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Volume 9, Number 6: February 27, 2003

Learning Objects in a Constructivist Curriculum

by William Washabaugh,
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


Educators might reasonably begin their work by asking what they hope to achieve. What will their lessons offer to students? How will students develop as a result of their learning experiences? Such questions are important to ask at all levels, whether in first grade classes or in graduate seminars.

It is clear that in many cases the answer will be knowledge. That is, teaching aims to enable students to acquire facts, remember dates, and repeat propositions. Along these lines, teachers are eager to make sure that students know that two times two equals four and that the French Revolution occurred in 1789.

However, in other cases, knowledge is not enough. Understanding is the goal. The term understanding is used here to mean the flexible response that students make to the novel issues and situations they confront. As such, understanding is not a matter of a knowledge-object possessed. Rather it is a matter of creative, effective, and wise practices that students orchestrate in the wake of a learning experience and in response to a problem that they identify. Students demonstrate understanding when they identify a problem, appreciate the components of the problem, handle the connections between the components, deal with consequences, and anticipate implications. As David N. Perkins has argued:

What is understanding? One answer…is simple but rich with implications. In a phrase, understanding is the ability to think and act flexibly with what one knows. To put it another way, an understanding of a topic is a "flexible performance capability" with emphasis on the flexibility. In keeping with this, learning for understanding is like learning a flexible performance--more like learning to improvise jazz or hold a good conversation or rock climb than learning the multiplication table or the dates of the presidents or that F= MA. Learning facts can be a crucial backdrop to learning for understanding, but learning facts is not learning for understanding (1998).

A variety of Learning Objects (LOs) have been developed to foster knowledge, but rather few to develop understanding. It is the latter, LOs for understanding, that are discussed here.

For undergraduate courses in cultural anthropology and for high school courses in social science and literature, LOs for understanding are particularly valuable but lamentably scarce. Such learning objects will help students to discern the components of social life and to recognize the implications of connected conditions and conjoined forces. While it is undeniably important for students to know, say, the facts about conflict and hostilities in societies such as the Yanomamo, it is also important for students to know how conflictual situations arise and in what ways such situations are associated with conditions that, at first glance, might seem unrelated to conflict and hostility. Likewise, it is important for students to understand how our own ability to discern all these components of conflict is shaped by our own observational practices. These lines of inquiry suggest the shape of the understanding that students should be developing.

The challenges to be faced in creating such LOs for understanding are multiple. First, LOs should be enthralling, interactive, and centered more on the students' activities than on teacher's knowledge. By enthralling, I mean that they should engage students, attracting them and giving them opportunities to make choices and undertake actions. As such, these LOs should have much in common with computer games. Toward this end, I have posted a series of exercises, to engage anthropology undergraduates, focusing their thoughts and choices on visual problems and observational challenges. Some of these exercises challenge students to make choices. Each choice entails consequences that must then be handled (Stare, Glance, See, Analyze). Others invite them to roam about in search of hints or clues to questions that are posed (Discern, Know, Gaze, Reflect). Both tactics assume that students' understanding is a function of their performance. Contemplation and concentration, whatever their virtues, are mental operations and are therefore not in themselves sufficient for the development of understanding.

Secondly, LOs for understanding should be socially interactive. They should have a dialogical, collaborative component. While they should be as attractive as computer games, they should also make room for teamwork. The rationale for teamwork is that understanding arises in and through performance. In this vein, students' dialogical, argumentative performances are especially significant.

We are currently experimenting with online interactive exercises that are handled by small teams of students (three or four and no more than five). Each team develops responses, for example, to the exercise entitled "Gaze." Each posts its response to the visual exercise along with descriptions of the debates they had on the way to posting the response. After all teams have posted their responses, each assesses its own dialogical process in the light of the presentations offered by other teams.

These same team-based responses are being used in conjunction with digitized excerpts of feature films in a course on Anthropology and Popular Culture. Significant two-minute clips, captured (using Broadway Pro) from about 50 movies, are distributed to teams on two CD-ROM discs. Each team selects a clip that deals with a major course theme and then explains and justifies its selection.


The opportunity to cultivate learning through the use of digital learning objects is being pursued with the aim of enhancing understanding as well as inculcating knowledge. In anthropology courses at UWM, we are creating game-like exercises handled by teams of students that develop their ability to discern the relevant dimensions of problematic situations and to respond appropriately. The exercises being developed in undergraduate courses such as Music and Nationalism and Museums, and Popular Culture serve as models for similar learning objects designed for students in secondary education.


Downes, Stephen. "Learning Objects: Resources For Distance Education Worldwide." International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, July 2001. Online at

Gifford, Bernard R. and Noel D. Enyedy. "Activity Centered Design: Towards a Theoretical Framework for CSCL." In Proceedings of the Computer Support for Collaborative Learning (CSCL) 1999 Conference, ed. C. Hoadley & J. Roschelle. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Online at

Perkins, David. "What is Understanding?" In Teaching for Understanding: Linking Research with Practice, ed. Martha Stone Wiske, 39-58. Jossey-Bass, 1998.

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