The constructivist theory is based around the idea that learners are active participants in their learning journey; knowledge is constructed based on experiences. As events occur, each person reflects on their experience and incorporates the new ideas with their prior knowledge. Learners develop schemas to organize acquired knowledge. This model was entrenched in learning theories by Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, Gagne, and Bruner.
See also: Cognitive Apprenticeship
The theory of constructivist learning is vital to understanding how students learn. The idea that students actively construct knowledge is central to constructivism. Students add (or build) their new experiences on top of their current foundation of understanding. As stated by Woolfolk (1993) “learning is active mental work, not passive reception of teaching”.
As an educator, it is important to understand the theory of constructivist learning. Each student that enters your classroom has a unique perspective on life that has been created by their unique experiences. This will impact their learning. If the basis of the constructivist theory states that students construct new knowledge on what they have already had, the entry point of their learning journey is of utmost importance. Learning theories are as valuable as credentials to educators; it is important to understand what will affect the learning journey of your students.
The theory of constructivism has many elements. These principles outline the theory as a whole and how they affect the learning of the students. The main points are listed below:
- Knowledge is constructed. Every student begins the learning journey with some preexisting knowledge and then continues to build their understanding on top of that. They will select which pieces of the experience to add, making everyone’s knowledge unique.
- Learning is a social activity. Interacting with others is vital to constructing knowledge. Group work, discussions, conversations, and interactions are all important to creating understanding. When we reflect on our past experiences, we can see how our relationship with others is directly connected to the information learned.
- Learning is an active process. Students must actively engage in discussions and activities in order to construct knowledge. It is not possible for students to take on a passive role and retain information. In order to build meaningful ideas, there must be a sensory response.
- Learning is contextual. Isolation is not the best way to retain information. We learn by forging connections between what we believe and the information we have already. Learning also occurs in the situation within the context of our lives, or alongside the rest of our understanding. We reflect on our lives and classify the new information as it fits into our current perspective.
- People learn to learn, as they learn. As each student moves through the learning journey, they get better at selecting and organizing information. They are able to better classify ideas and create more meaningful systems of thought. They also begin to recognize that they are learning multiple ideas simultaneously, for example, if they are writing an essay on historical events, they are also learning elements of written grammar. If they are learning about important dates, they are also learning how to chronologically organize important information.
- Learning exists in the mind. Hands-on activities and physical experience are not enough to retain knowledge. Active engagement and reflection are critical to the learning journey. In order to develop a thorough understanding, students must experience activities mentally as well.
- Knowledge is personal. Because every person’s perspective is unique, so will be the knowledge gained. Every individual comes into the learning activity with their own experiences and will take away different things as well. The theory of constructivist learning is based entirely around each individual’s own perspective and experiences.
- Motivation is key to learning. Similar to active participation, motivation is key to making connections and creating understanding. Students cannot learn if they are unwilling to reflect on preexisting knowledge and activate their thought process. It is crucial that educators work to motivate their students to engage in the learning journey.
Constructivism in Education
It is not enough to simply know the theory of constructivist learning. Educators must also know how to implement it in their classrooms. Their goal is to create a welcoming environment that promotes active engagement in learning. In the theory of constructivist learning, instructors act as facilitators. They must promote collaboration and adjust their lessons based on the prior level of understanding of the class. Once they identify students’ existing knowledge, instructors must work to grow the understanding in those areas.
There are four key areas that are crucial to the success of a constructivist classroom:
- The instructor takes on the role of a facilitator instead of a director.
- There are equal authority and responsibility between the students and the instructor.
- Learning occurs in small groups.
- Knowledge is shared between both the students and the instructor.
These four areas must be addressed in order for the constructivist classroom to be successful. As you can see, it differs greatly from the traditional classroom. Constructivist classrooms are more student-centered and the learning revolves around their interests and questions. Teachers guide learning by implementing group activities, creating collaborative dialogue, and facilitating interactive experiences. Students build on their prior knowledge and construct new understanding based on the lessons taught. Dialogue and negotiation are also key components to successful learning.
In the table below, you can see how the constructivist classroom compares to the traditional classroom. Each style has its own benefits and consequences.
|Pursues student interests and questions
|Follows a strict curriculum
|Uses manipulative and primary materials
|Textbooks and workbooks are primary materials
|Learning is based on big ideas with exploration into smaller parts
|Learning emphasizes skills and curriculum is taught in parts to achieve the whole idea
|Instructor is responsible for guided and interacting with students; negotiator role
|Instructor is responsible for directing learning; authoritative role
|Instructors assist students in creating knowledge with dialogue
|Instructors communicate information and students receive knowledge
|Students build knowledge on prior understanding through interactions
|Students acquire knowledge through repetitive practice
|Knowledge is continuously evolving with student understanding
|Knowledge is acquired, then remains stagnant
|Process is important, therefore evaluations may include observation, discussion, and student work
|Tests and evaluations demonstrate student understanding
|Learning activities occur mostly in groups
|Learning activities are mostly independent
When implementing the constructivist theory in the classroom, lessons must include the following components:
- Eliciting prior knowledge. As new understanding is constructed on preexisting knowledge, the instructor must first activate prior knowledge. This can be done with collaborative activities, relaxed discussions, or pre-tests.
- Creating cognitive dissonance. Knowledge is built when new ideas are presented and activities are just challenging enough for students. “Just right problems” force students to reevaluate the schemas in their mind and organize new solutions.
- Applying knowledge with feedback. The instructor’s role is to encourage students and provide feedback. This may be seen in the form of quizzes, presentations, or discussions in the classroom. The goal of applying feedback should be to encourage even more growth and challenge knowledge of the new situation.
- Reflecting on learning. Students should be offered the opportunity to reflect on their understanding and demonstrate their learning. This could be in the form of an essay, a presentation, or even the responsibility of sharing their knowledge with another student.
Examples of constructivist classroom activities
- Reciprocal teaching/learning: a group of 2 or more students work together and teach one another.
- Inquiry-based learning: students create their own questions and seek to solve them through research and observations. After underlining the arguments for their response, they make connections between their prior knowledge and the information discovered through their research. Students conclude by identifying possible gaps and developing further questions for the next project.
- Problem-based learning: similar to inquiry-based learning, except focuses on problems in the real world. Students work in groups to research possible solutions and gain valuable skills by working together. Seeking evidence, making connections, and drawing conclusions as a team help students develop communication and collaborative skills while solving real-world issues.
- Cooperative learning: small group activity with one key difference – interdependence. While most constructivist activities rely on group learning, cooperative activities are where group members are dependent on others to achieve solutions. There is no division of tasks in cooperative learning; instead, group members rely on the knowledge of others to further their own understanding.
Woolfolk, A. E. (1993). Educational psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.