Learning in Language Instruction:
A Constructivist Method
Mardziah Hayati Abdullah
ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication
assumption of non-constructivist approaches to learning has been
that as long as learners are provided with knowledge,they will be
able to use it. Education based on that assumption is thus primarily
concerned with transferring substance to the learner, and little
importance is placed on the role of the learning activity. From
a constructivist view, on the other hand, learning is the process
of constructing knowledge - not merely obtaining it - in social
& Brooks, 1993). The theory of situated learning consistent
with this view asserts that what we come to know and understand
is fundamentally a product of the learning situation and the nature
of the learning activity. Learning tasks should thus, as far as
possible, be embedded in the target context and require the kind
of thinking that would be done in real life (Brown
et al., 1989; Lave & Wenger, 1991). One method which supports
learning in the target domain is Problem-Based-Learning (PBL). It
was created by Barrows (1986) as an alternative instructional method
to prepare medical students for real-world problems by letting them
solve medical problems based on real-life cases, rather than having
them learn mainly through lectures which taught the sciences out
of context. The students worked in teams, and were assigned a medical
practitioner who acted as facilitator. This practice was consistent
with the assumption that learning occurs not in the "heads
of individual speakers" but in the fields of social interaction
(Lave & Wenger, 1991), where social partners also determine
what and how someone learns (Cole & Engestrom, 1993; Salomon,
1993). It was argued that PBL made learning more applicable by encouraging
students to think and act like they would in the real world of medicine.
This same method, Duffy and Cunningham (1997) believe, can be applied
in other domains.
PBL IN LANGUAGE
trend in language instruction has been to define desired goals independently
of the learners and situation, present language in a structured,
linear fashion, then attempt to reinforce the content through decontextualized
practice. Learners end up knowing about the language but not how
to use it (Short, Harste & Burke, 1996). The constructivist
view, in contrast, is that language learners should develop their
understanding of the conventions of language use by engaging in
the kinds of language activity found in real life, and not by learning
lists of rules. PBL can situate language learning in the real world.
By posing language learners problems like those found in real life,
teachers can bridge the gap between language use in the real world
and what Dyson calls the 'fake' world of school. Problems used in
PBL are ill-structured, that is, they do not have clear-cut, absolute
answers (Spiro et al., 1991; Perkins, 1991), and they reflect the
complexity of real-world problems (as opposed to short-answer, true-false,
and multiple-choice questions). They are also relevant to the learners'
situations. In addition, they require learners to explore resources
other than the teacher, including reference materials and community
members, and to draw on knowledge from various subject areas such
as mathematics, geography, and science. During the inquiry process
that learners go through to develop solutions, they need to use
language to obtain and communicate information, express opinions,
and negotiate, as they would in occupational domains. As they document
discussions and decisions, consult reference materials, talk to
others, or present findings, they learn to listen, speak, read,
and write effectively. They develop vocabulary, learn rules of grammar
and conventions of social language use, and integrate the use of
different sign systems. In short, they construct an understanding
of language as it is used in real- world contexts.
TEACHER'S ROLE IN PBL
In a PBL setting,
teachers need to decenter their roles as the source of knowledge
by consciously refraining from giving only right-wrong answers,
and helping students observe how other resources can teach them
about effective language use. Acting as facilitators and cognitive
coaches (Barrows, 1992; Duffy & Cunningham, 1997), teachers
need to ask questions such as: Why? What do you mean? and How do
you know that is true? (Savery
& Duffy, 1994, p.12) instead of content-laden questions.
The purpose is to challenge the students' reasoning and to help
them consider carefully each step they take in their inquiry. By
asking such questions, facilitators also model critical thinking,
with the purpose of stepping back and letting students begin to
ask themselves and their peers those same types of questions. As
facilitators, teachers also design problems and provide critical
resources needed for the inquiry process.
THE PBL PROCESS:
A BRIEF EXAMPLE
and Duffy's (1995) model of the PBL process proposes some steps
that a facilitator could follow:
identifies or designs an ill-structured problem or task relevant
to the learner. (e.g., Vandalism is on the rise in school.
Because it is a large school with several buildings, lockers have
been broken into, personal belongings stolen, furniture scratched,
and walls defaced even during school hours, without anyone seeing
the culprits. Among the safety measures the school plans to take
are: students will no longer be allowed to leave the cafeteria
during lunch, and there will be no outside recess so that no student
can wander around without being seen. Hall passes will also be
limited. Students will have to leave their bags in their lockers
as soon as they get to school so that no one can carry around
dangerous articles. You find these rules unreasonable and potentially
ineffective. You feel that innocent students will be inconvenienced,
and that there must be better measures. What can you do?)
presents the problem to the learners.
in their own groups, collaboratively
working ideas or possible solutions (e.g., write a petition,
suggest alternative measures, form volunteer student patrols,
survey students' views and present them).
available information related to the problem (e.g., school
policies, sample petition, sections of the school most vandalized).
learning issues (things they need to find out, e.g., survey
formats, how to form patrols, what other schools may be doing)
resources to look up or consult (e.g., home pages of other
schools, friends in the police force, sample survey).
tasks to the various group members (i.e. who is responsible
for working on each learning issue.).
information (e.g. visit Web sites, interview students and
community members, draft a petition.).
the steps in (iii) may be revisited. Ideas, learning issues,
and solutions may differ among groups, and the class can discuss
the viability of each proposed solution. Throughout the process,
learners will need to act as scribes or recorders to take
PBL AND CURRICULUM
research groups have developed full PBL curricula, language teachers
may find PBL more useful as one method among many, as the inquiry
process takes time and may not always meet other curricular demands.
A better understanding of PBL and the facilitator's role may help
teachers assess the applicability of the method. Useful information
may be found at Problem-Based
Learning at the University of Delaware.
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was prepared (Digest #132, EDO-CS-98-5, November 1998) with funding
from the U.S. Department of Education under contract number RR93002011,
and published by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English and
expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions
or policies of Learn2study, nor does mention of trade names, commercial
products, or organizations imply endorsement by Learn2study.