take from the other individual’s beliefs and perspectives. This negotiation process allows for both individuals to leave the situation changed, because they have negotiated meaning through their interacting.

Vygotsky believed that all knowledge starts off social and comes to a cognitive end. This process, which he called internalization, begins with a social experience. The social experience could be the result of something read or seen, such as encountering an unfamiliar term. The individual then internalizes superficially, such as learning the definition of the term. Ultimately the behavior of the individual will be affected, and the individual will then begin to think with and use the term. Vygotsky defined externalization as the ability of the individual to go from the cognitive back to the social, such as explaining the term to another individual. All internalizations and externalizations are forms of enculturation, or the learning of one’s culture through the internalization of the culture’s signs and tools through mediated activity. According to Vygotsky, these signs are internal reasoning skills and ways of thinking that manipulate an individual’s own thoughts. Tools were the external objects used to manipulate the environment, i.e. tools, car, chair, pan, and dog. Vygotsky eventually began to combine the two concepts because he felt that language was both a tool and a sign.

Social constructivists draw on Vygotsky’s beliefs about the importance of social and cultural influences in knowledge construction. This model of constructivism emphasizes the use of learning groups where the teacher acts as a facilitator and mediator in social interactions.

Cognitive Constructivism and Information Processing

Cognitive constructivism can be defined as the "traditional" model of constructivism. In this cognitive model, the epistemology, or knowledge, is a mirror reflection of external reality (or the world around us). In cognitive constructivism, that reality is a human-independent, external constant that we can come to know as it truly exists. For knowledge to be true, a cognitive constructivist would say that the knowledge must be in agreement with external reality; therefore, knowledge that mirrors external reality is considered valuable.

The basis of cognitive constructivism is the information processing theory (Mayer, 1996). This theory emphasizes the role of human beings as processors of information, using metaphors such as human as computer or machine. This literal view is widely criticized and unaccepted by most constructivists today.

Richard Mayer (1996) distinguishes two interpretations of information processing—literal and constructivist. In the literal interpretation of information processing, information (or knowledge) exists separate from us as humans. Our minds absorb or imprint mirror images of the world around us. These pieces of absorbed information become mental representations. "According to this literal interpretation, a cognitive process is a discrete procedure in which information is input, operators are applied to the input information resulting in the creation of new information, and the new information is output" (Mayer,1996, p.156).

The constructivist interpretation of information processing views memory representations as knowledge, rather than pieces of information. This knowledge has meanings, schemas, pictures and feelings attached. "Mental processing involves an active search for understanding in which incoming experience is reorganized and integrated with existing knowledge" (Mayer, 1996, p. 156). In other words, as information processors, we are active in deciding to what we pay attention, what meanings we create, and how to relate and organize that new knowledge based upon our prior knowledge and existing memory representations. "The constructivist view of information processing is the transitional, or liberal, view because it involves adjusting the computer metaphor to be more consistent with existing research on human cognition" (Mayer, 1996, p. 156).

In a cognitive constructivist perspective, the goal of teaching and learning is to take external knowledge and make it internal. A cognitive constructivist would most likely look for correct answers from students, rather than to look at what they might have been thinking when answering. This refers back to the search for "Truth", which is the ultimate goal in cognitive constructivism. Cognitive constructivists believe that we can come to know "Truth"—to do so we must mirror external reality.

"As is evident from the preceding discussions of radical, social, and cognitive constructivism, the concept of ‘constructivism’ is diverse, with varied interpretations....Indeed given the breadth of constructivist philosophy, is there any common ground upon which to build such a construct as ‘constructivist pedagogy’?" (Doolittle & Hicks, 2001, p. 8).

Constructivist Pedagogy and NASDCTEC Standards

Many researchers have offered differing pedagogical principles concerning a constructivist approach to education (Borich & Tombari, 1997; Brooks & Brooks, 1993; Driscoll, 1994; Eggen & Kauchak, 1997; Jonassen, 1991; Wilson & Cole, 1991; and Honebein, 1996). May of these pedagogical offerings contain the same ideas and underlying themes, and much crossover can occur in their interpretation. The pedagogy used in this essay, composed by Doolittle and Camp (1999), can directly be related to the NASDCTEC (1999). The eight principles proposed by Doolittle and Camp (1999) were derived from their summarization of the core pedagogy of the works listed previously, and were as follows:

• • Learning should take place in authentic and real world environments.

• • Learning should involve social negotiation and mediation.

• • Content and skills should be made relevant to the learner.

• • Content and skills should be understood within the framework of the learner’s prior knowledge and experience.

• • Students should be assessed formatively, serving to inform future learning experiences. .

• • Students should be encouraged to become self-regulatory, self-mediated, and self-aware.

• • Teachers should provide for and encourage multiple perspectives and representations of content.

• • Teachers should serve primarily as guides and facilitators of learning, not instructors. (Doolittle & Camp, 1999; Doolittle & Hicks, 2001)

Given this pedagogy, a direct connection to the NASDCTEC standards can be inferred. The NASDCTEC Standards (1999) present standards are consistent with a constructivist view of learning. This document also assigns (in part) as the primary tasks of schools and teachers to "(1) provide constructivist-rich learning experiences, and (2) to stimulate and guide learner constructivist thinking." The NASDCTEC describes five principles of what characterizes "powerful social studies." Each principle has a direct implications for what teachers should know, be able to do, and what dispositions they should possess (NCSS, 1994). The five principles are as follows: Social studies teaching and learning are powerful when they are (1) meaningful; (2) integrative; (3) value-based; (4) challenging; and (5) when the learning is active. The NCSS details each of the principles and their implications for the classroom. For purposes here, these principles will be compared with the before-mentioned pedagogy.

• • Social studies teaching and learning are powerful when they are meaningful. (NCSS)

Learning should take place in authentic and real world environments; Content and skills should be made relevant to the learner. According to both the NCSS principle and the pedagogical principles, learning is more meaningful when students feel that what they are learning will be beneficial to them both in and outside of the classroom. The NCSS stresses that "meaningfulness is stimulated when...instruction...focuses on teaching important ideas for understanding, appreciation, and life application" (NCSS, 1994). Doolittle and Camp (1999) explained that constructivism in practice

"emphasizes the need for quality, authentic, or real-world experiences...that provide the student with...learning cues that facilitate later thought and behavior. Students will tend to interact with knowledge and skills that they find interesting, necessary, and goal related. Thus students will learn best when they see both the purpose and need for learning a set of knowledge and skills, that is, when they find the knowledge and skills relevant to their situation."

• • Social studies teaching and learning are powerful when they are integrative.

Content and skills should be understood within the framework of the learner’s prior knowledge and experience. As mentioned earlier, prior experience is one of the foremost tenets of constructivist theory. This principle of constructivist pedagogy, explained by Doolittle and Camp (1999), asserts that the key to all learning is the prior knowledge and experiences brought to the learning situation by the learner. In a constructivist classroom, new learning activities need to be constructed around students’ prior knowledge in order to result in "maximal learning." According to this pedagogy, if the new knowledge is to be meaningful to the learner, they must be able to relate that new knowledge to their previous knowledge. The NCSS defining of this principle states "integration is encouraged when the teacher makes effective use of technology." Doolittle and Hicks (2000) proposed that the use of technology in the social studies establishes meaningfulness of knowledge, when the technology is used to build on prior knowledge. According to the NCSS, integration is also encouraged "when teaching and learning are connected to other subjects." This can be interpreted to mean prior knowledge from other subjects acts as an interdisciplinary ‘guide’ to the construction of new knowledge.

• • Social studies teaching and learning are powerful when they are value-based.

Teachers should provide for and encourage multiple perspectives and representations of content. Learning should involve social negotiation and mediation. The pedagogy points to the teacher in fostering the inclusion and exploration of multiple viewpoints, recognizing that in any event, there will be several viable perspectives based on differences in culture, community, and individual experience. Also, by social interaction students are influenced by the ideas and perspectives of others, and "thought processes are influenced by the people and culture around them" (Doolittle & Camp, 1999). The NCSS standards (1994) reiterates that social studies content invariably involves the examination and understanding of values—one’s own and those of others—as values are expressed in points of view, beliefs, and actions. The role of the constructivist social studies teacher would be to "encourage recognition of opposing points of view, respect for well-supported positions...and a commitment to social responsibility (NCSS, 1994).

• • Social studies teaching and learning are powerful when they are challenging.

Although one set pedagogical statement cannot be applied to this principle, many of the concepts of Doolittle and Hicks (2001) address this. "The teacher’s role in this learning situation is to construct future experiences for the student that challenges and advances the student’s learning, and then to serve as a resource during this knowledge construction process." (Doolittle & Hicks, 2001, p. 11) Also, social interaction can be challenging when students work in groups to accomplish instructional goals (Doolittle & Hicks, 2001, p.10, NCSS, 1994). The NCSS also requires that teachers show interest in and respect for students’ thinking and demand well-reasoned arguments rather than opinions voiced without adequate thought or commitment, which can be directly related to Doolittle and Camp’s (1999) pedagogical statement: Students should be assessed formatively, serving to inform future learning experiences. By assessing students formatively (during instruction), the teacher can challenge their arguments or perspectives and assess their critical thinking skills.

• • Social studies teaching and learning are powerful when the learning is active.

Students should be assessed formatively, serving to inform future learning experiences. Students should be encouraged to become self-regulatory, self-mediated, and self-aware. Teachers should serve primarily as guides and facilitators of learning, not instructors.

The NCSS document brings forth the ideas that productive active learning is characterized by:

"Teachers and students engaged in reflective thinking and decision-making as events unfold during instruction; students develop new understanding through a process of active knowledge construction; teachers gradually move from providing considerable guidance by modeling, explaining, or supplying information that builds student knowledge, to a less directive role that encourages students to become independent and self-regulated learners."

Again, formative assessment could be used to assess the development of new knowledge construction. Also, both the NCSS principle and the pedagogy recognize the goal of education as the "development of autonomous individuals capable of directing their own lives effectively...Self-regulation, self-mediation, and self-awareness result in a student that is fully equipped to be an effective constructor of knowledge—a life long learner." (Doolittle & Camp, 2000).


The pedagogy constructed by Doolittle & Camp (1999) directly applies to the social studies standards. This pedagogy serves as an excellent resource and directory to teachers of social studies who want to incorporate constructivist teaching methods into their classrooms. Furthermore, this pedagogical model also serves as a philosophical interpretation of constructivist thinking, and provides a sort of rubric by which to evaluate effective constructivist practices. Any teacher of social studies can greatly benefit from the pedagogical examples provided, and following the directions of those statements will obviously meet the NCSS standards.


References Cited

Brooks, J. & Brooks, M. (1999). In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms. Alexandria, Virginia. 136 pages.

Borich, G. & Tombari, M. (1997). Educational Psychology. New York: Longman.

Derry, S. J. (1996) "Cognitive Schema Theory in the Constructivist Debate." Educational Psychologist. 31(3/4), pp. 163-174.

Doolittle, P. & Hicks, D. "Constructivism as a Theoretical Foundation for the Use of Technology in Social Studies." In revision, 2001.

Doolittle, P. & Camp, W.G. (1999) "Constructivism: The Career and Technical Education Perspective." Journal of Vocational and Technical Education. Vol. 16, (1), pp. 23-46.

Driscoll, M. (1994). Psychology of learning for instruction. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Eggen, P. & Kauchak, D. (1997). Education psychology: Windows on classrooms. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Jonassen, D.H. (1991). Objectivism versus constructivism: Do we need a new philosophical paradigm? ETR&D, 39(3), p. 11-12.

Mayer, R. (1996) "Learners as Information Processors: Legacies and Limitations of Educational Psychology’s Second Metaphor." Educational Psychologist. Vol. 31, (3/4), pp. 151-161.

Prawat, R.S. & Floden, R.E. (1994). "Philosophical Perspectives on Constructivist Views of Learning." Educational Psychology. 29(1), pp. 37-48.

"NCSS Standards for Social Studies Teachers." The National Council for the Social Studies Homepage. Online, accessed October 19, 2000.

Steffe, L.P. & Gale, J. Constructivism in Education. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: New Jersey. 575 pages.

Von Glasersfeld, E. (1989). "Cognition, Construction of Knowledge and Teaching." Synthese 80: 121-140. Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Von Glasersfeld, E. (1995). "A Constructivist Approach to Teaching." Constructivism in Education. Pp. 3-15.

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