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.


Why we need connectionism: A Relevant Metaphor for Practice

In spite of the growing support for the social-cultural, situated, social constructivist, distributed, hermeneutic and dilogical nature of learning and cognition; educational, business and cultural practices remain firmly rooted in a paradigm of individualism.  Why?  I can only infer that the aforementioned perspectives are too abstract to move the paradigmatic barriers in moat people’s thinking, but this is where I think connectivism can contribute by making things more concrete.  Instead of looking at abstract social cultural environments, connectivism highlights that these environments are actually networks of people connecting in concrete ways and situations.

For instance, Hagel Brown & Davison tell us to get ourselves connected into knowledge flows, but what does this mean.  What I think they mean is that we need to be in environments and networks that allow our thinking to sense and be open to the expressions of many other people.  It applies to digital networks as well as in our physical surroundings.  In fact, since we are not digital devices, our digital networks need to be integrated into our physical personal and cognitive spaces.  Instead of thinking only of knowledge flows, think of physical environs, their cognitive predispositions, their diversity, their intellectual richness and their digital connection to people in similar environs.

Metaphors actively shape our thinking.  I don’t think of connectivism as being opposed to the first mentioned perspectives with which I began this post, but I do think of connectivism as a new and important metaphorical perspective.  Connectivism should help these perspectives to be understood in new ways that are directly applicable to our daily practices.  In the end, it is like Wittgenstein suggested: the meaning of connectivism, or any other perspective on thinking and learning for that matter, is not to be found in a philosophical discussion.  Rather, it is found in the way that it relates to and helps us to better our everyday practices and the ways that we go about relating to each other.

#CCK11 – Does Connectivism Help Us Face Modern Super-Complexity

Are you confused by all the different theories of learning?  Welcome to the ailments of the world of modernity.  This is the subject of an interesting article: University Knowledge in an Age of Supercomplexity by Ronald Barnet.  In this article he states:

The modern world is supercomplex in character: it can be understood as a milieu for the proliferation of frameworks by which we might understand the world, frameworks that are often competing with each other.  In such an age of supercomplexity, the university has new knowledge functions: to add to supercomplexity by offering completely new frames of understanding (so compounding supercomplexity); to help us comprehend and make sense of the resulting knowledge mayhem; and to enable us to live purposefully amid supercomplexity.

In other words, the variety of perspectives (theories) creates supercomplexity.  New perspectives (theories) are still needed, but instead of making things even worse by only adding to complexity,  they should recognize supercomplexity and should be constructed in a way to help us make sense of and live purposely amid this complexity.  Barnet calls it a therapeutic pedagogy offering:

(A) purposive equilibrium in the face of radical uncertainty and contestability.  . . . It does so by allowing space for meanings to come from within the person.

A therapeutic pedagogy offers a chance of recovering the self.  It looks back to that which was suppressed (by radical uncertainty) but also looks forward to new realizations of being.

So my question is;

does connectivism help us to make sense of all the different ideas on learning and education, or is it just another source of complexity and uncertainty?

Barnet does help by giving us a list of epistemological requirements for future frameworks.

An age of supercomplexity, accordingly, calls for nothing less from the university than an epistemology for uncertainty. It has, as we have seen, four elements:

  1. The capacity for revolutionary reframing;

  2. The capacity for critical interrogation of all claimants for knowledge and understanding;

  3. The capacity for enabling individuals to feel at ease in an uncertain world

  4. The capacity for developing powers of critical action.

#cck11 Connectivism is a Retroactive Theory to Previous Learning Theories

Mike Dillon asks:

“(H)ow connectivism fits into the scheme of how we learn and how we educate” and states “there is obviously the debate about whether or not it can stand as an independent learning theory”.

I believe that most successful new theories are, as Mike says, retroactive, in that they arise to address what previous theories were unable to address while also explaining the same phenomena that the previous theory addressed. The problem with most learning theories is that the discipline is so conservative. People hang on to their perspective and moving on very slowly.   It what Thomas Kuhn described when he noted that many paradigms change not because people change their minds, but because they retire.  A second reason things appear complicated is that the field does not move in a strict linear fashion.  We still haven’t seen the end of people reinterpreting John Dewey.

I find connectivism most closely resembles the Vygotskian Social-Cultural School. Vygotsky addressed the inadequacies of behaviorism directly in his day (1930s Russia) and his introduction to American’s in the 1970s also served to address the limitations of early cognitivism and provided a more detailed functional view of aspects of social constructivism.  Vygotsky was a contemporary to John Dewey and his thinking was similar in many ways. What I think Vygotsky did not address very well was the creation of new knowledge and he also relied too much on mental representations in his thinking.  (Much of this criticism is also applicable to Dewey.)  I think much of connectivism was contained within Vygotsky’s and Dewey’s work, just under-developed or aspects that were unacknowledged by these thinkers. I think this focus on new knowledge and on a non-representational view of cognition is where connectivism excels.  I usually think of connectivism mostly as a retroactive extension and an update of Vygotsky, yet one that is sufficiently extensive that it warrants a place in its own right.

On Connectivism – The Course



I have signed up to be part of the mass participation in the learning theory course being offered by Stephen Downes and George Seimans on Connectivism.  The following are my thoughts on an initial reading post.


 Is there a need for a new theory?  Although I’ve voice this question before myself, after lots of thought, I will answer yes, for at least 2 reasons.  

Learning theory continues to evolve rapidly.  It was only 50 years ago that behaviorism completely dominated the field.  It eventually gave way to cognitivism and constructivism and, although constructivism generally dominates today, there are many different forms, not to mention that there are areas where behaviorism and cognitivism are still very important.  It cannot be considered a stable theory or discipline where there is a strong consensus.

I generally follow an idea attributed to Vygotsky  that tools and ideas reflect back on and change the person who uses them.  So the “web 2.0” network does not just enable us to learn as a neutral tool for learning.  It changes not only how we learning, it changes what learning means and it changes who we are as learner and as human beings.  Vygotsky was looking at how our use of language changed  what it meant to be human, but technology has the potential to do the same.  In a sense we are already becoming cyborgs.  The use of technology will defiantly require substantial change in learning theory.

Concerning the listed criticism of:

Pløn Verhagen (2006);  I would agree that connectivism is not yet a mature theory, but that does not mean that it is without merit or unable to be developed further.

Bill Kerr (2007); I mentioned reason above for why existing theory might be considered insufficient, although there is much that might be borrowed.

Curtis Bonk; Most current iterations of learning theory depend on anthropological and sociological thinking.  This is in order to avoid an excessively individualistic account that does not reflect the collective aspects of our lives.  The framework of study in connectivism I would consider educational and psychological, not sociological or anthropological.  

Otherwise, I will list one concern and one development idea:

Concern – there is a reference to neuro-science, but I don’t think we know a lot about learning from a neurological perspective in order to use the knowledge or to use it metaphorically.  There has recently been some talk on the net about the misuse of neuro-science.  It can be used as a rhetorical device rather than reflect a substantive linkage between disciplinary knowledges.

Idea: I like to use the metaphor of propagation as a way to think of (constructivist) learning.  We are given a root stem whether it is some existing knowledge, the results of an experiment, or an innovative thought.  To make it usable or actionable knowledge, however, it must be planted in a garden of practice.  Only then can it grow and fill the garden.  I guess I like organic metaphors.


Oh well; till later