Feature: Between Theory And Practice: Constructivism, Poststructuralism And The Role Of The Tutor

By Dr David CL Lim (david@oum.edu.my)

Most teachers and tutors would be familiar with the term “constructivism”, which describes the theory that knowledge and meaning are not found or received but “constructed” by learners.

Constructivism has been and continues to be highly popular, including in Education Studies. Teacher trainees are still taught to value the varied pedagogies based on constructivist theory.

They learn, for instance, that learners learn from the experience of failure, and that making mistakes along the way is actually a good sign.

They also learn that teachers should not teach in the conventional sense of pouring knowledge into learners’ minds, and that they should instead facilitate learners’ discovery of principles, concepts and facts related to given subjects.

The constructivist belief here is that knowledge and meaning cannot be transmitted; they can only be acquired when learners put them together through active exploration and engagement with the objects of study.

We might believe in all this but do we always practice our belief? Can we, as tutors, maximize the benefits of constructivist pedagogies for our learners if we do not also believe in the tenets of poststructuralism and act on them?

Constructivism and poststructuralism share the same fundamental premise. They hold that knowledge, meaning, and even reality do not exist out there, independent of us; and that they exist only as constructs created out of discourse.

As Michel Foucault puts it: “Knowledge is a matter of the social, historical, and political conditions under which, for example, statements come to count as true or false.”

Based on this understanding of the terms, can we - to return to the question - help our learners construct knowledge and meaning in the constructivist sense if we disagree that knowledge and meaning are contingent constructs to be critiqued and challenged?

Can we claim to be pedagogic constructivists if we encourage learners to challenge knowledge but disapprove when learners respectfully challenge the position we take in relation to given issues under study?

Would we be facilitating learning if, instead of encouraging, we discourage learners who express interest in exploring ways of developing and measuring child creativity because we believe it has been established for all perpetuity that creativity can neither be nurtured nor measured until the child’s psychomotor skills are developed?

Would we be doing our learners service if, instead of encouraging them to explore novel interdisciplinary ways of thinking through a problem, we expect them to conform unbendingly to strict mono-disciplinary protocols?

Experience shows that many learners, even adult ones, look to tutors as a key source of authority, someone with whom they can check if their learning is on track.

In this sense alone, tutors carry a heavy responsibility, for we not only guide learners in content knowledge acquisition, we also influence their attitude towards knowledge and scholarship through our own attitude towards the same.

The latter will remain with them long after they have forgotten the content knowledge they learnt.

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As a tutor, I believe that I can help learners to create learning spaces by:

Encouraging them to think independently by giving them short essay tests
Encouraging them to work as a group
Adding variety to the assignments and encouraging them to think from a different perspective
Ensuring that the tutorial room is always conducive for the learners
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