What is the constructivist learning theory, and how can teachers embrace this philosophy in their classrooms?
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.
Cognitive development is a key aspect of constructivism. This theory emphasizes the importance of learners actively engaging with new information and building upon their existing knowledge. Through this process, learners can develop critical thinking skills and problem-solving abilities.
Teachers who embrace constructivism encourage their students to explore and question the world around them, rather than simply memorizing facts and figures. By fostering an environment of active learning and discovery, constructivism helps learners develop a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the world.
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.
One of the key principles of Constructivism is that learners create knowledge and understanding of the world through external activities such as explorations, experiences, and interactions. This means that Cognitive Development is a central part of Constructivism as learning actively takes place in the environment instead of in isolation. This also entails guided instruction geared towards helping students reach their own conclusions about how the world works.
Another key principle of the Constructivist theory is that knowledge is “constructed” through active experience. This means that learners must go beyond simply absorbing facts and data, but instead interact with the materials to make personal interpretations and connections. By doing so, they build their own understanding of the world around them and become more engaged in the learning process.
Constructivism also stresses the importance of creating a supportive learning environment. This means that it's important to facilitate an engaging, interactive experience for your students or learners. This could involve providing opportunities for hands-on experimentation, encouraging student collaboration and dialogue, or allowing them to have ownership over their own learning experience.
- 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.
Types of Constructivism
There are various types of constructivism that teachers can utilize to bring success to the classroom.
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.
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 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 the 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.
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.
Constructivist theories of learning have increasingly gained attention in the field of education due to its focus on making students active participants in their own learning process. This approach is particularly useful for students with special educational needs who require a more individualized approach to learning. A constructivist approach provides students with an opportunity to learn at their own pace and in a manner that is most conducive to their personal learning styles.
Using inquiry-based learning and learning activities that are designed to be cognitively engaging, students with special educational needs can develop their abilities to process external stimuli in a manner that is most effective for them. A social constructivist model places emphasis on creating a learning environment that is social in nature, providing opportunities for students to collaborate and engage in group work. This approach helps to foster a sense of community within the classroom, allowing students to learn from each other and to develop a deeper understanding of the concepts being taught.
By embracing a constructivist learning environment, students with special educational needs can make significant strides in their educational growth. This approach allows students to actively engage in the learning process and take ownership of their own learning. As such, this approach is particularly effective for those students who may be struggling with traditional educational models. Incorporating constructivist theories into educational theory can be particularly effective in creating a truly inclusive classroom environment.
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.
In a constructivist classroom, the teacher's role is to act as a facilitator or guide rather than a lecturer or dispenser of information. The teacher's primary responsibility is to create a learning environment that encourages students to construct their own knowledge through exploration and inquiry.
This involves providing scaffolding, which can take the form of modelling an ability, providing cues or hints, and adapting activity or material to meet the needs of individual students. T
The teacher also encourages students to collaborate with one another, share their ideas, and reflect on their learning experiences. By doing so, the teacher helps students develop critical thinking skills, problem-solving abilities, and a deeper understanding of the subject matter.
Another important role of the teacher in a constructivist classroom is to facilitate the zone of proximal development (ZPD) for each student. This means that the teacher helps students work on tasks that are just beyond their current level of understanding, but still within their reach with guidance and support. By doing so, students are able to stretch their abilities and develop new skills, while feeling challenged and engaged in the learning process. The teacher may use a variety of techniques to facilitate the ZPD, such as scaffolding, modeling, and providing feedback.
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.
Developing 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.
Key Strengths of the 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.
One of the key figures in the development of constructivism is John Dewey, who believed that education should be centered around the learner and their experiences. Dewey believed that learning should be interactive and that students should be encouraged to explore and discover new information on their own. This approach to education is aligned with constructivism, which emphasizes the active role of the learner in the learning process. By incorporating the principles of constructivism and the ideas of John Dewey into the classroom, educators can create an environment that fosters critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity.
Inquiry-Based Learning: A Constructivist Approach
Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) serves as a powerful constructivist teaching technique, drawing inspiration from both Piaget's and Vygotsky's cognitive learning theories. This instructional strategy emphasizes the role of cognitive structures and the knowledge construction process, creating an approach to teaching that fosters active learning and encourages students to take ownership of their educational journey.
At the heart of IBL lies the belief that interaction in classroom cultures plays a crucial role in promoting understanding and developing cognitive skills. By engaging students in problem-solving, questioning, and exploration, teachers can create a collaborative environment where the sharing of knowledge happens organically.
This approach not only supports the development of critical thinking skills but also aligns with the cognitive apprenticeship model, in which students learn from their peers and mentors through observation, imitation, and reflection.
Incorporating IBL into classroom practices can significantly enhance the learning experience. By presenting students with real-world problems or open-ended questions, educators can challenge them to actively engage with the subject matter and apply their existing knowledge. This process of discovery and investigation helps students build and refine their cognitive structures, enabling them to construct new knowledge and make meaningful connections to prior experiences.
Ultimately, adopting an inquiry-based approach to teaching can transform the classroom dynamic, turning students from passive recipients of information into active constructors of knowledge. By embracing the principles of constructivism and fostering a culture of curiosity, educators can help students unlock their full potential and cultivate a lifelong love of learning.
Criticisms of the 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.
One common criticism of the constructivist learning theory is that it lacks clear instructional strategies for teachers to follow. Without a set curriculum or standardized grading system, some argue that teachers may struggle to guide students towards specific learning goals.
Additionally, some critics argue that constructivism may not be the most effective approach for all types of learners, particularly those who thrive in more structured environments. Despite these criticisms, many educators continue to embrace constructivism as a valuable approach to learning that prioritizes student engagement and critical thinking skills.
Another criticism of the constructivism learning theory is that it may not be suitable for learners at different developmental levels. For example, younger students may not have the cognitive abilities to construct their own knowledge and may need more guidance and structure in their learning.
Similarly, learners with learning disabilities or cognitive delays may struggle with the open-ended nature of constructivism. It's important for educators to consider the individual needs and abilities of their students when implementing any learning theory, including constructivism.
Another criticism of the constructivism learning theory is its emphasis on intellectual development over other forms of development, such as social and emotional development. While constructivism can be effective in promoting critical thinking and problem-solving skills, it may not address the holistic needs of the learner. Educators must balance the benefits of constructivism with the importance of addressing all aspects of a student's development.