To the Editor:
For educators and neuroscientists alike, the conventional wisdom seems to be that learning is all about social constructivism. We are very social beings, and we construct our knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes from our actual lived experiences. As we add our new experiences to all of our past experiences, we can say that we are evolving; I am different today because of the experiences that I had yesterday.
But it’s not just that yesterday’s experiences are added to the top of all previous experiences. The constructivist integrates them into the whole person; a new ingredient has been stirred into the stew, and the whole is changed. Thinking itself is wandering around in our own very personal construction, perhaps making adjustments here and there.
Many speak of the potential of computers to deliver “personalized learning.” I assume the thinking goes that, if the computer knows what you have constructed of yourself, then it can offer some screen-delivered experiences specifically for you.
These futurists imagine that you have been at the computer all along and that it has stored the “big data” on your entire sequence of mouse clicks. Hence, it can deduce your—or the student’s—individual strengths, needs, motivations, and goals from which to select the next computer-delivered lesson.
I understand why some people hope that technology will deliver on the challenge of personalized learning. But if learning is even remotely like social constructivism, I remain a doubter.
To paraphrase Wounded by School author Kirsten Olson, if you want to know what your students are learning, and you tell them that and meet them every morning with your heart ready to break, your students will eventually come to you in ways you can’t imagine.
Founder and Chairman Emeritus, Manaus Fund
Senior Adviser, Valley Settlement Project
A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as Mulling ‘Social Constructivism’ And Computer-Based Learning