Embracing the Learning Theory: Constructivism

Paul Main

A teacher's guide for embracing the Constructivism Learning Theory. Make active learning a classroom habit for your students.

What is Constructivism?

Constructivism is a learning theory that teachers use to help their learners understand. Constructivism is founded on the notion that individuals actively establish their understanding through experiences, rather than just passively accepting information. As individuals experience the world and reflect upon their experiences, they build on their learning and add new details into their pre-existing knowledge.

Teachers that understand the Constructivist Learning Theory believe that each student brings a unique experience to the classroom. Also, they acknowledge that a student's previous knowledge and background affects his ability to learn.

Teachers should not assume students know what they need to learn or how to do it. Instead, they must guide them in this process of discovery.If you're interested in creating a constructivist learning environment you might be interested in our block building learning methodology. We put the learning experience in the hands of the student and enable them to make the conceptual connections using specially designed building blocks. This problem based learning approach puts children in the driving seat as they make the decisions about the best way forward.

The pedagogy can be described as an active learning strategy that sits within the social and cognitive domain. The dialogue that is generated between the students creates a cooperative learning environment.


Principles of Constructivism

There are many principles and specific elements of constructivism that shape how this theory helps and correlates with the students. Following are different principles of the theory of Constructivism.

  • Knowledge is constructed upon pre-existing knowledge.
  • Everything we learn provides us with a better knowledge of other things in the future.
  • Learning is not a passive process, it is an active process in which one needs to engage in activities, reading and discussions. The learner takes an active role. 
  • Teachers use social interactions to help students learn and maintain their knowledge.
  • Knowledge is contextual, individuals learn from things they already know and believe from their surroundings.
  • Knowledge is a personal phenomenon because each person has a different experience and prior knowledge to share.
  • Mental experiences are essentially needed to retain knowledge
  • Motivation is crucial for learning because it allows students to use their preexisting knowledge for making connections for new knowledge.
  • Cognitive strategies such as the ones featured in the Universal Thinking Framework must be fully understood.

Discovery-based teaching techniques have often been associated with this domain of research. Discovery-based learning techniques have been criticised in the past, direct instruction approaches sit at the polar opposite of this debate.

At Structural Learning, we see a classroom as a knowledge community. This means that both the teacher and pupil play an active process in constructivist classroom activities. For example, the mental model approach that we have been researching using building blocks requires the teacher to direct the learning in different directions. This hands-on activity is led by the learner but the educator plays a critical role in guiding the child's thinking.

These types of constructivist teaching approaches builds learning agency. We don't see it as free play as there are usually clearly defined assessment criteria that need to be met. The adult guidance is used to move the learning in productive directions. The educators can use this authentic formative assessment activity to understand where the child is in their learning. These type of constructivist teaching techniques enable the educator to be responsive to the child's needs.

Using constructivism to achieve educational goals
Using constructivism to achieve educational goals


Types of Constructivism

There are various types of constructivism that teachers can utilize to bring success to the classroom.

Cognitive Constructivism

Cognitive constructivism is founded on the research and work of cognitive development in children by Jean Piaget. This theory has two important parts:

  • A developmental theory that explains how students build cognitive abilities.
  • A component of age/stage that predicts what a child can or cannot understand at a specific age.

Cognitive constructivism is based on the concept that learning must occur according to a student’s stage of cognitive development. Piaget is known for the identification of four primary stages of development i.e. sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational.

The order of these stages remains the same across cultures. Piaget believes that each child experiences these stages in the same order (but they may experience each stage at a different rate). These stages help learners to learn new knowledge by relating it with things they know already, allowing them to make changes in their previous knowledge to adapt to the new information.

Types of constructivism
Types of constructivism

Social Constructivism

The theory of Social Constructivism was proposed by post-revolutionary Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky was not against cognitivism, but he opposed the assumption that it was possible to remove social context from learning. Social constructivism addresses the collaborative aspect of learning.

Knowledge develops from how persons in a society interact with one another. Students depend upon others to help build their learning and building blocks. They need to have support to construct their knowledge. Social constructivism is closely related to cognitive constructivism with the additional element of peers and societal influence.

Radical Constructivism

Radical constructivism was proposed by von Glasersfeld, who provides a pragmatic approach to problems related to truth, reality and human understanding. In this theory, von Glasersfeld contended that we developmentally build our understanding and our concepts about the world.

Radical constructivism is relatively different from social and cognitive constructivism. It focuses on the notion that students and the knowledge they construct do not tell things that are real, only help people to live and work in their environment. The basic idea is that knowledge is developed, not discovered. The stuff we discuss on the table is just interpretations of knowledge, which makes it difficult for us to know the truth.


Constructivism in a Classroom

It is essential to understand how educators can apply constructivism in a classroom to build a unique learning environment for learners. In constructivist classrooms, the teachers establish a collaborative environment in which students show active participation in their learning.

Teachers need to act more as facilitators of learning. They must understand the preexisting knowledge of the students and, then they must incorporate new knowledge within the preexisting knowledge of the students. Teachers may also adjust their teaching according to the student's level of understanding.

Our collaborative learning method that uses the learning tool Writers Block transforms academic tasks into hands-on activities. These collaborative learning methods creates climates of active learning. The children are organising information and making the conceptual connections that sit at the heart of the constructivist learning environment. Unlike filling out a worksheet, the building process is more of a learning journey.

Constructivism in action
Constructivism in action

Children are free to connect and reconnect the blocks and make as many conceptual connections as they like. The process can be directed as much as the educator likes. At one end of the spectrum, a completely free session would promote discovery learning.

If the material is complex, a more directed approach might be suitable. This approach to learning not only enables an individual learner to understand curriculum material but it also acts as a vehicle for intellectual development. The conversations and reasoning promotes human development.

This approach to promoting critical thinking and communication can be used across subjects and year groups. Whether a learner is in a language class or a maths class, they are engaged in the construction of knowledge. If a child has a lack of background knowledge that other learners within the group can serve as a learning resource.

That is to say, the groups acquisition of knowledge is greater than the sum of its parts. Neil Mercer calls this concept 'Inter-thinking'. Another by product of these social activities is the development of communication skills.


Role of a Teacher in a Constructivist Classroom

The primary role of a teacher is to build a collaborative problem-solving environment in which learners show active participation in their learning process. From this viewpoint, an educator acts as a facilitator of learning instead of a teacher. The educator ensures he/she knows about the students' preexisting knowledge, and plans the teaching to apply this knowledge and then build on it.

Scaffolding is a crucial aspect of effective teaching, by which the adult frequently modifies the level of support according to the students' level of performance. In the classroom, scaffolding may include modelling an ability, providing cues or hints, and adapting activity or material.


Pedagogical Objectives of Constructivist Learning Environment

Following are the pedagogical objectives of constructivist classrooms:

  • To offer experience alongside the knowledge construction process (learners decide how they will learn).
  • To offer experience in multiple dimensions (trying out alternative solutions).
  • To encourage learning in realistic contexts (factual tasks).
  • To encourage students' choice and ownership in the learning process (learning is student-centred).
  • To include social experience in learning (collaboration).
  • To incorporate various methods of representation (text, audio, video etc.)
  • To provide an understanding of the knowledge construction process (metacognition, reflection ).
  • The minimal guidance associated with the constructivist learning theory goes against the theory of direct instruction which has a lot of evidence to support it. Teaching methods such as discovery based teaching do not have as much empirical evidence to support them.
  • The success of such teaching techniques relies on a successful collaboration among learners. If a learner is not willing to take a central role and collaborate with others then the strategy might not work.

Involve learners in the knowledge construction process with the Universal Thinking Framework
Involve learners in the knowledge construction process with the Universal Thinking Framework


The success of a Constructivist Classroom

The success of a Constructivist classroom depends upon the following four key areas:

  • Teachers act as a facilitator or guide;
  • Small numbers of students in learning groups;
  • Shared knowledge between educators and students;
  • Sharing of authority between students and teachers.

In addition, you might want to think about using a mental representation such as Writer's Block to support the active construction of knowledge. 

Constructivist classrooms are usually very different from other types of classrooms. Constructivist classrooms pay attention to students interests and interactive learning. They add to students' pre-existing knowledge and are student-centred. In constructive classrooms, teachers interact with students to guide them to build their knowledge, they encourage negotiation about what students need to achieve success and students mostly work in groups.


Main Strengths of Constructivism Learning Theory

A constructivist approach to education views learners as active, competent, capable, and powerful. It tends to motivate learners to learn by ‘doing’, which leads to memory retention, critical thinking and engagement. Following are the main benefits of using Constructivism Learning Theory in a classroom.

  • Students are viewed as able learners and are motivated to apply independent, critical and creative thinking. This can bring more enjoyment to the learning process. 
  • Teachers acknowledge that learners require differentiated and targeted lessons according to their cognitive status.
  • Through Piaget’s stages, fresh and fill-in teachers can quickly guess a student’s ability level based on his age.
  • Developing understanding is often treated as a child-led learning journey. 
  • Students mostly find constructivist learning approaches to be more exciting and enjoyable as they learn by doing rather than memorizing or sitting. The learning experience is often more engaging.  

Criticism of the Constructivism Learning Theory

The Constructivist Learning Theory is mainly criticized for its lack of structure. An individual learner might need highly organized and structured learning environments to prosper, and constructivist learning is mostly related to a more laid-back strategy to help students engage in their learning.

Constructivist classrooms place more value on student progress, rather than grading which may result in students falling behind and without standardized grading it becomes difficult for the teachers to know which students are struggling.