Learning Theories: Constructivism
and Multiple Intelligences
What is constructivism? It is one of several theories of learning, building upon what cognitive theorists discovered about how mental structures are formed. John Dewey was one of the founders of this theory. He believed that in order for learning to occur, education needed to move away from behavioral methods and instead create models of teaching and learning where students were actively involved in the learning process.
What underlying principles is constructivism based upon? Each learner constructs his or her own knowledge based upon his/her unique experiences with the world and the meaning he or she gives to those experiences. Knowledge is constructed; it cannot be "delivered" or "imprinted" on others. Learners build their own knowledge by exploring environments, manipulating objects, testing hypotheses, and by drawing conclusions. In other words, learners learn by seeing, doing, and connecting. Notice the active verbs here. Behavioral objectives are written specifically with observable, measurable events in mind which are typically fact-based. Constructivist-based objectives are more open-ended and do not usually culminate in a test or quiz.
The teacher plays an important role in a constructivist classroom because it is his/her role to create the activities and environment in which students can learn. The teacher must develop problem-oriented learning activities that have a meaning, are purposeful, and are based on student interests. The teacher must provide a multitude of resources from which learners can construct their understanding (this means text, pictures, sounds, manipulatives, community members, web resources, and more). The demonstration of learning is often a product of some type with a relevant outcome (instead of a test or even a paper). The teacher must construct a classroom atmosphere where students respect each other and where each person can contribute; this atmosphere must also be one in which there is room for more than one correct answer. Collaborative learning becomes a part of the learning environment, as does the opportunity for interdisciplinary learning (after all, isolated knowledge is meaningless). The teacher helps students understand what they need to know in order to solve problems.
Technology can help to foster this type of learning environment in several ways. Computers have had a powerful influence in decentralizing the learning process. A vast array of resources can be on every desktop, accessed by only a few keystrokes. As a result, the teacher now no longer holds the only set of keys to learning. In addition, the limited access to computers in the classroom forces teachers to figure out how to best utilize the resources they have–and often student-centered, collaborative groups work well. There is now an abundance of rich educational software developed with a constructivist approach in mind. Technology tools such as word processors, spreadsheets, CD databases, and multimedia programs can be used by students to show their understanding of concepts and principles. Because many of these programs now incorporate more than just text, it means student understanding can be reflected in many ways that text alone does not provide. The use of the Web also facilitates a constructivist environment because of the wealth of resources that can be accessed by using it.
Howard Gardner gives us an alternative glimpse at how learning occurs. His theory actually stems from brain research. Gardner proposes that there are eight intelligences (possibly nine, though the ninth has not yet been totally validated). His theory purports that various areas of the brain are responsible for different functions, and if one area of the brain is damaged, certain abilities are affected. His belief is that we have intelligence in all eight areas (maybe nine), but that we are stronger in some than in others and that what makes each of us unique is how those intelligences interact.
There are many implications of this theory on teaching. First, we have to value all of the intelligences, not just the verbal/linguistic and logical/mathematical as we have in the past. Gardner's theory tells us that it is not reasonable to expect everyone to function alike because of physiological differences within the brain. It means that teachers need to provide multiple opportunities for students to learn which touch on several of the intelligences. Stronger intelligences can be used to nurture weaker ones. As a result, we can help students who are not strong in math or writing to develop their skills in these areas through their strengths. It's not how smart you are, but HOW ARE you smart!
Verbal/Linguistic intelligence involves the successful manipulation of words and phrases to convey ideas, feelings, and moods. Excellence in this intelligence is best seen in poets like e. e. cummings and writers like Ernest Hemingway. A biological link can be demonstrated by the phenomenon known as Broca's aphasia in which damage to a specific area of the brain called Broca's area, results in the loss of a person's ability to form simple sentences, even though the ability to understand words and sentences is unimpaired. The ability to communicate and articulate thoughts in a linguistic mode is highly valued in most cultures. People with strengths in this area think in words and have the ability to use words effectively both in writing and in speaking.
Technology can help to address student needs in this area. Word processors and desktop publishing programs, especially those with voice annotations or speech output work into this strength well. Multimedia authoring tools, such as HyperStudio, fit in well here because of students' ability to incorporate text into their products. Telecommunications tools, which are predominantly text-based, also fit into this intelligence well.
Logical/Mathematical intelligence, which has been also termed "scientific thinking," employs the use of observation, induction, and deduction to solve problems. Evidence that supports this ability as an intelligence includes the existence of child prodigies such as Euler and idiot savants who exhibit highly-focused intellectual abilities similar to those portrayed in the movie Rainman. Also, logical-mathematical abilities are highly prized in Western culture. The syntax for communication in logical and mathematical forms has been highly developed because of to the Western emphasis on these abilities. People with strengths in this intelligence like to work with numbers. They are very analytical and tend to think sequentially; they seek to find patterns and relationships.
Database and spreadsheet programs, because of their structure and use of numbers and mathematical formulas, are good technology tools for students with this strength. Calculators are an obvious match as well. Computer programming languages interest students with this strength because of their problem solving and linear nature. Strategy and problem solving software often appeal to learners with this strength because of the logical way these people think. Multimedia tools also are useful because students have the opportunity to structure their projects as they see fit.
Intrapersonal intelligence involves the ability to form an accurate model of one's own self and be able to use that model to operate efficiently in life. It is "knowledge of the internal aspects of a person: access to one's own feeling life, one's range of emotions, the capacity to effect discriminations among these emotions and eventually to label them and to draw upon them as a means of understanding and guiding one's own behavior." (Gardner, 1993) Because this intelligence is mostly private, expression through one of the other intelligences may be required to detect the activity of this intelligence. According to Gardner, the personality changes exhibited in frontal-lobe injuries can also be used as evidence for a biological link to this intelligence. Writers and thinkers in Western culture have emphasized the importance of knowing oneself. People with a strength in this intelligence are typically very introspective. They are self-motivated and disciplined. They will shy away from team activities when given a choice. Independent, self-paced instruction often works well for learners exhibiting this strength.
Computer software that is developed for individual learners appeals to this type of student. Competitions against the computer are looked upon more favorably than are contests against other students. In some ways, email and telecommunications tools are good options for learners with this strength because the connection they make with others is still rather removed.
Visual/Spatial intelligence is the ability to form a mental model of a spatial world and to maneuver and operate using that model. Damage to the right posterior of the brain has been shown to cause impairment in a person's ability to physically navigate, to recognize faces or scenery, and to notice details in a given environment. Spatial intelligence is not limited to the visual mode–Gardner suggests that the ability of a blind person to size objects through touch is an example of spatial intelligence exhibited through a tactile mode. People with a strength in this area tend to think in images. They know the location of everything, and enjoy designing things.
Technology can address the needs of these learners in several ways. Drawing and graphics programs are obvious tools. Computer-Assisted Drafting (CAD) programs are enjoyed by these learners, as are programs that allow learners to see information pictorially. Multimedia and web authoring tools allow learners to bring in the images and visual organization they desire. At the primary levels, reading software that contains visual cues can help learners make the connection between text and the meaning of each word. In addition, science probeware that connects to computers allows students to graphically see the output of the data collected by the instruments. Video production is another technology tool that can target strengths in this area.
Musical intelligence is the ability to recognize pitch and rhythm and use this ability to create a musical composition that is culturally acceptable and pleasing. Although musical intelligence is not typically considered an intellectual skill, Gardner suggests that it passes the requirements for being an intelligence. First, the existence of musical prodigies supports the claims of a biological link to the intelligence. Mozart, for example, could compose music before he had received any sort of formal musical training. Second, neurobiological research has shown that certain parts of the brain play a pivotal role in the perception and production of music, and brain damage can lead to a loss of musical ability. In addition, music has served as an important unifying role in several societies and cultures. Finally, music has its own systematic and accessible notation system. This strength is exhibited in ways that go beyond writing and performing music. People tend to think in notes, rhythms, or beats. They notice non-verbal background noises in the environment that others overlook. They need music in the background to study, and if there is none, they might hum or whistle.
Software programs that allow students to develop their own songs and music is a match for these learners, as are MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) devices. Programs that incorporate music and sounds into them will help these learners understand the concepts. Audio CDs can help the learner focus. Multimedia software allows these students to incorporate meaningful sounds into their projects.
Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence is defined as "the ability to solve problems or to fashion products using one's whole body, or parts of the body." (Gardner, 1983) Motor cortex control of bodily movement and the evolution of specialized body movements such as those necessary to correctly use a tool reveal an obvious link to the biological nature of this intelligence. Good physical articulation skills are prized in many different cultures, demonstrating a cross-cultural importance of the intelligence to different societies. Finally, using the body to express an emotion in a dance, to participate a group sport, or to precision machine a part illustrates some cognitive features of this intelligence. Learners with this strength need to be physically involved in the learning process. They would rather participate than observe and they respond well to non-verbal cues. These people need to move around; they are sometimes labeled erroneously as hyperactive because they have a hard time being still for long time periods.
Software programs using various input devices (mouse, joystick, touchscreen) work well for these learners. Actually, often the fact that they are using the computer and manipulating things by itself is appropriate. Keyboarding and word processing programs involve much physical contact with the keyboard. Programs where learners animate objects or move them around on the screen appeal to them, and the science probeware described above under visual/spatial learners also is a good match for bodily/kinesthetic learners.
Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to understand other people: what motivates them, how they work, how to work with them. Sometimes characterized as charm or charisma, this intelligence is based on one's ability to notice subtle distinctions in mood, temperament, motivation, and intention to sense hidden desires and intentions and to act on this information. Brain research shows that the frontal lobes play a role in this intelligence; damage to this area can results in extreme personality changes but somehow spares other mental factors. An evolutionary link may be the development of this intelligence through the necessity of ancestral species to work and hunt together. Strengths in this intelligence are exhibited by abilities to organize others, usually choosing to take on a leadership role. People with this strength not only enjoy working with others, but actually learn better and more by doing so.
Interpersonal learners enjoy working with software that involves groups, especially titles dealing with social issues. For example, many of the Tom Snyder titles are geared for group problem solving and decision making. Group presentations using PowerPoint work well here, as do activities such as television production.
Naturalist Intelligence refers to the ability to recognize and classify plants, minerals, and animals, including rocks and grass and all variety of flora and fauna. The ability to recognize cultural artifacts like cars or sneakers may also depend on the naturalist intelligence. This intelligence includes observing, understanding and organizing patterns in the natural environment, including plants and animals. People with this strength enjoy collecting objects from the natural world, observing nature, noticing changes in the environment, caring for pets, and related activities. This is categorized as an intelligence because it's an ability we need to survive as human beings. We need, for example, to know which animals to hunt and which to run away from. Second, this ability isn't restricted to human beings. Other animals need to have a naturalist intelligence to survive. Brain evidence supports the existence of the naturalist intelligence. There are certain parts of the brain particularly dedicated to the recognition and the naming of what are called "natural" things.
Technology might address this intelligence in several ways. The use of video and television broadcasts dealing with natural phenomena and objects can help these people learn more about things that they otherwise would not encounter. The same is true with CD databases. The World Wide Web can put them in touch with additional resources as well that can help learners categorize and sort the items.
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