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In this article, we will help you better understand cognitive constructivism from a well-rounded perspective. We will also highlight how it applies to one’s life.
What is cognitive constructivism?
Constructivism is pegged on the idea a person’s learning gets dictated by previous knowledge and experience, both of which are determined by the cultural and social environment.
The theory of constructivism, therefore, states that learning takes place when a student constructs knowledge from their experiences. The father of this school of thought is Jean Piaget (1896-1980), and it took up his name in being called Piaget’s theory of cognitive development.
Piaget believes that humans make meaning of things in their life based on the relationship between their experiences and ideas. For him, human development was more focused on the person as an individual entity, free from the influences of other people.
Overall, the concept of constructivism is influenced by psychology, sociology, the history of science, and education. What Piaget saw was that children playing and exploring were not only important but necessary in a student’s cognitive development.
What is cognitive development? It is a field of study under psychology and neuroscience that focuses on a child’s progress concerning information processing, perceptual skills, conception resources, language learning, and other aspects that contribute to the development of the adult brain.
With that in mind, Piaget did think that how a student learns somethings is based on all these aspects that took place in childhood. The theory of constructivism does suggest learners construct knowledge-based on their experiences.
To explain it further, what Piaget says is that a learner’s internalized structures come about from the interaction between information from the environment and their personal ideas.
There are two things that he identified as necessary to a learner, and that is the process of assimilation and the process of accommodation. He saw that these to aspects where crucial as a person constructs new knowledge based on their experiences. What do these two processes mean?
Process of assimilation and accommodation
An integral part of understanding the theory of cognitive constructivism has to do with understanding these two processes.
Process of assimilation: This process has to do with either using or transforming what is in the environment so that it can fit into our preexisting cognitive structures.
Process of accommodation: In this process, an individual change their cognitive structures so they can accept something from the environment.
These two processes tend to be interchangeable and happen throughout one’s life. To summarize it, in the process of assimilation, you alter what’s outside of you so that it can fit into your cognitive structures.
The opposite is the same as the process of accommodation; you change your cognitive structure instead to align with that’s in the environment. For Piaget, these two processes are what determined a student’s learning.
Examples of assimilation and accommodation processes
A broad example we can use is learning that the world is not flat but rather round. As a child, when you walk, you might imagine that you’ll get to a corner and fall off the earth.
However, when you learn science, you change your cognitive structure to accommodate the truth about the world is round, and you have a more realistic picture of it. Thus, learning within the individual takes place requires constant affirming or changing existing cognitive structures dependent on the information we pick up from our environment.
However, there two processes are not without fault based on how the individual goes through them. If a person experiences algin with what is happening within their environment, then it gets incorporated with the existing cognitive structure.
Let’s consider the examples of stereotypes; if you believe something about a person or people and something happens to you that you feel go hand in hand with your existing beliefs, then the experience only works to re-affirm the said belief.
Problems arise when a person wrongly assimilates new information. Various ways can happen. It could be as a result of not noticing or misinterpreting events or being bias against what happened and opting to ignore whatever information is present around us.
A person can continue holding on to stereotypes even when what gets presented is contrary to their existing framework. Two people can have a similar experience and come away with varying thoughts or beliefs about what happens. One may embrace the changes while another dismisses them altogether.
One who accepts the changes goes through the process of accommodation. It involves the individual reframing their internal representation of something to fit what they’ve experienced from the external world.
In this case, a person would give up a stereotype and learn to take each individual as they are, free from labels. According to Piaget and others, the process of accommodation is thought to be learning that comes about from failure.
The reasoning behind it is that when the world acts contrary to what we expect it to, what we experience is a failure. There is a misalignment, and mostly, we are wrong. As a result, we end up having to take up the new experience, reframe our mental model of whatever it is, and then use it to become part of our learning process.
For example, if you meet a person that defies all the stereotypes of certain people, it means you’ve failed in your accuracy or even “truth.” From that failure, you inevitably learn to think differently and banish the prevailing stereotype.
Do note that constructivism is a theory, and not a tool to use in education. It merely talks about how learners make meaning of new information rather than how they can acquire it. It is meant to bring awareness to the person and also the educator as it helps one to examine closer why they do or do not take what is in their environment.
Why is the theory of constructivism relevant?
Essentially, constructivism and particularly social constructivism encourages learners to settle on their version of the truth based on their background, culture, and the worldviews they hold. It is the social interactions within a particular culture that determines the development of one’s knowledge base.
If a leaner grows up without having social interactions with those who are more knowledgeable than they are, they will end up being deficient in understanding the meaning of the social systems, and how to use or interact with them.
That is to say that a child develops their ability to think through interactions with adults, fellow children, and the physical world.
To understand a learner and how they arrive at certain conclusions, you must look at their background and culture as well. That’s because, as we’ve stated, they determine a person’s learning process based on the knowledge, and subsequently truth, they’ve acquired through experience.
When you keep that in mind, you can understand and even foresee what an individual discovers, creates, and attains in any learning process.
The primary reason why the general theory of constructivism is deemed necessary has to with where the responsibility lies. In many instances, the responsibility for an individual’s learning is based on instructors, and the leaners are left to play a receptive and often passive role.
However, in cognitive constructivism, the learner is tasked with playing an active role in their learning process. It means that the student should form their own understanding of something and not only reflecting what they read.
It is thus not learning about something for the sake of giving the same information, for example, during a test. Instead, it internalizing the content, find meaning, and letting it become part of one’s worldview.
The role of instructor and learner in cognitive constructivism
We’ve established that learners in this theory play an active role in their education. What then, is the instructor’s role? In constructivism, the word teacher is replaced with a facilitator, which is more accurate to their role in a students’ learning.
In this structure as well, both the facilitator and student learn from each other. Both parties get to use their background and values in the learning process so they can create meaning and also help understand where each party is coming from.
Together, it uniquely shapes learning as the learner gets to use their experience and long with that of fellow learners and the facilitator to create a redefined truth.
In general, both the leaner and facilitator should be aware of each other’s viewpoints so that they can create cohesion. It provides both parties to genuinely look at their perspectives and the values, beliefs, and experiences that shape them.
Doing so allows each person to be both subjective and objective in formulating a well-established viewpoint. Still using our example of stereotypes, both parties can take in what the other individual says, compares it to their existing version of the truth, and either uses the process of assimilation or accommodation.
Learners can further enhance their knowledge base through collaborating with their peers. In the theory of cognitive development, Piaget does look at the nature and development of human intelligence. It looks at the nature of knowledge with regards to how we as humans acquire it, construct, and then use it.
What led Piaget to be interested in the theory of developmental stages was based on how children of different ages tend to make various mistakes during the problem-solving process. He believed that children shouldn’t be thought of as people who know less.
They indeed are persons with exceptional cognitive abilities, and they speak and think differently from adults.For Piaget, the cognitive development stages represented a progressive reorganization of one’s mental processes.
That came about as a child reached the different biological maturation stages along with the environmental experiences they have. He also thought that children were indeed able to adjust their ideas about the world around them based on the new skills they get even though they conflict with what they already know.
It is that insight that led Piaget to come up with the four different cognitive development stages. They are the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational period.
Let’s explore each briefly
This stage takes place between birth and the acquisition of language. Children use physical interactions with their environment to construct knowledge and understanding. That takes the form of seeing, hearing, touch, and other sensory experiences.
The sensorimotor state is instinctual and reflexive and goes on until the child can use symbols such as language. The most significant learning during this stage, according to Piaget, is object permanence, where the child recognizes that an object continues to exist even after it’s out of their sight or hearing.
This stage begins toward the end of the second year when the child starts to learn how to speak and continues to age seven. In this stage of cognitive development, children haven’t yet understood concrete logic and cannot manipulate information in their minds.
That means that the child has a hard time seeing one thing from different viewpoints. Also, during this stage, playing and make-believe/pretend games are more prominent.
Overall, the child can remember, understand, and represent objects in their mind without it being in front of them, and they also tend to be more inquisitive with questions such as “why?” “What is this?” and “how come?”
This stage comes between the ages of seven and eleven, and it is when a child begins to use logic appropriately. Their thought process matures to appear more adult-like as they use logic for problem-solving. A child can use actual events or objects and incorporate inductive reasoning.
That means, they use the events or objects to make general observations and after form a generalization. However, they are limited in deductive reasoning, which is using abstract concepts to predict and event or outcome.
Formal operational stage
This last stage is from adolescence to adulthood. Here, a person exhibits intelligence through the use of symbols related to abstract concepts. It means one can be both hypothetical and deductive, something children are unable to do.
Cognitive constructivism is when we use the information around us to form real truths and where the learner is in charge of their learning.