Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Epistemology and Constructivism in LD

I just finished reading chapter 6 of "Epistemology and the Design of Learning Environments" by Reiser and Dempsey. I experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance as I was reading along. The chapter deals with the differences between what is called the positivist (or objectivist) view of knowledge and learning versus the relativist (also called constructivist) view. I must admit in some ways, I am very much a positivist. I do believe that certain things are true (regardless of the learner or observer) and that in some areas, we can point to absolute truths. (ie. acceleration of gravity on the planet Earth, the speed of sound, the weight of hydrogen, etc.) However, I also believe that in most learning situations, truth is understood in a contextual way, and that knowledge must be constructed, or it has no personal meaning for the learner. I do subscribe to the notion that we negotiate meaning. As for assessment, I am partial to the objectivist stand that we are looking for specific skills and knowledge (otherwise, how do we know we have been successful?) But again, it must have personal meaning for the learner, and different learners can even use different artifacts or tasks to demonstrate learning. The end of the article referred me to Lebow, Rieber, Winn and Young with the suggestion that these two approaches may be different mindsets, or at the very least, more items for the toolkit of the learning designer.

The article suggests readers check out the WWild Team (which I did) and subsequently found an interesting article on Learning Design on Reiber's website. I like what Reiber has to say on this site about his own "philosophy" so I'll quote it below. (Go to the site for the full picture.)

Learning and Design Philosophy

We characterize our learning philosophy as constructivist, but we are not radical constructivists. We do not believe that "anything goes." Ultimate truth may be unattainable, but we feel certain ideas are more usable and consistent with accepted theory (this is akin to von Glasersfeld's 1993 concept of viability). Even if our universe turns out to be a game cartridge in some alien's Nintendo video system, some ideas are more consistent with its programming than others. Physics is a perfect example of this. Newton's laws of motion are still viable because they have practical uses even though they are no longer considered "true" by physicists. Likewise, we feel that there are times that instruction is reasonable, needed, and expected. We describe ourselves as "eclectic constructivists" to show our interest in all good ideas for promoting learning regardless of their philosophical roots. [...] We take the position that teachers and students have certain roles, responsibilities, and expectations. However, we accept the epistemology of constructivism that meaning is an individual construction, though usually in a social context. Probably the best way to describe our design philosophy is "look for ways to trigger serious play."