Constructivism: The Long History from the Active Knower to the Active Learner

Prof. Jim Lemoine teaches the class Organizational Behavior in a NSC lecture hall on the first day of the spring semester in February 2021. The students worked in groups to build and fly paper airplanes at the start of classes.

Photographer: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

Published October 20, 2021

As educators we are well aware of the many delays in bringing theory to practice. Whether it is through delayed pedagogical recommendations in adjusting campus learning spaces, conceptual challenges encountered in effectively leveraging distance and remote learning opportunities, or in identifying creative ways of providing students with the course experiences sufficient to actively construct and add meaning to their own learning, we are constantly dealing with the overarching problem of delayed practical application of theory.

“The old belief that knowledge can be imparted solely through oral dissemination of knowledge from an expert is not based on the reality of how knowledge is actually formed. ”

Therefore in the interest of a bit of fun, through this blog post we are going to frame the concept of constructivism—the theory that says that learners construct knowledge rather than just passively take in information—within a longstanding historical context in order to illustrate just how long it can actually take for theory to come to full fruition. However, in all seriousness, a key educational concept like constructivism can be viewed as an ultimate product of enlightenment thought, and therefore, we must start there in identifying the roots of this educational theory.

            In 1781, German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, published his monumental work the Critique of Pure Reason. This critical perspective on metaphysics and epistemology worked to accomplish several overarching objectives, two of which were figuring out how to refute David Hume’s empiricist determinist philosophy via the hallmarks of the rationalist tradition, but without having to rest on rationalist dogmatic presuppositions (Dudley, 2007). What Kant therefore made the case for in this work was that, yes, we as humans may be limited to sensory induced experience, but we nevertheless contain a priori (independent of, or before, experience) cognitive structures, which enable us to actively construct the world that we perceive—thus the active knower. His “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy therefore intended to explain how it is that the objects of experience conform to us and our cognitive structures and not the other way around (Kant, 1781). Ultimately, Kant’s critical perspective was an introduction and gateway to the modern science of cognition. However, his successors in Continental Europe explored the merits and perceived problems of his critical philosophy in ways which either led to dead ends or started from, or created, unique philosophical foundations. In the Anglo-American tradition, philosophers subsequent to Kant turned largely to the analysis of problems in language and formal logic in order to help clarify traditional philosophical problems (Gracia, 1992). As you can see here, our discussion has remained largely philosophical, and Kant’s longstanding contributions of the concept of the active knower have remained philosophical, with little to show of the evolution of educational and pedagogical thought.

            If we fast forward to the twentieth century, we now have better context for understanding Jean Piaget’s work in psychology. An underlying interest in the nature of knowledge and how it develops stayed with him as he studied psychology and became a psychometrician working with Theodore Simon on standardizing the Binet-Simon Intelligence Test (Mayer, 2005). It was during this time that he studied patterns of mistakes in children’s responses across age groups. He postulated that thinking and problem-solving abilities fundamentally change over time due to biological maturation rather than mere exposure to the environment. As Piaget continued his studies in psychology and his research on children’s thinking abilities, he began to detail his theory of cognitive development which he considered to be dependent upon the biological process of adaptation (Beilin, 1992).      

            For Piaget, this cognitive adaptation relies on the development of cognitive schema (a term that originated, in relation to cognition and the organization of experience, with Kant), or knowledge representations. Such representations begin to be created by toddlers once their brains have matured to the point where long-term memories can be stored (around the time that they begin to use verbal language). As children encounter new experiences, they create schema, or mental representations to understand those. For example, a toddler begins to understand the four-legged furry meowing creature that lives in the house as “kitty.” The toddler will then try to fit new experiences into these existing schema through a process of assimilation. Using the kitty example, this toddler may initially call the neighbor’s dog, the cousin’s hamster, and the bunny in the yard “kitty.” However, with guidance from parents, teachers, and peers, the toddler will pick up on the differences between kitty and these other creatures. Eventually, accommodation will occur, and the toddler will develop new schema: “doggy,” “hamster,” “bunny.” As the child grows and gains in real-world experience and formal education, the child will begin to develop more sophisticated schema, as well as interconnections among schema to form schema networks. 

            Piaget’s cognitive adaptation concept is now recognized as the process that underlies knowledge construction. Piaget conducted research with children in school settings and first began writing about his theory in the 1920’s (Beilin, 1992). However, application of the theory to the design of learning experiences did not begin in the United States until the 1960’s when American psychologists “rediscovered” his early work and educators worked to understand the pedagogical implications of his theory. Throughout the late 1960’s and into the early 1970’s, teacher preparation programs began to include Piaget’s work on cognitive development and adaptation in the curriculum, and pedagogical practices based on this constructivist approach have been used in P-12 education for decades (Bringuier, 1980). The constructivist approach has been further refined by the work of Vygotsky, a contemporary of Piaget, whose work remained behind the iron curtain until the 1970’s, when his books were translated into English and distributed in the United States (Vygotsky, 1963). Since that time, additional important concepts, such as situated cognition, distributed cognition, and embodiment have emerged (Ormrod, 2019).

In essence, constructivist theories of learning and knowledge development suggest that learning is determined by the learner interacting in an environment and engaging in cognitive adaptation (Ormrod, 2019). Thus, learning is not a passive activity. The old belief that knowledge can be imparted solely through oral dissemination of knowledge from an expert is not based on the reality of how knowledge is actually formed. Regardless of instructional modality, learners need to be actively engaged with the course content, reflecting on it, linking it to what they already know, and creating new knowledge structures when necessary. While this can happen in a lecture format, it requires motivation on the part of the student and effective facilitation on the part of the instructor. Knowledge construction happens more organically and more efficiently when students are engaged in active learning where they can experience trial and error, peer interaction, and modeling. Such experiences can certainly be hard to scale, especially with large introductory courses where lecture/objective exams seem to be the most efficient way to deliver instruction and assign grades. This is yet another reason why constructivist approaches have not yet been universally adopted in all college classrooms.

Nevertheless, all of what we have summarized to this point is intended to illustrate, at least in rudimentary form, the long pathway of constructivist theory, starting from a deeper foundation in Kant’s work. The purpose of this is to add, not only clarity in this discussion of theory, but also some levity to the challenges we face in bridging theory and practice.