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Social constructivist perspectives on teaching and learning

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Social constructivist perspectives focus on the interdependence of social and individual processes in the co-construction of knowledge. After the impetus for understanding the influence of social and cultural factors on cognition is reviewed, mechanisms hypothesized to account for learning from this perspective are identified, drawing from Piagetian and Vygotskian accounts. The empirical research reviewed illustrates (a) the application of institutional analyses to investigate schooling as a cultural process, (b) the application of interpersonal analyses to examine how interactions promote cognition and learning, and (c) discursive analyses examining and manipulating the patterns and opportunities in instructional conversation. The review concludes with a discussion of the application of this perspective to selected contemporary issues, including: acquiring expertise across domains, assessment, educational equity, and educational reform.
Annu. Rev. Psychol. 1998. 49:345–75
Copyright © 1998 by Annual Reviews Inc. All rights reserved
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST
PERSPECTIVES ON TEACHING
AND LEARNING
A. Sullivan Palincsar
Educational Studies, University of Michigan, 610 East University, Ann Arbor,
Michigan 48109-1259; e-mail: annemari@umich.edu
KEY WORDS: teaching, learning, context, collaboration
ABSTRACT
Social constructivist perspectives focus on the interdependence of social and
individual processes in the co-construction of knowledge. After the impetus
for understanding the influence of social and cultural factors on cognition is
reviewed, mechanisms hypothesized to account for learning from this per-
spective are identified, drawing from Piagetian and Vygotskian accounts.
The empirical research reviewed illustrates (a) the application of institu-
tional analyses to investigate schooling as a cultural process, (b) the applica-
tion of interpersonal analyses to examine how interactions promote cogni-
tion and learning, and (c) discursive analyses examining and manipulating
the patterns and opportunities in instructional conversation. The review con-
cludes with a discussion of the application of this perspective to selected con-
temporary issues, including: acquiring expertise across domains, assess-
ment, educational equity, and educational reform.
CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION .......................................................... 346
INTELLECTUALLY SITUATING THE SOCIOCULTURAL REVOLUTION IN
INSTRUCTIONAL RESEARCH....... ................................... 346
MECHANISMS ACCOUNTING FOR LEARNING FROM SOCIAL
CONSTRUCTIVIST PERSPECTIVES . . ................................... 350
The Sociocognitive Conflict Theory of Piaget.................................. 350
The Sociocultural Theory of Vygotsky ........................................ 351
0066-4308/98/0201-0345$08.00
345
ANALYSES OF SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST PERSPECTIVES ................... 355
Institutional Analyses ..................................................... 355
Interpersonal Analyses .................................................... 357
Discursive Analyses ...................................................... 361
THE APPLICATION OF SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST PERSPECTIVES TO
CONTEMPORARY EDUCATIONAL ISSUES .............................. 365
Acquiring Expertise Across Domains ........................................ 365
Assessment ..... ........................................................ 366
Providing Meaningful Education for All Children .............................. 368
Educational Reform ...................................................... 369
Future Directions for Inquiry............................................... 371
INTRODUCTION
Recent chapters in the Annual Review of Psychology closely related to the gen-
eral subject matter of teaching and learning (Glaser & Bassok 1989, Sandoval
1995, Snow & Swanson 1992, Voss et al 1995) have generally examined is-
sues of cognition from an individualistic perspective. Voss et al (1995) indi-
cated that the recent decade has witnessed the “sociocultural revolution,” with
its focus on learning in out-of-school contexts and on the acquisition of intel-
lectual skills through social interaction (p. 174). In this review, I examine the
nature and consequences of this revolution.
The review begins by intellectually situating social constructivist perspec-
tives. Following an explication of the tenets of this approach, I explore issues
of teaching and learning that are particularly salient from social constructivist
perspectives. These issues are presented using institutional, interpersonal, and
discursive levels of analysis. I then proceed to the application of social con-
structivist views to contemporary issues of importance to education; namely,
the acquisition of expertise across subject matter, assessment practices, the
education of linguistic and culturally diverse children, and school reform. The
review concludes with a critique of this perspective and a discussion of future
directions.
INTELLECTUALLY SITUATING THE SOCIOCULTURAL
REVOLUTION IN INSTRUCTIONAL RESEARCH
Instructional research in the West was initially informed by behaviorist ac-
counts of learning found in classic writings such as those of Thorndike (1906).
Thorndike postulated that learning took place through the differential streng-
thening of bonds between situations and actions. Teaching, in turn, was a mat-
ter of shaping the responses of the learner through using instructional proce-
dures such as modeling, demonstration, and reinforcement of closer approxi-
mations to the targeted response. From this perspective, academic tasks were
346 PALINCSAR
analyzed to determine their component parts, and the curriculum was carefully
sequenced to ensure that students were acquiring the necessary prerequisite
skills before the introduction of more advanced material. The instructional
model that best reflects the tenets of behaviorism is referred to as direct in-
struction teaching. The hallmark of direct instruction is the active and directive
role assumed by the teacher, who maintains control of the pace, sequence, and
content of the lesson (Baumann 1988, p. 714):
The teacher, in a face-to-face-reasonably formal manner, tells, shows, mod-
els, demonstrates, teaches the skill to be learned. The key word here is
teacher, for it is the teacher who is in command of the learning situation and
leads the lesson, as opposed to having instruction “directed” by a worksheet,
kit, learning center, or workbook.
The research regarding direct instruction suggests that while it is an effec-
tive means of teaching factual content, there is less evidence that this instruc-
tion transfers to higher order cognitive skills such as reasoning and problem
solving, nor is there sufficient evidence that direct-instruction teaching results
in the flexibility necessary for students to use the targeted strategies in novel
contexts (Peterson & Walberg 1979). In addition to these practical concerns
with the limitations of direct instruction, there are significant theoretical limi-
tations of the behavioral perspective; namely, this perspective offers no satis-
factory explanation of the mechanisms that account for learning.
With increased interest in human information processing in complex cogni-
tive activity, the cognitive perspective assumed prominence. Bruner (1990) ar-
gues that the cognitive revolution was meant to do more than simply be an im-
provement on behaviorism; it was also meant to promote a psychology that fo-
cused on “meaning making.” To explain meaning making, cognitive psycholo-
gists introduced cognitive structures (such as schemata and heuristics) as the
representations of knowledge in memory. These cognitive structures are as-
sumed to underlie such phenomena as problem solving and transfer ability.
Virtually all cognitive science theories entail some form of constructivism to
the extent that cognitive structures are typically viewed as individually con-
structed in the process of interpreting experiences in particular contexts. How-
ever, there are many versions of constructivism, suggesting a continuum an-
chored by trivial constructivism at one end, which stresses the individual as
constructing knowledge but is concerned with whether or not the constructions
are correct representations, to radical constructivism, which rejects the notion
of objective knowledge and argues instead that knowledge develops as one en-
gages in dialogue with others.
In this review, I consider research on teaching and learning that has been
conducted from postmodern constructivist perspectives (cf Prawat 1996).
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST PERSPECTIVES 347
What unifies postmodern constructivist perspectives is rejection of the view
that the locus of knowledge is in the individual; learning and understanding are
regarded as inherently social; and cultural activities and tools (ranging from
symbol systems to artifacts to language) are regarded as integral to conceptual
development. What distinguishes various postmodern constructivist perspec-
tives is a bit murkier. For example, Cobb & Yackel (1996), distinguishing a
perspective they call “emergent” from a sociocultural perspective, argue that
while sociocultural approaches frame instructional issues in terms of transmis-
sion of culture from one generation to the next, the emergent perspective con-
ceives of instructional issues in terms of the emergence of individual and col-
lective meanings in the classroom. However, John-Steiner & Mahn (1996) ar-
gue that this is not an accurate interpretation of sociocultural theory which, in
fact, has as its overarching focus the interdependence of the social and individ-
ual processes in the co-construction of knowledge.
While not wishing to trivialize differences among social constructivist per-
spectives, we also don’t wish to become mired in them. Furthermore, given the
fairly emergent state of this perspective—especially when considering its im-
plications for teaching and learning, the revolution is perhaps best character-
ized as under way. Hence, the focus of this review is on the social dimensions
of constructivism generally speaking. Where researchers have drawn distinc-
tions among perspectives, these are identified.
Interest in social constructivism has been motivated by a number of factors,
many of which were actually informed by cognitive perspectives on teaching
and learning (cf Bruer 1994). As psychological research called attention to the
strategic activity of experts (e.g. Flower et al 1992), intervention researchers
investigated the use of think-alouds as a means of making problem-solving
skills public and accessible to those with less expertise. An example is the re-
search of Duffy et al (1986) in which they determined the value of engaging
teachers in public modeling, via think-alouds, of the use of reading strategies
such as using context for the purpose of figuring out the meaning of an un-
known word. They determined that the children of teachers (in third and fifth
grades) who were skilled in modeling the mental processing they were using
when experiencing difficulty understanding text recalled more from the les-
sons and indicated a greater awareness of why they were learning particular
strategies.
In another line of research, Palincsar & Brown (1984, 1989; Brown & Pal-
incsar 1989; Palincsar et al 1993b) designed an intervention, called reciprocal
teaching, in which teachers and children used discussion structured with four
strategies—predicting, questioning, summarizing, and clarifying—to engage
readers in constructing the meaning of a text and monitoring to determine that
they were making sense of the text. While the teachers were encouraged to ex-
348 PALINCSAR
plicitly model the strategies, they were also urged to cede control of using the
strategies to the children by asking them to take turns leading the discussion.
As children led the discussions, the teachers provided whatever support each
child needed to use the strategies. This intervention was designed for students
who, while fairly adequate decoders, were very poor comprehenders. A pro-
gram of research indicated that these discussions were a successful means of
enhancing comprehension skills; furthermore, the research provided evidence
of a relationship between the quality of the interaction between children and
teachers, as well as among children, and the nature of the learning that oc-
curred. For example, heterogeneous groups of children with diverse compre-
hension skills attained competence by using the learning dialogues more
quickly than groups of more homogenous ability (Palincsar & Brown 1984).
Furthermore, the children of teachers adept at providing specific feedback to
children were able to extend children’s contributions to the discussions by
building upon their ideas. Consequently, these children made greater gains
than those of teachers who were less effective at scaffolding children’s contri-
butions to the discussions (Palincsar 1986).
As cognitive research clarified the demands of expert reasoning and prob-
lem solving, interest emerged in distributing the cognitive work (Bruer 1994).
Researchers hypothesized that by drawing upon a larger collective memory
and the multiple ways in which knowledge could be structured among indi-
viduals working together, groups could attain more success than individuals
working alone. Research in writing provides examples. Daiute & Dalton
(1993) investigated how children aged seven to nine used diverse capabilities
as they taught one another how to write stories. The peer collaboration resem-
bled interactions between teachers and children, resulting in the generation of
new story elements and more mature forms of writing than children had dem-
onstrated alone. Furthermore, the researchers speculated that the peer interac-
tion was more facilitative than teacher and child interactions, given the shared
perspectives and life experiences that the children were able to bring to the col-
laborative writing process. This notion will be examined more fully below in
discussions of Piagetian and Vygotskian perspectives on learning.
Another explanation for interest in the social dimensions of cognition is de-
rived from awareness of the role that language production plays in promoting
learning. Explaining one’s thinking to another leads to deeper cognitive proc-
essing (Scardamalia & Bereiter 1989).
A final impetus to understanding how social and cultural factors influence
cognition is the perspective that thought, learning, and knowledge are not just
influenced by social factors but are social phenomena. From this perspective,
cognition is a collaborative process (see Rogoff 1997), thought is internalized
discourse, and the purpose of inquiry regarding cognitive development is to
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST PERSPECTIVES 349
examine the transformation of socially shared activities into internalized pro-
cesses (see John-Steiner & Mahn 1996). In the next section, we explore two
perspectives on the mechanisms accounting for learning from social construc-
tivist perspectives.
MECHANISMS ACCOUNTING FOR LEARNING FROM
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST PERSPECTIVES
The Sociocognitive Conflict Theory of Piaget
There are several theoretical perspectives that have been proffered, in fairly
well-developed terms, as explanations of the mechanism by which social inter-
action leads to higher levels of reasoning and learning. The first, sociocogni-
tive conflict, is derived principally from the work of Piaget and his disciples:
“Cognitive conflict created by social interaction is the locus at which the
power driving intellectual development is generated” (Perret-Clermont 1980,
p. 12). From this perspective, contradiction between the learner’s existing un-
derstanding and what the learner experiences gives rise to disequilibration,
which, in turn, leads the learner to question his or her beliefs and to try out new
ideas. In Piaget’s words, “disequilibrium forces the subject to go beyond his
current state and strike out in new directions” (1985, p. 10). Piaget further sug-
gested that the social exchanges between children were more likely to lead to
cognitive development than exchanges between children and adults. This ob-
servation was premised on the belief that among age peers there is mutual con-
trol over the interaction.
Among studies that have investigated sociocognitive conflict theory is the
research by Bell et al (1985). Using conservation tasks, they determined that
children working with peers showed more cognitive growth than children
working alone. However, there were particular conditions that were in place
for children who derived the most from this opportunity. For example, the
child had to be actively engaged in the problem-solving activity and not
merely observing the more advanced peer. In addition, if the partner’s cogni-
tive level were too much in advance of the child’s, the outcome mirrored that
expected of interactions with adults: the partner’s answer was merely accepted
and did not stimulate the process of “strik[ing] out in directions.”
In search of evidence that peer interaction provides greater opportunities
for learning than adult-child interactions, Radziszewska & Rogoff (cited in
Rogoff 1991) compared children’s interactions with adults and peers, using
one group of peer partners who had been taught to use an optimal strategy for
completing an errand-planning task and another who had received no special
preparation. When the children were later asked to plan without assistance,
350 PALINCSAR
those children who had collaborated with adults were more successful than
those who had worked with prepared or unprepared peers. In an effort to recon-
cile these differential outcomes of Piagetian studies, Damon (1984) argued
that it is important to attend to the nature of the shift the child must make. For
example, he suggested that development that requires giving up current under-
standing to reach a new perspective might best be attained through interaction
with peers, whereas learning that does not require a transformation of perspec-
tive but rather is characterized as the accretion of a new skill or strategy might
be best attained by working with more skillful and experienced partners, such
as adults.
Suggesting that verbal interaction is the key to co-construction and cogni-
tive change, Forman & Kraker (1985) cautioned that cognitive conflict may
not be enough if there is insufficient verbal interaction or if the social structure
permits passive compliance. The importance of considering social status
within the group was demonstrated in the research by Russell et al (1990), who
observed that social dominance influenced whether a child’s conserving an-
swer was adopted by the second child. Merely having the right answer was not
consistently enough to persuade the other child.
The Sociocultural Theory of Vygotsky
The role of social processes as a mechanism for learning is usually identified
with Vygotsky, who suggested: “The social dimension of consciousness is pri-
mary in time and in fact. The individual dimension of consciousness is deriva-
tive and secondary” (Vygotsky 1978, p. 30, cited in Wertsch & Bivens 1992).
From this perspective, mental functioning of the individual is not simply de-
rived from social interaction; rather, the specific structures and processes re-
vealed by individuals can be traced to their interactions with others. Wertsch
(1991) has proposed three major themes in Vygotsky’s writings that elucidate
the nature of this interdependence between individual and social processes in
learning and development.
The first theme is that individual development, including higher mental
functioning, has its origins in social sources. This theme is best represented in
Vygotsky’s “genetic law of development” (Valsiner 1987, p. 67):
Every function in the cultural development of the child comes on the stage
twice, in two respects: first in the social, later in the psychological, first in re-
lations between people as an interpsychological category, afterwards within
the child as an intrapsychological category….All higher psychological func-
tions are internalized relationships of the social kind, and constitute the so-
cial structure of personality.
From this perspective, as learners participate in a broad range of joint ac-
tivities and internalize the effects of working together, they acquire new strate-
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST PERSPECTIVES 351
gies and knowledge of the world and culture. Typically, this tenet has been il-
lustrated by examining the interactions between individuals with disparate
knowledge levels; for example, children and their caregivers or experts and
novices. Illustrative is the cross-cultural research of Rogoff, who studied the
supportive contexts in which Mayan children acquire knowledge and strate-
gies (Rogoff 1991, p. 351):
The routine arrangements and interactions between children and their care-
givers and companions provide children with thousands of opportunities to
observe and participate in the skilled activities of their culture. Through re-
peated and varied experience in supported routine and challenging situa-
tions, children become skilled practitioners in the specific cognitive activi-
ties in their communities.
Perhaps as a consequence of these research contexts, contemporary critics
of a sociocultural perspective argue that it is a “transfer of knowledge model”
(e.g. Cobb et al 1993). However, scholars of this perspective have argued that
this interpretation is simplistic and misinterprets the transformative nature of
internalization that has been described by sociocultural researchers. For exam-
ple, Leontiev suggested that “the process of internalization is not the trans-
ferral of an external activity to a preexisting internal ‘plane of consciousness’;
it is the process in which this plane is formed” (Wertsch & Stone 1985, p. 163).
In contrast with prevailing views of his time, in which learning was re-
garded as an external process and development an internal process, Vygotsky
was concerned with the unity and interdependence of learning and develop-
ment. For example, he was critical of Piaget’s theory in which “maturation is
viewed as a precondition of learning but never the result of it” (Vygotsky 1978,
p. 80). In contrast, Vygotsky proposed that (p. 90):
Learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able
to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment
and with his peers….[L]earning is not development; however, properly or-
ganized learning results in mental development and sets in motion a variety
of developmental processes that would be impossible apart from learning.
Thus learning is a necessary and universal aspect of the process of develop-
ing culturally organized, specifically human, psychological functions.
In support of this perspective, Vygotsky (1978) introduced the construct of
the zone of proximal development (ZPD) as a fundamentally new approach to
the problem that learning should be matched in some manner with the child’s
level of development. He argued that to understand the relationship between
development and learning we must distinguish between two developmental
levels: the actual and the potential levels of development. The actual refers to
those accomplishments a child can demonstrate alone or perform independ-
352 PALINCSAR
ently. This is in contrast with potential levels of development as suggested by
the ZPD—what children can do with assistance: “the distance between the ac-
tual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and
the level of potential development as determined through problem solving un-
der adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (p. 85). The
ZPD was regarded as a better, more dynamic and relative indicator of cogni-
tive development than what children accomplished alone. In summary, pro-
ductive interactions are those that orient instruction toward the ZPD. Other-
wise, instruction lags behind the development of the child. “The only good
learning is that which is in advance of development” (Vygotsky 1978, p. 89).
Hence, from a Vygotskian perspective, cognitive development is studied by
examining the processes that one participates in when engaged in shared en-
deavors and how this engagement influences engagement in other activities.
Development occurs as children learn general concepts and principles that can
be applied to new tasks and problems, whereas from a Piagetian perspective,
learning is constrained by development.
The second Vygotskian theme that Wertsch (1991) has identified is that hu-
man action, on both the social and individual planes, is mediated by tools and
signs—semiotics. The semiotic means include: “language; various systems of
counting; mnemonic techniques; algebraic symbol systems; works of art; writ-
ing; schemes, diagrams, maps and mechanical drawings; all sorts of conven-
tional signs and so on” (Vygotsky 1981, p. 137). These semiotic means are both
the tools that facilitate the co-construction of knowledge and the means that
are internalized to aid future independent problem-solving activity. Leontiev
(1981), a colleague of Vygotsky, used the term “appropriation” to characterize
this process (quoted in Newman et al 1989, p. 63): “[Children] cannot and need
not reinvent artifacts that have taken millennia to evolve in order to appropri-
ate such objects into their own system of activity. The child has only to come to
an understanding that it is adequate for using the culturally elaborated object in
the novel life circumstances he encounters.” It is in this sense that the process
of collaboration is at the same time the product of collaboration.
The third theme that Wertsch (1991) proposes from Vygotsky’s writing is
that the first two themes are best examined through genetic, or developmental,
analysis (Vygotsky 1978, pp. 64–65):
To study something historically means to study it in the process of change;
that is the dialectical method’s basic demand. To encompass in research the
process of a given thing’s development in all its phases and changes—from
birth to death—fundamentally means to discover its nature, its essence, for it
is only in movement that a body shows what it is. Thus the historical study of
behavior is not an auxiliary aspect of theoretical study, but rather forms its
very base.
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST PERSPECTIVES 353
There are four aspects essential to developmental analysis from a Vygot-
skian perspective, all of which are interwoven. Phylogenetic development is
concerned with what distinguishes humans from other animals. Of particular
interest in this analysis is human use of tools—especially the psychological
tools of signs and symbols, including language (Vygotsky & Luria 1993). A
second level of analysis, cultural/historical, calls attention to the profound
role that the practices of particular cultures and of the same cultural group
play, over time, in development. Ontogenetic analysis calls our attention to
ways in which individual characteristics, such as physical or mental challenge,
age, temperament, and the fruits of individual history influence development.
Finally, microgenetic analysis deals with the actual processes of interaction
between the individual and his or her environment; hence microgenetic analy-
ses take into account the interplay of individual, interpersonal, and social/cul-
tural factors simultaneously.
In summary, from a sociocultural perspective, learning and development
take place in socially and culturally shaped contexts, which are themselves
constantly changing; there can be no universal scheme that adequately repre-
sents the dynamic interaction between the external and the internal aspects of
development. There is no generic development that is independent of commu-
nities and their practices (Rogoff et al 1995). Hence, it is with the use of ge-
netic analysis that the complex interplay of mediational tools, the individual,
and the social world is explored to understand learning and development and
the transformation of tools, practices, and institutions.
In the next section, I explicate these tenets by examining research that en-
hances our understanding of social constructivist perspectives on teaching and
learning. Given the highly interactive ways in which social constructivists
view the world, the challenge in presenting this research is determining the ap-
propriate grain size. From social constructivist perspectives, separating the in-
dividual from social influences is not regarded as possible. The sociocultural
contexts in which teaching and learning occur are considered critical to learn-
ing itself, and learning is viewed as culturally and contextually specific. Fur-
thermore, cognition is not analyzed as separate from social, motivational,
emotional, and identity processes, and the study of generalization is the study
of processes rather than the study of personal or situational attributes. Given
these complexities, researchers are still developing research methods consis-
tent with the assumptions of this perspective. Commonly used methods in-
clude: microgenetic analysis (described above), conversational analysis as op-
posed to protocol analysis, and the use of activity rather than the individual as
the unit of analysis.
Rogoff (1997) suggests that “[t]he parts making a whole activity or event
can be considered separately as foreground without losing track of their inher-
354 PALINCSAR
ent interdependence in the whole….Foregrounding one plane of focus still in-
volves the participation of the backgrounded planes of focus” (pp. 2–3). In this
spirit, the next portion of this review foregrounds institutional, interpersonal,
and discursive levels of analysis in turn (cf Cobb et al 1993, Forman et al
1993), examining the literature to determine how research conducted from so-
cial constructivist perspectives might contribute to our understanding and im-
provement of teaching and learning.
ANALYSES OF SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST
PERSPECTIVES
Institutional Analyses
It is interesting to consider the extent to which contemporary interest in social
constructivist perspectives is propelled by recent educational reform efforts
encouraging students to assume a more active role in their learning, to explain
their ideas to one another, to discuss disagreements, and to cooperate in the so-
lution of complex problems, while teachers participate in the design of these
contexts and the facilitation of this kind of activity (cf Resnick et al 1993). All
these notions have enormous implications for the culture of schools: “the
meaningful traditions and artifacts of a group; ideas, behaviors, verbalization,
and material objects” (Fine 1987; cited in Cole 1996, p. 302).
For example, given the tenets of postmodern constructivism, one of the
challenges for those interested in its application to education is the develop-
ment, among learners, of an intersubjective attitude about the joint construc-
tion of meaning; a commitment to find a common ground on which to build
shared understanding (Crook 1994, Rommetveit 1974). This is a particular
challenge in Western societies in which individualistic traditions have pre-
vailed. For example, Ellis & Gauvain (1992) conducted cross-cultural research
in which they observed that pairs of nine-year-old Navajo children who were
asked to teach seven-year-olds to play a game were much more likely to build
on each other’s comments than were European-American children who more
often gave parallel, unrelated lines of instruction. Furthermore, while the Na-
vajo children stayed engaged observing their partners when they were not con-
trolling the game moves, the European-American children lost interest when
they were no longer in control of the game, sometimes even leaving the task.
The study of schooling as a cultural process and the school as a cultural sys-
tem is a fairly recent endeavor. Illustrative is the research of Matusov et al
(1997), in which they studied how children who were attending an innovative
public school that was structured around collaboration throughout the day, and
throughout the curriculum, approached decision-making and assisted younger
children in problem-solving activities. Participants were 48 9–11-year-old
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST PERSPECTIVES 355
children recruited from two public schools. One was an innovative school, and
the second was a traditional school. The innovative school included activity-
based learning, parent participation in the classroom, adult and child direction
of the lesson plans, and a problem-solving curriculum. In addition, learning to
work in small groups was an explicit part of the curriculum. Twelve pairs of
children were recruited from each of the two schools. Working in same-sex
pairs, consisting of one third grader and one fourth grader, the children com-
pleted a card sorting task and three math problems. The fourth grader was
asked to help the third grader to solve each problem in such a way that the third
grader would be able to solve the problem alone over time. The children’s in-
teractions were rated to provide global characterizations of prevalent ap-
proaches to (a) working together (which ranged from nonshared decision-
making to working together through consensus), and (b) providing guidance
(such as quizzing, directing actions with no rationale, pure instruction, and in-
struction embedded in collaboration).
Dyads from the traditional school used more quizzing in their interactions
with their tutees, and instruction embedded in collaboration was more fre-
quently used by the children from the innovative school.
While the researchers acknowledge the problems inherent in the fact that
the children were not randomly assigned to the innovative school, they none-
theless suggest that their work provides useful evidence about how schools
must be considered not just in terms of different teaching methods but also in
terms of different cultural systems, representing different educational, social,
and communicative norms and priorities.
Research on The Fifth Dimension conducted by Cole, Griffin, and their col-
laborators (Cole 1996, Nicolopoulou & Cole 1993) examined institutional and
cultural contexts for collaborative activity. The Fifth Dimension is a computer-
ized play-world that is constituted by a system of rules. When children join the
Fifth Dimension, they are provided the rules and embark on a journey through
a maze of problems that involve increasing mastery of a sequence of activities.
Nicolopoulou & Cole (1993) conducted “cross cultural” research investigating
children’s engagement in the Fifth Dimension across two sites: a Boys and
Girls Club and a library. Striking differences observed in the cultures (e.g.
norms for interacting, use of time and space) of these two contexts resulted in
significant differences in the amount and kinds of learning that occurred in the
Fifth Dimension. In the Boys and Girls Club, there was no overall growth in
the level at which the game was played, whereas in the library there was
marked and sustained progress as shared knowledge regarding the game grew
in that context.
Another line of research has examined the culture of classrooms. For exam-
ple, Roth (1996) studied a fourth/fifth grade classroom in which children were
356 PALINCSAR
using a curriculum entitled Engineering for Children: Structures. This pro-
gram is designed to engage children in the practical application of science con-
cepts as they work collaboratively on open-ended engineering problems. The
study occurred over 13 weeks and involved using extensive data sources, in-
cluding video, field notes, students’ and teachers’ documentation, as well as
interviews. The focus of this study was on the diffusion of knowledge in the
classroom; knowledge was represented in terms of resources, tool-related
practices, and intellectual practices. Roth observed that facts and resources
readily spread throughout the classroom, principally driven by the students.
Tool-related practices also spread, though less readily, and again were princi-
pally driven by students. However, intellectual practices (in this case the use of
triangular constructions) were relatively slow to suffuse the classroom, and to
the extent that they did they were largely promoted by the teacher. It is useful
to draw upon constructs introduced in earlier descriptions of sociocultural the-
ory to understand this finding. Specifically, the failure of students to appropri-
ate the use of triangular constructions may have been a function of the fact that
their experiences were not sufficient to transform their understanding of the re-
lationship between form and function. Support for this explanation may be
found in the fact that some children did indeed appropriate the use of triangles
in their constructions, but only for aesthetic purposes.
The critical role of the teacher was captured in another exemplary study of the
culture of classrooms, conducted by Cobb et al (1991) as they explored the analo-
gies between scientific communities and the social life in a second grade class-
room in mathematics. Their work revealed how the teacher created a class-
room where the children were validators of one another’s ideas, including estab-
lishing norms such as persisting in the solution of personally challenging prob-
lems, explaining personal solutions to one’s partner, listening to and making
sense of the partner’s explanation and attempting to achieve consensus about the
answer, and a solution process. By the end of five months, these norms were in
place, and the teacher had to do less to guide children toward these norms.
Interpersonal Analyses
From social constructivist perspectives, interactions such as those achieved
through classroom discussion are thought to provide mechanisms for enhanc-
ing higher-order thinking. There are a number of ways in which interpersonal
interactions have been studied from this perspective. For example, Forman et
al (1995) examined this issue in terms of the activity structures in place in a
middle school mathematics class. Their analyses indicated that 71% of the two
hours analyzed was spent in student-centered activity structures (15% devoted
to student presentations and 55% devoted to pair or small group work). Fur-
thermore, of the 29% of the time that was rated as teacher-centered, the teach-
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST PERSPECTIVES 357
er’s interactions were facilitative rather than directive. These findings are a
striking contrast with the use of time in more traditional settings. For example,
Stodolsky (1988) reported that 40% of instructional time in a fifth grade math
class was spent on independent seatwork, 29% was spent on whole class,
teacher-directed recitations, and 1% was devoted to small group work.
Taylor & Cox (1997) were also interested in characterizing the learning of
mathematics as a social enterprise. They hypothesized that children construct
and invent mathematical competence rather than learn it through modeling or
imitation. In their study, conducted with fourth graders, there were two peer in-
teraction conditions (socially assisted learning and modeling) as well as a
classroom control. The researchers selected word problems that would encour-
age students to focus on the underlying problem representation rather than to
simply “graft numbers onto words.” Included in the socially assisted learning
were: (a) use of a reflection board in which members could share publicly their
representation of the problem; (b) peer collaboration; (c) reflective question-
ing; (d) scaffolding; (e) shared ownership; (f) quizzes, feedback, and rewards;
and (g) daily math lessons in the regular classroom. The modeling condition
was identical but did not include reflective questioning, scaffolding, or shared
ownership. Results indicated that the quiz scores for both interactive groups
were superior to the control group, but the scores for the socially assisted were
better than the scores of students in either the modeling or control conditions.
Furthermore, children in the modeling group had difficulty linking the number
quantities to the quantities of objects mentioned and in applying the appropri-
ate operations; that is, they were not as adept at constructing a representation
that linked numbers to world knowledge. Finally, in a microanalytic study of
the interactions of the tutors with the groups, the researchers determined that
the support offered by the tutor was not a function of the number of statements
that the tutor made but rather that the statements came at the right time, when
they would indeed serve to scaffold understanding.
In explaining the different outcomes, Taylor & Cox (1997) speculated that
success with this type of learning was a function of the extent to which there
was shared ownership of the learning, which discouraged the division of labor
in favor of the negotiation of shared meaning. Instrumental to promoting the
negotiation of shared meaning were expectations that: (a) all members of the
group work on the same aspect of the problem at the same time, (b) members
externalize their thoughts, including possible wrong procedures and answers,
(c) members come to agreement among themselves before proceeding, and (d)
as instruction moves forward, more of the regulative activity be transferred
from the adult to children.
In the work of Taylor & Cox, there are integral relationships between cogni-
tive and social processes. These relationships can raise a host of thorny issues.
358 PALINCSAR
For example, social relationships can work against group sense making and the
negotiation of meaning. O’Connor (1998) examined this issue in the research
that she conducted as a participant observer in a sixth grade mathematics class
over two years. Her close study of students’ interactions revealed the ways in
which ideas were often subordinated to social processes that arose from past
interactions among students, suggesting ways in which learning opportunities
were filtered through complex interpersonal contexts. Specific phenomena in-
cluded: discounting or dismissing individual contributions and resistance to
the spirit of the entire enterprise. Anderson et al (1997) reported a similar set of
findings in their study of sixth graders engaged in collaborative problem solv-
ing. Research of this nature reveals the increased complexity for the teacher
who must attend to socializing students into new ways of dealing with peers as
intellectual partners, as well as new ways of thinking about subject matter
learning (see also, Hatano & Inagaki 1991).
The research of Chan et al (1997) refines our understanding of conditions
likely to enhance the effectiveness of peer interaction to promote learning. Stu-
dents from grades 9 and 12/13 were randomly assigned to one of four condi-
tions: (a) individual assimilation, (b) individual conflict, (c) peer assimilation,
and (d) peer conflict. Assimilation in this research refers to the presentation of
probe statements that were maximally congruent with the participants’ con-
ceptual understanding of the topic of evolution. Conflict refers to the presenta-
tion of probes that maximally contradicted the students’ understanding. The
presentation of probes was accompanied by the opportunity for participants to
revise original ratings of agreement or disagreement with factor statements. In
the peer conditions, the students had to negotiate and attain consensus on any
changes in their ratings.
While there were a number of interesting findings, I focus on those most
central to this review. Older students performed better in the peer condition,
while younger students performed better in the individual condition. In addi-
tion, students in the conflict condition earned higher scores on quality of post-
test knowledge building and experienced greater conceptual changes than stu-
dents in the assimilation condition. However, conflict was instrumental only to
the extent that the learner engaged in some form of knowledge building that
aided the restructuring of understanding. Examples of knowledge building in-
cluded: (a) treating new information as something problematic that needs ex-
plaining (such as constructing explanations that would reconcile knowledge
conflict), and (b) using new information to construct coherence in understand-
ing (for example, seeking connections among diverse pieces of information).
By examining the discourse that occurred in the peer conditions, the re-
searchers contribute to our understanding of the differential effects of peer in-
teraction. In discourse that the researchers identified as “[debilitating],” state-
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST PERSPECTIVES 359
ments that should have caused conflict were simply ignored or treated superfi-
cially, whereas in “productive” discourse, there was careful uptake and prob-
lematizing of statements that were conflictual in nature.
Webb & Farivar (1997), extending Webb’s program of research regarding
peer interactions in cooperative learning contexts, used an experimental de-
sign to systematically examine the processes of preparing students to work in
collaboration with one another. The components of the intervention included:
(a) engaging the students in activities to ensure that they knew one another; (b)
teaching communication skills, such as norms for interaction; (c) devising ac-
tivities designed to develop students’ abilities to help one another while work-
ing on problems, and (d) developing skills for generating explanations. The ex-
perimental program was implemented in six seventh grade general-math
classes. Two teachers taught three grades each. In one condition, the classes re-
ceived all the preparatory activities and worked in collaborative arrangements
for a semester. In the second condition, the students did not receive preparation
to develop skills of explanation. Students who received the three phases of pre-
liminary instruction were more effective in using communication skills, help-
ing behaviors, and explaining skills. Mirroring the findings of Chan et al
(1997), Webb & Farivar (1997) found that while the level of help peers re-
ceived was an important predictor of achievement, this was predicated on the
help leading to constructive activity. Furthermore, while there was some im-
provement in explanations over time, they were not explanations of a high
level, raising the question about whether it is perhaps necessary to teach ways
of supporting explanations that are specific to the cognitive demands of the do-
main in which the students are working [see Coleman (1992) and Palincsar et
al (1993a) below].
Using a case study approach, Cobb et al (1993) investigated the extent to
which children engaged in inquiry mathematics when they worked together in
small groups. They also examined the extent to which small group collabora-
tive activity facilitated children’s mathematical learning. Stable groups’ inter-
actions were studied over 10 weeks to determine the relationship between
learning opportunities and the different types of interactions in which the chil-
dren engaged. Their findings suggested that the stability in the children’s small
group relationships across the 10 weeks of study was matched by the stability
in each pair of children’s cognitive capabilities relative to those of the partner.
Children’s cognitive capabilities and social relationships may have con-
strained each other in the sense of limiting possibilities for change. Further-
more, interactions in which one child routinely attempted to explain his or her
thinking were not necessarily productive for either child’s learning. Finally,
harmony in a group’s relationship did not appear to be a good indicator of
learning opportunities. In fact, contentious relationships in which the chil-
360 PALINCSAR
dren’s expectations for each other were in conflict were often productive.
What led to productive relationships was the development of taken-as-shared
bases for mathematical communication and the routine engagement in interac-
tions in which neither child was the authority.
Discursive Analyses
From a social constructivist perspective, discourse is the primary symbolic, me-
diational tool for cognitive development. This notion is captured by Bakhtin
(1981, p. 293): “[A]s a living, socio-ideological thing, language for the indi-
vidual consciousness lies on the borderline between oneself and the other.” For
discourse to be an effective context for learning, it must be communicative.
Much research has been conducted to understand the qualities of discourse that
enhance its effectiveness. In this section I consider a subset of this research,
drawing from various subjects. There are at least two approaches to the study
of discourse. One is the investigation of naturally occurring instructional dis-
course to examine its patterns and opportunities, and the other is the systematic
manipulating of features of discourse to determine the effects on learning.
We begin with Roschelle’s (1992) inquiry on the processes by which indi-
viduals achieve convergence in collaborative activity. There is considerable
research in science education examining the tendency of students to construct
naive or alternative conceptions. Roschelle has argued that any serious ac-
count of science learning must provide an analysis of how convergence is
achieved despite these tendencies. Toward this end, Roschelle conducted a mi-
crogenetic study of two high school students engaged in discovery learning
with The Envisioning Machine, which is a software program that enables di-
rect manipulation and graphical simulation of velocity and acceleration. His
analyses of two one-hour sessions revealed how these students cooperatively
constructed an understanding of acceleration that represented a significant
conceptual change from their previous understanding and approximated the
scientific meaning of acceleration.
Roschelle asserts that the students attained convergent conceptual change
to the extent that, by the end of the session, important aspects of velocity and
acceleration were shared, including: change of speed, change of direction, and
the implications of these changes in application. Furthermore, the conversa-
tion revealed how the students responded to one another with mutual concern
for shared knowledge, exerting a deliberate effort to create convergence and
avoid divergence. How did this convergence happen? Roschelle suggests that
it included the construction of situations at an intermediate level of abstraction
from the literal features of the physical world, which was achieved through (a)
the interplay of metaphors in relation to each other and in reference to the con-
structed situation, (b) iterative cycles of displaying, confirming, and repairing
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST PERSPECTIVES 361
meanings, and (c) the application of progressively more stringent standards of
evidence. Furthermore, Roschelle suggests that The Envisioning Machine
played an essential role, simultaneously supporting individual reasoning and
facilitating the negotiation of meaning.
The program of research by Raphael and her colleagues, studying
elementary-aged students engaged in Book Club discussions (Raphael et al
1992), reveals the value of naturalistic study of discourse in another complex
learning environment. The leading question of this research was: How do book
club discussions influence fourth and fifth grade students’ abilities to discuss
literature? By studying children’s conversations across time and across texts,
we learn about the role of the constitution of the groups, literature selection,
and assigned writing activities. For example, in the selection of a text, it
needed to have the potential for controversy and the power to elicit emotional
responses—in addition to high quality, the proper reading level, availability,
and suitability for meeting curricular goals. Furthermore, writing activities
that offered more flexibility in responses were more beneficial and led to more
interesting discussions than did more carefully structured responses. Finally,
the research speaks to the multiple roles played by the teacher in Book Club
discussions: guiding students in using text comprehension strategies, model-
ing ways to articulate personal responses to literature, and illustrating interac-
tion patterns that would promote improved interactions in Book Clubs.
The crucial role that the teacher plays in promoting the co-construction of
knowledge in classrooms was also demonstrated in the research of Forman et
al (1995). In the micro-analytic study of the discourse of middle school chil-
dren and their teacher (introduced above), these researchers captured the dy-
namic role of the teacher in guiding classroom discussions in the context of
mathematical problem solving. In addition to evaluating the frequency of
teacher and student contributions, they analyzed the functions of these contri-
butions. The scheme that they devised revealed a broad range of conversa-
tional turns. For example, there were initiations in the service of requesting an
answer or explanation; responses; and reconceptualizations that included re-
statements, rephrasing, expansion, and evaluation. The research of Forman et
al suggests the importance of moving beyond the traditional static treatments
of I-R-E (initiation-response-evaluation) patterns in classroom discourse.
While an initial pass at the discourse in this classroom might suggest it fit the I-
R-E framework, the students rather than the teacher were engaged in signifi-
cant evaluative activity, and the responses of the teacher expanded on stu-
dents’ contributions to the discussion. Forman et al also note another crucial
feature of the teacher’s role, which they refer to as “discussion orchestration,”
which served to focus student attention and facilitate negotiation in the interest
of consensus building.
362 PALINCSAR
Lampert (1990), reflecting on her own teaching activity in mathematics,
captures the role that she has played in this negotiation process (p. 41):
The role I took in classroom discourse, therefore, was to follow and engage
in mathematical arguments with students; this meant that I needed to know
more than the answer or the rule for how to find it, and I needed to do some-
thing other than explain to them why the rules work. I needed to know how to
prove it to them, in the mathematical sense, and I needed to be able to evalu-
ate their proofs of their own mathematical assertions. In the course of class-
room discussions, I also initiated my students into the use of mathematical
tools and conventions.
In this manner, Lampert clearly joins the dialogue as a knowing participant,
but she is not the arbiter of truth. The burden of mathematical judgment is dis-
tributed to the classroom as a community of mathematical thinkers.
Naturally occurring differences across four classrooms enabled Smagorin-
sky & Fly (1993) to determine how the discourse in teacher-led discussion
groups influenced the nature of subsequent small group discussions. The dis-
cussions were in the service of interpreting short coming-of-age stories and
took place in four sophomore high school classes. By examining transcripts of
discussion across whole class and small group contexts, the researchers were
able to determine that the skill with which students engaged in productive dis-
cussions during small group discussions was related to the experiences of the
students in the whole-class work. Specific teacher moves in whole-class dis-
cussion that subsequently served to scaffold small group discussions included:
posing questions that encouraged students to make connections between the
text and their own life experiences, and stepping outside the discussion for the
purpose of making analytic/interpretive procedures explicit (for example, the
need to pose a question, the need to support a generalization with evidence).
Finally, we report on two studies of small groups engaged in peer-editing
activities, unassisted by a teacher. Daiute & Dalton (1993) studied the interac-
tions between 14 seven-to-nine–year-old children in an urban setting and the
impact of collaboration on their abilities to write stories. The study traces how
the children internalized the fruits of their collaboration by examining indi-
vidually generated written work before, during, and following collaboration.
This study was conducted in an urban school over eight weeks. The research-
ers found that the children brought diverse areas of expertise related to story
structure knowledge, style, and schema to the story-writing activity. Further-
more, they described the writing processes in terms of initiating and contest-
ing. Analyses of independent writing samples indicated that the participants
used significantly more story elements following collaboration.
In another study of peer collaboration in writing, Nystrand (1986) found that
students who worked in groups demonstrated greater gains than those who did
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST PERSPECTIVES 363
not. Furthermore, students who had experienced group work came to think of
revision as reconceptualization, whereas those who worked alone continued to
think of revision as principally editing. However, he also found remarkable vari-
ability in the discourse across groups. For example, some groups felt they had
accomplished their task if they labeled the problem, failing to examine the
trouble source in any detail, while other groups would talk at length about ideas.
Successful groups focused on issues of genre and the most successful groups
engaged in “extensive collaborative problem solving,” in which members
joined together to address rhetorical problems in concrete, cooperative ways.
Next we turn to those studies that have been designed to manipulate fea-
tures of discourse to learn more about how they operate to promote learning.
We begin with a study by Teasley (1995), which was designed to study col-
laboration and talk as separate variables. Questions driving this research
asked: Does the production of talk affect performance? What kinds of talk af-
fect performance? Does the presence of a partner affect the kinds of talk pro-
duced? Teasley used a microworld (designed by Klahr and his colleagues) to
investigate scientific reasoning. The task required figuring out the effect of a
mystery key and then designing experiments to test the hypotheses. The 70
fourth grade participants were assigned to work alone or with a same-sex part-
ner for one 20-min session. Within each condition, half of the children were
asked to talk as they worked and half were asked not to talk. There was a main
effect for talk that was more pronounced for talk-dyads than for talk-alones.
Talk-dyads produced more talk and more specific types of talk than talk-
alones. However, neither simply having a partner nor talking a lot improved
learning. What was crucial was that children produced interpretive types of
talk; that is, talk that supported reasoning about theories and evidence. Fur-
thermore, while dyads directed more of their talk to evaluating and explaining
the program outcomes, students working alone simply remarked on the behav-
ior of the spaceship without making any assessment of that behavior.
Teasley’s findings are supported by research on reasoning indicating that
children’s performance on reasoning tasks is significantly affected by their
ability to coordinate hypotheses and evidence (Klahr et al 1993, Kuhn et al
1988, Schauble 1990). Findings of this nature informed the design of an inter-
vention study conducted by Coleman (1992), in which she sought to define the
merits of collaborative learning more precisely; that is, to describe some of the
specific mechanisms of group learning that appear to be more successful than
others for promoting conceptual understanding.
Coleman’s findings are mirrored in a study by King (1990) who did re-
search altering group discourse to determine whether it would affect reading
comprehension. The intervention was called “guided reciprocal peer question-
ing” and involved teaching students question stems (such as “How does…af-
364 PALINCSAR
fect…?”, “What would happen if…?”). King reported that students who used
this procedure generated more critical thinking questions, gave more high-
level explanations, and demonstrated higher achievement than students using
discussion or an unguided reciprocal questioning approach.
In summary, studies of discourse are generally quite supportive of the bene-
fits of instructional conversation. However, the benefits depend upon the types
of talk produced. Specifically, talk that is interpretive (generated in the service
of analysis or explanations) is associated with more significant learning gains
than talk that is simply descriptive. Furthermore, teachers play an important
role in mediating classroom discourse by seeding the conversation with new
ideas or alternatives to be considered that push the students’ thinking and dis-
cussion and prepare them for conversation. Finally, it is important to attend to
the structure of group activity so that responsibility is shared, expertise is dis-
tributed, and there is an ethos for building preceding ideas.
In the next section, I consider the contributions of social constructivist per-
spectives to selected contemporary educational issues; namely, acquiring ex-
pertise across domains, assessment practices, equity in education, and the
transformation of schools.
THE APPLICATION OF SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST
PERSPECTIVES TO CONTEMPORARY EDUCATIONAL
ISSUES
Acquiring Expertise Across Domains
Writing from a traditional psychological perspective, Gallagher, in a 1994 An-
nual Review chapter on teaching and learning, wrote that “[E]ducators are in-
creasingly viewing learners as bundles of knowledge structures that become in-
creasingly sophisticated and hierarchical as they gain experience” (p. 172). In
contrast, from social constructivist perspectives, expertise is characterized not
in terms of knowledge structures but rather in terms of facility with discourse,
norms, and practices associated with particular communities of practice (Lave
& Wenger 1991). While from cognitive perspectives knowledge is generally
represented in terms of cognitive structures that are acquired and organized in
memory, social constructivists generally regard learning as the appropriation
of socially derived forms of knowledge that are not simply internalized over
time but are also transformed in idiosyncratic ways in the appropriation pro-
cess. Furthermore, learning is thought to occur through processes of interac-
tion, negotiation, and collaboration (cf Billet 1995, Hicks 1995–1996).
The influence of social constructivist perspectives has led to reexamining
what it means to teach and learn across subject matters. From social construc-
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST PERSPECTIVES 365
tivist perspectives, researchers have asked what it means to “talk science”
(Lemke 1990) or to participate in the discourse of mathematics (Cobb & Bau-
ersfeld 1995). For example, Lemke (1990) suggests that talking science
means: “observing, describing, comparing, classifying, analyzing, discussing,
hypothesizing, theorizing, questioning, challenging, arguing, designing ex-
periments, following procedures, judging, evaluating, deciding, concluding,
generalizing, reporting, writing, lecturing, and teaching in and through the lan-
guage of science” (p. ix). Furthermore, drawing upon anthropological research
(e.g. Latour & Woolgar 1986), it is clear that scientific practice in the world is
heterogeneous rather than unitary to the extent that practitioners orchestrate a
variety of means (tools, discourses) to construct scientific meaning.
In turn, educational researchers have pursued the connection between sci-
entific practice in professional communities and in schools, testing out the im-
plications of this view for curriculum and pedagogy. Illustrative is the research
of Rosebery et al (1992) in elementary classrooms where science is organized
around students’ own questions and inquiries. Students design studies to ex-
plore questions that they find compelling; collect, analyze, and interpret data;
build and argue theories; establish criteria and evaluate evidence; challenge
assumptions; and take action on the basis of their results. Among the many out-
comes that Rosebery et al report are: the generative nature of children’s think-
ing in this context and the deepening of scientific thinking (for example, stu-
dents came to understand that hypotheses are springboards for inquiry rather
than explanations). Finally, the researchers report that participants became
comfortable identifying with scientific activity and not simply attributing sci-
entific activity to others.
Assessment
Assessment practices informed by social constructivist perspectives stand in
striking contrast with assessment procedures informed by the psychological
theory that prevailed in the 1960s, in which testing contexts (e.g. Wisconsin
General Test Apparatus) were designed to reduce social influences (Brown
1994). Assessment informed by social constructivist perspectives is frequently
referred to as “dynamic assessment” (Feuerstein 1979) and characterizes ap-
proaches in which the performance of the individual being assessed is medi-
ated or guided by another individual to determine the individual’s potential to
profit from assistance or instruction.
Dynamic assessment provides a prospective measure of performance, indi-
cating abilities that are developing and is predictive of how the child will per-
form independently in the future. Furthermore, the response of the child to the
assistance is intended to inform instruction. In Vygotskian terms, while tradi-
tional static measures at best inform us about an individual’s actual level of de-
366 PALINCSAR
velopment, dynamic assessment is designed to reveal the child’s potential
level of development (Vygotsky 1986, pp. 203):
The state of development is never defined alone by what has matured. If the
gardener decides only to evaluate the matured or harvested fruits of the apple
tree, he cannot determine the state of his orchard. The maturing trees must
also be taken into consideration. Correspondingly, the psychologist must not
limit his analysis to functions that have matured; he must consider those that
are in the process of maturation…the zone of proximal development.
There are a number of models of dynamic assessment (Lidz 1987, Palincsar
et al 1991) that vary in terms of the nature of the task, the type of assistance that
is provided, and the outcomes that are reported. For example, the model pio-
neered by Feuerstein (1980), the Learning Potential Assessment Device
(LPAD), is organized around tasks that Feuerstein argues require higher men-
tal processes that are amenable to change, such as matrix problems, digit span
tests, and embedded-figures problems. Hence, they bear a strong resemblance
to the kinds of tasks used in traditional measures of IQ. However, when admin-
istering the LPAD, the examiner interacts in a flexible and individualized man-
ner, anticipating where the child might experience difficulty and noting how
the child uses reminders and other prompts. The outcome of the assessment is a
cognitive map that is designed to specify the nature of the child’s problem in
terms of familiarity with content, strategies attempted in problem solving ac-
tivity, and modifiability of the learner.
Test-train-test is another model of dynamic assessment that has been used
in the research of Budoff (1987), Carlson & Wiedl (1979), and Campione &
Brown (1984) and colleagues. Some form of guided learning occurs between
pre- and posttesting. These programs of research indicate that dynamic assess-
ment procedures do reveal a different picture of competence than do static
measures, which typically underestimate many children’s abilities to learn in a
domain in which they initially performed poorly. The use of transfer tasks in
dynamic assessment indicates that learning and transfer scores are better pre-
dictors of gain than are static measures.
It has been only recently that the principles of dynamic assessment have been
explored within academic contexts. An excellent example is the research re-
ported by Magnusson et al (1997). Magnusson et al were interested in children’s
conceptual understanding of the flow of electricity and devised a context that
would allow the fourth graders in their research to test out their conceptions
and then revise their ideas on the basis of the outcomes of their tests. They used
the same basic circuit in three tasks, with each circuit differing only in the
number of switches, which in turn determined which lightbulbs were lighted as
well as the brightness of the bulbs. Hence the students had multiple opportuni-
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST PERSPECTIVES 367
ties to construct, test out, and revise explanations for the flow of electricity.
The role of the interviewer in this assessment context was to elicit and probe pre-
dictions and explanations that would reveal the conceptions of the student par-
ticipants. This dynamic science assessment proceeded by engaging the stu-
dents in (a) predicting what they thought would happen, given a specific cir-
cuit, along with their reasons for making these predictions; (b) describing their
observations; (c) comparing predictions with observations and discussing dif-
ferences between them; and (d) explaining the result, focusing on underlying
causes.
The use and outcomes of microgenetic analysis are illustrated by Schau-
ble’s (1996) research in which she examined the development of scientific rea-
soning as participants completed two experimentation tasks involving the use
of fluids and immersed objects. Given recent calls for reexamining the useful-
ness of high-stakes assessment practices and questioning the extent to which
these practices truly inform curriculum and pedagogy, these forms of dynamic
and microgenetic assessment offer potentially powerful alternatives to tradi-
tional measurement procedures to the extent that they reveal not only what has
been learned but also how and why learning has occurred.
Providing Meaningful Education for All Children
It is hard to imagine a more significant challenge to social constructivism than
promoting meaningful learning for all children, especially for those who are
linguistically and culturally diverse. Moll (1992) speaks to this possibility
when he argues that “[i]n studying human beings dynamically, within their so-
cial circumstances, in their full complexity, we gain a more complete and…a
much more valid understanding of them. We also gain, particularly in the case
of minority children, a more positive view of their capabilities and how our
pedagogy often constrains, and just as often distorts, what they do and what
they are capable of doing” (p. 239).
A number of sociocultural explanations have been tendered for the failure
of schools to serve all children. Examples include: (a) discontinuities between
the culture (values, attitudes, and beliefs) of the home and school (Gee 1990,
McPhail 1996), (b) mismatches in the communicative practices between non-
mainstream children and mainstream teachers that lead to miscommunication
and misjudgment (Heath 1983), (c) the internalization of negative stereotypes
by minority groups who have been marginalized and may see school as a site
for opposition and resistance (Steele 1992), and (d) relational issues, such as
the failure to attain mutual trust between teachers and students (Moll & Whit-
more 1993) and a shared sense of identification between the teacher and the
learner (Cazden 1993, Litowitz 1993).
368 PALINCSAR
These possibilities have been pursued both in describing the performance
of children in schools and in prescribing appropriate instruction. For example,
Anderson et al (1997) drew upon these explanations to explore how sixth
grade students participated in collaborative problem-solving activities in sci-
ence. For a prescriptive example, we turn to the research of Needles & Knapp
(1994), who conducted a study comparing three approaches to the teaching of
writing. The first approach was skills-based, as characterized by systematic
exposure and mastery of discrete skills (such as spelling and sentence struc-
ture). The second approach was whole language, which advocates that lan-
guage is best learned in the context of use, should not be broken into discrete
skills, and prescribes a minimal role for the teacher. The third approach re-
flected a social constructivist perspective, which Needles & Knapp described
using the following principles: (a) component skills are best learned in the
context of the writing task, (b) the quality of writing increases when children
are writing what is meaningful and authentic, (c) fluency and competence are
influenced by the extent to which the task connects with the child’s back-
ground and experience, (d) involvement increases when children are encour-
aged to interact while performing writing tasks, (e) children develop compe-
tence if they approach the task as a problem solving process, and (f) children
need ample opportunities to write extended text. They found that writing in-
struction that reflected these six principles accounted for a substantial propor-
tion of children’s improved abilities to write, once initial proficiency was con-
sidered.
Educational Reform
Exciting educational innovations are under way that draw generously upon
(and are contributing generously to) the social constructivist perspectives in-
troduced in this review. Perhaps the most striking example is a collection of ef-
forts designed to reconceptualize classrooms—and schools—as learning com-
munities. For example, the Computer Supported Intentional Learning Envi-
ronments (CSILE), a project led by Scardamalia & Bereiter and their col-
leagues (Scardamalia et al 1994) places “World 3” knowledge at the center of
classroom activity. As described by Popper (1972), World 3 knowledge refers
to the public construction of understanding and stands in contrast to “World 2”
knowledge, which exists in individual minds. The features of CSILE include a
communal data base that students use to generate World 3 knowledge, a cur-
riculum that permits the sustained pursuit of topics of inquiry, a classroom cul-
ture that fosters collaboration among peers, and a teacher who engages in in-
structional design work. The researchers note that the successful implementa-
tion of CSILE engages the teacher in moving flexibly between World 2 and
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST PERSPECTIVES 369
World 3 knowledge, tacking between what is in children’s heads and what is
taking shape in the public domain.
In the project Guided Discovery in a Community of Learners, Brown &
Campione and their colleagues (Brown & Campione 1990, 1994) engage chil-
dren in the design of their own learning and encourage students to be partially
responsible for the design of their own curricula. Working on assigned curricu-
lar themes, students form separate research groups to become experts on sub-
topics of the theme. The students conduct seminars in which they share their
expertise so that all members of the group can master the entire theme. Essen-
tial characteristics of Community of Learner classrooms include individual re-
sponsibility coupled with communal sharing; the use of select participation
frameworks that are practiced repeatedly and that are compatible with the
work of these communities; classroom discourse that is marked by construc-
tive discussion, questioning, and criticism; conceptions of classrooms as com-
prised of multiple zones of proximal development (explained above), which
include both children and adults at varying levels of expertise, as well as arti-
facts (such as texts and tools) that support learning; and the expectation that
learning occurs as individuals contribute to and appropriate ideas (Brown &
Campione 1994). Multifaceted assessments indicate that children in these
learning communities retain domain-specific content better than youngsters in
control groups, are able to think critically about knowledge, and demonstrate
significant progress with an array of literacy skills such as reading comprehen-
sion and oral argumentation.
The demands of the types of teaching and classroom organization described
throughout this review have special implications for the professional develop-
ment of teachers. This is an area that has been virtually neglected in earlier
educational reform efforts, which may well explain the efforts’ demise. An
educational innovation of particular importance is the application of the tenets
of social constructivism to the design of professional development contexts
with teachers. For example, Englert and her colleagues (Englert & Tarrant
1995) have brought teachers together in learning communities to examine their
own practices in literacy instruction. This community of teachers works to
translate the tenets of a sociocultural perspective into curriculum and peda-
gogy for students with serious learning difficulties. The teachers, informed by
this perspective, systematically try out new practices, conduct their own in-
quiry regarding the outcomes of these innovations, and share their accumu-
lated wisdom with one another. Additional professional development re-
search, conducted in a similar spirit, has been reported by Grossman & Wein-
berg (1997; working with secondary literature teachers), Schifter (1996; work-
ing with elementary teachers in mathematics), and Palincsar & Magnusson
and their colleagues (1997; working with elementary teachers in science).
370 PALINCSAR
Future Directions for Inquiry
The major theoretical contributions to the social constructivist perspective de-
scribed in this chapter were developed and applied in the 1920s and 1930s by
Vygotsky and his collaborators. Based on the notion that human activities take
place in cultural contexts, are mediated by language and other symbol systems,
and are best understood when investigated in their historical development, this
is a complex and multifaceted perspective. Moreover, Vygotsky died at a very
young age, with many of his ideas only partially developed. John-Steiner &
Mahn (1996) caution that because the theory is complex and breaks radically
with traditional educational and psychological theory, there is the tendency to
abstract parts of the theory from the whole, which results in distorted under-
standings and applications. One direction for future inquiry is to continue the
development of this theory.
Toward this end, it will be helpful to coordinate constructivist perspectives,
informed primarily by cognitive psychology and socioculturalism. How might
these perspectives be coordinated? Where constructivists give priority to indi-
vidual conceptual activity, sociocultural theorists tend to assume that cogni-
tive processes are subsumed by social and cultural processes. Where social
constructivists emphasize the homogeneity of thought among the members of
the community engaged in shared activity, cognitive constructivists stress het-
erogeneity of thought as individuals actively interpret social and cultural pro-
cesses, highlighting the contributions that individuals make to the develop-
ment of these processes.
It is important that inquiry conducted within this perspective shares a dual
orientation to theory and practice (Cole 1996), designed to deepen our under-
standing of cognitive development as well as to produce change in everyday
practice. As the research reviewed above suggests, social constructivist per-
spectives, which regard schooling as a system rather than as a set of isolated
activities, have been extremely useful to understanding and describing the
complexities of teaching, learning, and enculturation into schools. However,
they have had little influence on the practices of schooling.
The genetic levels of analysis suggested by this perspective, as well as
the methodologies that are drawn from this perspective, offer powerful
tools for advancing both theory and practice. However, many educational re-
searchers are unfamiliar with these tools. Finally, just as this perspective
has been developed through the contributions of many disciplines (psychol-
ogy, semiotics, linguistics, anthropology, etc), it would seem especially
fruitful to promote interdisciplinary collaborations in the quest to advance
this scholarship so that it might realize its potential and make a difference for
children.
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST PERSPECTIVES 371
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http://www.AnnualReviews.org.
372 PALINCSAR
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To cite this article: Marzieh Ebrahimi (2022): Ubiquitous learning: the effect of LingAR application on EFL learners' language achievement and the realization of their motivation towards mobile learning, Interactive Learning Environments, ABSTRACT With the rapid development of mobile learning, a growing body of research has been carried out to assess the efficacy of this education method. To resolve the existing gap in the literature regarding new ways of mobile learning, the researcher aimed to study 120 Vietnamese students' achievements once they employed two models of learning (LingAR Application model and Augmented Reality model). About the students' achievement in the two kinds of individual learning, those instructed by the Application model outperformed those who learned English by the Augmented Reality model. Finally, to get some information about the students' motivation towards using augmented reality technology in their language learning, the researcher conducted a real-time focus group interview, and then, they extracted some themes from students' answers, and participants indicated different merits and drawbacks of the Augmented Reality model of this application. Keller's motivational model (2010) was adopted to analyze this interview. These results offered valuable insights into the successful implementation of LingAR applications in the field of education. Also, they highlighted possible factors that could establish the basis for future experimental research. The author suggested further study with more subjects from more cultural contexts with broader sample size. ARTICLE HISTORY
... Henry et al. (2020) identified CoP's as an effective social constructivist tool for building trust and a sense of belonging, sharing of enterprise and enhancing the reflectivity that is a precursor to independent learning. We therefore employed this social constructivist (Palincsar, 1998) approach to mine information from interviewees, all OP lecturers, or facilitators, using an autoethnographic (Maréchal, 2010) approach involving reflection on teaching experience. The CoP group met online on a regular (fortnightly) basis to explore the research questions, with all interviewees being members of the CoP and authors of the present article, accepted for publication in Scope, Learning and Teaching. ...
Conference Paper
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... 44 The goal of curriculum evaluators using this approach would be to acquire multifaceted insights into student learning expectations, delivery preferences, engagement, and knowledge acquisition. 33 Purposeful consideration of social constructivist factors when analyzing student feedback may yield design principles needed for the development of effective interprofessional pain education. Our aim, therefore, was to evaluate a decade of student perspectives on learning in an interfaculty pain curriculum to address gaps in our understanding of prelicensure pain education. ...
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The goal of this study was to contribute to research on active learning by addressing the problem of disentangling the effects of classroom architecture, student characteristics, and pedagogical design as they relate to student achievement. The study utilized a quasi-experimental design where data was collected on student perceptions of their classroom, their experience in the course, and the pedagogy of the instructor, then analyzed with respect to the course grade. Results indicate that neither student perceptions of the classroom spaces nor the spaces themselves had an impact on course grade, but the pedagogy employed by the instructor and student experiences did.
... I am a writing instructor. I learned how to be a writing instructor during my master's degree in English at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where I first encountered the term social constructivism (e.g., Palincsar, 1998;McKinley, 2015), or the idea we communicate and build knowledge socially. This term would come to guide my teaching and grading philosophies for years (that is, before I immersed myself fully in the digital world and fancied myself a social connectivist for a while); I believed that the classroom was a space designed for building knowledge and that each of my students had something meaningful to contribute or to build from others. ...
Thesis
Using the Canvas LMS at a large, Midwestern public institution, I wrote this dissertation seeking to understand how writing instructors’ design and organizational decisions in the Canvas LMS affect the ways in which their students write and learn. Learning management systems, or LMSs, have long been fixtures of K-12 and postsecondary education, and in part due to recent interest in online learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, opportunities abound to study these spaces to better understand the relationship between instructor pedagogy and student learning. Many scholars have rightly explored attitudes toward LMSs from both instructor perspectives (e.g., Salisbury, 2018) and student perspectives (e.g., Chou et al., 2010), but at the time of this study, scholars have not addressed specific practices that students and instructors enact through LMSs. And while writing studies and digital studies have taken up other types of online spaces as sites of inquiry pertaining to student literacies, the LMS remains an understudied artifact in this discussion. Further, while writing instructors often use LMSs to supplement their pedagogies, scholars in writing studies have not yet addressed the roles that these platforms might play in mediating writing instruction or students’ writing processes. On this score, I found that Canvas might be hosting tensions between what writing instructors intend when they build their course sites and what their students are actually doing in response. Using a conceptual framework of networks (Eyman, 2015; Chun, 2016), this study reveals how LMSs such as Canvas can function as extensions of F2F classrooms and provides new ways of rethinking modes of student engagement. I interviewed three writing instructors and eight students while embedding myself in their course sites under the Observer role; I investigated how writing instructors built their course sites, how students navigated them, and how Canvas mediated writing instruction and student engagement. For writing instructors, Canvas served as an extension of their classroom spaces and pedagogical practices, and often reflected pedagogical and personal values in ways that they perhaps did not perceive otherwise. Students responded to Canvas through various modes of engagement, including skimming, creating touchpoints for their writing, and resisting, suggesting that students can find ways of navigating LMSs in spite of a course site’s design. This dissertation sets a foundation for exploring the tensions that exist in and between networks and agents, as well as between teaching, learning, and LMSs.
Chapter
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have brought online learning movement to the forefront of educational research, but one of the major critiques of this learning platform is the very low completion rate. This chapter not only highlights the factors that influence low completion but also interprets how incompletion can fulfill goals of enrollment. Self-motivation is identified as a key factor for success in online learning platforms. This chapter puts together a review of existing research on MOOC enrollment and completion and also explains how success can be defined in a broader way in online learning. Along with that it draws on examples of success through incompletion in MOOCs from a qualitative study on female MOOC users from South Asia. Findings suggest that users enroll into MOOCs with goals to complete but also with specific needs to fulfill. An in-depth analysis of the interviews highlights how women have utilized this platform for their personal, professional or academic development and self-improvement.
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Purpose Using the social constructivist perspective of learning, this study aims to examine the patterns and the key areas of entrepreneurial learning based on a case study of 16 participants who were the incubatees of two technology-based business incubators in China. The key research question is: how do novice entrepreneurs, focusing on technology-based business incubators, learn from a social constructivist perspective? Design/methodology/approach The researchers applied a qualitative methodology in this study as they wanted to understand better the complexity of the learning process that is hard to achieve quantitatively. The qualitative data was collected through in-depth interviews with the incubatees, who were the managers and owners of their businesses. The interviews with the entrepreneurs were mainly focused on the learning patterns and the factors influencing learning through the use of the critical incident technique. Findings This will allow incubator managers to better evaluate the extent of effective entrepreneurial learning within the incubator's eco-system. The results show that the participants learn through socially constructivist systems that are structured around the support provided by the incubators. Learning in this context takes place in an extended spectrum, and participants are more interested in learning from networking with experienced entrepreneurs rather than from other incubatees or formal courses. Findings of this study help incubator managers and novice entrepreneurs to better shape learning and teamwork in an effort to improve the learning process. Policy makers should consider introducing schemes that encourage novice entrepreneurs to exhibit the creativity and innovation behaviour reported by experienced entrepreneurs. Research limitations/implications The focus of this study is primarily on incubators as the context of learning, whereas the macro-environmental factors, such as the socio-cultural and regulatory environments in China, were considered as playing a subtle role and would affect the incubatees' learning indirectly. The paper is based on a relatively small sample size and is geographically located in Ningbo, China. As such, the authors call for further research for comparative studies with a larger sample size so that a possible theory of entrepreneurial learning in the context of incubators might emerge in the future.