Saturday, January 30, 2010

Constructivism – a theory of learning and its teaching implications

Constructivism has revolutionised the classroom through the theory’s understanding that learners construct their own knowledge rather than information being transferred verbatim (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010), or as Charles Gragg (1940) eloquently stated “Wisdom can’t be told”. This understanding has transformed the classroom from a one way communication process between the teacher and students to an open dialogue that promotes interaction and makes students’ thinking open and visible (Bransford et al., 2000; Donovan & Bransford, 2005; as cited by Eggen & Kauchak, 2010). The constructivist teacher does not tell her students she asks them and in doing so creates an environment that encourages active involvement, a known factor in increasing learning and retention (Eggen et al). A theory encapsulated by the Chinese proverb;

“Tell me and I’ll forget
Show me and I may remember
Involve me and I’ll understand”

Whilst constructivism is currently the dominant approach to learning in Australia (Fetherston, 2006), how will the effective teacher utilise this theory within the learning environment of tomorrow? This blog topic aims to provide an overview of constructivism, and how this fits within the classroom and the effective teacher of the future.

Within the constructivist camp there are varying viewpoints of knowledge construction, the two main viewpoints are:

Cognitive constructivism grounded by Piaget’s work focuses on individual internal constructions of knowledge (Greeno, Collins & Resnick, 1996; Meter & Stevens, 2000; Nuthall, 1999a; as cited by Eggen & Kauchak, 2010). It is based on the understanding that learning is dependent upon student maturation and individual experiences with learning occurring through the processes of Assimilation, Accommodation, Disequilibration and Equilibration taking place (Fetherston, 2006). Social interaction is involved in the process but as an instigator that causes individual cognitive conflict (disequilibrium) (Palincsar, 1998; as cited by Eggen et al), forcing the student to either assimilate or accommodate to regain equilibrium (Fetherston).

Social constructivism a view founded on Vygotsky’s (1978) work who as Fetherston (2006 p.157) described, viewed knowledge as a process that “evolves through cognitive conflict and social negotiation”, and is based on learners first constructing knowledge in a social context before they appropriate and internalise it; social constructivism is the most influential theory in schools of today (J.Martin, 2006; as cited by Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).

Cognitive constructivism causes some issues for the effective teacher, as its belief of individualised knowledge construction limits the teachers’ role within the classroom. In comparison social constructivism suggests teachers question the traditional methodologies of teaching, such as how to specify and prepare learning activities, how to conduct lessons and how to create assessments that can be individually assessed. Social constructivism promotes the teacher’s role as a facilitator who cultivates interactive social environments; that foster real life learning opportunities that allow learners to personalise, exchange, collaborate and construct their own knowledge (Fleming & Alexander, 2001; R. Anderson et al., 2001 Meter & Stevens, 2000; as cited by Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).

As outlined by Eggen & Kauchak (2010, p. 230), despite the varying viewpoints, all constructivists agree that, “Learners construct knowledge, rather than record, knowledge” and most agree on the four following characteristics;

Learners construct knowledge that makes sense to them.

New learning depends on current understanding.

Social interaction facilitates learning.

The most meaningful learning occurs within real-world tasks.

The implications of constructivism challenges the teachers role within the classroom, but research suggests that the effort is beneficial as it has been demonstrated that instruction based on constructivist learning theory can increase learning for all students (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).
In creating an effective classroom based on the theory of constructivism the effective teacher would:

Provide learners with a variety of examples and representations of content that encompasses all the information required to understand the topic in varying formats. E.g. Slides, games, simulations, DVDs, newspapers, computer programmes.

Uncover students pre-existing ideas, concepts and understandings. An integral process to highlight any misconceptions from past experiences.

Allow students to play and experiment with ideas, to create, to reflect and work out their own understandings. Provide access to books, internet, facilitate teacher and peer interaction, place expert students into novice groups to scaffold learning.

Utilise effective collaborative learning that creates high levels of interaction and peer learning. Design activities that allow for interaction.

Use problem based learning based on real world examples. E.g. Use case studies that can be owned by the student, provide authentic learning activities e.g. for understanding currency set up classroom stalls with sellers and buyers.

Use scaffolding techniques within the individual’s zone of proximal development (refer to Cognitive Development blog for definition). Match the task to the student so that it lies within their ‘zone’.

Promote learning with assessment. Get students to demonstrate understanding through interactive concrete examples. Create an assessment dialogue such as using white boards or hand signals from the class to assess ongoing learning. Use formative and summative evaluation. (Fetherston, 2006; Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).

In considering the classroom and the students of the future constructivism and technology will work alongside one another facilitating information exchange, collaboration, scaffolding and social interaction.

Teaching for assessment will be easier with the dialogue of formative feedback being an instaneous communication process from student to teacher. The theory will not be limited to the confines of the physical classroom but through virtual learning centres with collaboration taking place through blogs (such as this), video links, forums and you tube which will help scaffold learning exponentially as the world shares its knowledge through real life real time web cams and ilectures instantly routed to the student at home, work or school. As with all changes come opportunities and threats and as such the teacher of tomorrow will need to be aware of and educate students on reliability of information sourced from the internet to avoid the high risk of misconceptions occurring (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).


Eggen P. & Kauchak D. (2010). Educational psychology: windows on classrooms (8th. Ed.). French's Forest: Pearson.

Fetherston, 2006, T. (2006). Becoming an effective teacher. Sydney: Thompson.


  1. As a new teacher it is important to remember that constructivism doesn’t provide a complete picture of learning. Constructivism tends to ignore the human memory model, for example, students will only construct an understanding a topic to the extent to which they pay attention, correctly perceive the information, and avoid having their working memories overloaded. (as cited Eggen, 2010: Azevedo & Cromley, 2004).

    Also Research suggests that many skills need to be practiced to automaticity (as cited Eggen, 2010; Feldon, 2007a; Peladuau, Forget, & Gagne, 2003). A skill supported and understood by cognitive learning. As such the effective teacher needs to look outside the boundaries of constructivism to fully understand the learning process.

  2. What is the correct citation for this article?

  3. it is as listed in the references

  4. it is listed in the references