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Learning theories Part 3: Constructivism

Overview | Behaviorism | Cognitivism | Constructivism | Connectivism


“I know of nothing more inspiring than that of making discoveries for one’s self.” George Washington Carver

Theory overview

1. Constructivism

While behaviorism and cognitivism view the learner as a receptacle of knowledge and meaning from the outside world, constructivism focuses on individual reality. Knowledge is a function of how the individual creates, or constructs, meaning from his or her own experiences with the environment. Learning is experience, like all other experiences. The mind filters and makes sense of input from the world to produce its own unique reality. "The goal of instruction is not to ensure that individuals know particular facts, but rather that they elaborate on and interpret information" (Ertmer & Newby, 1993). Teaching for understanding: "Math thinking skills as opposed to following a set procedure." Learners don't simply import knowledge from the external world, they build personal interpretations of the world based on their unique experiences and interactions. Thus, this internal representation of knowledge is constantly subject to change and evolution based on additional experience and interactions.

Notice how we have transitioned from a focus on objective knowledge to one of personal knowing constructed by the individual for him or herself. Modern constructivists also believe that learning is both individual and social in nature, with learning arising from individual cognitive processes like individual effort and reflection, plus social processes such as dialog and exposure to multiple perspectives. Social too in that learning is embedded within a particular culture and shaped by various implicit value judgments within that culture.

As contrasted with the other approaches, constructivism arose organically from many and varied thinkers from many different fields with often conflicting ideas. Constructivist philosophies range from “radical” to “practical” and everywhere in between. We weigh in on the practical side, with realistic principles that serve as a framework for designing learning. The principles include:

  • Multiple perspectives: developing and sharing alternative views, openness to alternative ideas; learning from each other
  • Social negotiation: testing ideas against those of others through argumentation, debate, discussion, evidence-sharing
  • Ownership: personal ownership of a task or problem; addressing issues of personal interest and importance
  • Production: demonstrating understanding through a project or product
  • Reflectivity: reflecting on experiences to glean their meaning and personal value
  • Active engagement: doing something with new information, as opposed to echoing it in a test, etc.
  • Balance: achieving an appropriate balance between the need of students to achieve their own understanding with their need for guidance and support

The recent evolution of social learning and e-learning 2.0 using web 2.0 technologies are based in constructivist principles. The term "web 2.0" encapsulates the idea of the proliferation of interconnectivity, user-centered design and social interactions on the Internet. With an emphasis on self-constructed meaning, students must learn how to evaluate and screen information for themselves.

The constructivist approach has proven most effective for knowledge acquisition where initial misconceptions and biases can be discovered and negotiated, modified or removed. Subject areas in philosophy, art, law, architecture, and literature are especially cogent to the construction of personal reality. The same is true for advanced courses in subject areas where theory is addressed. Constructivists do acknowledge the use of behavioral and cognitive methods may be better for initial knowledge acquisition, but that learners need to transition to approaches needed for dealing with complex and ill-structured problems and issues.

Specific contributions

Two big ideas borne out of the constructivist movement are useful in many ways and underlie a number of specific instructional strategies.

Scaffolding: the Zone of proximal development

7. Zone of proximal (next) development

An important aspect of socially constructed learning is the zone of proximal development (ZPD), the distance between the actual developmental level of the individual and the level of next development (Vygotsky, 1978). We can see the difference between the two by observing the independent problem-solving ability of the individual on his or her own, and then through problem solving under instructor guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers. The difference is in the scaffolding provided by the instructor or peer – the extra support necessary to break through the former learning barrier. As the learner incrementally or wholly internalizes the new knowledge, scaffolding is reduced and withdrawn. See Scaffolding learning for a complete discussion. As you no doubt see for yourself, zones of proximal development vary greatly between individuals and among different topics within individuals.

Embedded with ZPD is the belief that social interaction precedes individual cognitive development. Individuals are exposed to information in their social environment before they can internalize it (interiorization). Learning precedes development. Language and culture are the primary vehicles through which learning occurs. Vygotsky was the first to identify the role of internal dialogue in learning, differentiating three forms of language that individuals move through in the process of learning (McLeod, 2007):

  1. Social speech, used to communicate with others,
  2. Private speech, which is directed to the self and serves a cognitive function, and
  3. Inner speech, which serves as self-regulating and directing functions, becoming less connected with words and more with pure meaning and action (planning and strategy).

Observational learning

Much of human learning occurs vicariously, with or without overt performance by the learner at the time of learning. Also referred to as social learning, observational learning is based on witnessing the actions of others and the consequences they encounter or outcomes they achieve. It is useful in learning performance, social, and cognitive skills and comes in many forms, both formal and informal:

  • live or recorded demonstrations
  • transcripts and narrations
  • remembrances and biographies
  • stories in cartoons, books, magazines, movies, and television
  • observing nature

Observation accelerates learning by using the experiences of others rather than depending exclusively on our own. It protects learners from the negative consequences of dangerous actions. And, using cues, observation can be directed to specific aspects of performance, parsing whole performances into their constituent parts. In practice, learning most complex skills typically involves a combination of observation and performance.

Learning process

To learn through observation, learners must engage in the following steps (not that different from other types of learning):

  1. Attention to relevant aspects of events so they are meaningfully perceived.
  2. Retention by cognitively organizing, mentally rehearsing, and encoding observations into memory.
  3. Production of observed behavior by translating understanding into overt action.
  4. Motivation to perform based on an evaluation of importance, success, and potential consequences.

The key mechanism for observational learning is the information conveyed by models to observers on how to produce the learned behaviors. Observers must then actively perceive and understand the information. Preparing learners prior to and prompting after observation by an instructor can help learners surface this information, and also rule out incorrect and irrelevant observations.

In formal learning, the instructor or designer can direct learner observation toward processes (i.e., steps), methods and techniques (how-to), communication (structuring messages), and interpersonal behaviors (showing empathy). Models may demonstrate correct and/or incorrect actions. Generally, specific correct actions should be learned before introducing variances and incorrect actions. Stegman et al. (2012) experimented with providing structured observation and feedback scripts for doctors in training. Using the observation script, learners significantly increased the accuracy of and knowledge gained from their observations. It was, in fact, more effective than learning by doing. Feedback scripts, on the other hand, had no significant effect on the quality of their feedback.

Factors affecting modeling impact on learning and performance

We can use modeling most effectively by considering those factors impacting the learner:

  • Model prestige and competence: physical appearance, commanding presence, speech characteristics, gender and other differences in some circumstances
  • Vicarious consequences: are the consequences apparent and appropriate to the desired behaviors? Do they match learner expectations?
  • Preparation: what the observer will see; what to look for
  • Match with learner goals and values; does the learner care?
  • Self-efficacy: does the observer believe he or she is capable of learning the modeled performance?

Constructivism applied

With constructivism, the instructor’s job is not to instruct as such, but to guide and support the knowledge construction process for students, mainly by creating an environment in which the construction takes place. We shift from a focus on teaching to one of student learning. Using our list of constructivist principles, here are some ways to create that environment.

Presenting information in multiple ways – Revisiting content at different times, in rearranged contexts, for different purposes, and from different conceptual perspectives.

Reciprocal teaching – Used to help students increase their reading comprehension skills by practicing the component skills of summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting. The instructor moves from a directive approach in the beginning toward a supportive role as learners are able to practice on their own.

Collaboration – Promoting collaboration with others to show that multiple perspectives can be more effective in problem-solving, and to arrive at self-chosen positions to which students can commit themselves while also realizing the basis of others views with which they may disagree (Cunningham, 1991). Testing ideas against others and learning from each other through chat, text messaging, threaded discussions, and group assignments.

Constructing meaning – Provide instruction on how to construct meaning as well as how to monitor, evaluate, and update those constructions.

Ownership – Provide multiple scenarios from different walks of life for students to select from, or allow them to create their own scenarios under your guidance.

Production – Require that students create a product for the assignment – in the medium of their choice (written paper, slideshow, multimedia, or video). Provide rubrics to help them accomplish what you want.

Reflectivity – End each activity by asking students to reflect on what they have done. What did we learn? How does this experience add to our knowledge of the subject? How does this apply to real life?

Active engagement – Exploration, collaboration, production and reflectivity all encourage engagement with the learning material.

Multiple perspectives – Create learning activities that require students to be exposed to multiple perspectives, multiple methods, and multiple issues. Students can create presentations, then summarize and draw conclusions after viewing all of them. They can participate in debates, or create papers involving multiple sources. The key is exposure to alternatives and drawing conclusions.

Case-based assignments – Create realistic problems and scenarios for students to explore, discuss and draw conclusions and, perhaps, even act on. For brevity, extract important details to include but don’t over-simplify. “Real-life problems are nearly always ill defined, where it is probable that no one answer will satisfy everyone and pat ‘school’ answers satisfy no one.” (Brandon, 6/14/2004).

Cognitive apprenticeship – Students assimilate thinking and problem-solving patterns based on modeling, observation and imitation. Create assignments that include the evaluation of information against such criteria as objectivity, accuracy, authority, currency and coverage. Provide rubrics for assignments and discussions so students understand how to think and do in proven ways.

Specific Assignments

Here are the various tools and formats you can use to create constructivist assignments. Click the links for samples.

  • Discussion boards with rubric
  • Group projects with rubric (create groups with strong and weaker students together)
  • Web quests with rubric
  • Student presentations with rubric
  • Web content evaluation assignments with rubric
  • Case studies
  • Decision-making scenarios using various approaches (e.g., probabilistic, rules-based, intuitive)
  • Concept mapping assignments
  • Writing assignments based on interviews
  • Online debates
Check for Understanding

Select one of the two items below to complete:

  1. Review the link on Concept Mapping, and then create a concept mapping assignment using a topic from your subject area. Before making the assignment, you might want to create the concept map yourself!
  2. Investigate the WebQuest.Org site and then create a five-item webquest within your subject area.

Important contributors

These people contributed significantly to the development of constructivist learning theory:

  • Lev Vygotsky (1896 - 1934)
  • Jean Piaget (1896 - 1980)
  • Jerome Brunner (1915 - )
  • Ernst von Glasersfeld (1917 - 2010)
  • Albert Bandura (1925 - )
  • Paul Watzlawick (1927 - 2007)
  • Jean-Louis Le Moigne (1931 - )


Overview | Behaviorism | Cognitivism | Constructivism | Connectivism