Reference: Tella, S. 1996. The Modern Concept of Man, Knowledge, and Learning. In Tella, S. (ed.) Two Cultures Coming Together. Part 3. Theory and Practice in Communicative Foreign Language Methodology. Department of Teacher Education. Vantaa Institute for Continuing Education. University of Helsinki. Studia Paedagogica 10, 34--44.
In Finland, the discussion of a new concept of
knowledge and learning started in 1989 when the National Board of General
Education commissioned a few learning psychologists to write a booklet
about the latest developments (e.g., Lehtinen et al. 1989). What is the
situation now, seven years later? I feel tempted to say that very many
teachers know about the modern concept, most teacher educators deal with
it in their teaching, but yet we are still very far from understanding
properly what it is all about. I feel we should continue to figure out
new sorts of didactic solutions.
A couple of side remarks before I continue. Six years ago, researchers talked about a "new" concept of knowledge. Soon everybody realised that there is nothing new under the sunan eternal truthso we started talking about a modern concept, an emerging concept or, quite simply, about a current concept. These adjectives correctly remind us of the fact that these kinds of concepts are temporary and should be analysed in more detail. One cynic even said that considering the global recession we were suffering at the beginning of the 1990s, we could not even afford to talk about a new concept of knowledge.
As time will not allow me to go into detail in all three domains of concepts (man, knowledge, and learning), let me share with you some ideas concerning one of the main polarities dealt with in the research literature, i.e., the shift from behaviourism to constructivism. It seems to me that we cannot afford not to talk about constructivism when dealing with modern concepts of knowledge and learning.
The Current Learning/Teaching Theory
The current learning theory can be defined briefly as follows: "Current theory views learning as the active engagement of learners in the construction of their own knowledge and understanding of facts, processes, and concepts" (Bagley & Hunter 1992, 22). If this kind of interpretation is ac cepted, then it opposes quite drastically to the conventional view of learning and teaching according to which teachers simply `transmit' their expertise to students (information transmission paradigm), characteristic of behaviouristic learning theories.
However, even if we nowadays tend to criticise behaviourism (or objectivism; Lakoff 1987) of certain features still used in our teaching practices, it has to be borne in mind that those practices were considered the most advanced at their own time. We must also recognise and accept that a certain number of those features are still part of our teaching even if theorists might call them behaviouristic relicts; they are still there and it is our task to analyse them and answer some of the hardest questions in the domain of teacher education, viz.
What sort of teaching practices are genuine and worth transmitting to the future teachers?
How well and for what pedagogical reasons can we say that this or that teaching practice is not to be allowed or is to be condemned or is to be done away with in class? How do we really know what is worth recommending to the teacher trainees?
I myself have suffered from a bad crisis of faith
concerning my own recommendations and my older habits. We tend to give
students recommendations based on our own experience, our own training,
our own knowledge of theory. The only truth I have found reads: "Question
everything you learneven this advice".
From Behaviourism to Constructivism
When your awareness is enhanced concerning the theoretical questions, you start realising that very many of the current teaching practices go back to the behaviouristic learning theory and are now considered as essential or integral components of good teaching. Let me cite a few examples of those practices and give, as a contrast, a more constructivist interpretation to the same practices:
* a tendency to give feedback to the students as quickly as possible
instead of giving them some time to reflect upon their own performance
* splitting the learning material into tiny parcels
of information in order to have them learnt as fast as possible
instead of giving some larger blocks of raw data to students for them to analyse and for them to build their own knowledge on something they construct or reconstruct from that material
* paying only negative attention to learners'
errors and mistakes
instead of trying to learn from one's mistakes and seeing them as natural developmental phases
* emphasising external activity
instead of giving learners time to think about things, to solve problems in dyads, in small groups or on their own.
The behaviouristic patterns of teaching practice have widely led to the so-called technological model of teaching. This model underlines the careful advance planning in order to control the external behaviour in the learning situation. This model is built on teaching units with thoroughly planned behavioural aims, leading to learning activities and exercises in textbooks which mostly deal with finding the proper in formation in the textbooks and transfer it on to the exercise books. This kind of instructional design has clearly emerged from an objectivist (i.e., behaviouristic tradition; Duffuy & Jonassen 1991, 7).
The behaviouristic theory relied on the concept of objective knowledge, independent of an individual's reality. Now, according to the constructivist theory, knowledge is always something an individual, a learner, has to construct himself or herself.
The ObjectivismConstructivism Continuum
Constructivism can be seen as an umbrella construct coming from educational psychology and covering a number of approaches like learner-centredness, learner involvement, learner auton omy, all three key concepts also in the language programmes of the Council of Europe during the past 20 years.
One way to compare older concepts with the current one is to look into them as dimensions on a continuum (see also Tella, Yli-Renko & Mononen-Aaltonen 1995, 910).
|basic knowledge|| |
ill-structured or complex domains
The continuum opposes knowledge already undergone
extensive social negotiation of meaning (towards the left). This kind of
knowledge can probably be taught most efficiently in a direct teacher-sponsored
way, taught traditionally, one could say. Let's think about what sort of
things could be considered so cially negotiated in a few minutes' time.
Now, let's consider the right end of the continuum. It represents areas
in which knowledge is still unstructured, uncharted (e.g., primary research),
i.e., something we are not quite sure of yet. The right side also includes
problem-identification and problem-solving activities, it requires creativity,
and it is bound to consist of numerous learning-to-learn activities.
Now, back to teaching practices. What sort of conclusions could we make and what sort of things can we learn from Cole's objectivismconstructivism continuum? Let me cite one of his examples:
Cole (1992, 31) talks about two ways of teaching how to make cookies for Christmas. On the left side of the continuum (convergent-outcomes) the question is largely about "a near-transfer skill of learning the procedure to bake, for example, Mrs. Fields chocolate chip cookies. On the construc tivist (divergent) end of the continuum, infinite possibilities emerge, such as discovering the principles of baking, of chemical and altitude effects on 'leavening', or of transforming classic recipes for high-calorie, high-fat, high-cholesterol cookies into low-calorie, low-fat, low- or non-choles terol temptations. In a near-transfer context, the learner would have to master stated objectives (although midway on the continuum the learner might also be encouraged to pursue individual goals), but in the constructivist context, as learning progresses the learner might change his/her goal from discovering how to bake Mrs. Fields chocolate chip cookies to discovering ways to convert recipes into healthful imitations. Will the learner be faulted if the evaluators expected classic Mrs. Fields chocolate chip cookies? Furthermore, without clear goals, how can we scaffold and coach the learner in the process?" (Cole 1992, 31) Cole (1992) also points out that more information would be needed concerning for instance the learner's entry skills (Dick 1991; Perkins 1991) and his/her changing zone of proximal development (Vygotsky 1978).
Another example, based on my own experience, exemplifies some of the most traditional writing tasks a foreign language learner usually has to learn, i.e., how to write letters in a foreign language intended for different audiences. I admit that we must continue to teach our pupils how to write an informal letter, how a more formal letter, etc. with all the necessary and appropriate initial greetings and closings. Letter-writing patterns can be said to represent the left end of the continuum; they are established knowledge we are aware of and can transmit to new learners. In computer-mediated communication, in electronic mails for instance, this does not hold true any more. In my research at the end of the 1980s concerning international e-mailing, I noticed that my Finnish colleagues, experienced foreign language teachers, had some difficulty figuring out that in e-mails it was not customary to use the same formulae they were used to using in ordinary corre spondence. Later they reported that they had had real insights when realising that a typical e-mail does not start: Dear Michael but more often with Hi Mike or Hello Mike with an exclamation mark. Also, the ways of ending an e-mail proved a legion. To me this was a good example of how a constructivist learning environment was created by computer-mediated communication. Teachers no longer knew in advance what sort of greetings were needed and, more importantly, they would have been wrong if they had tried to assess students' new and fresh and unconventional endings by using traditional (objectivist) assessment.
What I am trying to say is simply this: in foreign language teaching and learning, there will bethere should bemore openings, more windows open towards these kinds of constructivist approaches. We should perhaps actively try to find more examples of them and yet be ready to accept that we do not necessarily know or master them all at this point.
Teachers' New Roles
How does a teacher's role and status change if more constructivist approaches are adopted and allowed to enter the FL classroom? It seems evident to me that the teacher's role changes from a high priest (the only one possessing the knowledge, if I exaggerate a little) to a much humbler consultant or facilitator. The best formulation of this change was made by an American researcher in 1994 like this: the teacher's role will change from "a sage `on the stage' to the guide `on the side'" (cf. e.g., Tella 1994). But we have nothing to worry about as the FL teacher will still have a host of different roles to take care of (Peretti 1993, 215; cf. also Tella, Yli-Renko & Mononen-Aaltonen 1996, 38).
A constructivist approach implies a lot of questions still unanswered. Let me point out a few of them while hoping that we will also have a chance to talk about them. As the three main tools of constructivist thinking are, according to Cole (1992, 29), argument, discussion and debate, we will have them all available here during the whole seminar.
Is constructing knowledge only associated with constructivism? No, it is probably false to assume that while choosing direct instruction, the learner is not constructing knowledge. It is most probable that learners always perceive instruction through their personal filters.
How about goal-setting? Who is to determine the goals to be attained? Can it be left completely to the learners themselves? What is the teacher's role in determining the guidelines? What is the role of the curriculum?
How about assessment? If learners are expected to define at least some of their own goals, how would they be assessed then? This would lead evaluation from norm-referenced assessment towards criterion-referenced assessment and process-oriented evaluation. It would also mean evaluating "how learners go about constructing knowledge" (Jonassen 1991, 29).
How about the link between constructivism and metalinguistic knowledge? Piaget, one of the early constructivists, may give a clue: Le constructivisme piagétien ne se borne pas à postuler la construction des connaissances, ce qu'il peut partager avec d'autres théories; il souligne encore la continuité dans le développement. Chaque nouveauté est assimilée, intégrée par le sujet à des connaissances antérieures, autrement dit, celui-ci con fère une signification à quelque chose en fonction de ce qu'il a déjà construit (en fonction de ce qu'il connaît déjà). » (Berthoud-Papandropoulou 1991, 47)
Are constructivism and co-operative learning in opposition or do they support each other? "All experiential learning approaches aim to offer something more human and relevant to student life than the traditional cognitive emphasis. Experiential approaches recognize educationally neglected sides of humanity like affective, conative, integrative and practical skills alongside cognitive abilities, and encourage people to take responsibility for their actions. Such methods aim to develop confidence, competence and capability. The educational shift from a focus on retaining knowledge to developing the knower should favour EL processes, and their goal of training capable individuals with sufficient initiative, awareness, confidence and skill to think and act flexibly and effectively in a changing world." (Henry 1991, 7475) If, as Henry contends, experiential learning develops the learner's self-confidence, competence and skills to think and to act flexibly, are these not also in harmony with the principles of construc tivism?