What is Constructivism?

Constructivism is a theory about knowledge and learning; of what “knowing” is and how one “comes to know” (Fosnot,1996, ix) According to the theory, human learning is constructed and that learners build new ideas or concepts based on previous experiences or knowledge. This prior knowledge or experience influences the construction of the new or modified learning. Constructivism suggests that humans innately have certain physical "schemes" which they use to interact with the environment. Genetic and environmental factors play important roles in shaping one's learning and development (Heffron, n.d., Constructivist Theories of Learning, para. 2).

Constructivism rejects the idea that learning is like a stamp from teacher to learner where knowledge is transmitted as exact replicas. In the constructivist view of learning, students are seen as active learners. They are scholars who continuously juxtapose current learning to prior established learning, compare inconsistencies/consistencies and modify knowledge accordingly. It is the examination of Individual interpretation of experience as opposed to objective representation (information processing perspective).


There are 9 general principles that can be derived from constructivist learning :
  1. Learning is an active process in which the learner uses sensory input and constructs meaning from it.
  2. Learning requires a priori knowledge. Jean Piaget states that "there is no structure apart from construction." It is not possible to create new learning without having some structure developed from previous knowledge to build on.
  3. Learning constructs systems of meaning. It does this by linking new information to previous knowledge.
  4. Learning involves reflective activity. According to John Dewey these are activities that engage both the motor and logical skills.
  5. Learning involves language. According to Lev Vygotsky , language and learning are inextricably intertwined as the language we use affects our learning.
  6. Learning is a social activity. Learning is intimately associated with connection to other human beings: teachers, classmates, family, etc.
  7. Learning is contextual: we learn in relationship to what else we know, what we believe, our prejudices and our fears.
  8. Learning is a process. For learning to happen students need time to digest new information, ponder on them and try them out.
  9. Learning requires self-motivation. Motivation is a key component to learning.

(Epstein, 2002, Principles of Learning section, para. 1)

Background of Constructivism

Constructivism has a long existed in our history in one form or another. Its earliest manifestations can be seen in the Socratics belief that learning was an inner experience (Warrick, n.d., para.5 ). However, we attribute much of the establishment of the constructivism theory to the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. Piaget wrote that "the being of structures consists in their coming to be, that is, their being 'under construction.' There is no structure apart from construction." (Fosnot, 1996, p.13). Piaget believes that the development of human beings is not limited to the biological or physical sense but also cognitively. Piaget's theory of intellectual growth stressed the progression or conceptual change that occur when existing cognitive schemes interact with new experiences.

Piaget's interest in the interconnectivity of the environment and a particular being began in his study of the biological equilibration. Most of Piaget's early work was in the field of biology before he went into the study of the genesis of cognitive structures. His research was founded on his fascination with the Limnaea stagnalis or what is commonly known as the pond snail. He observed three groups of snails: those that lived in still water, in mildly disturbed waters, and in severely disturbed waters (agitated by waves). The shell shape of those in calm waters were elongated while the other two groups living in agitated waters were both globular and curved. Piaget proposed that the difference in shell shape was due to the activities done by the snail to adapt to its changing environment (Fosnot, 1996, p. 11-13). Later on, Piaget took this concept further and applied it to human cognitive development. He suggested the concept of cognitive equilibration which means that development occurs through organization and adaptation to the environment. He asserts that the organism and its emotional, cognitive, and physical development are inseparable constructs; that they are but one whole system. In the same research, Piaget also introduced the concept of "assimilation" -- "the individual's self assertive tendency to view the world through one's own constructs in order to preserve one's autonomy" (Fosnot, 1996,p. 13).

Piaget postulated that learning occurs differently in each of his four defined developmental stages: (see diagram below)

  1. Sensorimotor.
  2. Preoperational.
  3. Concrete Operational.
  4. Formal Operational.


In the 1920's, a Soviet philosopher and psycholgist , Lev Semenovich Vygotsky, makes a similar claim as that of Piaget. Vygotsky believed that learning is also developmental but adds a socio-cultural dimension to the theory. His theory combines the social environment and cognition in which he states that prior to cognitive development social interaction takes place first. Consciousness and cognition are the end products of socialization and social behavior (Learning Theories Knowledgebase, 2007) . One's learning development is highly influenced by how one interacts with other people and the tools that culture provides to help them form their view of the world.

There are three ways in which a cultural tool can be transmitted from one person to another :
  1. Imitative Learning - the learner copies or imitates another person.
  2. Instructed Learning - remembering instructions and using the instructions to self-regulate.
  3. Collaborative Learning - a learning which involves the collaboration with other individuals in the effort of understanding each other and reach a common goal/skill.

(Gallagher, 1999, Theory section, para. 1)

Vygotsky also supports the idea of learning through a "More Knowledgeable Other" (MKO) , which refers to an individual who has a better understanding of a particular concept/task. This is often represented in the person of the teacher/mentor but it can also be the parent, peers or even a child of younger age. Vygotsky states that what children can do with the assistance of others is even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone (Bransford,, 1999).

Vygotsky introduces another concept, the "Zone of Proximal Development" (ZPD). ZPD is the difference in the ability of a person to work under the guidance of an MKO and his/her ability to work by him/herself. It is in this zone that learning happens to the student: "What a child can perform today with assistance she will be able to perform tomorrow independently, thus preparing her for entry into a new and more demanding collaboration" (Vygotsky, 1978; qtd. from Bransford,, 1999 ). It is through the "scaffolding" instructional method that ZPD is achieved.

Vygotsky's ZPD

The four basic principles in Vygotsky's theory are:
  1. Children construct their own knowledge
  2. Development cannot be separated from its social context
  3. Learning can lead to development
  4. Language plays a central role in mental development

(Gallagher, 1999, Theory section)

Vygotsky and Piaget agree with the fact that learning is developmental and that environment influences the mental progress. However, Vygotsky differentiates himself from Piaget's theory by naming two concepts, the "spontaneous" and the "scientific." Spontaneous concepts are those which an individual develops naturally through reflection of everyday experience (Piaget's theory) . Scientific concepts, according to Vygotsky , are brought about in structured activities such as those in a classroom wherein more formal abstractions and logically defined ideas are presented to the learner. (Fosnot, 1996, p.18).

Piaget's theory places more value in the learner as the most important source of cognition. His theory presents a development that is more universal
or natural among learners. Vygotsky, on the other hand, values the influence of the social environment as cultural tools can affect the learner's ability to adapt to new situations. This type of learning is more variable as it is dependent upon the learner's cultural environment and experiences. (Gallagher, 1999, Comparison section).

Both Piaget's and Vygotsky's theories serve as the basic foundation for the psychological learning theory of constructivism that has blossomed into other theories (see Other Learning Theories). Basic to both theories is that as learners, human beings continuously construct knowledge from experiences and make our own versions of it. Evolution/Construction of knowledge is an unending process.

Major Theorists and Proponents of Constructivism

  • Lev Vygotsky. Focuses on social structure/ peer collaboration. He believes in the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition. Vygotsky stated that community is key in the process of making meaning. Learning comes from within (skill base) and from without (society).
  • Piaget. Focuses on cognitive structure. Learning is based on what that child knows already. New information is brought in for assimilation. Learning comes from the inside (what we already know), out.

see also: Thomas Luckmann. Peter L. Berger. J. Bruner. H. Gardner. N. Goodman.

More information on Piaget and Vygotsky found here.

Other Learning Theories/ Methods Related to Constructivism

What Constructivist Teachers Do

While there are multiple ideas within Constructivism, they generally agree that putting theory into practice is the main goal of the Constructivist teacher. That is, students should be actively involved in their own education ("doing") and the teacher should be the facilitator.

Social Constructivists (Lev Vygotsky) teachers focus on hands-on learning involving the real world/ society through team work and/ or peer collaboration.

Cognitive Constructivists (Piaget) approach teaching by building upon what the student already knows.

Costructivist teachers allow for active discovery. They do not dictate what knowledge is to be learned but rather allow each student to determine what s/he gets out of the learning process for themselves; it is learner directed. This is done by giving the student as many tools as possible to explore the lesson or problem from as many angles as possible. Use of the Socratic Method (ie, asking a series of directed questions which allows the student to develop the an answer on their own) is the norm. The teacher has 2 main goals: 1) give the student/ learner opportunities to interact with sensory materials which, 2) allow the students to construct their own world.

external image j0318114.gif

According to Jacqueline Grennon Brooks and Martin G. Brooks, authors of A Case for Constructivist Classrooms, there are 12 important principles in constructivist teaching (Carvin, 2004, para. 2):

  1. Encouragement and acceptance of student autonomy and initiative.
  2. Utilization of raw data and primary sources along with manipulative, interactive, and physical materials.
  3. When planning, teachers use cognitive terminology such as "classify", "analyze", and "create."
  4. Allow student responses drive lessons, shift instructional strategies, and alter content.
  5. Inquiry concerning students' understanding of a concept before sharing their own understanding of those concepts.
  6. Encouragement of students to engage in dialogue, both with the teacher and with one another.
  7. Encouragement of student inquiry by asking thoughtful, open-ended questions and encouraging students to ask questions of each other.
  8. Pursuit of elaboration of students' initial responses.
  9. Use of Socratic Method to encourage students to think critically and encourage discussion.
  10. Allowances for wait time after posing questions.
  11. Providing time for students to construct relationships and create metaphors.
  12. Nurturing students' natural curiosity through frequent use of the learning cycle model.

Because of the disconnect on exactly what Constructivism is it can be difficult to determine exactly what is assessed. Generally, Constructivists assess on the following:
  • Hands-on Activities. Students learn by doing. Examples: baking a cake teaches the student measurement (math) and how to follow directions; it also teaches you how to bake a cake. Doing a science experiment.
  • KWL(H) Chart. I.E., What we know. What we want to know. What we have learned. How we know it.
  • Oral Discussion. The teacher will pose a question and allow open discussion on the topic. The teacher will moderate and facilitate the discussion.
  • Mind Mapping.
  • Pre-testing (especially Cognitive Constructivists)

What Constructivist Learners Do

external image MMj028363000001.gif
First and foremost, the constructivist learner must be self-motivated and be willing to take the initiative. Students learn by doing.
  • Students learn by actively building/constructing new knowledge.
    • Co-opperative learning/ jobs while in school for credit, internships, apprenticeships, science labs, practicing math problems, community service, group projects, etc. These are all ways in which students actively learn.
  • Students do not come to mental development through memorization or parroting their MKO's but through the constant interaction of prior learning and new experience.

Some Examples of Constructivist Learning and Instruction


Constructivist learning calls for:

  • learning through group activities
  • the posing of meaningful and complex problems
  • modeling and guiding the knowledge construction process.

1. Learning Through Group Activities
Students learn best when participating in activities involving their peers. They are able to work collaboratively to come up with complex and complete ideas which build upon prior knowledge. Students working in group settings do not feel as much individual pressure to succeed and thus are able to contribute more thoroughly to the activities at hand.
Examples of this style of learning are:

-group reading projects
-interactive webquests
-whole class field trips
-peer reviews and evaluations
-community service projects


22250826.jpe2. The Posing of Meaningful and Complex Problems
Asking students simple, close ended questions results in simple close ended answers. It is much harder for a teacher to gauge and assess students' knowledge without posing complex problems.

Closed questions ask for a very specific answer. Open questions require more thought. ("What would happen if you were living in Germany during the Nazi regime?") There may even be a range of potentially good answers; then you can ask students to judge which ones are better than others. Ask them to justify their choices. If a teacher is asking a more complex question that requires step-by-step calculations to answer, he or she should write key elements for problem solving on the blackboard or an overhead transparency prepared in advance.
Asking a question that is too easy may make students feel it’s not worth answering. In fact, they may feel insulted at having been asked a question with an obvious answer.

lead students down the right road with the right questions

3. Modeling and Guiding the Knowledge Construction Process
Teachers are the ultimate educational models for students. They pose problems, model a range of strategies for methods to solve those problems, and then guide students through appropriate processes for arriving at solid conclusions. In Constructivist instruction, the teacher demonstrates not only his or her own expertise but also--and perhaps more importantly--shows trust in the students' abilities to function as productive problem solvers on their own. Success in the constructivist classroom cannot be measured strictly by whether or not students have the right answers: instead both collaborative and independent learning are highly valued for the critical thinking skills they promote.


Working Example of the Constructivst Theory
An example of Constructivist instruction can be illustrated through the teacher vs. student idea of grammar in Language Arts. Constructivist instruction highly values the development of students' personal grammatical ideas. Traditional instruction, on the other hand, values only established grammar techniques and concepts. For example, even though many teachers consistently use concrete materials to introduce grammatical standards and ideas, they use them only for an introduction; the goal is to get the students to write, speak and understand standard English and all of its precise, established grammatical rules. Subsequently, students' intuitive thinking about what is meaningful to them becomes diminished and devalued. They come to feel that their intuitive ideas are not related to "real" English or Language Arts.
In Constructivist instruction, students are encouraged to use their own understanding of English to write stories, solve problems, and expand their vocabulary. They are not asked to replicate someone else's thinking but encouraged to refine their own. Although the teacher presents tasks that promote higher learning and the use of more advanced techniques, all methods are valued and supported. Through interaction with Language Arts projects and assignments, the students' own intuitive grammatical thinking gradually becomes more fluid and strong.


*Interesting additional thoughts on Constructivist learning:

*What happens when students are taught one way to think, without expanding their own ideas (i.e. non-Constructivist instruction):

Some Examples of Technology-based Constructivist Learning and Instruction

Technology strongly supports Constructivist learning and instruction. Students are able to write papers, create websites, research information, and challenge their own knowledge, all while building upon their own creative thought processes and establishing dependable footholds in advancing their education. Teachers also benefit from using technology in the Constructivist model. By establishing assignments with clear guidelines and definite outcome expectations, instructors allow students to follow their own paths of learning in order to complete the assignments. A good example would be assigning a research project on the history of France to a group of 7th graders. After explaining the differences between quality data and questionable material, and creating a clear expectation rubric, the students would begin researching on their own. With the capability to search the internet, browse CD-rom libraries, and review educational videos to find the information they need, students would be able to formulate a quality report.
Overall, a Constructivist approach to learning offers students multiple opportunites for success in both independent and collaborative projects. This success then encourages students to advance their learning, utilizing skills which are continually enhanced by their teacher's guidance and their interaction with peers.


Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L. & Cocking, R. R. (1999). BOX 4.1 zone of proximal development. Retrieved Sept. 26, 2007, from

Carvin, A. (2004). Constructivism basics. Retrieved Sept. 14, 2007, from

Chen, I. Overview of social constructivism. Retrieved Sept. 26, 2007, from

Constructivism, situated learning, and other learning theories. Retrieved Sept. 26, 2007, from

Epstein, M. (2002). Maureen epstein's online research portfolio. Retrieved Sept. 14, 2007, from

Field, R. (2007). John dewey (1859-1952). Retrieved Sept. 15, 2007, from

Fosnot, C. T. (1996). Preface. In C. T. Fosnot (Ed.), Constructivism: Theory, perspectives and practice (pp. ix). New York: Teachers College Press.

Gallagher, C. (1999). Lev semyonovich vygotsky. Retrieved Sept. 25, 2007, from

Gray, A. Contructivist teaching and learning. Retrieved Sept. 26, 2007, from

Heffron, M. Module 1- learning theories

Learning Theories Knowledgebase. (2007). Social development theory (vygotsky). Retrieved Sept. 25, 2007, from

Scaffolding. Retrieved Sept. 26, 2007, from

Socratic Method. Retrieved Sept. 26, 2007, from

Theories of Learning: Cognitive Constructivism. Retrieved Sept. 26, 2007, from

Theories of Learning: Jean Piaget. Retrieved Sept. 18, 2007, from

TLL Library: What Makes A Good Question. Retrived September 27, 2007, from
Vygotsky, Lev Semenovich 1896-1934 . (2003). Retrieved Sept. 21, 2007, from

Warrick, W. R. (2007). Constructivism: Pre-historical to post-modern. Retrieved Sept. 21, 2007, from

Wenger, E. Communities of practice: a brief introduction. Retrieved September 26, 2007, from