Constructivism “student-centered learning vs. traditionalism

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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3 thoughts on “Constructivism “student-centered learning vs. traditionalism”

  1. Some learners real, are empty headed thus their brains need be filled up by the desirable content, to make them construct knowledge from no where, is impossible. Mwl. Shahanga, UDOM

  2. I offer the view that as soon as we impose laws on what people learn we are not allowing constructivism to work. We’re imposing our will on the learner, who may learn something but it may not be what we expect.
    Also, consider this: We educate ourselves by reflecting on what we learn and adjusting our sociocultural worldview in order to make congruent sense of the experienced world. So our education is unique to us, just as what we learn and how we manage what we learn are unique to us.
    We could take the view that every human social interaction results in teaching and learning. School certainly does not have a monopoly on teaching or learning. Parents teach their children all over the world and need not be teachers in the trained sense. Children all over the world learn inside and outside school.
    When we speak of an ‘education system’ we are speaking of schooling. It is not meaningful to speak of ‘education’ as a system. Nor is it what one person does to another in any sense. Rather it is a consequence of reflecting on what we learn, which is why it’s unique to each of us.
    Incidentally, consider this, too: Those who understand learning as a relatively permanent change in behaviour are observing evidence of learning but not learning itself. Learning, I would argue, occurs at the electrical level of ordering and re-ordering data stored in our mind to ensure we are able to recall what we learn, reflect on it, and thus make new or consistent sense of the external world. Such electrical activity is not directly observable. It is normally mediated either by observing behaviour or by observing a machine that represents neural networks in action.
    So, in sum, the ideas expressed in English (and only in English) by the words ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ are universal ideas. Other language’s use different words to represent those universal ideas. Yet, what teachers do when they teach is culturally relative. Logically a universal idea cannot be a culturally relative activity. So we can conclude that what teachers do is not teaching. So what is it?
    Well, we need to explore the idea that the assumptions of those who form a teaching-learning relationship reveal how and why the relationship matters, and to whom. As our assumptions bring to the fore a teaching-learning interaction the roles of teacher and of learner shift constantly in the course of the interaction.
    Only in a school is the label Teacher more or less permanent. Good teachers know that they are learners as much as they are Teachers. So why don’t we invent a new word to account for the non-permanence of the labels Teacher and Learner in the formal school system? Parents don’t need to call themselves teachers when they explore new information with their child. Why do School Teachers need to be called Teacher and those who learn from them Student or Learner? Let’s be inventive!
    Kindest Regards,
    Peter Trebilco
    PhD Scholar (Education)
    Australian National University
    Graduate of the US State Department Foreign Service Institute in Yokohama, Japan

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