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[A1] Expressive Constructivism

This model was developed to explain how learning works dynamically in terms of the cognitive activities of expression (what you do to communicate an idea) and evaluation (deciding if the idea is 'right').

A basis for a pragmatic learning theory

The iterative process of production of expressions and their evaluation (described in detail below), I contend, is a model of learning that helps the educational designer make effective decisions. This is achieved by examining their designs using technology to consider how they support either, or both, expression and evaluation. This way of looking at learning was first inspired by the analysis of a single interaction (Millwood and Riley 1988), after (Norman 1983b), extended by a reduction of the four stage cycle (Kolb 1984) and supported by the radical constructivist perspective (von Glaserfeld 1995).

Von Glaserfeld viewed:

Knowledge as mental representation:
1a. Knowledge is not passively received either through the senses or by way of communication;
1b. Knowledge is actively built up by the cognising subject;
2a. The function of cognition is adaptive, in the biological sense of the term, tending towards fit or viability;
2b Cognition serves the subject’s organization of the experiential world, not the discovery of an objective ontological reality.
(von Glaserfeld 1995, 51)

The expressive constructivist model holds that expressions are made continuously as an innate activity of the human condition - as if there were an internal 'fountain' of mental and physical expressiveness. Sometimes such expression is driven by internal motivation and at other times by external stimuli and contexts including social situations, and it can even be argued that it encompasses the imaginative, information-processing basis of perception, which far from being a passive act, can be seen to be a constructivist response in the mind to the raw data arriving at retina, eardrum, inner ear, skin, muscle, mouth and nose (Marr 1982, 329-332).

Similarly the evaluation question, 'is it right?', is frequently experienced (but not necessarily linguistically) as we wonder whether we have understood or articulated well and thus struggle for clearer and better expressions.

Validity and reliability for the practitioner

As a designer, this model has supported my practice by focussing my attention on how to make expression more creative and evaluation more powerful, and has been refined through regular exposure in conference settings. Laurillard's concept of "learning through production" is closely related and it is interesting that Laurillard contends "that this has not been thoroughly researched" (Laurillard 2012, 57). So the model of expressive constructivism relies on the literature cited above and my own experiences and observations in practice for its limited validity and reliability. Nevertheless I have found the analysis to work, and have observed and filmed the expression/evaluation loop in practice, as evidenced in these films transcribed below of children playing at the computer together and engaging in exploratory talk as defined by Wegerif and Mercer (1997):

Figure 6: An example of expression and evaluation in conversation

In this example (Figure 6), Sasha is expressing his thinking about the way the game works explicitly using natural language to his brothers. After several turns through the loop re-expressing on the basis of his own evaluation listening to his own words (although seeking the others' evaluation), eventually his brother evaluates his words.

Patrick - I'll die if I go down there!
Sasha - Like getting damaged. Getting all the way damaged do you mean? Getting damaged.
Sasha - Do you know when you die? You die when you get all damaged, is what it means, when it all gets red or the green turns into red.
Sasha - The red is damage and the green isn't damage. Do you understand?
Sasha - When you get all damaged then you die, is that right Patrick?
Patrick - Yes, yes that's right.





Figure 7: An example of meta-level learning in conversation

In this second example (Figure 7), Sasha explains how he came to know about the game by repeatedly playing a section. This simple meta-level learning shows that he knows something more than the game, that he is aware of his own processes of learning.

Sasha - That's right, when you get down there you can just go from there and then straight down to there without a single damage.
Sasha - And do you know how I know that?
Sasha - Because I tried it several times - that's how I know.
Patrick - That's very good, thanks Sasha!


Figure 8: An example of expression, constrained by programming, and evaluation by computer performance

In this third example (Figure 8), Sasha uses the computer (a small robot) to evaluate his expression of the algorithm for making a zig-zag path like 'steps'. He is constrained to simple statements - move forward, turn left 90˚, turn right and start. He enters the algorithm into the robot and then sits back to watch its execution. If there is a mistake in his expression, it will be indicated by unexpected behaviour by the robot, thus offering a clue to the correctness of his algorithm and mental model. The opportunity to repeat this experience, and make sense of his ideas without interpersonal judgement can provide a useful learning opportunity and also a platform for further engagement with peers or adults.

Types of Expression and Evaluation

In tables 11, figure 9 and table 12, the following types of expressions and evaluations are proposed: internal, natural and formal, each overlapping and extending the other:

Table 11: Types of Expression

Internal expressionNatural expressionFormal expression

Thinking a thought in response to listening, watching or reading.

This kind of expression is thought - made, frequently, but not exclusively, in the form of internal linguistic statements and arguments. Other forms include the imagination of bodily acts, the visualisation of scenes statically and dynamically or the feeling of moods.

Speaking, playing, performing or doing.

These expressions are made outwardly and form part of a communicative act to others (or possibly to oneself, if thinking or acting 'aloud'). There is an extra demand on expression to be coherent, meaningful and effective - some preparation in thought is demanded and in this sense, natural expressions overlay internal expressions, but despite 'natural' linguistic forms, something of the richness of thought may be lost in articulation.


Writing, drawing, proving, planning or computing.

Formal expressions use visual symbols, formalisms, syntaxes and grammars whether in written language, diagrammatic convention, logical argumentation or in programming vocabulary. There is a further demand placed on the individual making such expressions, that of complying with the formalism. As before, formal expressions overlay the internal and natural expressions and at times may be hard to distinguish.


Figure 9: The expression / evaluation loop

As expressions are made, they are evaluated in order to decide of they were 'right':

Table 12: Types of evaluation

Internal evaluationNatural evaluationFormal evaluation

Does it make sense to me?

This is carried out in the mind, considering the expression's quality through processes of recalling memories, analysis and enacting mental models. A major part of this internal evaluation is the imagined response of others to the expression or the applied logic of formal systems, thus anticipating the natural and formal evaluations.

Do other people understand me?

In addition to one's own thoughts an expression may have a response from another, a group or an audience. In the best cases new challenges may be encountered or suggestions for improvement offered. Moral support for continuing the cycle is also possible in natural evaluation.


Does the computer do what I expected?

If the expression has been articulated using formal systems, an evaluation can be carried out if the expression is 'executable' - enacted by computer in the most extreme case or performed by other people in the less formal case of recipe, musical composition or play script.

Whichever kind of evaluations are employed, new expressions are generated - often with improvements in areas identified by evaluation -  and the cycle continued until satisfaction or distraction intervenes. It is my belief that this cycle leads to the improvement of mental models, whether they are of the simplest of factual relationships or the richest of human behavioural situations.

The expression / evaluation model, which I have termed Expressive Constructivism, has been the basis for decision making and a source of directions for improvement in design practice to consider how technology can enhance learning since 1986.

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"It wasn’t so much a question of whether she had written the truth about herself, or told the truth, or believed that what she wrote and said was true, or even whether they were true things in themselves; the important thing seemed to me that the person who wrote and spoke was admirable, living and complete."  ― The Secret Scripture, Sebastian Barry, 2008