Constructivism in the discipline of history


Constructivism in the discipline of history

by Dr. Burgess Smith

Sifting not long ago through the literature on teaching and learning within online learning communities, in a doctoral quest to identify best practices, this reader was struck by the overwhelming consensus among those who were sharing their expertise. Academicians usually are a fractious lot, seldom willing to honor their peers with quick agreement. These sages, however, commonly belonged to a chorus of believers in the teaching and learning tenets of “constructivism”. This approach is based on the premise that knowledge is constructed by learners – particularly adult learners – as they filter new information through the lenses of their own experience. It is quite different from the more traditional “objectivist” idea of knowledge as a preexisting reality that teachers simply transmit by means of effective communication from the podium, and reinforce through practice and repetition. Constructivists expect adult learners to be active, reflective, and creative: managing their own learning process and often collaborating with each other to test new ideas and information by applying them to real problems and circumstances. Usually self-direction is promoted as a core attribute for students, given the expectation that they will take an active role in their own learning.

It didn’t take long for this researcher to recognize these advocates as kinfolk. As an historian I long before had come to think of myself as more facilitator of critical and analytical thinking than podium-based lecturer. Too often, though, I sensed a whiff of sanctimony and messianism in the claims of constructivists to be distinctly student-centered, comparing themselves invidiously to those who were “teacher-centered”. More reasonable, it seemed to me, were the occasional voices who acknowledged that a mix of approaches, including behavioral and objectivist methods, often provide more solid ground.

Constructivism is particularly compelling, nonetheless, not only in its foundation in psychology and educational research, but also for the reality of the times in which we live, when change comes at us with such acceleration that much of the information we stash in our heads is quickly invalidated. We all must be self-directed learners, able to identify the new knowledge we need and how to go about creating or acquiring it, in order to maintain our careers and our lives. Many college subjects therefore are most useful not when we memorize their content, but as we struggle to understand it, reflect on it, compare it to our own experience, and find meanings that matter to us in our own times and places.

It might not appear at first glance that the study of history involves creating new knowledge and insights, given that the past doesn’t change. But the questions we ask about the past and present do indeed change, for they arise from concerns of the ever-evolving present. New questions lead us to collect and critically appraise new or different evidence from which we draw new insights and new conclusions. So it is, for instance, that the landscape of American history no longer consists mainly of white male presidents, explorers, generals, jurists, and entrepreneurs. Women, minorities, Native Americans, cultural patterns, social classes, public ideas, and ecological disasters now shape the terrain as well, to name but a few topics that have come to the fore within our lifetimes.

There also is a downside to the proposition that we each make meaning by filtering information through the lenses of our minds. As almost anyone who studies the history of ideas knows too well, those lenses are distorted by all the mental baggage of unexamined assumptions, misinformation, and outdated maxims that prior education, experience, politics, and the media have served up to all of us. Courses in history therefore must teach us to turn the process of critical, historical thinking upon ourselves, to appreciate our own biases, as a form of mental preparation that precedes clear-headed analysis. An effective understanding of history, in this sense, is essential preparation for self-directed learning.


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