Thursday, September 26, 2013

Constructivism and Cognitivism: The Yin and Yang of Foundational Theories?

When we covered cognitivism and constructivism in my masters program, I simply couldn't grasp the difference between them. Many of my peers seemed as clueless as I, and my professor couldn't really explain it, either. Thankfully, this week's readings on these two theories finally made it all click for me. While they both address what happens during learning, cognitivism looks at it more from a neurological standpoint, whereas constructivism looks at it more psychologically.

Silber and Foshay (2006) do an excellent job of explaining cognitivism in an organized, well-outlined method. They explain that cognitivism covers selective perception, limits in sensory stores, and how our short-term and long-term memories affect learning. They also cover the difference between declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge. The model covered in this reading is called the Cognitive Instructional Design Model, which includes five tasks of learners when they are learning. Learners choose the information to focus on; they link that new information with existing information in their knowledge banks; they organize all this information until they can assimilate it with their existing knowledge; finally, they strengthen the new knowledge within their memory. That said, none of that has to be done in any particular order. The rest of the chapter is devoted to explaining how to put the model into practice when lesson planning. All of which comes at the perfect time, as I am creating lesson plans for an upcoming volunteer training at work. I foresee keeping this reading as a reference tool in the future.

Driscoll (2005) helps me to understand why we all had so much trouble understanding the difference between the two theories in that other class. For one thing, "there is no single constructivist theory of instruction" (p. 387). Constructivist theorists are, to some degree, all over the place. In addition to being difficult to define in its own right, constructivism draws, in large part, from cognitivism. The difference being that cognitivists put their attention on how the learning is happening, and constructionists put their attention on who is doing the learning. Constructivists force us to deal with uncontrollable aspects of instruction, for "knowledge constructions do not necessarily bear any correspondence to external reality" (p. 388). Cognitive theory touches on perception with regard to selective perception, but constructivism emphasizes the importance of perception on learning and how we test those perceptions. In fact, contructivists encourage this testing by taking learner-centered education to a whole new level. This has drawn a fair amount of criticism to this theory.

Now that I am better able to compare and contrast these two theories, I have a greater appreciation for them. I am especially drawn to constructivism, particularly social constructivist theory, though I recognize its limits. They have much in common, and the differences are subtle. the way I keep them straight is to see cognitivism as addressing the how, constructivism as addressing the who, and both addressing the what of learning. I would be interested to hear other people's strategies for comparing and contrasting these two theories.

Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Constructivism. In Psychology of learning for instruction (3rd ed.) (pp. 384-410). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Silber, K. H., & Foshay, W. R. (2006). Designing instructional strategies: A cognitive perspective. In J. A. Pershing (Ed.), Handbook of human performance technology (3rd ed.) (370-413). San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

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