Numerous educators have planned and implemented activities and curriculum units that use either behaviorist or constructivist principles in one way or another. Often the demonstrated activities or units are hard to compare directly simply because behaviorism and constructivism address different aspects of learning, and therefore call upon teachers to perform somewhat different roles. To see what I mean, look at these two examples of instructional research. The first is grounded in behaviorism and the second is grounded in constructivism.
Behaviorism in action: a remedy for stuttering Mark Onslow and his colleagues have described a way to help young children overcome stuttering, a problem in which sounds and words are repeated or stretched unduly, so that fluent conversation is difficult (2001). Onslow’s research strategy was simple, at least in principle: he trained parents of children who stuttered to praise their child more strongly is the child spoke fluently (without any stutter), and to correct the child quietly, but non-punitively whenever the child did stutter. A fluent sentence therefore produced praise, or even a gold star, from parents. A stuttered sentence produced an immediate sentence like “I think that was a stutter”, stated factually and quietly. Value judgments and criticisms were not allowed.
Onslow’s program contradicted the conventional advice to parents about stuttering, which was to ignore it wherever possible. Nonetheless the program produced very positive results. All of the stuttering children reduced or even eliminated their stuttering after a few weeks of the differential reinforcement by their parents, and the stuttering did not return when they were tested even one year after the program finished.
Constructivism in action: project-based learning Juliette Goldman, an educator working in Australia, demonstrated how this can be done with health education for middle years students (Goldman, 2006). She designed a project for seventh-grade students in which they had to publish a training manual for fellow-students on the topic of “good food handling”, advice for restaurant workers about how they can keep for contaminating either themselves or the food that they serve. The writers of the manual worked in groups of three, researching information on a range of topics related to food handling. Then they used computer self-publishing software to prepare and print copies of their information. They also made oral presentations about their manuals to a school assembly to which local food-industry representatives were invited, and they arranged to display the finished manuals at the local public library.
The initiative used constructivist principles in a number of ways. For example, it challenged learners to make decisions about what their particular manual should “teach”. The decision- making required learners constantly to monitor their own knowledge and learning—engage in metacognition—in order to insure that the content was complete, accurate, and important to learn. It also grouped students into teams, so that they could, to some extent, teach each other whatever they needed to learn, including helping each other to sense whether they actually were learning from their research.
Obviously these two studies are about different educational problems or issues. What if the learning theories underlying them were switched? Could a stuttering program be built around constructivist principles of learning, and a health education program be built around behaviorist principles? What would each program look like?
Be a skeptic for a moment. What do you suspect might be the hardest part of
implementing behavioral conditioning for stuttering described by Onslow? And what might be hardest part of implementing the constructivist program about health education?
Onslow, M., Menzies, R., & Packman, A. (2001). An operant intervention for early stuttering. Behavior modification 25(1), 116-139.
Goldman, J. (2006). Web-based designed activities for young people in health education: A constructivist approach. Health Education Journal 65(1), 14-27.