The term refers to the idea that learners construct knowledge for themselves—each learner individually (and socially) constructs meaning—as he or she learns or from his/her experiences. Constructing meaning is learning; there is no other kind.

Not to be confused with “constructionism” (Seymour Papert’s edu theory), “constructivism” is not a specific pedagogy but a psychological theory of knowledge (epistemology) which argues that humans construct knowledge and meaning from their experiences.

The dramatic consequences of the principles of constructivism are twofold;

1. We have to focus on the learner in thinking about learning (not on the subject/lesson to be taught):

2. There is no knowledge independent of the meaning attributed to experience (constructed) by the learner, or community of learners.
We can distinguish between

  • “cognitive constructivism” which is about how the individual learner understands things, in terms of developmental stages and learning styles, and
  • “social constructivism”, which emphasises how meanings and understandings grow out of social encounters (attributed to Vygotsky).

Fitting into the constructivist framework, conversational theories of learning place the emphasis on the learner as an active “maker of meanings”. The role of the teacher is to enter into a dialogue with the learner, trying to understand the meaning to that learner of the material to be learned, and to help her or him to refine their understanding until it corresponds with that of the teacher.

When translated to educational approaches, constructivism advocates “discovery learning” or the “student-centered” approach to teaching. The approach sees students collaborating as partners or in groups, and teachers acting as “facilitators” rather than as “instructors.” Students are expected to come up with their own multiple solutions to problems and to ask fellow students for resorting to help from the teacher. 

Origins of constructivism

One strand of constructivism, has its origins in the writings of John Dewey, who emphasised the place of experience in education.

Another starts from the work of Piaget, who demonstrated empirically that children’s minds were not empty, but actively processed the material with which they were presented, and postulated the mechanisms of accommodation and assimilation as key to this processing.

Piaget’s theory of Constructivist learning has had particularly wide ranging impact on learning theories and teaching methods in education.

Problems with constructivist approaches to learning

Many educators especially traditionalists have qualms with constructivism. Where does the approach have room for drill, practice or repetition for a grounding grasp of basic concepts? For traditionalists, constructivism seems to defy certain common sense principles like:

The Law of Primacy – people tend to draw on the skills they learned first. What is learnt and what the teachers teach must be correct the first time because unteaching is more difficult than teaching; Or …

The Law of Exercise – practice is critical to learning – things most often repeated are best remembered … this is the way the mind works.  A student learns by applying what he has been taught and every time he practises his learning is deepened and continues.

The Law of Recency – which requires repeated practice and drill as soon as possible because the longer we go without practicing something, the sooner we forget it.

These principles conflict with the spiral technique where teachers touch briefly on a new concept, don’t give students to practice it, but will present the concept again later with added information or a new twist. 

Laurie Rogers suggests in her article “The Laws of Learning” that the two seeming opposing approaches (constructivism and traditionalism) can be reconciled and proposes six laws of learning as follows:

1.Make sure the students are ready for the lesson.

2. Prepare an experience that they’ll enjoy.

3. Teach students the most efficient, most effective methods first.

4. Make the lesson exciting.

5. Have students practice the lesson.

6. Build on recently learned concepts.


References and links:
Institute for Inquiry website

Wikipedia on Constructivism 

Constructivist theory 

Student-centered” Learning (or “Constructivism“) by Laurie H. Rogers, author of “Betrayed” Columnist

The Laws of Learning by Laurie H. Rogers

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