What is constructivism, and how can you apply it in your teaching?

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Published: September 20th, 2022

As a teacher, you’re likely always on the lookout for new learning theories and teaching methods to apply in your classroom. If that’s the case, then you might be interested in learning about constructivism, a learning theory that emphasises the learner’s construction of new knowledge from previous experiences and understandings. This differs from traditional models of teaching where knowledge is simply imparted to students. In constructivism, your role as a teacher is to facilitate students to construct knowledge instead. 

What is constructivism?

Constructivism is a theory in education according to which humans construct their understanding and knowledge of the world they live in through experience and perception. In other words, people are active participants in their understanding of the world rather than passive recipients of information. In the context of learning, this means students learn by actively making sense of their experiences rather than passively receiving information from a teacher or another source.

What is constructivism theory, and where did it come from?

To define constructivism, we first must understand the different constructivist theories behind it. Constructivism has its roots in philosophy, sociology, and psychology, with several different theories that sit within the constructivism school of thought. The three main theories are cognitive constructivism, social constructivism and radical constructivism.

Cognitive constructivism is a theory first developed by Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, who argued that children are not simply miniature adults. Instead, they have their own way of understanding the world around them. This understanding develops through a series of stages, as children interact with their environment and learn from their experiences. In essence, the theory states that knowledge is constructed based on existing cognitive structures (i.e. knowledge is built upon existing knowledge).

Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, also contributed to the constructivist theory. Vygotsky’s theory, which emphasises the collaborative nature of learning, is often referred to as social constructivism. He argued that social interaction is essential for learning and that community is fundamental in the process of “making meaning”. He said that children learn best when working with someone more knowledgeable than they are, such as a parent, teacher, or older peer. 

Ernst von Glasersfeld developed radical constructivism. Radical constructivism states that all knowledge is constructed rather than perceived through the senses. This means that the knowledge we create tells us nothing about reality – it merely helps us function in our environment. Thus, there is no objective or universal reality and knowledge is invented, not discovered. 

Constructivism in education

In the classroom context, a constructivist theory of learning emphasises the learner’s active role in knowledge construction. A constructivist approach to teaching can differ from traditional methods in several ways: 

  • In traditional classrooms, learners are passive recipients, with educators being in place to disseminate information. Constructivist classrooms instead encourage teachers to have a dialogue with their students, helping them construct their own knowledge.
  • A constructivist approach focuses on the learner and not on the teacher. This means instruction is tailored to the learner’s needs and not the teacher’s preferences. 
  • In a traditional classroom, students work primarily alone, while in a constructivist classroom, students work more often in groups.
  • A constructivist approach values student questions and interests over strictly adhering to a fixed curriculum.
  • In a traditional classroom, learning is based on repetition, while in a constructivist classroom, learning is interactive, building on what the student already knows.
  • In a traditional classroom, the teacher’s role is directive, while in a constructivist classroom, the teacher’s role is interactive.

Guiding constructivist principles for educators

Many guiding principles make up the constructivist approach. Together, these principles shape how constructivism can be used in the classroom. So, when planning your lessons, keep the following points in mind:

  1. Knowledge is constructed: Humans don’t just passively receive information from the world around them but actively construct their own understanding of it. This is done through a process of assimilation and accommodation, where new information is either incorporated into existing mental structures (assimilation) or those structures are changed to fit with the new information (accommodation).
  2. Learning is an active process: Learners are not passive recipients of information but actively construct knowledge and understanding. For learning to be effective, it must be an active process.
  3. Learning is a social process: Humans learn best when they interact with others. Learning is not something that happens in isolation but occurs through social interaction.
  4. Learning is contextual: Learning is situated in a specific context and cannot be separated from that context. The context includes the learner’s prior knowledge, experiences, and beliefs, as well as the culture, environment, and language in which they are learning.
  5. Learning is personal: Each person will have their own prior knowledge and experiences to build from, so the way that knowledge is developed will be very different from one person to the next. 
  6. The learner is the centre of the learning experience: The focus of instruction should be on the learner, their needs and processes, and not on the teacher.
  7. There are multiple ways of knowing: There are many different ways to understand the world and that no single perspective is the only or the correct way.
  8. The world is complex and dynamic: This means that the world is constantly changing, as is our understanding of it. We can never know everything about the world, and our understanding of it is always incomplete.
  9. Knowledge can not be directly imparted. The goal of your teaching should be to provide experiences that facilitate the construction of knowledge.

Constructivist teaching methods

Try some of these constructivist approaches to apply constructivism learning theory in your classroom. All of these methods allow students to construct their own understanding of the material. 

  1. Problem-based learning (PBL): In problem-based learning, students work together to solve real-world problems. Students must examine the problem, explore what they already know about it, determine what else they need to learn to find a solution and evaluate all possible ideas before eventually solving the problem.
  2. Inquiry-based learning (IBL): In inquiry-based learning, students are given the opportunity to explore a topic in depth. Students are encouraged to explore the material and seek answers to their questions via research. They must draw connections between their pre-existing knowledge and the knowledge they’ve acquired through the activity and draw their own conclusions.
  3. Cooperative learning: In cooperative learning, students work in small groups to complete a task or project. This differs from group-based learning in that groups are small enough to require that everyone participates and that there is interdependence between the group members to complete the task.
  4. Hands-on learning: In hands-on learning, students are actively engaged in the learning process. They learn by doing. Instead of simply listening to their teacher provide information on a topic, students must actively participate in solving a problem or completing a project. 

Examples of constructivism in the classroom

Outside of the teaching methods listed above, there are some straightforward and fast ways to incorporate constructivism theory into your everyday teaching.

To encourage your students to take a constructivist learning approach:

  • Ask them questions to check for understanding instead of just providing information
  • Encourage them to explain their thinking process out loud
  • Allow them to discover concepts for themselves through exploration and hands-on learning
  • Provide support as needed, but let them take the lead
  • Encourage them to share their prior knowledge before explaining a concept or setting a project

FAQs about constructivism

What is constructivism?

Constructivism is a theory of learning that says people learn by constructing their own knowledge. This means that learners are not passive recipients of information but are actively involved in their own learning. 

What is an example of constructivism?

An example of constructivism is a classroom where students are actively engaged in their learning. In this type of classroom, learners are not passive recipients of information but are actively involved in their own learning. This might include working on projects, discussing material with classmates, or doing research.

What is Piaget’s theory of constructivism?

Piaget’s theory of constructivism is a cognitive theory that says people learn by constructing their own knowledge. This means that people create their own understanding of the world, and that new information is integrated into existing knowledge.

What are the three types of constructivism?

The three types of constructivism are cognitive, social, and radical. Cognitive constructivism is a theory that says that people learn by constructing their own knowledge. Social constructivism is a theory that says that people learn by interacting with others in their social environment. Radical constructivism is a theory that says that people learn by creating their own reality.

How to implement constructivism into your classroom using technology

A key part of constructivist teaching is ensuring your students are actively engaged in their learning, and learning by doing. Technology can aid this process, enabling students to drive their own learning. 

Not only are digital technologies such as Promethean’s ActivPanel highly engaging, they also encourage interactivity and active participation in learning. Some ways that you can use technology to encourage constructive learning include:

  • Giving your students a problem and encouraging them to research the topic and find a solution using online resources.
  • Incorporating game-based learning into your lessons to encourage participation and engagement. Some educational games include Minecraft: Education Edition and MindMeister.
  • Making your presentations interactive using an interactive display and interactive presentation software, such as Canva, Prezi or ShowMe.
  • Encouraging collaboration and teamwork using an interactive display and lesson delivery software, like ClassFlow, for digital games and team-based activities.
  • Using augmented reality to create immersive experiences like virtual field trips, interactive simulations and more.

If you’re interested in learning more about how technology can help you increase student engagement, get in touch to request a demo of Promethean’s ActivPanel.

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