Constructivism and Papert’s clever turtles

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By the late 1970s, major strides had been made towards creating effective teaching and learning experiences using machines, thanks to the efforts of brilliant minds like Robert Gagné and Gordon Pask. But the teaching methods devised by these luminaries were missing a few important ingredients. They lacked any real opportunity for learner dialogue, collaboration, exploration or discovery.

Before long, educators started to change their ideas about how people actually learn. They recognised that knowledge is not something that exists outside of the learner, a commodity that can be obtained or delivered. Instead, knowledge is created or constructed by the learner as he or she strives to find meaning in the things they experience.

Maps of meaning

This way of understanding learning was the basis for what came to be called cognitive constructivism, and it evolved from the work of the Swiss epistemologist and psychologist Jean Piaget (1971, 1973). Piaget believed that individuals develop new knowledge and understanding of the world by interacting with it, and by adding new experiences and ideas onto pre-existing conceptions that they already hold. So learners quite literally make sense of new information in terms of, and in relationship to, their current understanding and past experiences.

As a learner goes through this process, he or she develops “psychological structures or schemes through a continuing process of construction and reconstruction, as new impressions are related to previously developed structures” (Illeris, 2004: 43). In other words, we constantly make sense of all the information we absorb by creating and re-creating internal ‘maps of meaning’. This is the same whether we are learning in a classroom, reading on a bus, having a conversation or watching TV.

The maps we create are unique to each of us, because no two individuals have exactly the same psychological, experiential or interpretative personal history. To use Illeris’ expression, we all have slightly different “previously developed structures.” There may be a lot of overlap and similarities between the maps we each create, and this is essential to enable us to understand each other. But essentially, in response to the same sensory input, you create your meaning and I create mine.

This perspective of learning is very different to that embodied in earlier paradigms, like behaviourism, which sees the learner as more like an empty vessel into which the teacher can pour new information.

Constructivist influences on technology-enhanced learning

An early example of a constructivist-inspired computer-based learning tool was the Logo system. Logo was a programing language developed in the 1970s by the American cognitive scientist Seymour Papert (1980). It was originally designed to help children learn mathematics.

The Logo program enabled learners to input instructions directly into a computer, which would then respond immediately to their commands by performing some sort of task. The nature of the task depended on the specific learning context, but it typically involved drawing an image based on a set of mathematical instructions on a computer screen, or physically moving a little robot around in response to similar instructions.

The robots, which became known as ‘turtles’, had a pen attached to them and they created line drawings on large sheets of paper on the ground as they moved. So whether on the computer screen or via turtle, learners could generate complex images of their own design by sending commands to the computer using mathematical language.

Take a look at this video, in which Papert demonstrates Logo being used in a school classroom in 1972.

 

Learning by discovery

By engaging with Logo through these kinds of learner-centred and experience-based activities, students could learn by discovery and were afforded considerable control over their own projects. They could “create and explore their own mental models and programmed microworlds and thus create individual meaning for themselves” (Ravenscroft, 2003: 7). Activities like these fulfilled some of the central elements of cognitive constructivist learning theory.

But the Logo initiative was not without its critics, most notably from teachers who reported that “considerable teacher intervention” was, after all, necessary to enhance the quality and success of specific learning objectives with the program (Sutherland, 1993: 102). Teachers still had to make a lot of effort to get Logo to support their goals.

Other commentators suggested that the computerised learning environments offered by systems like Logo were too abstract or artificial. They were too far removed from real-world learning situations to result in transferable conceptual development (Pea and Brown, 1996). When learners stepped out of the Logo microworld, would they actually be able to use what they had learned?

This was an important question, and some education researchers started to call for learning to become more situated within authentic, real-world contexts. We will explore this situative perspective in a later article, but for now here’s some more footage of Papert’s clever turtles.

 

References

Illeris, K. (2004) The Three Dimensions of Learning: Contemporary Learning Theory in the Tension Field between the Cognitive, the Emotional and the Social. Roskilde University Press.

Papert, S. (1980) Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas. New York: Basic Books.

Pea, R. and Brown, S. J. (1996) ‘Preface’. In S. Chaiklin and J. Lave (eds.) Understanding Practice: Perspectives on Activity in Context. Cambridge University Press.

Piaget, J. (1971) Structuralism. London: Routledge and Keegan Paul. Piaget, J. (1973) The Child’s Conception of the World. London: Paladin.

Ravenscroft, A. (2003) From Conditioning to Learning Communities: Implications of fifty years of research in e-learning interaction design. ALT-J 11 (3): 4-18.

Sutherland, R. (1983) Connecting Theory and Practice: Results From the Teaching of LOGO. Educational Studies in Mathematics 24 (1): 95-113.

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About The Author

Dr. Mark Anderson is an archaeologist, anthropologist, educational developer and teacher. Author of Marothodi: The Historical Archaeology of an African Capital and Digital Learning. Follow Mark on Twitter: @m_anderson_phd.

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