While building an online Prezi project with my class partner earlier this week, I had social learning theories on my mind. This
is no accident, of course, because my professor had asked the students to reflect on this very assignment through the lens of social learning theories! My partner and I were separated by several hundred miles, so it might seem somewhat silly to reflect on our social interactions. After all, my partner and I have never met face-to-face, nor do we have any reasonable expectation that we will ever meet. But of course, technology can bring together people in ways that would have seemed magical 20 or 30 years ago.
Constructivist theory, according to Greene (2013), emphasizes that the most significant tool we use when we learn is language. In a traditional classroom, of course, this theory helps us understand why students don’t tend to learn very well when they must sit silently and listen to an hour-long, uninterrupted lecture from a professor. Most people don’t learn very much in such a format, unless they are auditory learners with excellent memorization skills. But most students don’t fit that profile, and even those who do can benefit from opportunities to discuss new ideas with learning partners. The best classroom teachers know how to structure lessons that provide opportunities for partner and small-group discussions, while at the same time un-structuring assignments, so students play a more constructive role in creating their own meanings while they learn. In a blended learning environment, however, this can be a significant challenge. How can I have an enriching conversation with a remote learning partner when I don’t even know what she looks like?
In the specific case of this Prezi assignment, I did have a few clues to work with. At the beginning of the course, each student was required to post a brief introductory essay about their career and personal backgrounds. When I found out who my partner was going to be, I carefully re-read her introductory post, and tried to place an image of her in my mind, similar to the mental picture I would make about a character in a novel. Although the two of us only communicated via emails and comments we typed on a shared Wiki page, I think we were able to share enough ideas and experiences to bring constructivism into the picture, but just barely so.
In order to make this sort of assignment an authentic constructivist learning experience, our interactions should have been face-to-face via Google Hangout or Skype, or at least via synchronous chatting. The potential learning benefits of face-to-face discussion cannot be overemphasized. Sociologists tell us that a majority of interpersonal communication is nonverbal. If my partner and I had been able to view even jittery, pixelated images of one another, we would have seen those all-important facial expressions, eye movements, etc. Even a simple phone call allows two people to hear each other’s voices, including their tone of voice and emotional clues that are absent from written sentences on a page. A pastor recently told me that she observes many adults, especially professionals, trying to have an email conversation that would be better conducted via a telephone call; she encourages people to set aside texting and emails when a true conversation is needed (D. Baxter, personal communication, October 9, 2016).
Constructivism In the K-12 Blended Learning Environment
Several of Vander Ark’s examples have incorporated components of constructivism. The School of One math program in New York, for example, incorporated in-person math tutoring and online video conferencing (Vander Ark, 2012, p. 84). Sweden’s Kunskapsskolan program included personal tutoring and advising for each student, so that students could have regular, rich conversations about their own personal learning goals (Vander Ark, p. 90). The creators of programs like these are tinkering with the traditional classroom structure in ways that maximize the number of rich, face-to-face conversations between teachers and students. Advance Path schools have successfully used such methods to help at-risk students succeed (Vander Ark, p. 92).
I know skeptics worry that students in blended learning programs spend most of their time receiving first-time instruction from online lessons, instead of credentialed teachers. But this criticism is based on a flawed assumption that a teacher can effectively instruct 30 or more individual students in a way that socially engages all of them, and maintains the learning within all of their individual zones of proximal development, simultaneously. Classrooms no longer have to be structured in this way! By thoughtfully implementing constructivist principles via blended learning, teachers may be able to restructure their day so they spend most of their time interacting with individual students and/or small groups. This is an exciting possibility, especially for students who have difficulty succeeding in the traditional, lecture-based classroom. Educators who work in traditional K-12 districts should study blended learning programs that have demonstrated recent success, and implement some of their constructivist techniques in their own classrooms.
Greene, K. (2013, September 8). More social learning theory [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aL_3qrSZBJ4&feature=youtu.be
Vander Ark, T. (2012). Getting smart: How digital learning is changing the world. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.