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.

From the CATT blog

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

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