Constructivist Foundations

I’ve been building up my knowledge of constructivist foundations, revisiting the work of Piaget. Piaget adopted the metaphor of learner as creator, constantly ┬áconstructing their beliefs and schemes (internal conceptual structures for interpreting and interacting with external reality) for acting in the complex, ever-changing world.

When discrepancies exist between these structures, disequilibrium ensues. For Piaget, disequilibrium created the necessary conditions for learning. As most people grow older, they become less tolerant of situations that cause disequilibrium. This is a fact. But without this experience, we cease to learn. Being a true lifelong learner means embracing some risk and pursuing opportunities and experiences that push us out of our element.

There are three possible reactions to a state of disequilibrium. The first involves assimilating the new experience into our current constellation of schemes. If there are no schemes to which the novel experience belongs, we will need to take the alternate approach of accommodation or creating new schemes through which to understand the external world. Finally, there’s rejection of the new knowledge, the experience. Strive to never choose this path.

Recently, I listened to the remarkable story of Derek Black, the son of prominent white nationalist figures who went on to denounce the white supremacist ideas his family preached. Pursuing higher education played an instrumental role in his transformation. So did faith and kindness and love. Black talks about the consciousness expanding experience of studying at a culturally and racially diverse institution that exposed him to other ideas and interpretations of the world. When the secret of his white nationalist affiliations and activities came out, a Jewish student reached out. He invited him to a Jewish celebration to experience something of the culture and people he demonized. This gesture of compassion opened a door for Black. Through frequent evidence-based debates and increased friendly interaction with diverse others, Black’s schemas about race had to accommodate his new, appreciative understanding of differences.

I hope to always be brave enough to embrace disequilibrium. To take the class that interests and scares me. To take the risk of failure. To reach for a vision and try to make myself better, different. I hope I can be clever enough to engineer disequilibrating experiences for instruction–to help others change and develop into who they hope to be.

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