Constructivism is a learning theory which sees learning as a process in which the learner actively constructs or builds new ideas or concepts based upon current and past knowledge or experience. During Childhood, it is through an interaction between their experiences and their reflexes or behavior-patterns that children are involved in the learning process. Piaget called these systems of knowledge schemata. Since its emergence Piaget’s theory of constructivist learning has had great influence on learning theories and teaching methods in education. A lot of the ideas Piaget advocates are considered to be basic elements of constructivism.

The basics of Constructivism

Three basic assumptions underlie Constructivism:

  1. Learners construct knowledge.
  2. Learners have prior knowledge and experiences that they use in the learning process.
  3. Learning is both an active and reflective process.

According to constructivists, learning takes place by constructing one’s own knowledge from one’s previous experiences. Constructivist theorists (like Piaget) also contend that learning is developmental in the sense that people make sense of their world by assimilating, accommodating, or rejecting new information. When individuals assimilate, they incorporate the new experience into an already existing framework without changing that framework. In contrast, when individuals’ experiences contradict their internal representations, they may change their perceptions of the experiences to fit their internal representations. According to the theory, accommodation is the process of reframing one’s mental representation of the external world to fit new experiences.

Social Constructivism

Social interaction introduces multiple perspectives to learning when individuals engage socially in talk and activity about shared problems or tasks. This interaction with knowledgeable members of the society encourages the individual to reach his or her own version of the truth, influenced by his or her background, culture or embedded world view. Thus for social constructivists taking into account the background and culture of the learner throughout the learning process is important because this background helps shape the knowledge and truth that the learner creates, discovers and attains in the learning process.

The nature of learning

Learning takes place in a context where learners are introduced to knowledge slightly beyond their developmental level. Vygotsky introduced the notion of the Zone of Proximal Development to explain how learning occurs. ZPD can be defined as the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem-solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.

In addition, for any succesful learning to take place, learners have to meet  two crucial coditions:

  • People learn better when they are driven by internal motivation. Learners have to be aware and confident of their potential of learning. This internal motivation can be derived from prior experiences  of mastery of problems and is much more powerful than any external motivation. Learners have to be challenged within close proximity to, yet slightly above, their current level of development (cf Vygotsky’s ZPD above). By experiencing the successful completion of challenging tasks, learners gain confidence and motivation to embark on more complex challenges.
  • Learners have to take responsibility for their learning and be actively involved in the construction of their knowledge. They try to make sense of the world around them by discovering regularities.

The teacher as a facilitator

The teachers task is to facilitate the learning. Instead of direct instruction, teachers play the role of a facilitator who helps the learner to get to his or her own understanding of the content.

gives answers according to a set curriculumprovides guidelines and creates the environment for the learner to arrive at his or her own conclusions
gives a monologuecontinuous dialogue with the learners

The learner in traditional learning environments is a passive recipient to be filled with knowledge by the instructor while in a constructivist pedagagy the learner plays an active role in the learning process.

Notable Cognitivists

  • John Dewey is often cited as the philosophical founder of this approach.
  • Ausubel , Bruner , and Piaget  are considered the chief theorists among the cognitive constructionists.
  • Vygotsky  is the major theorist among the social constructionists.

(More on Constructivism)


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