Constructivism in education is a learning theory that posits that students learn new information by building on top of a foundation of what they’ve already learned. While constructivism is one of several educational theories, it can help students take a more active role in their education by relating new concepts to their own background or life experiences to deepen their understanding of what they already know and increase their comprehension of new information.
This article will cover the basics of constructivism as an educational theory and why educators may want to adopt it to reach students and enhance learning outcomes.
What is Constructivism?
Constructivism learning theory (CLT) operates on the principle that students actively participate in discovery-based learning, building upon existing knowledge to learn new concepts. Constructivism looks at learning as both the act of building and, if it were a building itself, with prior knowledge forming a foundation to build upon.
Teachers and educators can leverage this approach effectively by helping students better understand concepts they have already learned, relating them to their everyday experiences to help new lessons resonate.
Constructivism has its roots in the cognitive revolution of the 1950s as an intellectual movement to study the mind and its various processes. Constructivism is a reaction to behaviorism; previously, the dominant approach solely focused on observable behavior, not the “hidden” thought process.
Constructivism encompassed thought leaders and theorists from such varying disciplines as psychology, anthropology, linguistics, neuroscience, computer science, and philosophy. The leading figure of cognitive constructivism, as it pertains to education, was Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. Piaget theorized that people learn by connecting their experiences with ideas presented to them. His work focused heavily on children’s cognitive development and how they learn, as opposed to what influences their learning.
The Principles of Constructivism
While constructivism is a learning theory, it comprises several principles that serve as pillars to support the theory.
Knowledge is constructed rather than innate or passively absorbed.
Students learn new concepts by building upon their existing knowledge. Factors such as a student’s prior experiences, learnings, social and cultural beliefs, and how they process information allow them to digest information in their own manner. Based on these factors, one student’s insights may differ from another’s, who may have different experiences and beliefs, giving them different takeaways from a lesson.
Ultimately, each student will construct their own knowledge differently, based on the knowledge they’ve gained before, building on top of it with each subsequent lesson.
Learning is an active process.
This principle views learning as an active process rather than a passive one. Instead of being told something and expected to absorb that information, learning as a dynamic process means that students must be engaged and actively participate in their learning. To learn, students need to ask questions, contribute to discussions, and demonstrate that they can apply those learnings in meaningful ways to deepen their understanding.
All knowledge is socially constructed.
This principle circles back to social-emotional learning (SEL), which can start for students as young as PreK. SEL helps students better understand their thoughts and feelings and develop greater self-awareness and empathy for others – those like them and those whose experiences differ from their own. As one of the principles of CLT, knowledge as a social construct involves roundtable discussions, conversations, and group activities to help students better understand not just the lessons at hand but how classmates with different experiences view the material. In addition to the student understanding the material based on their prior knowledge, they also hear from classmates who may view the material differently, broadening their understanding.
All knowledge is personal.
Constructivism in education asserts that each student interacts with material – and knowledge – differently, based on personal experiences and feelings. Each student may bring a different perspective to the same lesson. Even when various students in a classroom share their thoughts on the same material, knowledge becomes personal for each student.
Learning exists in the mind.
While discussion, group interaction, and activity-based learning are essential, constructivism posits that the most important work a student can do to develop their knowledge is to formulate thoughts on lessons presented to them. Active engagement of the mind is essential for effective learning. When a student engages with the material mentally, it enhances their ability to retain knowledge.
Motivation drives learning.
Students learn more if they are motivated and excited to learn. While constructivism requires students to take an active role in their learning, teachers must find ways to help students tap into their knowledge reserves to better support the new information to resonate.
Types of Constructivism
Although constructivism is a more extensive theoretical concept in education, there are three different types. The three types of constructivism are cognitive, social, and radical constructivism.
Cognitive constructivism operates on the perception that students actively construct knowledge based on their present stage of cognitive development. Students make sense of new knowledge by weaving it into their understanding of the world and their experiences up to that moment.
Social constructivism emphasizes interactions with others as a basis for learning. People glean knowledge from individual relationships, their culture and environment, as well as their role within larger communities. In essence, social constructivism operates on the belief that “it takes a village to raise a child” and that students’ interactions with others help them construct their knowledge to build upon further.
Radical constructivism views knowledge as something a student creates based on their own experiences and not handed from teacher to student. Radical constructivism encompasses the philosophy that knowledge is subjective and that every student constructs their own knowledge based on personal perspective. As a result, radical constructivism calls for teachers to offer students more opportunities to create their knowledge and be aware of their students’ different perspectives and backgrounds, which informs each student’s learning process.
5 Stages of Constructivism
Under the theory of constructivism, five stages comprise CLT. Each of these stages builds on top of one another, forming a logical framework to continue to build upon a student’s learnings. The five stages of constructivism are: inviting ideas, exploration, proposition, explanation and solution, and taking action.
- Inviting ideas: Sometimes known as the engagement stage, this stage involves an educator posing a question or situation for the student to consider, asking them to tap into their own knowledge reserves. The student then begins to formulate an opinion or idea on new information presented to them.
- Exploration: In the exploration stage, students build new knowledge actively, participating in an interactive experience with the concept presented to them. This can involve students and teachers discussing the question or scenario posed in the engagement stage.
- Proposition: In the proposition stage, students discuss what they’ve learned or any observations made based on their initial engagement and new ideas that cropped up during discussions. The teacher plays a supportive role, helping them articulate their thoughts if needed. However, this stage is critical to the student demonstrating their understanding of the concept.
- Explanation and solution: The explanation stage is sometimes referred to as the elaboration stage. Students can talk through their thought processes and have a dialog with their teacher. In turn, the teacher can address any misconceptions or misunderstandings, tailoring the lesson in a way that helps a student better grasp a concept based on their prior learnings.
- Taking action: Sometimes called the evaluation phase, taking action involves teachers asking students to sum up their cognitive process throughout and how their thoughts may have changed since the initial inviting ideas phase. This allows students to apply new learnings while examining how their initial perceptions evolved throughout the five stages based on new interactions, discussions, and problem-solving.
Advantages of a Constructivist Classroom
A constructivist approach in the classroom can benefit students in several ways. For starters, it fosters greater engagement among students, prompting them to ask questions and formulate their own opinions, enhancing their critical thinking skills. By having the ability to chime in with questions of their own instead of passively listening to a lecture and echoing back what they’ve memorized, the argument for a constructivist approach is that students have greater outcomes when they are more actively engaged.
A Constructivist classroom also places a greater emphasis on tailoring the curriculum to focus on students’ interests. Teachers formulate lessons to make them more relatable to students based on their prior knowledge and experiences. The onus is on the teacher to focus on topics of interest to students.
Another advantage of a constructivist approach is that it calls for more significant social interaction between students and their teachers. Students may often work in groups, which helps them engage with new concepts and hear others’ thoughts, which may not necessarily be similar to their perspectives or life experiences. Students develop a greater appreciation for their peers’ opinions and observations and deepen their social skills.
Disadvantages of a Constructivist Classroom
While constructivism has many advantages, there are also some disadvantages to this approach. For instance, teachers may need help creating lesson plans and personalizing instruction with an eye on constructivism if they deal with larger class sizes. According to the National School Boards Association (NSBA), there is a correlation between overcrowded classrooms, reduced attention among students, and student misbehavior.
A constructivist approach may also pose a disadvantage as it eschews standardized testing, which can measure a school and its students’ progress at a district-wide, state-wide, and even national level. This can pose a problem for students later on who may need to take standardized tests to qualify for entrance to an institution of higher learning and determine eligibility for academic scholarships.
Constructivist Classroom Examples
Constructivism is an action-oriented approach to learning, requiring students to build upon existing knowledge to understand better and apply new concepts. Teachers are there to shepherd students through their cognitive processing and devise classroom activities to help students learn.
Some examples of Constructivist classroom activities include:
- Cooperative learning: Students can work in small groups or one-on-one with another student to converse about a concept presented to them. This activity differs from more traditional group work in that students work together to share their ideas and knowledge to complete a task instead of assigning specific tasks to a different group member or placing an undue burden on one or two students in a group. Instead, students pool their knowledge and experiences to arrive at a solution.
- Inquiry-based learning: Students ask questions and arrive at answers based on independent research and observation. They share evidence to support the theories they gleaned, then observe how their new findings connect to their previous knowledge and how it may be similar or different. At the end of an inquiry-based learning activity, students state their conclusions and areas where they may want to delve deeper to understand a concept better.
- Problem-based learning: Problem-based learning differs from inquiry-based learning in that students are presented with an actual problem that requires them to work together to arrive at a solution. This fosters students’ social and communication skills, requiring them to work with others instead of working independently to arrive at a solution or conclusion.
Advance Your Career in Education with National University
Constructivism is one of many educational approaches that teachers can leverage to enhance learning outcomes. CLT focuses on building upon a student’s existing knowledge base and helping them connect what they already know and new concepts. Teachers who employ constructivism in the classroom can help foster greater student engagement and create meaningful dialogues that help students better understand new ideas.
If you’re considering a career in education, National University’s Teacher Education program can help put you on the path toward a rewarding career that helps shape the minds of future generations. We offer credential and certificate programs, alongside bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, including a Bachelor of Arts Major in Early Childhood Education, as well as a Master of Arts in Education and Master of Early Childhood Education, helping future educators reach new heights in their own academic pursuits that make a difference in the lives of their students. Contact National University today to learn more.
Frequently Asked Questions
Constructivism learning theory (CLT) in education involves students taking an active role in their education by building on top of what they already know to deepen their understanding of new concepts and ideas.
In a classroom setting, teachers allow students to take more of an active role in how they learn. Students are prompted to ask questions and engage in discussions with their teacher and peers, sharing their own perspectives based on their existing knowledge base. Teachers help facilitate these conversations and group sessions, assisting students to articulate their observations better to help them grasp more intricate concepts and increase their understanding of a given subject.
Constructivism can help students take a more active role in their learning, giving them a forum to ask questions and take part in discussions about a subject presented to them. This is opposed to a more passive approach where students are expected to listen to a lecture and absorb information. From a teaching perspective, constructivism also requires teachers to deepen their understanding of their students, tailor lesson plans to correspond better with what their students already know, and make lessons more relatable and engaging. Teachers act in more of an advisory role, shepherding students through the process of articulating their thoughts, questions, and observations to help them learn.