We are playing with fire: Responsibility of a Social Constructivist teacher

We are encouraged to use a Social Constructivist approach in teaching, and to use the power of Web 2.0 in doing this.  Given what I know of Social Psychology, I agree that Web 2.0 can be a powerful platform for that approach.

Given what I know of Social Psychology, I also know how powerful an approach Social Constructivism can be.

“With great power comes great responsibility” got to be a bit repetitive in Spiderman, but it is true.  The very power of the approach makes it dangerous tool, like a psychological plasma-cutter.

Why would I say it is dangerous?  Because it relies on the forces of small group interaction. Here are some classic references; some of them I cannot find on the free-web, and comments giving links to such would be appreciated.

Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment in 1971 showed the demand effect of the rôles assumed upon the behaviours of the students involved; it had to be terminated early due to the extreme behaviours elicited. Philip Zimbardo notes the similarity to what was created in Abu Ghraib: the outcome was predictable behaviour given the situation set up and his well-known work.

Kiesler, CA, & Kiesler, SB (1969). Conformity .  Boston:
AddisonWesley : conformity in behaviour and/or conformity in opinion, as affected by various factors (especially group attractiveness).

Schachter, S. (1951). Deviation, Rejection, and communication. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 46, 190-208. Stanley Schachter began the work on the ways in which groups handle “deviance” from the norm opinion, including changing patterns of communication as failed attempted conversion ends in isolation; extensions include devaluation of the dissenter’s ideas on all topics.

Solomon Asch studied the effects on behaviour of being a correctly dissenting minority of one, and of the effect of being in a small minority and then abandoned by confederates. He emphasised the frequency with which people sustained their correct responses (only 5% always complied), but other psychologists emphasised that only 25% always dissented. This is work which has been extended in depth and complexity – for example, examining the effects of an organisation’s rewards for particular decision-making approaches

Stanley Milgram, inspired by the trials of WW2 war criminals, studied the tendency of normal people to torture others to death at the command of an authority-figure. This is a recognised “classic study”; it has recently been echoed by a French documentary using a fake TV game show. According to Deutsche Welle radio, that experiment (No ethics clearance required: journalism not “research”.) found that 80% of “contestants” complied with the host and audience demand to give agonising electric shocks to a restrained victim.  (In other words, 1 in 5 were independent enough to refuse.) As usual in such experiments, participants reported feelings of “wanting to stop but not being able to”.

These are just a few of the clear findings in the area, and they involve the same forces invoked in the Social Constructivist approach.  Unfortunately, many of the key works are too old to appear on a standard web browser search, or only available by purchase – so students with access through their institutions should follow the trail before they lose access.

Students in Primary education are going through  key developmental stages, in which the emotional pressure of the group situation and the power of the authority figure combine with fragile internal world-constructs to leave the student very vulnerable.  As teachers, we have a duty to be aware of the power of these aspects of human behaviour, both for good and ill, and seek ways to make our students the minority who will argue their case – while being willing to change their minds when well-tested evidence shows they were wrong.

4 Responses to “We are playing with fire: Responsibility of a Social Constructivist teacher”

  1. Mark Pegrum Says:

    I think you’ve included some important reminders in this and your previous post. Although much of our knowledge is inherently social, and although there are great benefits to be derived from learning through social interaction, this should never be taken to mean that there is no place for individual thought, reflection, decisions, creativity and innovation. (Not forgetting, of course, that quiet reflection over a book still entails a mediated, rather one-way form of social interaction – pace postmodernists! – between author and reader.) In education we need to find ways of balancing the two.

  2. Psychology: Why I class it as a science. « Erasmid Says:

    […] situational responses are very common.  In a previous post  I gave some examples of famous response patterns,  but there is a huge range of psychological […]

  3. Say what? Beyond jargon to brain pain | Erasmid Says:

    […] better outside the oval?  Could there be influence arrows from objective to subjective (considering Social Constructivist theory) and from the action box to internal and external headings?  Why do I always have to see things as […]

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