Biggs: Ch2 – Constructivism and Phenomenography

Constructivism as a concept is something that I am slowly coming to understand.  Then along comes phenomenography to upset the party.  Biggs provides a very brief discussion of the two and highlights their differences.  Let’s see if I have got it.

Before I get started, I’ll add that my conceptualisation of constructive alignment is ever evolving.  I’ll be keen to revisit this page some time in the future to see how my understanding of this concept has deepened.  In fact, I’ll probably update my conceptualisation of constructivism and constructive alignment as I progress through Biggs.

Everytime I hear the term constructivism, the following picture is what appears in my mind (well not exactly this picture, but you get the picture :).

Metaphor for constructivism
Metaphor for constructivism

Each row of cards is constructed in such a way that it builds upon the cards below it.  It is this scaffolding that underpins constructivism – you construct new knowledge on the basis of what you already know.  Furthermore, hearing about it (transmission – level 1 teacher) is not going to build another row of cards (new knowledge).  Neither is watching someone else demonstrate it (teacher centric – level 2 teacher) – the demonstrator will have constructed a new row of cards (knowledge), but not the learner.  So the other underpinning concept of constructivism is that you construct knowledge through activities that are likely to result in achieving the desired outcomes. It is all about what the learner does (student centric – level 3 teacher). It must be an active learning environment, not passive.

Back to the analogy, each row of cards is constructed in such a way that it fits or aligns with the cards below it.  If we are learning something new and it doesn’t neatly fit with what we have done before (the existing rows of cards), then we reject it, and attempt it another way. Now enter phenomenography.  The learner’s perspective or view of the world influences what they learn.  If a new concept challenges their current understanding (their existing stack of cards), then they will reject it in favour of something that does fit.  Biggs makes the comment that through teaching, it is possible to change (broaden) a learner’s stack of cards (perspective), or to in fact build a new stack of cards to assist learners in constructing knowledge.

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