Constructivism

Creating experiences that facilitate the construction of knowledge.

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What is constructivism?

Constructivism is the theory that says learners construct knowledge rather than just passively take in information. As people experience the world and reflect upon those experiences, they build their own representations and incorporate new information into their pre-existing knowledge (schemas).

Related to this are the processes of assimilation and accommodation.

  • Assimilation refers to the process of taking new information and fitting it into an existing schema.
  • Accommodation refers to using newly acquired information to revise and redevelop an existing schema.

For example, if I believe that friends are always nice, and meet a new person who is always nice to me I may call this person a friend, assimilating them into my schema. Perhaps, however, I meet a different person who sometimes pushes me to try harder and is not always nice. I may decide to change my schema to accommodate this person by deciding a friend doesn’t always need to be nice if they have my best interests in mind. Further, this may make me reconsider whether the first person still fits into my friend schema.

Consequences of constructivist theory are that:

  • Students learn best when engaged in learning experiences rather passively receiving information.
  • Learning is inherently a social process because it is embedded within a social context as students and teachers work together to build knowledge.
  • Because knowledge cannot be directly imparted to students, the goal of teaching is to provide experiences that facilitate the construction of knowledge.  

This last point is worth repeating. A traditional approach to teaching focuses on delivering information to students, yet constructivism argues that you cannot directly impart this information. Only an experience can facilitate students to construct their own knowledge. Therefore, the goal of teaching is to design these experiences.

Consequences for the classroom

There are many consequences for teaching and the classroom if you adhere to constructivist principles. The following chart from the Teaching and Learning Resources Wiki compares traditional and constructivist classrooms across several components

Traditional Classroom Constructivist Classroom
Curriculum begins with the parts of the whole. Emphasizes basic skills. Curriculum emphasizes big concepts, beginning with the whole and expanding to include the parts.
Strict adherence to fixed curriculum is highly valued. Pursuit of student questions and interests is valued.
Materials are primarily textbooks and workbooks. Materials include primary sources of material and manipulative materials.
Learning is based on repetition. Learning is interactive, building on what the student already knows.
Teachers disseminate information to students. Students are recipients of knowledge. Teachers have a dialogue with students, helping students construct their own knowledge.
Teacher's role is directive, rooted in authority. Teacher's role is interactive, rooted in negotiation.
Assessment is through testing and correct answers. Assessment includes student works, observations and points of view, as well as tests. Process is as important as product.
Knowledge is seen as inert. Knowledge is seen as dynamic, ever changing with our experiences.
Students work primarily alone. Students work primarily in groups.

Essential components to constructivist teaching

There are several main components to include if you plan on adhering to constructivist principles in your classroom or when designing your lessons. The following are from Baviskar, Hartle & Whitney (2009):

  • Elicit prior knowledge
    New knowledge is created in relation to learner’s pre-existing knowledge. Lessons, therefore, require eliciting relevant prior knowledge. Activities include: pre-tests, informal interviews and small group warm-up activities that require recall of prior knowledge.
  • Create cognitive dissonance
    Assign problems and activities that will challenge students. Knowledge is built as learners encounter novel problems and revise existing schemas as they work through the challenging problem.
  • Apply knowledge with feedback
    Encourage students to evaluate new information and modify existing knowledge. Activities should allow for students to compare pre-existing schema to the novel situation. Activities might include presentations, small group or class discussions, and quizzes.
  • Reflect on learning
    Provide students with an opportunity to show you (and themselves) what they have learned. Activities might include: presentations, reflexive papers or creating a step-by-step tutorial for another student.

Examples of constructivist classroom activities

  • Reciprocal teaching/learning
    Allow pairs of students to teach each other.
  • Inquiry-based learning (IBL)
    Learners pose their own questions and seek answers to their questions via research and direct observation. They present their supporting evidence to answer the questions. They draw connections between their pre-existing knowledge and the knowledge they’ve acquired through the activity. Finally, they draw conclusions, highlight remaining gaps in knowledge and develop plans for future investigations.
  • Problem-based learning (PBL)
    The main idea of PBL is similar to IBL: learners acquire knowledge by devising a solution to a problem. PBL differs from IBL in that PBL activities provide students with real-world problems that require students to work together to devise a solution. As the group works through the challenging real-world problem, learners acquire communication and collaboration skills in addition to knowledge.
  • Cooperative learning
    Students work together in small groups to maximize their own and each other's learning. Cooperative learning differs from typical group work in that it requires interdependence among group members to solve a problem or complete an assignment.

Additional resources

Literature

  • Abbott, M. L., & Fouts, J. T. (2003). Constructivist Teaching and Student Achievement: The Results of a School-Level   Classroom Observation Study in Washington. Technical Report.
  • Ayaz, M. F., & Sekerci, H. (2015). The Effects of the Constructivist Learning Approach on Student's Academic Achievement: A Meta-Analysis Study. Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology-TOJET14(4), 143-156.
  • Bada, S. O., & Olusegun, S. (2015). Constructivism learning theory: A paradigm for teaching and learning. Journal of Research & Method in Education5(6), 66-70.
  • Baviskar 1, S. N., Hartle, R. T., & Whitney, T. (2009). Essential criteria to characterize constructivist teaching: Derived from a review of the literature and applied to five constructivist‐teaching method articles. International Journal of Science Education31(4), 541-550.
  • Cetin-Dindar, A. (2016). Student Motivation in Constructivist Learning Environment. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology Education12(2).
  • Hein, G. (1991). Constructivist learning theory. Institute for Inquiry. Available at:/http://www. exploratorium.edu/ifi/resources/constructivistlearning. html.
  • Kim, J. S. (2005). The effects of a constructivist teaching approach on student academic achievement, self-concept, and learning strategies. Asia pacific education review6(1), 7-19.
  • Saunders, W. L. (1992). The constructivist perspective: Implications and teaching strategies for science. School Science and Mathematics92(3), 136-141.
  • Semerci, Ç., & Batdi, V. (2015). A meta-analysis of constructivist learning approach on learners’ academic achievements, retention and attitudes. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 3(2) doi:10.11114/jets.v3i2.644
  • Siemens, G. (2014). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age.
  • Travis, H., & Lord, T. (2004). Traditional and constructivist teaching techniques. Journal of College Science Teaching34(3), 12.