Wednesday, October 28, 2009

LaaN vs. Social Constructivism

In this post, I will try to compare the Learning as a Network (LaaN) perspective/theory (basically a combination of connectivism, complexity theory, and douple-loop learning) to the social constructivism theory.

Social Constructivism is a theory of learning based upon the learners' social interaction and collaboration. Social constructivist theorists (e.g. Vygotsky) have extended the traditional focus on individual learning to address collaborative and social dimensions of learning. Whereas Piaget’s cognitive constructivism focuses on the individual mind, Vygotsky's social constructivism conceptualizes learning as more socially constructed. Vygotsky (1978) argues that all cognitive functions originate in, and must therefore be explained as products of, social interactions and that learning was not simply the assimilation and accommodation of new knowledge by learners. According to Vygotsky, human cognitive structures are essentially socially constructed. Knowledge is not simply constructed, it is co-constructed.

A central concept in Vygotsky's social constructivism is the 'zone of proximal development' (ZPD) which highlights the potential for future learning which can be achieved with appropriate support. Vygotsky (ibid.) distinguishes between two developmental levels: The level of actual development is the level of development that the learner has already reached, and is the level at which the learner is capable of solving problems independently. The level of potential development is the level of development that the learner is capable of reaching under the guidance of teachers or in collaboration with peers. The learner is capable of solving problems and understanding material at this level that they are not capable of solving or understanding at their level of actual development. Vygotsky (ibid.) further defines the zone of proximal development (ZPD) as "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers" (p. 86). According to Vygotsky:

The zone of proximal development defines those functions that have not yet matured but are in the process of maturation, functions that will mature tomorrow but are currently in an embryonic state. These functions could be termed the "buds" or "flowers" of development rather than the "fruits" of development. (p. 86)

LaaN differs from social constructivism in four different ways.

First, the theory of social constructivism suggests that learners co- construct knowledge. However, the usage of the word “construction” makes from knowledge a robust and durable object. As Latour (2005) states: "using the word 'construction' seemed at first ideal to describe a more realistic version of what it is for anything to stand. And indeed, in all domains, to say that something is constructed has always been associated with an appreciation of its robustness, quality, style, durability, worth, etc" (p. 89). Robustness and durability, however, do not apply to knowledge. Knowledge is much more varied and uncertain. As Siemens (2006) stresses: “In today's world, knowledge life is short; it survives only a short period of time before it is outdated”. In LaaN, knowledge is a personal network rather than an object that can be constructed.

Second, although social constructivism takes social interactions into account, it still sees learning as essentially intrinsic (i.e. in the learner's mind). In fact, the primary focus of Vygotsky's social constructivism is to determine the state of a learner's mental development by clarifying its two levels: the actual developmental level and the ZPD. The actual developmental level of a learner indicates her actual mental abilities and the ZPD represents her potential mental development. As Vygotsky (ibid.) puts it: "The actual developmental level characterizes mental development retrospectively, while the zone of proximal development characterizes mental development prospectively" (p. 86). The focus on the mental development of the learner makes thus from social constructivism a learning theory with a primarily psychological perspective. Unlike social constructivism, which views learning as internal developmental processes that result in mental development (i.e. intrinsic), LaaN views learning as both intrinsic and extrinsic; it occurs through the continuous building of personal knowledge networks, at both internal/conceptual and external levels.

Third, Vygotsky's social constructivism has centered on the role adults play in fostering children's development. ZPD, which is closely related to the concept of "scaffolding", emphasizes that learning occurs best when an expert (either an adult or a more competent peer; aka the More Knowledgeable Other, MKO) guides a novice from the novice’s current level of knowledge to the level of knowledge the novice reaches in solving problems with assistance. However, nowadays, the lines became blurred between the expert and novice roles. At each moment the novice can get into the expert role and vice versa. In LaaN, everyone is a knowledge networker and can thus act as a novice in one context and step into the expert role in another context. And, in LaaN, the bridge between where the learner is and where she is going is through her personal knowledge network, rather than in the hands of a teacher or a more competent peer.

Fourth, the notion of ZPD enables learning which is oriented towards a level of potential development, embodied in the adult or more competent peer. Knowledge, however, is complex and the level of potential development can, thus, never be anticipated or predicted. In LaaN, learning takes place in a knowledge ecology rather than within a ZPD. Unlike a ZPD which is characterized by a rigid, restrictive, and unidirectional development (i.e. training the novices within the ZPD towards a level of potential development), a knowledge ecology is open, multidirectional, and without an end point of development. The boundaries of knowledge ecologies are less fixed and can easily be bridged and merged. And, the development within a knowledge ecology is never fully predetermined and occurs in unpredictable directions.


- Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

- Siemens, G. (2006). Knowing Knowledge. Knowing Knowledge Wiki.

- Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Charles Nelson said...

Why doesn't robustness and durability apply to knowledge? For a student of mathematics, or a mathematician, isn't learning a process of complexifying concepts and building upon them? If yes, then that which is being built upon would seem to have some durability.

Can you give some specific examples of what you mean by "learning as .. the continuous building of personal knowledge networks, at both internal/conceptual and external levels," in particular at external levels so I can have a better understanding of what you mean?

In what ways does knowledge being complex exclude developing in particular directions? For instance, learning a language is a complex endeavor, but there are patterns of language development. Can you expand a little more on this concept.

Frances Bell said...

I really enjoyed reading this post and think it brings forward the comparison of social constructivism and LAAN, particularly by including latour's work. However I would like to make 2 points:
1. Vygotsky died in 1934, and I think he was relabelled rather than self-described as a 'social constructivist'. It seems a bit unfair to talk about co-construction of knowledge with knowledge as intrinsic, based on his writing as considering knowledge to be intrinsic when the 'social construction of knowledge' is a subsequent concept.
2. The whole issue of expert/novice is interesting and complex, but I am not sure the peer learning example of ZPD is more rigid than peer learning in a network (where 'experts' often self-identify). Wasn't Vygotsky observing spontaneous learning between peers rather than 'designing' those encounters. Seeking help from others seems a natural human behaviour.