Constructionist Learning

by Dean Mattson

A couple of days ago on her blog, Sylvia Martinez shared Dr. Seymour Papert’s Eight Big Ideas Behind the Constructionist Learning Lab. Since I think they’re extremely insightful and I want to refer to them later, I’m going to include them here.

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 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.

I wish I would’ve had this last August AND I wish I would’ve known to show them to my media class students. Unfortunately, I didn’t and, even if I did, I wouldn’t. Which is too bad, because it lays out perfectly the promise and the challenges we were about to face.

As a teacher, #5 really opened my eyes. I saw that all the time and it really surprised me because I wasn’t expecting to see it. Here we had all these computers and video cameras, and all these opportunities for students to do something fun and creative and they were … bored. They wouldn’t do anything unless I told them what to do all the time. It was incredibly frustrating. I thought this was supposed to easy, but it was anything but.

I think in theory, most teachers believe in the constructionist learning model, but in practice they chicken out when the going gets tough and then they fall back on what they know. I know that describes me. But that doesn’t mean we should give up because students need to self-directed learners if they’re going to be successful in life.

I think I’m going to make Hard Fun the motto of next year’s media class and my whole computer lab as well. I think that’s really our ultimate goal: That students experience that great feeling of accomplishing or mastering something difficult. That doing something hard isn’t always something to be avoided, sometimes those are exactly the challenges you need to take on.

If they don’t come away with that, does it really matter how well they did on the state tests?