Instructionism, Constructionism and Connectivism: Epistomologies and Their Implied Pedagogies

Ryan2.0’s blog recently hosted a discussion on different pedagogies based on Instructionist, Constructionist and Connectivist  theories of learning.  I tend to see these differences on an epistemological / psychological / psychometrics level.  (I’m an educational psychologist, not a philosopher.)  I think this line of thinking is helpful for exploring some of my recent thoughts.

First a note; I resist labels on learning theories.  A consensus may be developing, but there are so many sub-positions that if you look at 100 constructivist positions, you’ll find 100 different takes (as evidenced by many of the comments on Ryan’s post).  I just find labels unsatisfying as points of reference for communication in learning theories at this time; they convey too little meaning to me.  Tell me what you don’t like about a learning theory; I probably don’t like it either.

What’s the Point

Ryan’s main point is that all of these pedagogical position are evident in current education practices and we should think in terms of “and” not “or”.  This fits with my own view that paradigm shifts should proceed by subsuming or at least accounting for the successful parts of the previous paradigm, while enabling teachers and scientists to move beyond problematic aspects of older theories.  To really understand these different theories, it will be good to see how pedagogy changes as we move from one to the next.  My post here looks at each one of these different theories in terms of epistemology / psychology / psychometrics, and than discuss a place where implied pedagogies are relevant to practice today.

Direct Instruction

I’m not familiar with instructivism per say, but it seems similar to direct instruction, a pedagogy that is associated with positivism / behaviorism.  Direct instruction often uses empirically based task analyses that are easy to measure and easy to employ.  Applied Behavioral Analysis is a specialized operant behavioral pedagogy that is a prime supporter of direct instruction.  Many, if not most classroom use direct instruction in some form today.  It seems like common sense and many teachers may not be aware of the underlying epistemology.

One prominent area where advanced uses of direct instruction is growing is in computer based adaptive learning like the Knewton platform. Students follow scripted instruction sequences. A student’s specific path within the script is determined by assessments that follow Item Response Theory (IRT) protocols.  The assessment estimates a student’s command of a latent trait and provides the next instruction that is appropriate for the assessed level of that trait.  The best feature of Adaptive learning systems is the efficiency in moving students through a large body of curriculum or in making leaps in skill levels like the improvement of reading levels.  Because it is also easy to measure, it’s possible to use advanced psychometric computer analyses.

Critiques of direct instruction can be similar to critiques of behaviorism in general.  Even though test developers are becoming more sophisticated in measuring complex constructs (eg. Common Core), the learning that results from direct instruction can still be seen as lacking in conceptual depth and in the ability to transfer to other knowledge domains.  It also doesn’t directly address many important higher level cognitive skills.


Enter constructivism.  I think of constructionism as beginning with Piaget’s learning through schema development.  Piaget’s individual constructive approach is expanded by social theorists and ends up with embodied theorists or in ideas similar to Wittgenstein’s; that knowledge and meaning are closely linked with how they are used.  Wittgenstein’s early work was similar to the work of logical positivists.  He eventually found that meaning in everyday activities is inherently circular and the only way to break out is not through precision, but to look for meaning in what people are doing and how they are using knowledge.  In some ways it’s like a return to behaviorism, but with a position that is more inline with hermeneutics than empiricism.

I recently saw a presentation of an instructional program (MakerState) based on the Maker / Hacker Space movement that functions much like a constructivist approach to education.

MakerState kids learn by doing, by creating, designing, experimenting, building…making. Our makers respond when challenged to think outside the box, to think creatively and critically, to collaborate with their peers, to problem solve, to innovate and even invent solutions to challenges they see around them.

This program can be founded on the same curriculum as that used in direct instruction when developing maker challenge activities and it can use this curriculum to scaffold maker activities with STEAM principles.  But the outcomes are open ended and outcome complexities are well beyond what is capable through direct instruction.  Learning by doing is more than just an aside.  Making knowledge concrete is actualizing it; taking it from the abstract to make it meaningful, valuable and productive.  But, is this the end of educational objectives; does success in life not require even more.


Enter Connectivism.  I associate connectivism with the work of  George Siemens and Stephen Downs.  I take this post from George as a good summary of Connectivism:

The big idea is that learning and knowledge are networked, not sequential and hierarchical.  . . . In the short term, hierarchical and structured models may still succeed. In the long term, and I’m thinking in terms of a decade or so, learning systems must be modelled on the attributes of networked information, reflect end user control, take advantage of connective/collective social activity, treat technical systems as co-sensemaking agents to human cognition, make use of data in automated and guided decision making, and serve the creative and innovation needs of a society (actually, human race) facing big problems.

I believe this take on Connectivism is modeled on computer and social media networks.  My own take is to include a more biological approach as another major node in connectivism: M.M. Bakhtin, a Russian literary critic known as a dialogic philosopher.  I want to draw this connection because dialogism is a reasonable way to make sense of everyday collective co-sensemaking activity by an organism interacting with its environment.  I see this as understanding the underlying way networks function when biological organisms (i.e., humans) are involved.

One of Bakhtin’s main ideas is heterglossia:

(A)ll languages (and knowledges) represent a distinct point of view on the world, characterized by its own meaning and values. In this view, language is “shot through with intentions and accents,” and thus there are no neutral words. Even the most unremarkable statement possesses a taste, whether of a profession, a party, a generation, a place or a time.  . . . Bakhtin goes on to discuss the interconnectedness of conversation. Even a simple dialogue, in his view, is full of quotations and references, often to a general “everyone says” or “I heard that..” Opinion and information are transmitted by way of reference to an indefinite, general source. By way of these references, humans selectively assimilate the discourse of others and make it their own.

Just as water is the medium that allows fish to swim, language is the medium that facilitates networks.  Rather than focus on words as the base unit, Bakhtin focusses on the utterance as his main unit of analysis.  This is from the main wikipedia Bakhtin article:

Utterances are not indifferent to one another, and are not self-sufficient; they are aware of and mutually reflect one another… Every utterance must be regarded as primarily a response to preceding utterances of the given sphere (we understand the word ‘response’ here in the broadest sense). Each utterance refutes affirms, supplements, and relies upon the others, presupposes them to be known, and somehow takes them into account…

I see this as a detailed account of the Wittgenstein use argument that I used earlier.  I take from a psych perspective: The inner psychological world reflects and models the interaction we have with the world.  Because learning is facilitated by social interaction with other people in dialogue, our mind is structured in a dialogical fashion.  This is to see knowledge as existing not only through network nodes, but nodes that reflect dialogue and inter-connected utterances. (This is similar to structuralism, but goes well beyond it in its implications.) Even when we are learning through self study we structure that study in a dialogical fashion.  When we engage in soliloquy, we posit a general other to which we address our words.  Transferring knowledge is not just cutting and pasting it to another node in the network.  We must also adjust to new intentions, new references, and often to the tastes of a new profession or discipline.  I don’t know what the neurological correlates are to dialogic activity, but cognition at a conscious level (and some aspects of unconscious levels), I see the mind as structured by its interaction with this complex social / speech world.

I don’t yet have a good example of pedagogy that reflects this dialogic connective theory.  It would certainly be activity based and structured more like an open-ended apprenticeship and some sort of performance.  I’m thinking that some relevant learning objectives would include: higher order cognition in unstructured situations (e.g. knowledge transfer, problem identification and solving, creative thinking, situated strategic thinking),  intrapersonal dispositions (e.g. motivation, persistence, resilience, and metacognition like self-directed learning) and interpersonal skills sets (e.g. collaboration, effective situated communication, relationship development).

I think a key to achieving a higher level of connective pedagogy is valid assessment in an area where assessment has proven difficult.  Assessment in this context must also be ontologically responsible to the student.  The purpose of ontologically responsible assessment is not to rank, rate, or judge either students or teachers.  That is a task for other assessments. Instead, ontologically responsible assessment is a way of making ourselves visible, both to ourselves and to others, in a joint student teacher activity that conveys the students history and future horizons.  (Horizon = A future that I can see only vaguely, but contains a reasonable route to achieve, given both the student’s and teacher’s  join commitment to each other and to the path.  Education as a doable, visible, committed and ontologically responsible joint activity by student and teacher.

TI’m neven satisfied with an ending, but this seems like a good jumping off point for another post and another time.  I feel the need for input before going further in this direction.


A Propagation Model of Learning and Acting

This post is to clarify some thoughts on a model of knowledge and development (adapted from Vygotsky’s model of an activity) that underly this previous post.  There are three inter-related components to this model: a subject, a mediator and an object/output all of which always operate within specific contexts and culture considerations.  They all orient toward activity, that serves as the unit of analysis.  This model comes from observing people.  All people are constantly active and involved in socially relevant activities.  In order to compete these activities they depend on many higher mental functions, much of which we often refer to as knowledge.  They are doing things like memorizing facts in preparation for a test, organizing projects for work, planning a family outing or doing the myriad types of activities we do everyday.  If you look at the surface structure of the knowledge involved, much of it may be similar.  But this is not the case if you observe how the knowledge is functioning in the activity.  Consider first each part of the model.

The Subject

The subject is a person with a history.  When you look at their development and participation in any activity system, you see what mediators they are able to use, what outputs they are capable of producing, and how all 3 parts of the model are related to the contextual factors at play.  When I think of the development of the subject, I’m thinking of the subject gaining abilities in using mediators, in producing outputs, and in working in different contexts.


I think of knowledge in activity for its mediational properties, that is, how it allows subjects to actively produce outputs.  I think it is more constructive to think of knowledge as enabling you to do something, as opposed to simply knowing something.  What exactly does it mean to know something.  Outside of the ability to act,  the meaning is nebulous.  Wittgenstein spoke of how language has more of a use than a stable meaning as expressed in this quote from John Shotter.

To state now explicitly the well-known Wittgensteinian slogan: in everyday life, words do not in themselves have a meaning, but a use, and furthermore, a use only in a context; they are best thought of not as having already determined meanings, but as means, as tools, or as instruments for use in the making of meanings . . .  (p.78-79).

Knowledge operates in a similar fashion in that it does not have an internal stability like a calculus, but has a use in enabling context specific activity.  Said in another way,  Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist give a similar account of the psychological implications of this dialogic way of looking at things when they quote M.M. Bakhtin saying:

(T)here is no reason for saying that meaning belongs to the word as such.  In essence, meaning belongs to a word in it’s position between speakers . . . meaning is realized only in the process of active, responsive understanding. . .” (p.232)

Similarly, there is no reason to say that knowledge is embodied within specific content or concepts that would allow you to know something, but knowledge finds its meaning in its functional purpose within activity; knowledge is for acting.  When you demonstrate knowledge on an assessment, you are using knowledge to engage in an assessment activity, but that knowledge, though it may apear similar on the surface or from an abstract point of view, it is different and  differently formatted than it would be in different context and for different functional purposes.  What I am attempting is to flesh out Edgar Morin’s perspective when he says:

The need for contextualization is extremely important.  I would even say that it is a principle of knowledge (p.15).


Output is the primary focus guiding activity.  When assessing activity, looking at output is how we judge success.  We can only assess the developmental level of a subject or their ability to use knowledge by watching them in activity.  But, output is often found in the form of an artifact.  When we want to improve something, it is often the output that we want to improve.  This is usually done by furthering the development of the subject or the knowledge (mediation) available to the subject, but the improvement is usually seen in the object.

(Note – Outcomes are often the final product we are trying to achieve.  The output should lead to the outcome desired, but this is not always the case.  Science exist in some ways to help us judge whether the output of activity are in fact achieving the outcomes we desire.)

Inter-relationship within the Model

The inter-relationship in this model are also critical.  In example, knowledge must be molded to match the capabilities of the subject to appropriately use the knowledge and both must be joined in a way to meet the output requirements.  Also, the subject must be sensitive to and must make all aspects of the activity conform to contextual and cultural needs present.  This is a complex model of activity and its complexity is one of the reasons that I have generally abandoned transfer as the primary metaphor in learning.  Instead I often think of a propagation metaphor.  What we transfer are seedlings or cuttings, but these are not useful in activity until they can be grown into mature plants within the garden that is the mature subject in the cultural context of this activity system.

#PLENK2010 Networks as Joint Social Spaces: A Foundation for Pedagogy

I. The Pragmatic Philosophy Part

According to Wittgenstein and Bakhtin, words are instruments of meaning, but that meaning is only realized in the context of their use, not from any kind of essence.  (See my previous post for direct quotes and a fuller treatment)  I believe this radical pragmatic concept also applies to logos – understood here as language, conversation, proposition, principle, reason, analogy, etc. . . , and I would include knowledge.  That is, knowledge is only fully understood and becomes meaningful in the context of its use and in its position between speakers.

II. The Biological View

Organisms interact and adapt to their environments through structural coupling (Recurrent interactions leading to a congruence between systems.), with other organisms through social coupling, and with other humans through linguistic coupling in a process of co-ontogenic (co-developmental) coupling (Maturana & Varela). Taking place in social network spaces, it explains our psychic experience as:

. . . the semiotic expression of the contact between the organism and the outside environment.  That is why the inner psyche is not analyzable as a thing but can only be understood and interpreted as a sign. (Volosinov as quoted in Shotter)

Furthermore, this sign is not in the head of an individual, but in the network that is the social space for creating joint expression and experience.  Our psyche is not in us, but is distributed throughout our cultural historical background and in our shared social spaces.

In this way, we are just like words, we develop (ontogeny) and are defined through our associations with others.

Because, who we ‘are’ between ‘us’, determines who and what we are to ‘our world’, (and who) and what ‘our world’ is to us. . . . And who we are to each other is up to us to care about. That is why it matters. (Shotter p. 206)

III. A similar critique of Education

Learning does not have a meaning that can be measured by a certification or a test of its essence, but it can have a use and it can take on meaning through the process of joint action.  Consider this description taken from Steven Johnson’s  Where Good Ideas Come From

  • A new idea is a new network of neurons firing in the brain.
  • But most such ideas are only partial.  They become complete when we work on them jointly with others.
  • The process of linguistic coupling extends and completes our new neuronal networks and joins them with other new neuronal networks.  These semiotic actions, when at their best, can seem mysterious or even divine in their function.

For something seems to be at work in the activities between people.  The activities are not just repetitive, they grow, they develop, they are creative, they make history; . . .  A ‘double divinity’ seems to be hidden in our joint actions; a ‘creator’ and a ‘judges’ that resides in the sensus communes, that is, ‘in’ its shared ways of ‘seeing sense’ and ‘making sense’. (Shotter, p.205)

IV. So – With a Full Understanding of the Importance of Networks and Community;

What Would Education Look Like?

I’ll answer this question by looking at some vision of education in my next post.

#PLENK2010 Is There “Meaning” in Connectionism?

In the comparison between connectivism and constructivism I’m searching for a different approach and more clarity.  The topic I will begin with is the place of mind, meaning, and interpretation as it’s found within the cognitive revolution and philosophy; and how these topics relates to connectionism.  Don’t think of this as established thought, but rather as an intellectual expedition trying to follow in the footsteps of some old textual mentors.

Meaning: The Basis of the Cognitive Revolution

Meaning and mind were listed as the central purpose behind the cognitive revolution in an account given by Jerome Bruner in the opening to his book, Acts of Meaning.

That (cognitive) revolution was intended to bring “mind” back into the human sciences after a long cold winter of objectivism” (p. 1).  “Its’ aim was to discover and to describe formally the meanings that human beings created  out of their encounters with the world . . . to prompt psychology to join forces with its’ sister interpretive disciplines in the humanities and social sciences (p. 2).  . . . And so today one finds flourishing centers of cultural psychology, cognitive and interpretive anthropology, cognitive linguistics, and above all, a thriving worldwide enterprise that occupies itself as never before since Kant with the philosophy of mind and science (p. 3).

He goes on to explain his disappointment with computational models of cognition that were becoming ascendant because he saw them as replacing the construction of meaning with the processing of information, what he calls profoundly different matters.  He even laments the distributed, “bottom up connectionist networks” of his day (1980s) because he saw them as falling into the same sort of problems as the stimulus response models that had no place for mind and meaning.

The Construction of Meaning; not of Knowledge

To be clear, the constructing of knowledge is not the central concern in this version of constructivism, but instead it is with the construction of meaning in dialogical processes that occur within the interactions between people.  Knowledge, like it’s component words, can be thought of as fluid, and can change according to the context.  It was clarified by John Shotter who said in his book Cultural politics of Everyday Life:

The trouble is, in science as in logic (as also in psychology), because we mistakenly “compare the use of words with games and calculi which have fixed rules” (Wittgenstein‘s Tractatus, 1953, no. 81), we always think that words must have stable, unequivocal, already determined meanings.  But in the openness of ordinary everyday life, in comparison with the closed world of logic, this is precisely not the case.

To state now explicitly the well-known Wittgensteinian slogan: in everyday life, words do not in themselves have a meaning, but a use, and furthermore, a use only in a context; they are best thought of not as having already determined meanings, but as means, as tools, or as instruments for use in the making of meanings – think of words as instruments for use in the ‘making’ of meanings. . . .  (p.78-79).

Two additional points:

  1. This account is dialogic, but I don’t think it would require representations (Something I believe Stephen strongly does not believe in representation somewhere in the mind).  It draws on prior instrumental learning, but not as representation (as analogous to hard drive storage).  Instead it is instrumental and draws on conversational tools as habits or ways of acting.  It could be thought of in this way – our acting and (dialogical) thinking are becoming more complex, and this results in an increase in knowledge complexity as a byproduct of our thinking and acting.  (I pair dialogue and thinking because most thinking is language dependent and language is always directed toward someone even in the soliloquy of our inner speach.)
  2. It is in this sense that negotiation, as I primarily use it in constructivism, is a negotiation of meaning, not of knowledge or definition.  I think it’s better to think not of an argument or a competition, more as a method of discovery of meaning that occurs in a dialogue between people.  I think of this in two ways.
    1. First, the way in which language is used (acted out) is critical to the establishment of it’s meaning.  Bakhtin used a quote from Dostoevsky to illustrate this where the actors in a dialogue are limited to the same one curse word, but used six times where each word, as is uttered, takes on a different meaning; six different meanings for the same word.  Similar to what Shotter said, the meaning is not in the word but in it’s usage.
    2. Second, in dialogue, once we have spoken, we have to wait to see how our utterance is interpreted by our counter-party before we can go on.  We can speak, but it’s like the meaning is in the hands of our dialogic partner.  I think it’s what Wittgenstein meant when he said that we don’t reach for certainty, but rather for the ability to go on and continue the dialogue.  Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist give a similar account of the psychological implications of this dialogic way of looking at things when they quote Bakhtin saying:

(T)here is no reason for saying that meaning belongs to the word as such.  In essence, meaning belongs to a word in it’s position between speakers . . . meaning is realized only in the process of active, responsive understanding. . .” (p.232)

These textual friends are talking about everyday life, not science.  I think their point is that everyday life is the real world and science has its place only in supporting that everyday world.  Too often we try to elevate science beyond its instrumental purpose and think of it as the real world rather than the abstract shadow that it is.

A Temporary Conclusion

So. . . I think maybe that this idea of a meaningful psychology or a meaningful education is compatible with the  type of connectionism we are discussing, but it’s not for me to say, at least not on my own.  If it is, maybe it should prevail over constructionism because it can help us to leave constructionism’s baggage in the past and make a new start.  Anyway looking forward to more conversation next week.

Cartesian Problems in Communicating about Designing and Design Thinking

Interesting article – Thinking About Design Thinking – by Fred Collopy blogging for Fast Company.  Fred considers, “As (Design Thinking) is a way of talking about what designers can contribute to areas beyond the domains in which they have traditionally worked, about how they can improve the tasks of structuring interactions, organizations, strategies and societies, it is a weak term”, because it makes a “distinction between thinking and acting.”

As Fred points out Design Thinking is beset by the Cartesian Mind – Body problem, which is frequently being rejected today.  One form of rejection is found in the idea, “thought” has it’s genesis in “action”, like how you learn to walk and then you learn to think about where you want to go.  A similar idea (attributed to Bakhtin) is that Cartesian thinking unnecessarily divides being from becoming, where the abstractions of disembodied thought never fully capture either the actions of our lives or the moral aspects of those actions.

This is especially important for education that often has it exactly backwards, trying to teach you how to think in order to go out into the world to act.  Education would be so much more valuable if there were no dichotomous walls. (i.e. classroom/world, schooling/working, or even the idea that education = a 4 year quest for certification instead of an ongoing quest for knowledge.)

Understanding Learning by Understanding Language: It’s Growing, Not Transferring

I believe we cannot understand learning without taking into account the operation of language.  Specifically, understanding the way language operates is a reason why educators should abandon the transportation metaphor of learning (i.e. learning transfer) for a cultivation metaphor (growing the knowledge garden).

Language was at the center of philosophy during the last century.  Beginning with the linguistic turn and ending with the interpretive turn, these 20th Century movements had a profound effect on psychology and education. M.M. Bakhtin was one of the great elucidators of language that I encountered in my studies. I believe he was at heart a teacher, but his work defies easy categorization.  I recently came across this quote which emphasizes languages role as a tool of communication, intellect and thinking. (emphasis added)

Due to stratifying forces resulting from the dialogical contextual use of language; there are no “neutral” words and forms – words and forms that can belong to “no one”; language has been completely taken over, shot through with intentions and accents. For any individual consciousness living in it, language is not an abstract system of normative forms but rather a heteroglot conception of the world.  All words have the taste of a profession, a genre, a tendency, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour. Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life; all words and forms are populated by intentions.  Contextual overtones (generic, tendentious, individualistic) are inevitable in the word.  [Bakhtin, M.M. (1981). The Dialogical Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, Austin TX: University of Texas Press. (p.293).]

All language is populated by intentions and overtones that don’t just communicate, but form a conception of the world, by a particular person and in a place and time.  The thought of learning transfer is like thinking of a person that cannot speak except by using direct quotation.  Call it a left-over from a linear behavioral conception of learning.  Imagine if we could only speak to others by using direct quotations.  We don’t do that! We compose our statements according to the context and our purposes.  Similarly, when we learn, we also compose our knowledge (much of which is language) according to the context and purpose.  We may barrow ideas from other people and other times and circumstances, but they are reformulated and grown according to the context and the purpose at hand.  This is the benefit of a cultivation metaphor over a transportation metaphor.