Definition of Constructivism
Constructivism is a theory that is based on scientific study and observation on how people learn. It is an approach to learning that states that people construct their knowledge and understanding of the world by experiencing events and reflecting on those events (McLeod, 2019). This is by deriving meaning from those events, something that is influenced by and reconciled with previous experiences and ideas. Constructivism is characterized by several major principles that include the following.
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Learning is an active process
Unlike in the traditional passive view of teaching and learning where the student was a blank slate ready to be filled with knowledge, in constructivism, learners have to construct their own understanding by being engaged actively with the world around them through real-world problem solving and experiments (McLeod, 2019). For learners to understand, they have to make meaningful connections between past knowledge, prior knowledge and the entire learning process from information received either actively or passively.
Knowledge is actively constructed
The central idea behind constructivism is that learning is actively constructed and individuals learn by building knowledge from and onto already pre-existing knowledge. This prior knowledge forms the foundation of newly learned experiences (McLeod, 2019). It dismisses the idea that knowledge can be innately or passively received.
All knowledge is socially constructed
This principle states that teaching and learning involve sharing and bargaining socially created knowledge (McLeod, 2019). Learning is something that is done together through interactions. It encourages active collaboration in the pursuit of learning.
Knowledge is personal
This principle negates the view that knowledge is socially constructed by stating that every learner has their own unique perspective based on prior value, ideas and knowledge (McLeod, 2019). This means that different learners taking the same lesson or going through a similar experience will ultimately learn differently according to their own specific interpretations.
Learning exists in the mind
Learners constantly develop their unique mental perceptions of the real world from their own view of that world. Constructivism states that knowledge is only existent in the mind and does not fit any reality in the real world. Learners continually modify their own mental perceptions to mirror new information and subsequently make their own apprehension of reality.
There are three main forms of constructivism which are; social constructivism that is based on the work of Lev Vygotsky, radical constructivism, and cognitive constructivism based on Jean Piaget’s (1896-1980) work. According to the GSI Teaching and Resource Centre (2015), cognitive constructivism states that learning is relative to the stage of a learner’s cognitive development as knowledge is actively constructed on the cognitive structures that are in existence.
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Jean Piaget concluded that people learn by building logic on pre-existing logic, that is learning is transformative and not cumulative and that children had different ways of thinking as compared to adults (Piaget & Cook, 1952). This built on the work of John Dewey (1859-1952) who had stated that inquiry was an important part of constructivism (Dewey, 1916).
He is considered the pioneer of the constructivism approach. Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), a Russian psychologist, developed social constructivism by suggesting that functions in children’s cultural development appeared twice. Once on the social level and later on the individual level; that is, between people first and then inside the child (Vygotsky, 1987). Social constructivism involves a collaborative learning process, and learners acquire knowledge through cultural and societal interactions.
Ernst von Glasersfeld developed radical constructivism that stated that all knowledge is constructed instead of being perceived through senses or felt. This type of constructivism states that the knowledge created by people reveal nothing about reality and only serves their behavior in their environment (McLeod, 2019).
The subsequent conclusion that knowledge is not discovered but invented. Dewey contributed to the thinking that schools had to incorporate real-life issues into their curriculum while Piaget stated that transformation came about from learning and development and Vygotsky contributed the thinking that learning and development relied on communicative interactions with other individuals.
Differentiation in the Classroom
A teacher moderates, suggests, coaches while still allowing his/her students the autonomy to ask questions, problem-solve, experiment successfully or unsuccessfully. The learning process involves students utilizing their prior knowledge, ideas and understandings to participate in a lesson fully. They reflect on, add to, talk about and discuss their activities and set their own goals as a way of assessing themselves.
The emphasis is on receiving information and actively seeking to get context, content and develop own ideas (Knowles et al., 2015). A teacher may choose to set aside some time every week for an experiment; allow students to express themselves during the experiment fully; give them opportunities to examine their own finished experiment and compare it to earlier works on the same experiment and allow them to make their own observations, corrections and conclusions.
Constructivist theory is heavily characterized by collaboration among learners. Collaborative learning helps students learn from themselves as well as their peers. This aids the learners in reviewing and reflecting on their learning processes and adopting methods and strategies from each other. Students work in groups as opposed to the traditional classroom where students work primarily alone (McLeod, 2019). A teacher can plan an excursion where the students are allowed to explore, discuss within themselves, collaborate with other groups and develop their own conclusion regarding the excursion.
Learners get to control their own learning processes by reflecting on their experiences. A teacher aids in building a safe space for learners to question and reflect on their own, either in groups or by themselves (Clark, 2015). The teacher can also create situational activities that push the learners into reflecting on their prior knowledge and experiences and creating forums to discuss what has been learnt and why it is important.
A teacher would accomplish this by asking his/her students to write journals or fill the suggestions book about how they feel about a certain class, project or experiment and what progress they have made (Temli, 2016). The teacher then goes ahead and reads the journals and suggestions then holds a discussion regarding their responses; what new knowledge was acquired, how best to learn a certain concept, understanding the learning environment and his/her role in the whole process.
Impact of Constructivism in the classroom
Constructivism enhances social and communication skills through collaboration and idea exchanges. This develops students’ negotiating abilities while being able to evaluate their contributions in a manner that is socially acceptable (Knowles et al., 2015). Negotiation skills make learners more successful in the real world as they are able to bargain, reason, question, cooperate and navigate their way through life.
Constructivism gives learners pride as they claim ownership of what they have learnt through explorations and questions). Students are also involved in their own assessments that engage their initiatives, personal investments in their journals, research reports, artistic representation and physical models (McLeod, 2019). This level of engagement enhances learners’ abilities to be creatively expressive in different ways, making them more likely to acquire, retain, use and transfer new knowledge.
Since constructivism is inquiry-based, learners learn the art of intelligently questioning things and being naturally curious in the world. This is a special trait as it opens them up to more opportunities and more solutions in their day to day lives (Temli, 2016). A classroom that involves constructivism in its learning process is active and vibrant as learners enjoy active participation over passive listening (Clark, 2015).
The reflective aspect of constructivism enables students to determine the best way of learning things for themselves, appreciating alternative solutions to their own of dealing with different problems, in the classroom and the real world as learning is done in a realistic context.
Contrary to the common belief (traditional/conservative), constructivism does not diminish the value of a teacher or knowledge by an expert. Constructivism enhances that role whereby a teacher helps learners in constructing their own knowledge instead of recreating existing facts. This way of learning converts students from being passive listeners to active participants as it involves a teacher providing tools such as inquiry-based, debatable and problem-solving activities to help learners learn and test their own ideas while drawing conclusions and having discussions in a collaborative environment (Temli, 2016). Rather than mechanically absorbing information from books and teachers, students are able to construct and build on their knowledge actively.
Constructivism seeks to arouse a learner’s innate curiosity about life and how things function. This helps them in hypothesizing, negotiating, testing, and drawing conclusions from their own findings. The skills pioneered by constructivism enhance students’ individuality while still enhancing their stand in the world and broadening their opportunities in life.
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A teacher who values students’ participation will uphold constructivism by conducting experiments, creating discussion groups, organizing excursions, handing out periodical questionnaires, assigning individual and group projects, holding debate sessions, ensuring that all students participate in class and emphasizing on journaling by and suggestions from the students
Clark, A. (2015). Surfing uncertainty: Prediction, action, and the embodied mind. Oxford University Press.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: MacMillan.
Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2015). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development 8th. Abingdon: Routledge.
McLeod, S. (2019). Constructivism as a theory for teaching and learning. Simply psychology.
Piaget, J., & Cook, M. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children (Vol. 8, No. 5, p. 18). New York: International Universities Press.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). Thinking and speech. The collected works of LS Vygotsky, 1, 39-285.
Teaching Guide for GSIs. Learning: Theory and Research (2016). Web.
Temli Durmus, Y. (2016). Effective Learning Environment Characteristics as a Requirement of Constructivist Curricula: Teachers’ Needs and School Principals’ Views. International Journal of Instruction, 9(2), 183-198. Web.