Constructing Meaning of Constructivism


"A well must produce its own water" - Farsi proverb


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Constructivism is a philosophy, which ascribes that people learn by constructing knowledge and meaning based on their own experience and understanding of the world around them.


To this end, active hands-on learning, exploration, and reasoning are preferred to text and memorization of isolated information. Learning is constructed by building upon (connecting) what the learner knows and understands about his/her world.


Born out of Piaget’s theory of Cognitive Development, and nutured by Vygotsky, the constructivist model places focus on the learner, not the lesson. There is no knowledge independent of the meaning attributed to experience (constructed) by the learner, or community of learners.


Constructivism is not without criticism from both scientists and educators. Some claim that there is not enough empirical evidence to support the theory, and there are others who believe that it is not an effective approach for all learners, particularly novices.


"We have to recognize that there is no such thing as knowledge "out there" independent of the knower, but only knowledge we construct for ourselves as we learn. Learning is not understanding the "true" nature of things, nor is it (as Plato suggested) remembering dimly perceived perfect ideas, but rather a personal and social construction of meaning out of the bewildering array of sensations which have no order or structure besides the explanations which we fabricate for them." (Hein, 1991)






"As long as there were people asking each other questions, we have had constructivist classrooms. Constructivism, the study of learning, is about how we all make sense of our world, and that really hasn't changed." - Jacqueline Grennan Brooks (1999)


In Learning Constructivist Design, Gagnon and Collay asked ten facilitators to answer this question: "What is constructivism?" The results were interesting because all of their definitions were quite different and reflected their own understanding of the term and the text. This was a clear demonstration that what we read does not produce a single meaning but that understanding is constructed by the readers who bring prior knowledge and experience to the text and make their own meaning as they interact with the author's words. (Gagnon & Collay, 1996)


Constructivist teachers encourage students to constantly assess how the activity is helping them gain understanding. By questioning themselves and their strategies, students in the constructivist classroom ideally become "expert learners." This gives them ever-broadening tools to keep learning. With a well-planned classroom environment, the students learn HOW TO LEARN.


You might look at it as a spiral. When they continuously reflect on their experiences, students find their ideas gaining in complexity and power, and they develop increasingly strong abilities to integrate new information. One of the teacher's main roles becomes to encourage this learning and reflection process.


For example: Groups of students in a science class are discussing a problem in physics. Though the teacher knows the "answer" to the problem, she focuses on helping students restate their questions in useful ways. She prompts each student to reflect on and examine his or her current knowledge. When one of the students comes up with the relevant concept, the teacher seizes upon it, and indicates to the group that this might be a fruitful avenue for them to explore. They design and perform relevant experiments. Afterward, the students and teacher talk about what they have learned, and how their observations and experiments helped (or did not help) them to better understand the concept. - Concept to Classroom 


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The concept of constructivism has roots in classical antiquity, going back to Socrates's dialogues with his followers, in which he asked directed questions that led his students to realize for themselves the weaknesses in their thinking. The Socratic dialogue is still an important tool in the way constructivist educators assess their students' learning and plan new learning experiences.


In this century, Jean Piaget and John Dewey developed theories of childhood development and education, what we now call Progressive Education, that led to the evolution of constructivism.


Piaget believed that humans learn through the construction of one logical structure after another. He also concluded that the logic of children and their modes of thinking are initially entirely different from those of adults. The implications of this theory and how he applied them have shaped the foundation for constructivist education.


Dewey called for education to be grounded in real experience. He wrote, "If you have doubts about how learning happens, engage in sustained inquiry: study, ponder, consider alternative possibilities and arrive at your belief grounded in evidence." Inquiry is a key part of constructivist learning.


Among the educators, philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists who have added new perspectives to constructivist learning theory and practice are Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, and David Ausubel.


Vygotsky introduced the social aspect of learning into constructivism. He defined the "zone of proximal learning," according to which students solve problems beyond their actual developmental level (but within their level of potential development) under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.


Bruner initiated curriculum change based on the notion that learning is an active, social process in which students construct new ideas or concepts based on their current knowledge.


Seymour Papert's groundbreaking work in using computers to teach children has led to the widespread use of computer and information technology in constructivist environments.


Modern educators who have studied, written about, and practiced constructivist approaches to education include John D. Bransford, Ernst von Glasersfeld, Eleanor Duckworth, George Forman, Roger Schank, Jacqueline Grennon Brooks, and Martin G. Brooks. - Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning





John Abbott President of the 21st Century Learning Initiative and Director of the Education 2000 Trust (UK)




The behaviorist theory popularized by B.F. Skinner still drives much of the practice of science education. For more than a quarter century, schools and teachers have been creating behavioral goals and objectives. Curricula have been tightly sequenced according to a belief that the best way to learn is to master small bits of knowledge and then integrate them into major concepts. Assessment practices have tended to focus on measurement of knowledge and skills, with little emphasis on performance and understanding.


Since the late 1980s, however, researchers have been building an understanding of learning that grows out of cognitive and developmental psychology. The key notion in this new "constructivist theory" is that people learn best by actively constructing their own understanding. The fundamental beliefs underlying this new paradigm for learning have been generally summarized as follows:


1. All knowledge is constructed through a process of reflective abstraction.

2. Cognitive structures within the learner facilitate the process of learning.

3. The cognitive structures in individuals are in a process of constant development.

4. If the notion of constructivist learning is accepted, then the methods of learning and pedagogy must agree.


The constructivist classroom presents the learner with opportunities to build on prior knowledge and understanding to construct new knowledge and understanding from authentic experience. Students are allowed to confront problems full of meaning because of their real-life context. In solving these problems, students are encouraged to explore possibilities, invent alternative solutions, collaborate with other students (or external experts), try out ideas and hypotheses, revise their thinking, and finally present the best solution they can derive.


Contrast this approach with the typical behaviorist classroom, where students are passively involved in receiving all necessary critical information from the teacher and the textbook. Rather than inventing solutions and constructing knowledge in the process, students are taught how to "get the right answer" using the teacher's method. Students do not even have to "make sense" of the method used to solve problems. - Constructivist Model for Learning 




Bruner's Theory

A major theme in the theoretical framework of Bruner is that learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge. The learner selects and transforms information, constructs hypotheses, and makes decisions, relying on a cognitive structure to do so. Cognitive structure (i.e., schema, mental models) provides meaning and organization to experiences and allows the individual to "go beyond the information given".


As far as instruction is concerned, the instructor should try and encourage students to discover principles by themselves. The instructor and student should engage in an active dialog (i.e., socratic learning). The task of the instructor is to translate information to be learned into a format appropriate to the learner's current state of understanding. Curriculum should be organized in a spiral manner so that the student continually builds upon what they have already learned.


Bruner (1966) states that a theory of instruction should address four major aspects: (1) predisposition towards learning, (2) the ways in which a body of knowledge can be structured so that it can be most readily grasped by the learner, (3) the most effective sequences in which to present material, and (4) the nature and pacing of rewards and punishments. Good methods for structuring knowledge should result in simplifying, generating new propositions, and increasing the manipulation of information.


In his more recent work, Bruner (1986, 1990, 1996) has expanded his theoretical framework to encompass the social and cultural aspects of learning as well as the practice of law.




Bruner's constructivist theory is a general framework for instruction based upon the study of cognition. Much of the theory is linked to child development research (especially Piaget ). The ideas outlined in Bruner (1960) originated from a conference focused on science and math learning. Bruner illustrated his theory in the context of mathematics and social science programs for young children (see Bruner, 1973). The original development of the framework for reasoning processes is described in Bruner, Goodnow & Austin (1951). Bruner (1983) focuses on language learning in young children.


Note that Constructivism is a very broad conceptual framework in philosophy and science and Bruner's theory represents one particular perspective. For an overview of other Constructivist frameworks, see



Constructivism: the New Progressive Education




Attempting to capture the complexity of learning on standardized state assessments severely limits student knowledge and expression. Inevitably, schools reduce the curriculum to what is covered on tests. Students control their learning. Constructivist teachers structure lessons around big ideas, value relevance, and strive to challenge students' suppositions. Constructivism is building on knowledge known by the student. - The Courage To Be Constructivist


Is there only one way to run a school? Does rhetoric about "best practices" point to a single "best" way to teach children? Of course not.


But ed school theorists insist that there is one "best" method. Not only that, they claim that they know exactly what it is!


Consequently, most American schools have moved to that "constructivist" approach and continue to expand its usage further in their classrooms. But mounting evidence calls the whole constructivist framework into question.


While there are many subtleties and variations in designing an education program, there are two main themes.


Respected education analyst Diane Ravitch succinctly defined them in an essay (May 12, 2005) in the Wall Street Journal. Let's compare two quotes from that article side-by-side:


On one side, beloved by schools of education, are the century-old ideas of progressive education, now called "constructivism."

Associated with this philosophy are such approaches as whole language, fuzzy math, and invented spelling, as well as a

disdain for phonics and grammar, an insistence that there are no right answers (just different ways to solve problems), and

an emphasis on students' self-esteem. ... By diminishing the authority of the teacher, constructivist methods often create

discipline problems.


On the other side are those who believe ...

that learning depends on both highly skilled teachers and student effort;

that students need self-discipline more than self-esteem;

that accuracy is important;

that in many cases there truly are right answers and wrong answers (the Civil War was not caused by Reconstruction); and

that instructional methods should be chosen because they are effective, not because they fit one's philosophical values.


- What's Wrong with Our Schools?



Learn More About Constructivism




The Courage to be Constructivist


Constructivist Concept Map


Constructivist Learning


Constructivist Learning Design


Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning


Constructivism: Moving Beyond the Impasse


Learning Theories: Constructivism 


A Constructivist Framework


Wikipedia on Constructivism



Resource site on Current trends in Education: Constructivism




An Introduction to Constructivism


Constructivist Learning Activity in Second Life


Introduction to Learning Theories


The (true) History of Vygotskian Social Constructivism





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