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Constructivism

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Constructivism

Constructivism is considered part of the cognitive revolution, an intellectual movement that began in the 1950s as a response to traditional behaviour theories. Whereas behaviourist theorists view learning as a passive process, cognitive theorists believe that learners play an active role in constructing their own knowledge. In other words, learners must actively engage in the learning experience to retain information and construct knowledge.

Constructivist theory

The cognitive revolution was pioneered by Jean Piaget (1896-1980), who is widely considered the father of constructivism. Constructivism shares many of the same principles as cognitive theory; however, there are a few key differences. The main difference is the role of social context. While cognitive theory views learning as a purely internal and mental process, constructivism views learning as a combination of cognitive development and human interaction.

The works of Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) have also been crucial in the development of constructivism. Vygotsky stated that learning isn't a purely internal process, nor is it a passive shaping of behaviour. He believed that social setting, culture, environment, and context play a significant role in constructing knowledge. While traditional behaviourist approaches aimed to view learning as something completely independent from context, Vygotsky viewed the context in which learning takes place as central to the learning itself.

Constructivists also believe that language plays an essential role in learning as the sharing of knowledge happens through communication.

Constructivism meaning

The constructivist theory, otherwise known as constructivism, is a learning theory that states that learners construct new meanings and understanding by integrating new information (learned from new experiences) with prior knowledge (gained from past experiences).

Main principles of Constructivism

Much like cognitive theory, constructivism follows a building blocks approach to learning. Learners use their previous knowledge to build upon and construct new meanings by assimilating prior information with new information. Vygotsky also emphasised the importance of social interaction during this process. He stated that knowledge isn't only constructed but can be co-constructed via interactions and discussions with the people around you.

An individual's sociocultural background and previous experiences can affect how and what they learn, and each individual's experiences make their learning process unique to them.

Let's take a look at some of the main principles of constructivism:

  • Knowledge is actively constructed.
  • Learning is an individual and social process.
  • Learning is an organisational process - new knowledge is assimilated with old knowledge to construct new meanings and understandings.
  • Learning is based on personal experiences - different people understand 'truth' differently.
  • The concept of reality is based on individual interpretation.
  • Learning is socially situated and enhanced through meaningful context - situated learning focuses on creating meaning from the real activities of daily life.
  • Language plays an essential role in learning - the sharing of knowledge happens through communication.
  • Motivation is key to learning - individuals must want to actively engage and reflect on their prior knowledge in learning.

Types of Constructivism

Piaget is often cited as the founder of Constructivism. Dewey and Bruner are considered to be the key theorists among the cognitive constructivists, while Vygotsky is the prominent social constructivist theorist.

Let's take a look at each theorist in closer detail.

Jean Piaget's Cognitive Constructivism (1896-1980)

Piaget developed his cognitive constructivist theory as a reaction to traditional behaviourist theories. His theory revolves around the central idea that intelligence changes as children grow, and cognitive development happens due to biological maturation and environment.

Piaget believed that knowledge could not simply emerge from an experience; instead, an existing structure is necessary to help make sense of the world. Children construct their understanding of the world via assimilation (adapting new information to fit existing knowledge) and accommodation (altering existing ideas due to new information). This means that cognitive mental growth is achieved by integrating more straightforward concepts of knowledge into higher-level concepts at each stage of development.

Once a child has understood the concept of the past, they can begin using the past tense successfully.

The framework used to organise this existing information and interpret new information is called a schema. Our schemes are constantly evolving with new information and experiences.

Constructivism schemas as building blocks StudySmarterSchemas can be seen as 'building blocks' of knowledge (StudySmarter Original)

John Dewey's Cognitive Constructivism (1859-1952)

Dewey adopted a constructivist approach to teaching and rejected the idea that learning should focus on repetition and rote learning. Instead, he proposed a teaching method of 'directed living', whereby students actively engage in real-world activities, such as practical workshops and role-plays. Dewey emphasised the importance of prior knowledge and experiences within the learning process, as well as creativity and collaboration. He believed that education should be student-oriented rather than subject-oriented and that teaching should evoke problem-solving and original thinking.

Rote learning is learning by repetition, often without a true understanding of what is being learned.

Lev Vygotsky's Social Constructivism (1896-1934)

Vygotsky emphasised the importance of social interaction within the learning process. He rejected Piaget's assumption that it is possible to separate learning from its context and stated that culture is highly influential in developing cognitive ability. Vygotsky argued that the language, writing, and concepts that arise from social interactions elicit higher cognitive thinking.

Vygotsky believed that without interactions with others, learning is restricted to what the individual already knows.

Bruner's Constructivist Learning Theory (1915-2016)

As Bruner's theory was heavily influenced by Vygotsky, he also believed that social interaction was at the heart of education. Bruner viewed learning as a process of discovery and stated that individuals build upon their knowledge through the organisation of information within different modes of representation. Modes of representation refer to how information or knowledge is stored and encoded in memory.

The modes of representation are:

  • Enactive representation (action-based)
  • Iconic representation (image-based)
  • Symbolic representation (language-based)

Bruner emphasised the importance of language in the learning process as it helps develop an individual's ability to deal with abstract concepts by removing the constraints of the physical 'here and now'.

We can use language to talk about our past experiences and experiences we anticipate for the future, even though we cannot physically 'show' these experiences in the present.

Bruner recognised the main aim of education as creating autonomous learners and believed that children should be able to think and invent new ideas for themselves.

Autonomous = the ability to work independently.

Examples of constructivism

Let's have a look at examples of the constructivist approach in the classroom.

Constructivist pedagogy

In a constructivist classroom setting, the teacher acts more like a facilitator, and the students are active participants in the learning process. The students are encouraged to interact and exchange their thoughts and opinions, allowing them to co-construct new knowledge.

As a student, how do you think social setting, culture, and environment have impacted your construction of knowledge?

Discovery learning is a constructivist teaching method in which students are provided with a problem to solve and are left to figure it out for themselves. Students are encouraged to draw upon their past experiences, discuss possible solutions, and explore their surroundings to find a solution together. The teacher takes a back seat during this process but will support students if needed. Discovery learning is thought to encourage active engagement in learning and helps to motivate students by promoting autonomy and creativity.

According to Siegel (2004),¹ the following are the main characteristics of constructivist learning:

  • Construction - students learn how to construct meanings through assimilating prior knowledge and new knowledge to gain a new understanding.
  • Active - students are active in their learning.
  • Reflective - students reflect on what they already know.
  • Collaborative - students construct the meaning of new information by discussing it with their peers.

A common misconception about the constructivist approach is that the teacher never tells the students anything. Constructivist theorists recognise all new knowledge as being constructed upon previous knowledge, no matter how it is taught. This means listening to a teacher still involves the construction of new knowledge.

Benefits of Constructivism

Using constructivism as a model for teaching and learning has several benefits. Let’s take a look at the six main benefits.

  • Children tend to enjoy themselves more, and therefore learn more, when they are engaged and active in the learning process.
  • Learning is cemented when the process is focussed on thinking and understanding rather than rote memorisation.
  • As constructivism encourages students to explore and find answers for themselves, it gives students a sense of ownership over their learning.
  • Constructivist learning is a transferable skill, and students can take the skills they learn in the classroom out into the real world.
  • Constructivist learning is grounded in authentic, life-like activities, such as role-plays, which can be highly engaging for the students and can encourage them to explore the wider world further.
  • Constructivism encourages students to collaborate and exchange ideas, promoting social and communicative skills. To contribute successfully, students must learn how to negotiate, organise their ideas, and listen to one another.

Criticisms of Constructivism

One of the most prominent criticisms of a constructivist approach to teaching is that it often lacks structure as constructivist learning focuses on student-led methods and the teacher adopts a facilitator role. However, some students may struggle with this approach and may require a more structured and organised environment to thrive.

Gupta (2011) criticises the constructivist approach as dominant children often control interactions within the classroom, and 'average' or shy children may be left behind.²

Constructivism - Key takeaways

  • The constructivist theory, otherwise known as constructivism, is a learning theory that is considered part of the cognitive revolution.
  • Constructivism views learning as a combination of logic and human interaction and follows a 'building blocks' approach to learning.

  • Constructivists believe that language plays an essential role in learning as the sharing of knowledge happens through communication.

  • When following a constructivist approach to teaching, lessons should be student-oriented and the teacher should adopt a facilitator role.

  • The prominent constructivist theorists are Piaget, Vygotsky, Dewey, and Bruner.


¹ H Seigel. 'The bearing of philosophy of science on science education, and vice versa: the case of constructivism.' Studies In History and Philosophy of Science. 2004

² S. Gupta. 'Constructivism as a paradigm for teaching and learning.' International Journal of Physical and Social Sciences. 2011

Frequently Asked Questions about Constructivism

Constructivism is an educational theory that states learners construct new meanings and understanding by integrating new information with prior knowledge. Constructivist theorists recognize the importance of social interaction and context in the learning process.

Here are the main principles of constructivism:

  • Knowledge is actively constructed.
  • Learning is an individual and social process.
  • Learning is an organizational process - meaning new knowledge is assimilated with old knowledge to construct new meanings and understandings.
  • Learning is socially situated and is enhanced through meaningful context.
  • Language plays an essential role in learning as the sharing of knowledge happens through communication.

Some benefits of constructivism include:

  • It encourages students to think critically and autonomously. 
  • It's a student-centered approach to learning. 
  • It is an active and engaging teaching method.
  • It promotes creativity.

The main theories within constructivism include Jean Piaget's Cognitive Constructivism, John Dewey's Cognitive Constructivism, Lev Vygotsky's Social Constructivism, and Bruner's Constructivist Learning Theory.

An example of constructivism in the classroom is the discovery learning method of teaching. Students are encouraged to draw upon their past experiences, discuss possible solutions, and explore their surroundings to find a solution together. 

Final Constructivism Quiz

Question

Constructivism is considered part of the cognitive revolution, true or false?

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Answer

True

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Question

Who is considered the pioneer of constructivism?

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Answer

Jean Piaget

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Question

Who created the social constructivist theory?


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Answer

Lev Vygotsky

Show question

Question

Which of the following are benefits of a constructivist approach to teaching?

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Answer

It encourages students to think critically and autonomously

Show question

Question

Which of the following are criticisms of a constructivist approach to teaching?


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Answer

It can lack structure as learning focuses on student-led methods

Show question

Question

Why did Bruner emphasise the importance of language in the learning process?


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Answer

Because it helps develop an individual's ability to deal with abstract concepts and can remove the constraints of the physical 'here and now'.  

Show question

Question

Constructivists believe that lessons should be subject-oriented, true or false?


Show answer

Answer

False. They believe lessons should be student-oriented.

Show question

Question

What is the main difference between the cognitive theory and the constructivist theory?


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Answer

While cognitive theory views learning as a purely internal and mental process, constructivism views learning as a combination of cognitive development and human interaction. 

Show question

Question

In a constructivist classroom, what role should the teacher take?


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Answer

Facilitator

Show question

Question

John Dewey was a fan of rote learning, true or false?


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Answer

False. Dewey rejected the ideas of rote memorization and repetition in learning. 



Show question

Question

Whereas behaviourist theorists view learning as an active process, cognitive theorists believe that learners play a passive role in constructing their own knowledge. True or false?

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Answer

False, behaviourist theorists view learning as a passive process whilst cognitive theorists believe that learners play an active role in constructing their own knowledge. 

Show question

Question

The constructivist theory suggests learners construct new meanings and understanding by integrating ____ information with ______ knowledge. Fill in the blanks.

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Answer

The constructivist theory suggests learners construct new meanings and understanding by integrating new information with prior/past knowledge. Fill in the blanks.

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Question

Which of the following are principles of the constructivist theory?

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Answer

Learning is based on personal experiences

Show question

Question

Piaget argued that there is no correlation between age and cognitive development. True or false?

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Answer

False, his theory revolves around the idea that intelligence changes as children grow, and cognitive development happens due to biological maturation and environment.

Show question

Question

Piaget suggested that children construct their understanding of the world via _____________ (adapting new information to fit existing knowledge) and _____________ (altering existing ideas due to new information). Fill in the blanks.

Show answer

Answer

Children construct their understanding of the world via assimilation (adapting new information to fit existing knowledge) and accommodation (altering existing ideas due to new information).

Show question

Question

According to the constructivist theory, once a child has understood the concept of the past, they can begin using the past tense successfully. True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Vygotsky believed that without interactions with others, learning is restricted to what the individual already knows. True or false?

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Answer

True

Show question

Question

Which of the following is NOT a mode of representation in the constructivist model?

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Answer

Enactive representation

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Question

_______________ is a constructivist teaching method in which students are provided with a problem to solve and are left to figure it out for themselves. Fill in the blanks.

Show answer

Answer

Discovery learning

Show question

Question

Which of the following are benefits of the constructivist theory?

Show answer

Answer

Constructivist learning is grounded in authentic, life-like activities which is engaging and can encourage them to explore the world further.

Show question

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