History of Constructionism

Seymour Papert coined the term “constructionism” back in the 1980s to stand for a method of pedagogy that concretizes and builds upon many of the ideas of progressive education practiced by the American John Dewey at the start of the 20th century in his experimental school at the University of Chicago. Dewey wanted to put much of the responsibility for learning back onto the students who are born with the gift of learning and creating knowledge on his own terms.

Papert was influenced by Maria Montessori and after taking degrees in pediatrics, medicine, psychology and philosophy she began her own experimental school for young children. Rather than formally setting tasks herself she watched how her students acted on their own. She followed their interests and watched how they responded to her specially prepared environments of objects. She was amazed at their tenacity for building and organizing things. She set the stage and guided but did not give.

Papert also worked directly with the Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget, whom Ernst von Glasersfeld called “the great pioneer of the constructivist theory of learning”. Piaget - like Dewey, Montessori and many others - developed their theories of education and knowledge construction by watching and interacting with children: watching children build, talk, draw and play games in both the concrete realm and the imaginary.

The constructivist movement was born out of such observational work. Constructivists were a virtual community of workers in a variety of disciplines. But they all agreed that knowledge is not available – pre-built. Rather it must be built by the learner. Meanings of the new must be made by relating them --by the students themselves -- to previous meanings in their own system of relationships. This in no way eliminates lectures, structured laboratories and books. It reassigns their place in a larger view of education where students are translating a variety of experiences into their own bodies. “Teachers” now act more as facilitators and colleagues rather than as lecturers speaking ex cathedra. Of course, charisma and passion is needed in the classroom, but it must be spread throughout the group. And, of course, great lectures, given by great speakers, can be gripping, useful, and exciting. But the energy must be to encourage students to be great lecturers to themselves and colleagues.

How then is constructionism different from constructivism? Papert admitted that he was playing a bit with this constructed word, loading it with meanings: first, it implied play and secondly, the construction of ideas or parts of the world or stories or emotions with tools. He was saying that students need to build models of parts of their world in order to more fully grasp those parts’ meaning, substance and dynamics. Building always needs tools: e.g. the artist using his paintbrush, the harpsichord maker his assemblage of kit to assemble wood, plastic (no more ivory please), wire, paint and gold guilt. But tools can also be words, diagrams, sounds, and special notations.

During the 1980s, Seymor Papert, Wally Feurzeig, Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy and members of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Department and Bolt, Beranek and Newman, a technology company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, developed a new computer language, called LOGO, that was aimed at encouraging young students to build their models in LOGO notation in order to play with their idea models. This play would naturally introduce the ideas of procedures, functions, variables, recursion, modularity, sensitivity analysis, simulation, verification … “What happens when I do this? Why doesn’t this work right? How can I fix my ideas? Or, my goodness, I didn’t know that was what I was trying to say in LOGO talk: It’s not always what I think I think … I’d better show this to my friends to see what they are doing. Maybe we can build stuff together.”

One of the major features of LOGO was a small triangular object on the computer screen that represented a stylized turtle. The LOGO language had commands for telling the turtle how to move forwards and back, turn left and right, leave a trace or not and many others.

LOGO was a dialect of the artificial intelligence language Lisp and inherited its strengths of simplicity and ability to build highly sophisticated models. Very much like chess. Kids play chess; grand masters play chess. Same tools, same game. The turtle allowed LOGO to use a both relative and absolute reference systems. And that relative system ability was magic: a kid could talk through a dance or exercise or shape in terms of his own movement (walk forward a little, turn right a little …) and directly translate his movement talk into instructions for the turtle.

The student was thus watching himself, his talk about himself, and the implications of telling someone else to do what he thought he was doing. Here was an environment for thinking through things and actions and how we go about doing that. Catching ourselves in the act of creation, reflection and unconscious action. And this, building mental representations by constructing and sharing, is a powerful metaphor for learning, the so-called constructionist framework for (pedagogic) action.

The developers of LOGO played a special role in fostering constructionist ways of teaching and learning but also encouraging other ways of new and non-traditional learning with technological tools. Constructionists (teachers at all levels, software designers, philosophers, musicians, artists …) have held conferences every two years (called initially EuroLogo then Constructionism) since the 1980s to share experiences in developing new learning environments.

Back in the 1980s when Logo was produced and constructionism coined the community was mostly computer scientists and mathematicians. Naturally, constructionism was practiced mostly in these arenas. But now we need links to other disciplines – especially the learning and neurological sciences. We need to rethink our own thoughts and beliefs and stop being afraid of being measured.

We lauded our successes and talked – perhaps more quietly - about our failures. We constructionists expect the world of epistemological and pedagogical tools to change and improve over time. How could they not? The world has changed so much in the last 30 years. Think back to the 1980s when computers were few. Now they are ubiquitous and we are all linked together.
Ironically, the explosion of technological gadgets has encouraged many of us to think more deeply about what technology, tools and models and meaning really mean. Too, we are trying to gather into our group and to join other groups of kindred spirits in other disciplines to combine and design new and more beautifully effective constructions.