February 22, 2018

Constructionism works


 Note: This post is one of several in this month’s Work/Learning Blog Carnival over at Manish Mohan's blog

Mixing sociology with education was not something language teachers did in the past. Nor was it something that hard-headed managers did in the work environment. Recently, however, we have all been forced to look at learning in social networks and online communities. The web is creating new social structures that pertain to learning, but we understand very little about their dynamics. Sociology is providing some insights.

In this vein, I am reading the excellent,' Communities of Practice,  Creating Learning Environments for Educators'.  The book edited by two British academics, Chris Kimble and Paul Hildreth.  Professor Kimble describes his work as  'socio-technical in the sense that I am interested in how best to 'manage' the fit between technology and the social world' and he has written on the subject of learning networks in the past.

The (2 volume) book is highly informative and thought provoking. The first volume deals with colocated (offline) CoPs, while volume 2 looks at distributed or virtual environments.

For a newcomer (like myself) there is sometimes the feeling that sociological observation tends towards stating the obvious. (This is an issue I also had with Clay Shirky's recent book until I got into the mindset). The very concept of a CoP has left several of my management and academic colleagues non-plussed. ('If they have always existed then what's the big deal?') There is something slightly elusive about these concepts on  first blush.

Finding the value, however, comes down to what you're looking for. This book hammers home the fact that social/group formats radically influence the way we learn. In a virtual environment, this is precisely what I have been looking for, so the insights are particularly welcome. Interestingly, however, many of  the observations apply equally well to colocated groups and especially for teacher training. I'm not sure why we language tachers have so studiously ignored this line of thinking for decades, but generally speaking, we have.  

 Applying it in the workplace

But there are other applications, and the work environment is one. Let me give you an example of a simple concept that I was able to cull from the book and apply in a concrete way in my own work. Volume 1 has a chapter called The Reflective Mentor Model, by Robbin Nicole Chapman. The author takes Papert's (1980) notion of Constructionism to show that 'people learn best when actively engaged in designing and building construcing artifacts to share with and critique by others'.

As it happens, I recently found the perfect context in which to apply this constructionist approach and it has worked very well. At the moment, we're in the process of inducting (training?) some new hosts for the podcast lessons - we'll be launching FrenchPod and ItalianPod. Instead of simply telling them how to do that we've focused them on producing 'artifacts', that is samples of the lessons they eventually aspire to. We encourage participatns to produce a much as possible - a lesson per day, for example. After that, we get together with them as well as practitioners of differing levels/experience, to reflect, discuss, and offer feedback.

The focus on doing has been literally very productive. Discussion are focused and concrete, the process of learning, visible. We blog as we go along, and we link to samples of the artifacts as we do so. We've also started recording the feedback sessions themselves and linking to those, too.  

This approach has been very beneficial on many levels. For one thing, we are now developing an archived history of the learning that can be used in the future, including learner comments and all the rest. Most of all, the new hosts are learning the skills in an efficient and productive way. They are learing by doing, in collaboration with people who have a level of expertize in the field.  

This particular initiative is no more than a few weeks old, but I can see how some of the concepts that underlie group dynamics  could be very powerful in teacher training - powerful enough to unsettle how the whole thing has been done for so long. I hope too, that I've shown how one simple idea was applied to a real work situation effectively.

I've taken many new insights from this book, but I've only had time to go into one of them. One thing is sure, though, there's mileage in this socoiology stuff after all.

Ken Carroll

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  1. I concur with your pragmatic approach on this. It’s similar to what I’ve used in developing communities of practice. Start building, get everyone engaged and support the community.

    I’m also very interested in FrenchPod, especially since our French/English province is abolishing early French immersion in school. There may be significant uptake in this offering from New Brunswick. When do you expect to launch?

  2. AuntySue says:

    Putting stuff together to share with others… yes that’s exactly what we (ChinesePod students) used the wiki for, and now sometimes use the Forum for. It is always difficult to tell who gets more out of it, because while the builders insist that the process was of great benefit and the feedback/corrections put the icing on the cake, at the same time we see other students stumbling across this material and yelling WOW, just what I wanted! Those cries of delight are occasional, but occur months, even years later. It is not at all hard to see how this process is immensely rewarding to all concerned, and as we already know, learning reaches its peak when done in the context of pleasure.

    I’m surprised that wikis are not used more in these environments. A wiki needs to be excellently managed, both technically (configuration, maintenance) and socially (facilitators, admins, helpers), otherwise newcomers will flounder and old hands will yawn. Maybe that’s why. Maybe Web 2.0 people want to hit the install button and have something up already, and wikis don’t quite work that way. What a shame, though. A wiki is such pure web2.0 and it directly addresses the kinds of social aspects that you’re talking about. Maybe users these days don’t like that particular kind of interaction or something, I really don’t know.

  3. Michael says:


    I could be way off target here because I haven’t read the book, but what you are talking about shares similarities with community language learning (CLL), cooperative learning, and especially task based learning. In looking for the new might you be ignoring the old?

    Task based learning has a strong pedigree in EFL circles and teacher training is a good example of where task-based learning can both affect our attitude about teaching and be effective as a learning tool.

    Granted it is quite difficult to design tasks but this difficulty should be balanced against the documented power of tasks to engage, motivate, and focus attention.

    Interesting, I am detecting a slight move in your interests away from the “unconnected single learner” to the “connected learner situated in a purposeful group”.

  4. I’m reminded of a project for which my company had to train two dozen contractors who would be instructors for classroom-based training. The learners were computer novices; the tasks were “learn to operate your new laptop” and (to greatly oversimply) “do your formerly paper-based job with the software.”

    We found many of the contractors highly skeptical that anyone could learn to use the laptop with as little as the workshop taught, initially, about things like file structure and the machine’s internal workings.

    This is a bit tangential to your main thread, but my point is that we sought a new model for classroom instruction: demonstrate, then observe as the learners worked through job-related examples with realistic data — and, by the second day, with live data from their own jobs.

    Your communities of language learners have different motivations (travel, reading, business), and your approach leads to a rich array of resources from which people can draw what makes sense to them.

    Indeed, as I’ve seen for myself, there’s nothing like speaking French regularly after years of non-practice to make me voluntarily open a review book and review conditionnel passé. Starting with that, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to offer much satisfaction.

  5. admin says:


    I don’t think CLL had any real links to sociology, but rather to a humanistic philosophy. And although task-based learning shares some things in common with RMM, it too has its roots elsewhere.


  6. Michael says:

    Along these lines I recommend an interesting, perhaps questionable 2-page article in the N.Y. Times entitled: Can You Become a Creature of New Habits?


  1. […] I came across an excellent example of collaborative learning used by Ken Caroll in training language hosts: At the moment, we’re in the process of inducting (training?) some […]

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