In which I craft a table with wobbly legs.
As connectivism and connective learning gain a wider audience, or at least acknowledgment, I’ve been plagued by the suspicion that, upon first exposure, connectivism is sounding an awful lot like a shaken, not stirred, version of constructivism to a lot of people.
Complicating matters is the recognition that theories have various instantiations in practice. This is undoubtedly true for constructivism and its formal classroom companion, inquiry learning, especially as this is implemented in its spectrum of shadings (guided inquiry, open inquiry, “Understanding by Design,” project learning, active learning, etc.).
(Is this also true for connectivism? Hard to say, since the idea of connectivism as a “practice,” especially classroom practice, seems to create some cognitive dissonance for me. But I’ve used the term “connective learning” below as an expression of the “practice” of connectivism.)
Connectivism, constructivism, behaviorism, humanism and cognitivism have been laid out in a variety of comparative tables. It is also important to point to Stephen Downes’ assessment that constructivism and connectivism are not the same thing.
[Connectivism] shares with some other theories a core proposition, that knowledge is not acquired, as though it were a thing. Hence people see a relation between connectivism and constructivism or active learning (to name a couple). Where connectivism differs from those theories, I would argue, is that connectivism denies that knowledge is propositional. That is to say, these other theories are ‘cognitivist’, in the sense that they depict knowledge and learning as being grounded in language and logic. Connectivism is, by contrast, ‘connectionist’. Knowledge is, on this theory, literally the set of connections formed by actions and experience. It may consist in part of linguistic structures, but it is not essentially based in linguistic structures, and the properties and constraints of linguistic structures are not the properties and constraints of connectivism. In connectivism, a phrase like ‘constructing meaning’ makes no sense. Connections form naturally, through a process of association, and are not ‘constructed’ through some sort of intentional action. And ‘meaning’ is a property of language and logic, connoting referential and representational properties of physical symbol systems. Such systems are epiphenomena of (some) networks, and not descriptive of or essential to these networks. Hence, in connectivism, there is no real concept of transferring knowledge, making knowledge, or building knowledge. Rather, the activities we undertake when we conduct practices in order to learn are more like growing or developing ourselves and our society in certain (connected) ways.
That said, constructivism and connectivism are, if certainly not the same, allied in a few significant ways. One is in their common respect for the learner, and another is in the concept of learner empowerment. Both theories also require, at least to some degree, reconsideration of the traditional conceptions of teaching, of the goals of learning, and of the idea of schools.
So while both theories are a difficult sell in traditional and formal educational settings, I’d posit that constructivism’s relatively long history and basic inroads in education to date offer a credible scaffold for discussing connectivism, and that those who have been able to at least initially incorporate ideas and practice related to constructivism may be best in the position to approach—and personally engage with—connective learning.
A perhaps minor roadblock I’m seeing, however, is that connectivism discussions to date haven’t necessarily used language that is familiar to “on the ground” practitioners, facilitators, teachers, or whatever one may wish to call them. (One exception, perhaps, is Wendy Drexler’s The Networked Student, which offers a contained classroom orientation to connectivism.)
The following rudimentary table makes a run at the language barrier. While there’s going to be some disagreement on how inquiry and connective learning are depicted, it seems to me that the table does reveal just how far connectivism moves the cheese for those working with or toward inquiry. Connectivist thinking, to a greater degree than even “progressive” inquiry approaches, shakes up some deeply entrenched assumptions about education, knowledge, learning, and teaching.
The table is admittedly a stream-of-consciousness mash-up of both theoretical understandings and a sense of how these theories play out on the ground, which is where things get pretty messy and lines get pretty blurry in a hurry. (When working with the infinite variables of learning, purism seems self-defeating…) A table like this is also only a snapshot in time, as the concepts under consideration are clearly moving targets. (Example: the inclusion of the terms communities and construction/bricolage on the connectivist side of things. These are more a reflection of trends I’m seeing in conversations than any formally definitive element. And trying to use the term “knowledge” correctly? Yipes.)
Even with these disclaimers, I suspect that the table can also serve as four-way cannon fodder, as both proponents and opponents of both theories will have some objections kind thoughts about how I have chosen to articulate these theories. But still, it seems like an item worth “throwing out there” for further consideration.
Italicized words and concepts are recognized as potentially contentious. Other words and concepts are also undoubtedly contentious, but a fully italicized table seems like overkill.
|Inquiry learning||Connective learning|
|Understanding big ideas||Understanding fragmented ideas|
|Depth of understanding||Depth/diversity of connections|
|Question, investigate||Converse, immerse, connect|
|Collaboration (team with shared goals)||Cooperation (individuals with aligned interests)|
|Teacher as facilitator||Learner and network as facilitators|
|Guide on the side/meddler in the middle||Modeling, demonstration|
|Anticipated processes, goals||Emergent processes, goals|
|Understanding, reflection||Increasing/improving connections, construction/bricolage|
|Focus on developing “whole” learner (values orientation, socialization)||Come as you are/ “knowing to be”|
|Active/continuous participation||Option of legitimate peripheral participation|
|The practice of experts||Distributed expertise, state of expertness|
|Learner-focused||Learner as node, hub, link|
|Authenticity: Actual and simulated/designed||Space: “Real” and “virtual”|
|Groups and communities||Networks, communities|
|Use of resources beyond classroom||Classroom/coursework as one potential resource|
|Assessment by more knowledgeable other||Ongoing assessment through network interaction (via self and others)|
|Consciously uses “technology”||“Technology” is assumed/invisible/ubiquitous|
|Exploration, discovery, experience||“Foraging,” way-finding, pattern recognition, surfing, sensing, experiencing|
|Encourages relevance, motivation||Requires relevance, motivation|
|Resulting knowledge is new to learner||Resulting knowledge is new to all (to network)|
|Considers content (existing knowledge) in addition to process||New knowing emerges from process of network activity|
|Learning results in knowledge||Learning results in/is “being”|