This article by John Abbott and Terence Ryan appeared in the November 1999 issue of Educational Leadership.

The emerging brain research that supports constructivist learning collides head-on with many of our institutional arrangements for learning.

Introduction: a story to make a point

Like many liberal studies teachers, I was slow in coming to terms with the use of the computer. It was not so for my then nine-year-old eldest son Peter who, from the moment we bought him a computer to use at home, quickly learnt to manage an ever-increasing range of sophisticated programs. He either taught himself, or learnt to solve problems through working these out with his friends. At an early stage teachers asked for his help as more computers were put into his school.

A common enough story, repeated time and time again; young people, as young as nine or ten, learn an immense amount when deeply engaged in tasks that fascinate them.

A year or so later my second son, David, three years younger than Peter, decided that he too wanted to use the computer. To start with Peter was immensely patient as a teacher, and David learnt fast. But then I noticed something curious. Peter sensed that David was coming to rely too much on him to explain new processes, rather than using what he already knew to find the answer for himself. One evening Peter’s frustration erupted:

“Dad, David is just being lazy; by asking me to tell him what to do he will never learn to solve problems for himself. That’s the only reason why I know what to do – because I had to work it out for myself. If David doesn’t learn to work it out like that, then he’ll never really learn!”

That sage observation came from an eleven-year-old – a boy who had never even heard of constructivism, but who understood exactly that by bringing all his previous experience to bear on a new problem he could construct his own novel solutions. As a boy Peter learnt to listen intently to everything that he heard, and noted everything that he saw because he realized at a deep and profound level that it was he, and he alone, who could direct his own learning.

This anecdote bears out the truth shown in recent long-term research studies – that four out of the five greatest predictors of eventual success at University are applied and achieved before a child even enters school; namely the quantity and quality of discussion in the child’s home, the clarity of value systems, strong peer group support, and the amount of independent reading. Inquisitiveness is what drives children’s learning, and constructivism is the theory that Cognitive Scientists have devised to explain how a child progresses from inquisitiveness to new knowledge. Just how does this work?

Constructivism and Brain Research

In searching for answers researchers in the 1990s have uncovered a massive amount of interrelated evidence in the brain sciences, the biological sciences, and even archeology and anthropology which are starting to show in considerable detail how it is that humans actually learn. We now can see why learning is much more than just the flip-side of good teaching and schooling. Rather than thinking of the brain as a computer it is now seen as a far more flexible, self-adjusting, biological analogy Ð the brain as a living, unique, ever-changing organism that grows and reshapes itself in response to challenge, with elements that wither through lack of use.

As scientists study the processes of learning they are realizing that a constructivist model of learning reflects their best understanding of the brain’s natural way of making sense of the world. Constructivism holds that learning is essentially active. A person learning something new brings to that experience all of their previous knowledge and present mental patterns. Each new fact or experience is assimilated into a living web of understanding that already exists in that person’s mind. As a result, learning is neither passive nor simply objective.

Constructivist learning is an intensely subjective, personal process and structure that each person constantly and actively modifies in light of new experiences. Constructivists argue that, by definition, a person who is truly passive is incapable of learning. With a constructivist form of learning, each child structures his or her own knowledge of the world into a unique pattern, connecting each new fact, experience, or understanding in a subjective way that binds the child into rational and meaningful relationships to the wider world.

Such a view of learning contrasts harshly with the perceived wisdom of many educationalists. A European Professor of Education recently wrote to us,

Those involved in school management draw a sharp boundary between the areas of education which are so-called professional areas, and therefore reserved for professionals (i.e. teachers), and those in which other members of the community (e.g. parents or retired people) can legitimately be involved. While many schools encourage the involvement of members of the community for certain activities, those activities are clearly separated from the Ôprofessional’ work of teachers. It is very difficult and indeed might well be foolhardy to try and blur this distinction.”

In the light of recent research on how children learn, this distinction is now desperately, dangerously, outdated. As the neuroscientists Chang and Greenough at the University of Illinois noted in 1978 there are two sets of neurons that enable us to learn Ð one set, they suggested, captures general information from the immediate environment while the other constantly searches through an individual’s earlier experiences as it seeks meaning. Very recent research at the Salk Institute has suggested that this is a false dichotomy. Rather than representing two distinct strategies within the brain these are two separate parts of the same process. Constructivist learning is the dynamic interaction between the environment and the individual brain.

In a constructivist model of learning nature and nurture don’t compete, rather they work together. It is clear from the biological sciences that humans are who-we-are in large part because of our species’ evolutionary experience over millions of years. The vast developmental experience of our species has provided each new generation with a powerful toolkit of predispositions that go a long way in explaining our ability to learn language, cooperate successfully in groups, think across problems, plan for the future, and empathize with others. Predispositions, both in young children and adolescents, provide individuals with a whole range of skills that enable them to relate flexibly to their environment. Yet, because for most of human history people tended to live in relatively small groups, these skills have to be developed collaboratively as very few individuals ever possess all these attributes.