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What Is Constructivism?

May 27, 2020

Constructivism is an important learning theory that educators use to help their students learn. Constructivism is based on the idea that people actively construct or make their own knowledge, and that reality is determined by your experiences as a learner. Basically, learners use their previous knowledge as a foundation and build on it with new things that they learn. So everyone's individual experiences make their learning unique to them. 

Constructivism is crucial to understand as an educator because it influences the way all of your students learn. Teachers and instructors that understand the constructivist learning theory understand that their students bring their own unique experiences to the classroom every day. Their background and previous knowledge impacts how they are able to learn. Educators are able to use constructivist learning theory to help their students understand their previous knowledge. If you’re a current or aspiring educator, it’s important to get the education and credentials you need. But it’s also important to understand learning theories and how they impact you and your students. This guide will tell you more about the constructivist learning theory and how it helps you as a teacher.

Principles of constructivism.

There are many specific elements and principles of constructivism that shape the way the theory works and applies to students. Learn about the different principles of constructivism and how they make up the whole theory. 

  • Knowledge is constructed. This is the basic principle, meaning that knowledge is built upon other knowledge. Students take pieces and put them together in their own unique way, building something different than what another student will build. The student’s previous knowledge, experiences, beliefs, and insights are all important foundations for their continued learning. 

  • People learn to learn, as they learn. Learning involves constructing meaning and systems of meaning. For example, if a student is learning the chronology of dates for a series of historical events, at the same time they are learning the meaning of chronology. If a student is writing a paper about history, they are also learning principles of grammar and writing as well. Each thing we learn gives us a better understanding of other things in the future.

  • Learning is an active process. Learning involves sensory input to construct meaning. The learner needs to do something in order to learn, it’s not a passive activity. Learners need to engage in the world so they are actively involved in their own learning and development. You can’t just sit and expect to be told things and learn, you need to engage in discussions, reading, activities, etc.

  • Learning is a social activity. Learning is directly associated to our connection with other people. Our teachers, our family, or peers, and our acquaintances impact our learning. Educators are more likely to be successful as they understand that peer involvement is key in learning. Isolating learnings isn’t the best way to help students learn and grow together. Progressive education recognizes that social interaction is key to learning and they use conversation, interaction, and group applications to help students retain their knowledge. 

  • Learning is contextual. Students don’t learn isolated facts and theories separate from the rest of our lives—we learn in ways connected to things we already know, what we believe, and more. The things we learn and the points we tend to remember are connected to the things going on around us. 

  • Knowledge is personal. Because constructivism is based on your own experiences and beliefs, knowledge becomes a personal affair. Each person will have their own prior knowledge and experiences to bring to the table. So the way and things people learn and gain from education will all be very different. 

  • Learning exists in the mind. Hands-on experiences and physical actions are necessary for learning, but those elements aren’t enough. Engaging the mind is key to successful learning. Learning needs to involve activities for the minds, not just our hands. Mental experiences are needed for retaining knowledge.

  • Motivation is key to learning. Students are unable to learn if they are unmotivated. Educators need to have ways to engage and motivate learners to activate their minds and help them be excited about education. Without motivation, it’s difficult for learners to reach into their past experience and make connections for new learning.

Types of constructivism.

There are different types of constructivism that educators can use to find success with this learning theory. 

  • Cognitive. Cognitive constructivism focuses on the idea that learning should be related to the learner’s stage of cognitive development. These methods work to help students in learning new information by connecting it to things they already know, enabling them to make modifications in their existing intelligence to accommodate the new information. Cognitive constructivism comes from the work of Jean Piaget and his research on cognitive development in children. 

  • Social. Social constructivism focuses on the collaborative nature of learning. Knowledge develops from how people interact with each other, their culture, and society at large. Students rely on others to help create their building blocks, and learning from others helps them construct their own knowledge and reality. Social constructivism comes from Lev Vygotsky, and is closely connected to cognitive constructivism with the added element of societal and peer influence.

  • Radical. Radical constructivism is very different from cognitive and social constructivism. It focuses on the idea that learners and the knowledge they construct tell us nothing real, only help us function in our environment. The overall idea is that knowledge is invented, not discovered. The things we bring to the table make it impossible for us to have truth, only interpretations of knowledge. This theory was developed by Ernst von Glasersfeld in 1974. 

Constructivism in education.

It’s important to understand how teachers can apply constructivism inside their classroom to create a unique learning environment for students. In constructivist classrooms, the teacher has a role to create a collaborative environment where students are actively involved in their own learning. Teachers are more facilitators of learning than actual instructors. Teachers must work to understand the preexisting conceptions and understanding of students, then work to incorporate knowledge within those areas. Teachers will also need to adjust their teaching to match the learner’s level of understanding. 

Constructivist classrooms rely on four key areas to be successful:

  • Shared knowledge between teachers and students.

  • Shared authority between teachers and students.

  • Teachers act as a guide or facilitator.

  • Learning groups consist of small numbers of students.

Constructivist classrooms are often very different from normal classrooms in many ways. Constructivist classrooms focus on student questions and interests, they build on what students already know, they focus on interactive learning and are student-centered, teachers have a dialogue with students to help them construct their own knowledge, they root in negotiation, and students work primarily in groups.

Constructivist classrooms often have teachers who do small group work, collaborative and interactive activities, and open dialogues about what students need in order to find success.

Disadvantages of constructivist methods.

The biggest criticism of constructivist learning is its lack of structure. Some students need highly structured and organized learning environments to thrive, and constructivist learning focuses on a more laid-back method to help students engage in their own learning.

Grading is often removed from constructivist classrooms and places more value on student progress, which can lead to students falling behind and not meeting standardized grading requirements.

If you are hoping to become a teacher, a degree is crucial to getting on the right path. Additionally, it’s valuable for teachers to understand different learning theories and how they impact their classroom and their students.

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