To be honest, when I read the word constructionism, I was thinking about the word constructivism. In fact they are related. This Changing Minds website page gives a very concise definition of both. In fact, Piaget introduced constructivism and his student, Seymour Papert, introduced constructionism.
I like the subtle difference between the two terms. Constructivism is more cognitive, and constructionism is more physical. Knowing this new information, I can now answer the essential question that constructionism is not necessarily a new theory in education. It just builds onto the constructivism theory.
Chapter 1 of Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom is titled An Insanely Brief and Incomplete History of Making. It is a great intro to the beginnings of these theories. I do believe that one powerful method of learning is to make constructions. Physical models of concepts are great resources to understanding a wide variety of content. Once you break down ideas into components, you can get a firm grasp of understanding the concepts being learned.
I remember my first experience writing code for a Radio Shack TRS-80 back in high school. My project was to create a rudimentary shooting game that used keyboard keys as controllers of a cannon and the space bar key as the fire button. The idea was to fire a cannon at a moving target at the top of the monitor. It was an exciting project to work on because of the complexity of the code writing, but at the same time the simplistic nature of the game. I was able to write the code to move the cannon up and down with key strokes, and fire with the space bar, which instantaneously shot a “laser” at the target. When the laser hit the target, I wrote code to have the target explode in a radial fashion. It was exciting and addicting! I created a game that ran my code, and it worked. This was one project from a handful that I worked on that year.
Alan Kay is quoted as saying “Technology is anything that wasn’t there when you were born.” If this is the case, how can we prepare students for the workplace in the 2020s? Well, I believe there is a horizon that is seen, but not yet attained. We can prepare students to understand the evolution of technology and the need to learn as we go. And that means tinkering. I can admit that when I was a child, the smartphone was not even a planned electronic device for consumer use, but today, I can navigate with the best of them in the use of a smartphone. The key is understanding the functions and just practice!
Alan Kay gives, I believe a powerful TED Talk here, and at around 9:23 into the video, he describes a kindergarten lesson that a teacher had students work on that has a shocking result after students seemed to be playing with tiles. Then describes other hands on projects that students can work on and learn powerful concepts and ideas. Sadly, the end of his talk pretty much describes the state of education that, I think, permeates is that we have the ideas, materials, and technology, but lack the mentoring to utilize them.