Archive for May 23, 2014

Constructionism for Adults

Constructionism–the N word as opposed to the V word–shares constructivism’s connotation of learning as “building knowledge structures” irrespective of the circumstances of the learning. It then adds the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe.

Most researchers exploring constructionism study children. Mitchel Resnick, Yasmin Kafai, Uri Wilensky, Amy Bruckman, Idit Harel, and other academic offspring of Seymour Papert have studied how children learn through construction in a variety of media, from Scratch to e-textiles. The semi-annual Constructionism and Creativity Conference talks about “students” not “children” on the Constructionism history page, but the proceedings from the 2012 conference show that it’s about children’s learning, both formal and informal.

I’ve grown up constructionist-by-association, rather than by training. I got to work with Seymour and with Mitchel for a short time on the design for LCSI Microworlds. Yasmin is one of my oldest friends, from even before she went to work with Idit and Seymour. I worked from a constructionist perspective here at Georgia Tech with Amy Bruckman and Janet Kolodner.

Nowadays, I work mostly with adult learners — undergraduates, end-user programmers, and high school teachers. There’s nothing in Seymour’s definition that prohibits applying constructionism to adults. Their learning should be “especially felicitous” when they are “constructing a public entity.” But I don’t think that constructionism for adults is the same as constructionism for children.

I can identify examples (as an existence proof) that constructionism can work for adults as well as children.

  • Teachers know that if you want to learn a new subject, sign up to teach the new subject. Constructing the course and teaching it to others is a great way of developing that knowledge.
  • Programmers take on new projects to learn a new method, language, context, or community. My former PhD student, Mike Hewner, wanted to know what professional game development was like. Because he’s an exceptional software engineer, he was able to land himself an internship with a game company one summer (with no prior game experience), explicitly to learn game development.

I see three big differences in adult constructionism from child constructionism, and they’re related.


(1) Saving Face I’m learning to play the ukulele. I bought it about a few months ago, and am playing it daily. I’m learning a huge amount, both in terms of the skill and concepts needed to play, but also at a meta level about music. The ukulele makes me think about timing, strumming, and chord patterns in a different way, and now I listen to all kinds of stringed instruments in a different way. It’s helping me to sing better, since I can more easily hear when I’m at the wrong pitch and I hear rhythm differently when I’m strumming.

But I am not learning to play ukulele as a public artifact. I’m frightened by the thought of playing in public. Only my family has ever heard me play.

Adele Goldberg worked on one of the iterations of the UK Open University’s introductory computing course, and she told me that distance learning opportunities were most important for adults. She pointed out that adults work for decades to develop their careers and their prestige. It’s really hard for them to then put their hands up in a physical classroom to ask a question and risk being found out as not knowing.  There’s a recent Freakonomics podcast that claims that the three hardest words to say in the English language are: “I don’t know.”

Constructionism for kids is all about the public aspect. The Scratch website plays a role in students sharing their work, downloading others’ projects, remixing and sharing back what they found. Collaboration and public sharing has always played a big role in stories of constructionist learning.  Maybe this is why work in Constructionism tends to focus at the youngest children, because the social standing and peer pressure issues increase as the kids get older.

Adults have face in a different way than children. We can still learn from construction, but we might not want it to be as public in the same way as children. We might not want to even publicly remix, or others might learn what we’re doing.

(2) Presumption of Expertise I’ve mentioned before in this blog that I’ve been singing in my church choir. I often feel ignorant — and embarrassed at my ignorance. There is so much about singing in a choir that is assumed when you are an adult, from how to sing into a microphone to how to harmonize by hearing the melody. We teach these things to children, because we know that they don’t have the basics.  We expect them to be novices at most things.

As an adult engaging in an activity, we are presumed not to be novices. If you sing in a choir, the assumption is that you must have sung in choirs before –“You all know the basics.” But if you’re starting out in a new domain, you may not. Even when I admit my ignorance (hard to do because of the issue of face) and ask questions, the director quickly forgets my lack of background — a couple things get explained, and then the presumption of expertise comes back. I look like all the other adults there. It’s not like a classroom of similarly-aged students where the teacher can assume a similar background. Adults have radically different backgrounds. I recently served on the advisory board for a science and engineering learning project that used Lego robotics context.  The most common teacher professional development question was about the Lego.  These teachers had not played with Lego as children, were uncomfortable with it, and had to spend extra (unexpected from the researchers’ perspective) time to learn to use Lego.

Constructionism depends on learning in the context of construction.  The goal of the learning isn’t the construction itself.  It’s construction as something to think with.  As Seymour put it, you can’t think about thinking without thinking about something.  But if you don’t know how to construct, then most of the activities of construction don’t fall into the background, and then it’s hard to think about the artifact being constructed and to learn from that process.  Children learn through Lego and Scratch after they get the basics of how to put blocks together (in both physical and virtual forms).  Adult teachers who learn from constructing lectures and adult programmers who learn from constructing software only learn after they’re comfortable with course design and programming.  When you first design a course, you’re learning about course design, and less about the content.  Few people will learn to program by joining an open source development effort.

The problem of expecting expertise shows up often in undergraduate education. In undergraduate computer science courses, we expect students to know about mathematic concepts from algebra, trigonometry, geometry, and even calculus. If students don’t know those concepts, we expect them to “pick them up” on their own, and their grades suffer. When they fail, we complain that “these students don’t have the right background.” If they don’t have the basic background, it’s hard to move forward. Think about it from a developmental perspective, instead of our more common judgmental “hold the standard” perspective. Where does the student get the knowledge that we expect but they “missed”? If an adult misses the basics, is that it? They’ve simply missed out for this lifetime? How does an adult fit in learning Algebra 1 (for example) if he missed out earlier?

Because of the presumption of expertise, we adult learners tend to gravitate to constructionist learning opportunities where we do know the basics. Teachers have taught before, so they can learn by teaching something new. Mike Hewner is an excellent software engineer, so simply shifting to a new domain was an enjoyable challenge.

Or, we tackle project where adults with no expertise are expected, like learning a foreign language or introductory web design. But if I as an adult decided to learn how to build a bookcase from lumber, it’s not clear where I’d go to get the basic knowledge of carpentry that I lack. Go to the local DIY store and there’s an assumption that you did shop as a kid and that you know how to hammer and saw efficiently.

Maybe this is why it’s so hard for adults to jump into a new career, to start over, to construct new prestige. We lose face because we give up our former prestige. But as we live longer, there is time enough to develop new prestige, a new face.

(3) Time and Responsibility. I saved the most obvious difference for last. In our modern society, we do the majority of formal education before our citizens develop responsibilities around home, family, and career, when they can devote time to learning. Adults are swamped with responsibilities and do not have much time to devote to learning.

Constructionism is not an efficient form of learning. Learning can happen “irrespective of the circumstances of the learning” (as Seymour says). One can learn from reading a book or attending a lecture. Building through construction can be a motivating context for learning, and it can lead to deep learning. But there are more efficient forms of learning, like individual tutoring and guided instruction. We can get better learning from mastery learning.

Adults need efficient learning. Efficient learning fits better into the time available. Learning occurs more efficiently with a teacher or mentor, who can design learning, guide learning, provide useful feedback, and cut-off dead-ends and wasted time. But the first two differences make it more difficult for adults to get the guidance that a good teacher can provide. Adult learners are less likely to seek out a teacher and ask their questions. It’s hard for teachers to recognize adult learner’s needs, because they presume expertise.

Sure, some adults will spend lots of time in “inefficient” constructionist learning activities, like model railroads, recreational mathematics, and the Society for Creative Anachronism.  What are the conditions under which that happens?  Obviously, leisure time is necessary — time that the adult feels can be spared from other responsibilities.  What if the adult wants to learn something “real” (e.g., something that aids in meeting responsibilities, like perhaps skills towards a new job or promotion), then they are unlikely to choose a constructionist route.  They might choose a MOOC, or some vocational form of learning that is more authentic.

Conclusion: I do believe that constructionism is an “especially felicitous” way to learn.  It’s fun to learn through constructionism.  Constructionist learning tends to be deep learning.  We do want adults to be able to use constructionist learning.

Constructionism can work for adults, but it’s more challenging. There are different issues than with children. Adults have less time to spend on learning and more responsibilities. They may not have the basic construction skills and knowledge in the medium of choice for constructionist learning, which is necessary to learn through construction.  They are less likely to ask for and receive the help that makes learning for effective and efficient. They are less likely to share, if that sharing might expose their lack of understanding. Constructionism is a particularly fun way to learn, but the costs of constructionism may be greater for adults than the utility provided.

As we live longer, the challenges of learning as adults becomes more of a problem.  If people are going to live to 80 or 90, it’s less believable that you will learn all the basics you will ever need for whatever career(s) you might be interested in by the time you are 21.  There’s time enough for a second career.  We need to make opportunities sufficient to learn for that career, too.

May 23, 2014 at 8:43 am 15 comments

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