In recent research, self-directed learning by students has offered serious challenges to the traditional learning structure whereby students listen to teachers and take notes and follow a structured plan by their teacher (Mascolo & Fischer, 2004). Advocates of self-directed learning commonly develop from the constructivist ideal that sustains that learners construct their understandings through their actions and experiences of/in the world. Self-directed learning is seen as the new idea as to academic achievement and has spawned a growing interest in the use of a variety of different, effective learning methods within schools. Methods such as collaborative learning, problem based learning, experimental learning and a variety of other pedagogical methods are seen as effective methods within student centred learning. Self-directed learning is often defined in contradiction to traditional teaching methods, the idea that students must be active in the construction of knowledge is often understood to imply a weakening role for the teacher within the learning process (Mascolo & Fischer, 2004).
Social Constructivist Principles
In the 1930’s, Russian psychologist Vygotsky described the theories that circled social constructivism. Vygotsky theorized that children’s learning begins in formal learning situations (Vygotsky, 1978). Additionally, Vygotsky believed that the way humans learn is fashioned within a social setting. Until Vygotsky, some learning theories had only focused on the individual and had not taken into consideration the role of other in the learning process (Wiggins, 2011). Vygotsky’s theory needs an active involvement by the teacher, specifically one who is able to generate a context for learning in which students can become engaged in interesting activities that stimulate learning. Social constructivist teachers push students to work with their peers while fully taking into account issues and questions at hand. Learners are supported and advised while they confront captivating, fascinating and satisfying real life challenges. Consequently, teachers aid the student’s cognitive development (Wiggins, 2011).
To summarize the constructivist viewpoint, children learn from more knowledgeable others, socialization is not dependent on teachers alone, but also on parents, families, friends and peers, whom all contribute to the socialization of the learner(…). Children learn in an interactive social relationship and then internalize what they learn from that relationship until they are able to function independently. This is known as the “zone of proximal development” (Wiggins, 2011). Vygotsky (1978) described this zone as:
The distance between the actual development 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)
The ‘zone of proximal development’ provides an instrument to support educators in understanding the internal course of the child’s development. The task of the teacher in this process is described as “scaffolding”. The process involves the learner and the teacher working together. The learner completes the task that they are able to perform in a capable manner. The teacher supports the child by offering scaffolding guidance which is the procedure of observing the students current level of work and then supporting the movement to the next. The teacher must determine when scaffolding is required and when to progressively remove the supports, a technique known as “fading”, so the learner can function independently (Wiggins, 2011).
Brooks and Brooks (1999) suggested that educators need to urge students to formulate their own questions and then research the answer. Harris and Alexander (1998) suggests that the ever expanding diversity in today’s schools, combined with the higher values expected from all students, are factors that make it vital to provide an “integrated, constructivist approach that does not fail our students” (p. 115).