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Constructivism & Competency Based: can they co-exist in the same classroom

Constructivism and constructivist pedagogies has been a topic of debate and research for decades, and many programs have been developed based on a certain definition of it’s meaning.  David Jonassen et all describe this in the following way: “The constructivist sense of ‘active’ learning is not listening and then mirroring the correct view of reality, but rather participating in and interacting with the surrounding environment in order to create a personal view of the world. Constructivists engage the learners so that the knowledge they construct is not inert, but rather usable in new and different situations.” (Jonassen, Davidson, Collins, Campbell & Haag, 1995)

Jacqueline Grennon Brooks defines it this way: Constructivism is basically a theory … It says that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.” (Grennon Brooks, 2004)

Problem-based learning, and scenario-based learning (a form of problem based learning) are methods used in constructivist classrooms–creating authentic learning experiences. Students in a constructivist classroom are expected to self-directed, and a focus is on developing metacognition in the student in order for them to become self-directed learners. However, when we discuss these types of learning, or types of instructions, we are not talking about how these are assessed. The premise is that everyone’s experience will be different, that truth is relative to the individual and that no two people will experience the same event in the same way. But, while difference individuals may tackle a problem differently, there often is only a small subset, if not a single, truth (or correct “answer”).

It makes sense when we think about this with regards to medicine–you want a physician that can apply their knowledge and skills to complex circumstance, to use critical thinking skills to solve problems, to be competent, and to come up with the right solution (to make the correct diagnosis)–but what about an editor, or an accountant, or an artist? Can we apply the same expectations to these fields and to learning in general.

Competency-based learning, like constructivism, requires students to be able to construct their own knowledge and to be able to apply that knowledge (and skills) to authentic, varying and new experiences. Competency-based education requires that students have a depth of knowledge and an acquisition of skills that can be applied not simply regurgitated. While constructivism focuses on the method for acquiring knowledge and skills, CBE focuses on how that is assessed and what triggers progression . They not only can coexist, but without students constructing their own knowledge, it should be, theoretically, impossible for them to pass a competency-based program.

Grennon Brooks, J. (2004). Workshop: constructivism as a paradigm for teaching & learning. Retrieved from http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/index.html

Jonassen, D., Davidson, M., Collins, M., Campbell, J., & Haag, B. B. (1995). Constructivism and computer-mediated communication in distance education.American Journal of Distance Education9(2), 7-26. doi: 10.1080/08923649509526885


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