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Constructionism (#1079)

Topics/tags: Teaching

Yesterday, as I was talking to my research students, I realized that I had failed to communicate some important aspects of the MIST [1] project to them. In particular, I had failed to help them understand the constructionist perspective that grounds what we are doing.

Today, I gave a short talk to them about constructionism, even though that seems like a bit of a contradiction [2]. I thought it would be useful to put some of what I said into writing, if only so that I have a resource for the next time I have to talk to my students about these kinds of issues.

I should, of course, start with a disclaimer. Or perhaps a series of disclaimers. Let’s see. I am not an educational theorist, so much of what I write in this musing is necessarily incomplete and incompletely grounded in the broader literature. My thoughts on constructionism have been formed over casual encounters with the concept more than formal study; however, I have read (or at least skimmed) a variety of sources. Although I advocate for constructionism, my teaching fails to achieve a full embrace of constructionist pedagogy. And, as I mentioned, it seems to me that a talk or an article about constructionism is a bit of a contradiction. With those disclaimers, let’s move ahead.

From my perspective [3], constructionism is a form of active learning. Active learning is a broad pedagogical theory that suggests that students learn better by doing, rather than just listening. I’m not sure why, but I tend to attribute active learning to John Dewey [4], but I may be incorrect; certainly, active learning approaches precede Dewey. There are, of course, a wide variety of active learning approaches. The flipped classroom, so popular now, is one form [5]. A colleague of mine uses peer instruction, in which students answer cleverly designed multiple-choice questions in class with clickers, discuss their choices with a neighbor, answer again, and then discuss why and how they arrived at a final answer [6]. I even think of Socratic method teaching, particularly of forms similar to that of The Paper Chase, to be a form of active learning, even though that methodology clearly embraces the sage on the stage.

So how does constructionism differ from other active learning approaches? I think of it as a more extreme and more social form of active learning. Constructionism suggests that students learn best when they are in a community of learners and their primary goal is to create artifacts that they have chosen and design and that they anticipate others viewing and using. That is, student choice, community, and interest are at the center of constructionism. The instructor should build the community and provide the resources for student communities to create.

Constructionism is a construct of Seymour Papert at MIT. Papert was a disciple of Piaget and, as I understand it, constructionism is a mechanism to support what Piaget called constructivism, the notion that each student creates their personal framework for understanding the world [7]. Papert first developed his theories while developing the Logo programming language, and the ways he encouraged people to teach with Logo embody the constructionist approach.

These days, Mitchel Resnick, who I think of as a discipline of Papert, carries on the tradition through the Scratch programming language. One thing I particularly appreciate about Scratch—and that I’ve been trying to get my research team to understand—is that Scratch supports a constructionist approach not only through the language that students use to build projects, but also through what I call a surrounding ecosystem: Students can share their projects, remix other students’ projects, comment on projects, and more. They are part of a learning community. Resnick’s latest book, which is on my to read list, phrases the constructionist approach with Four P’s [8]: Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. I would add Public but perhaps that’s not strictly necessary.

I like constructionism because it embraces both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Students learn because they are working on problems and projects they find interesting (intrinsic) but also that others will look at, comment on, or use (extrinsic).

I also consider constructionism important because of the way the MOOC revolution has developed [9]. Most of the current popular MOOCs and MOOC platforms follow a fairly traditionalist (perhaps instructivist) model of education: You watch a bunch of lectures and you do some homework based on what you supposedly learned in lecture. But the first MOOCs were constructionist; their goal was to put together a community of learners around a topic, a community that gathers resources and supports members as they learn. Ideally, we should refer to the original kind of MOOCs as cMOOCs and the newer kind as xMOOCs. But almost no one does.

Why did xMOOCs take off where cMOOCs did not? Probably because by the time we become adult learners, we are so accustomed to an instructivist form of learning we are uncomfortable engaging with a more constructionist form. Or maybe it’s harder to charge people for constructionist education, so there are fewer resources available to build and advertise. I’ll leave those issues for someone smarter (or at least differently educated) than me to analyze.

As I suggested earlier, since constructionism involves learning through creating things you want to create, it seems odd to try to help people learn by lecturing or writing about it. It’s a constructionist activity for me, but not for my audience.

If you’d like to do your own exploration of what constructionism is or what it could be, here are some resources you might rely on beyond the results of a Google search.

  • When I can’t remember the difference between constructivism and constructionism, I often return to a ’blog post by Mark Guzdial. Mark is one of the most thoughtful writers I know about CS education and related issues.
  • Papert’s introduction to an early collection of essays on constructionism provides a more in-depth overview.
  • Mitchel Resnick recently set up Learning Creative Learning, a kind of course on constructionist learning, even if he doesn’t refer to it as such.
  • Strangely enough, while I was preparing the talk for my students, I learned about Code Nation: Personal Computing and the Learn to Program Movement in America, which is currently available as a free PDF, but only for this month [10]. That text has a few sections on Logo and its impacts.
  • Papert’s Mindstorms introduced many of these ideas. My Code Camp research students appreciated reading it. And you can get it as a free PDF.
  • I love James Clayson’s Visual Modeling in Logo both because it has some fascinating kinds of imaging making and because it focuses on the experiences of students. Clayson has recently made a free PDF available [11]. Clayson also has some recent short papers on what he calls Radical Bricolage, papers which I may have my Tutorial students read.
  • As I think I mentioned, Mitchel Resnick recently released a book entitled Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. It’s on my to-read list. Maybe I’ll make it the next choice for the Rebelsky book club.

And there you have it. SamR’s perspective on constructionism and why it’s important, and some resources through which you can construct your own talk, essay, ’blog post, MOOC, collage, or any other kind of project on constructionism.


Postscript: You know that longer volume of essays I mentioned? Here’s the basic info.

Idit Harel and Seymour Paper. 1991. Constructionism: Research Reports and Essays, 1985–1990. Ablex Publishing Corporation.

I’d like to take a look at that volume. Unfortunately, it’s long out of print and the only copies I can find for sale are upwards of $300. Even WorldCat only shows a few copies available at other libraries, and I’m pretty sure that Inter-Library Loan is not currently available.

If anyone has suggestions about how I might obtain a copy, please let me know.


[1] Mathematical Image Synthesis Toolkit.

[2] We’ll see why in a bit.

[3] Yes, I realize that almost everything I write is from my perspective and that I probably shouldn’t write it. It’s similar to my admonition to students not to write I think or I believe I’m going to leave this first From my perspective; you can assume that the remainder of the musing is mostly from that perspective.

[4] No, not of the Dewey Decimal system.

[5] In a flipped classroom, students watch a lecture or do a reading outside of class, and spend class time working on problems.

[6] Most people I know credit Eric Mazur with the development of this form of peer instruction. Mazur was dealing with smart students in a physics class who did well on exams but seemed to lack a commonsense understanding of physics. Here’s a sample Mazur-style PI question: You have a heavy rock in a boat in a relatively small body of water. You toss the rock out of the boat. Does the water level in the body of water go up, go down, or stay the same?

[7] Yes, that is an extreme simplification of Piaget’s theory of constructionism. It’s about all my little brain can handle.

[8] These bear no resemblance to the Six P’s I teach my students to use when they document code: Procedure, Parameters, Purpose, Product, Preconditions, and Postconditions.

[9] If you’re not sure what a MOOC is, ignore the paragraph. Maybe I’ll write about MOOCs another day.

[10] My quick look at the text raises some questions. For example, shouldn’t Learn to Program be hyphenated? And why isn’t there any real coverage of Hypercard, which helped an amazing number of people learn to program? The author is from Microsoft is not an acceptable answer. On a more positive note, I appreciate that one section is entitled Hold me closer, TinyBasic, which is the kind of title I would write.

[11] It’s been hard enough to find affordable copies that I regularly pick them up when I see them so that I can have them available for in-person research teams. I wonder what I’ll do with them now.


Version 1.0 of 2020-06-03.