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For my learning theory essay I will be looking at constructivism. I will define and describe this learning theory as well as briefly discuss the founding theorists for constructivism. I will then discuss the role of the learner and the role of the instructor, followed by three classroom examples of how I view constructivism working in my sailing courses.
Learning Theory Highlights
“Constructivism is less a single theory of learning than a collection of perspectives all of which share the common assumption that learning is how people make sense of their experience—learning is the construction of meaning from experience” (Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p. 36). This learning theory resonates with me as I learn best through doing. I am a self-motivated student or a self-directed learner (SDL). Constructivism “is a humanistic, learner-centred practice that assists adult learning in reflecting on their experience in order to construct new knowledge” (Fenwick, 2001, p. 9). Constructivism is a newer learning theory and draws from theorists such as Jean Piaget, John Dewey, and Lev Vygotsky.
Why I selected this Theory
As noted above, constructivism is learning through experience. The learning is in the hands of the learner and is facilitated by an instructor. This is how I conduct my sailing courses. I never touch the helm when I am teaching. I allow my students to learn and fail as needed and I facilitate their learning environment and offer different scenarios for them to use their skills. Truthfully, when it comes to sailing, I am constantly learning through trying different experiences as well. Either the weather is different, the crew is different, or the boat is different.
Overall, I would say that I am a very hands-on person. I am tactile. I find many of my students are as well. Sailing provides an environment of on-the-spot learning and experimentation for students. Jean Piaget was the theorist who primarily looked at constructivism through the lens of experience and experimentation with others. This is key in my sailing courses as there are so many factors that contribute to my students’ experiences on the water and shape what they learn. In turn, I could argue that I am also in the role of a student as I learn how to adapt my teaching styles from experiences and feedback provided by my students. Likewise, the students will experience different things depending on who they are learning with and what the environment is during their course.
Role of the Learner
The learner plays a big role in constructivism. In fact, the responsibility of learning a task is placed on the student and is reflected through their ability to repeat the task. According to John Dewey, “An educative experience, […], is an experience in which we make a connection between what we do to things and what happens to them or us in consequence” (Soltis, para. 12). Likewise, Dewey “believed that it is only through experience that man learns about the world and only by the use of his experience that man can maintain and better himself in the world” (Soltis, para. 13).
Self-reflection, and critical self-reflection, play a key role in constructivism. The learner must reflect on what they have experienced and try to apply that new skill in other situations. As Lev Vignosty believed, “the teachers and students collaborate in learning and practicing four key skills: summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting. The teacher’s role in the process is reduced over time” (McLoed, 2014, para. 60). This is a clear example of how the teacher removes him/herself from a teaching situation in order for the students to continue to explore the learning on their own. The students past experiences and knowledge also play a big role in how they will learn. For example, if I have a student who grew up with a cottage on a lake paddling canoes in the summer, he may have some idea of how the weather affects your experience out on the water while sailing. However, if I have a student who recently immigrated to Canada and who does not know how to swim, he may have a harder time grasping how to become confident out on the water (and I have taught a lot of students who do not know how to swim!).
Role of the Instructor
As noted above, the instructor plays the role of a facilitator. The instructor is there to provide guidance and support; however the students are responsible for taking the steps necessary and completing the work. However, the teacher must acknowledge the needs of the learners. “Piaget’s theory of constructivism impacts learning curriculum because teachers have to make a curriculum plan which enhances their students’ logical and conceptual growth. Teachers must put emphasis on the significant role that experiences—or connections with the adjoining atmosphere—play in student education.” (Unknown, 2016, para. 2).
The instructor must be a sort of coach or mentor for the students and provide them with the tools they need to thrive, without telling them what to do. The students must have choices. Therefore, the teacher must engage the students and challenge them, all while providing them with the tools they need to succeed and overcome any difficulties.
Three Classroom Examples
A big part of sailing is being able to tie knots. If you cannot tie a proper knot, you may not find your boat at the dock the next day! Knots are generally a fun and entertaining way to spend a couple of hours with the students. I generally teach them the basic “essential” sailing knots (eight knot, reef knot, bowline, etc.), then we practice. We first practice in the classroom with a special board that I have which has a variety of pulleys and cleats on it. Then, as we move out onto the boats, I ask the students to demonstrate the knots in a variety of places on the boat. Throughout the lessons I will ask them to untie and re-tie knots, as well as provide me with alternate knots to be used in certain situations. This is a way for me to assess their learning, and a way for them to brainstorm new ways to use the skills they just acquired.
- Points of Sail
Another aspect of sailing that requires constant “thinking” would be the points of sail. Let’s face it, the wind never comes from where we want it to! The wind is a living thing. It is always moving, and as such, the students always have to be aware of where it is and how to adjust their sails. There are 5 main points of sail (for each tack), and the students need to adjust the sails accordingly for each one. On a white board in a classroom where the wind is “steady”, this is easy. Get out on the water and get too close to land you will all of a sudden have to deal with the mountain effect. Or maybe there is a gust. Or a squall. Or a lull. The students have to constantly be aware of where the wind is. As the instructor, I give them tips on how to read their sails, but then I leave it up to them to feel if the boat is moving the way it should.
Anchoring is another area of trial and error. I teach the students how to read charts and how to identify safe anchorages. However, they may arrive at an anchorage and find there are other boats there. Then what? What if the wind shifts around and you are no longer protected? What do you do? Or worse, what happens if your anchor loses its grip? All of these scenarios are taught and practiced as much as possible, but until the students are out there getting their hands wet, they will not know how well one response will work over another. Again, they need to learn through doing.
In summary, I find that constructivism is the most pertinent learning theory for my trade and my experience. I learn new things through doing on a daily basis. My students learn things through doing and I simply guide them to the best of my abilities and provide support when they need it. I provide them with a safe place to learn and fail. I try to better myself with each new course I teach so that the next course can be better than the last.
Author Unknown. (2016). Piaget’s Theory of Constructivism. Retrieved from http://www.teach-nology.com/currenttrends/constructivism/piaget/.
Fenwick, T. (2001). Experiential Learning: A Theoretical Critique from Five Perspectives. Information Series No. 385.
McLeod, S. (2014). Lev Vygotsky. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/vygotsky.html.
Merriam, S. and Bierema, L. (2014). Adult Learning Linking Theory and Practice. Traditional Learning Theories.
Soltis, J. (ND). John Dewey (1859—1952) – Experience and Reflective Thinking, Learning, School and Life, Democracy and Education. Retrieved from http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/1914/Dewey-John-1859-1952.html.