CL and PCL compared

In order to give a concise feature-by-feature juxtaposition of central issues in constructivist and person-centered learning, I borrow Elizabeth Murphy’s (1997) checklist and transform it to a two column table (see Table 1). When considering the individual entries, readers will find several closely connected notions, like “multiple perspectives” and “multiple realities” or “student-directed goals” and “student/person-centered goals”. Such conceptual similarities point to the close acquaintance of basic notions and are based on respecting the uniqueness of each person in constructivism as well as in person-centered learning. The emphasis, however, appears to be different: It is the learner‘s knowledge construction that comes first in constructivism. In the Person-Centerd Approach, the learner‘s development as a whole person with feelings and meanings is primary, guided by a directional, selective tendency towards enhancement, inherent within each organism.

While a feature-by-feature discussion of the 18 indicators is outside the scope of this paper, we pick the major differences that follow from the juxtaposition of the features listed in Table 1 and indicate their implications for educational practice. Table 1 reveals some subtle but essentially different orientations. The constructivist tradition focuses on the cognitive dimension, e.g. on “knowledge construction”, “knowledge cooperation”, “problem solving”. In the Person-Centered Approach “interpersonal relationship” and “whole person learning”, including knowledge, skills and attitudes, feelings and intuitions are primary. Also, constructivist educators tend more to guide learners and to „serve in the role of guides, monitors, coaches, tutors and facilitators“ (Murphy, 1997), selecting authentic problems and emphasizing problem-solving and higher-order thinking skills. Person-centered educators clearly guide less. Most typically, they accompany their students and facilitate their learning most of the time. They trust that learners will be self-directing, motivated by their inherent, directional, actualizing tendency (Prop. IV). Rather than acting in roles, person-centered facilitators, first of all, provide an interpersonal relationship based on realnessi, respect and deep understanding in which significant learning is most likely to occur (Rogers, 1961, 1983). Person-centered facilitators tend to express their feelings and meanings and by that encourage students to become more expressive of themselves, closer to their ideal. They offer a resourceful environment which learners may use in ways that learners consider most effective and encourage learners to draw upon any personal and material resources that facilitators provide and equally learners organize by themselves.

Constructivist learningPerson-centered learning
Multiple perspectivesMultiple realities (Prop. I, II)
Student-directed goalsStudent/person-centered goals (Prop. V, VI)
Teachers as coaches“Teachers” as facilitators (Prop. IV, IX)
MetacognitionSignificant, whole-person learning (Prop. III)
Learner controlDemocracy, empowerment of learners
Authentic activities & contextsAuthentic persons, tasks, & contexts
Primary sources of dataInterpersonal presence of facilitator
Knowledge constructionDevelopment of meaning for deep understanding
Knowledge collaborationInterpersonal collaboration via relationship
Previous knowledge constructionsIntegration of experience into self structure (“symbolization”) based on its relationship to self-structure (Prop. XI)
Problem solvingSelf-organized learning (Prop. IV, V)
Consideration of errorsHonest, open and respectful feedback
ExplorationSelf-exploration, assimilation, reflection
Apprenticeship learningExperiential learning, facilitation (Prop. IV)
Conceptual interrelatednessInterrelatedness of meanings and feelings
Alternative viewpointsSelf expression, active listening, encounter
ScaffoldingEmpathic understanding, respect, realness
Authentic assessmentAssessment part of learning, self-assessment

Table 1: Indicators of constructivist (left column) and person-centered (right column) learning. The constructivist features are derived from the Constructivism Checklist (Murphy, 1997).

So what are the consequences of these differences for higher education practice? Typically, educators from the constructivist tradition carefully structure and design their courses in advance, taking into account the students’ needs and interests. They select authentic, real world problems and appropriate activities and tools fostering metacognition and individual as well as social knowledge construction. Educators from the person-centered orientation typically, fist of all establish and cultivate constructive interpersonal relationships with and among learners. Such relationships tend to provide the climate in which learning happens and grows, nurtured by various personal and material resources. Person-centered facilitators give students as much freedom to learn as possible with sharing responsibility for their learning. They transparently communicate the requirements that have to be met as well as the free spaces that are open to be filled in a self-organizing way. Students co-determine how they want to learn and to be assessed, often they are expected to self-organize and self-evaluate their learning. The course tends to form itself continually based on the here-and-now experiences and their open and respectful expression. The experience can be chaotic at times, in particular, if students are not used to getting much freedom. Nevertheless, disturbances tend astonishingly regularly to be overcome as the process continues and students tend to grow as persons along with acquiring knowledge and forming a community, often with long lasting contacts. ((Barrett-Lennard, 2005; Rogers, 1983). 

Having explored the similarities and differences between constructivist and person-centered traditions, the question arises: Can constructivist and person-centered directions be combined? In my view they indeed can be, and in practice often are integrated – in particular, if a constructivist coach is congruent, acceptant, and endeavors to deeply understand students. In this case, he or she will be particularly attuned to students’ needs arising in the here and now. From the perspective of the person-centered facilitator, in an integrated approach he or she will suggest activities and exercises which he/she considers worthwhile while always being highly interpersonally present to students and letting them have the final choice of engaging in some activity or proposing self-initiated alternatives.