Constructivism: The future of teaching

opinion March 06, 2013 00:00

By Tshering Namgyal
Special to T

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Thailand's first symposium on constructivism saw national and international experts on the learning theory gather to discuss their experiences recently at King Mongkut's University in Bangkok. During the two-day event, teachers demonstrated the impact c

In Thailand, the constructionism theory was initiated in 1997 by the Suksaphattana Foundation in collaboration with Professor Seymour Papert, the creator of constructionism, from the MIT Media Laboratory, with the establishment of the Lighthouse project. Shortly afterwards, a foundation was set up in 1997 by Thai MIT alumnus living in Thailand.

Constructivism is a child-centred theory that encourages learning via active experience, rather than passively by rote. Currently, there are about 10 schools and two vocational institutes that have implemented constructionist learning with financial support from two foundations – the Suksaphattana Foundation and the Thaicom Foundation. The foundations have provided about Bt400 million to promote contructionism theory in Thailand.
Sopapun Chuentongkam, who’s been teaching the theory for more than a decade at Bansankampaeng School, said constructivism had been a success after initially being adopted for grades 4 to 6, then for the whole school. In 1999, the Chiang Mai school became the first in Thailand to implement the new teaching strategy.
Students at Bansankampaeng School were happy learning through their own actions, and eager to come to school even on the weekends thanks to this teaching philosophy,” Sopapun said.
Sopapun explained that the grade 1-3 elementary-school students she teaches can choose what to study according to their interests, which were primarily to do with food and community, while middle-school students focused more on their interests in traditions and culture.
Parents were also deeply involved in designing activities in the learning process, she said, and a survey had shown more than 80 per cent were satisfied with their children’s learning. It has been estimated that constructivist learning can achieve in six years what it takes traditional learning 30 years to achieve.
Sopapun said the school had received a number of awards from both local and international institutions for its teaching methods.
Suriporn Luangyai, a teacher at Municipality 4 School in Lampang province, who has also been teaching for 10 years, said six stages of learning implemented in the school brought tremendous changes in terms of creativity among the children. The students are more receptive to the curriculum, and this student-centric learning system offers more democracy in the classroom, giving more freedom and choice to the students. 
“They are more curious about learning by doing themselves,” she said. “They are now able to efficiently summarise by themselves what they have learned. It’s not passive learning.”
The school has many success stories and many awards, including innovation awards. “Our students’ technical ability exceeds government standards,” Soriporn said.
Surat Tanprasertku, a teacher from Darunsikkhalai School for Innovative Learning (DSIL), says the school was founded in 2011 as part of the Lighthouse Project, as a model in terms of innovative learning. The students here have come up with a number of projects including making model planes and a pizza business. The applications go beyond learning and into organisations and the industrial sector, as well as vocational training institutes. 
Paulo Bliskstein, an assistant professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, said that conventional education systems actually kill creativity among youth.
Dr David Cavallo, who is impressed with the progress of constructionism theory in Thailand, says it’s our responsibility to build value into the education culture. 
“It’s so wonderful to see how much has been developed in the last 15 years through the relationship between MIT and Thailand,” he said. “Thailand has had very strong economic growth in the last 15 years, yet it’s difficult to sustain. To move up the economic ladder, creating and working with technology to develop human capacity, especially for children, is very important for sustainability.”
“Children never lack potential. They really have their own ideas and knowledge. Therefore, what’s most important is creating a platform for innovation, thinking and construction,” he said.
“Computer usage is a new ‘construction material’ in which children have great interest,” said Dr Cavallo, who is also a vice-president for education and chief learning architect on the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. His work focuses on working with the governments of developing countries to make laptops a means of support in transformation efforts.
“We don’t target an increase in the number of educational institutions using constructionism, but we will help the current institutions use it more deeply for better education quality,” said Paron Israsenanaayudaya, chairman of the Suksaphattana Foundation and vice president of the Thaicom Foundation. “If other institutions are interested in constructionism, they can learn from our network.”