external image learningnotoneway.jpg
The Constructivist Theory is a learning theory that states individuals build upon or 'construct' new ideas and concepts that are based on past experiences and prior knowledge. The learner builds or 'constructs' personal understanding by integrating the new information with past. Knowledge is not recieved objectively but is constructed and translated into understanding for the learner.

Personal experiences can also be reflected upon to help build understanding of the world and can aid in problem solving. Learning is a constant ongoing process and no one ever learns anything from scratch, everything anyone ever learns is an extension of something he or she already knew or has experienced. New concepts expand upon experience and knowledge through the use of cognitive structures like schema that help provide meaning to the new ideas by going beyond the face value and making connections to further the understanding. As an individual learns, he or she goes through a mental adjustment process that makes room for the new information.

For an in-depth explanation and application of the Constructivist theory in learning please watch the video below


Constructivism has origins in philosophy and psychology in addition to ideas from education and sociology. Within the philosophy realm, some believe that Socrates was the first constructivist due to his "hippcrates" being a successful model for constructivist teaching. Immanuel Kant studied the combination rationalism and empiricism which proves a kind of constructivism. He thought that only by internally constructing cognitive rules, a person can organize experiences and develop knowledge. The constructivism learning theory is produced from the development of cognitivism when it then becomes a new learning theory.

There is no one single person responsible for the creation of this theory but became developed more thoroughly in the mid 20th century.

In terms of psychology, credit to the further development of constructivism in regard to classrooms and students can be given to Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Vygotsky. Dewey made improvements in the experimental learning theory when he emphasized the generation and reform of experiences. Piaget became known as the precursor of modern constructivism. In 1972, he introduced the concepts of "assimilation" and "conformability." According to Piaget, being able to recognize a connection between something new with something previously learned gives someone a balance between a subject and an object. He also thought that all knowledge had outward origin and students' cognitive development is achieved naturally in the process of receiving knowledge. In the 1970s and 80s Vygotsky discovered the formation of modern constructivism in that learning is a social construction because people gain knowledge through the expansion of personal experience in the external world.



Jean Piaget:

"Humans have structures in their minds that contain information about about the world gained through experiences and interactions."
Piaget argues that the learner continues to build more and more sophisticated mental structures as a result of their experiences: constantly combining existing knowledge with new knowledge. Existing experiences can also be influenced by a variety of factors:



Lev Vygotsky

Vygotsky believes that knowledge is co-constructed between individuals. Someone with advanced knowledge can assist a learner to construct knowledge using:

Scaffolding = supporting students' active knowledge by supporting what they already know

Modeling = demonstrating how they would solve a particular problem

Fading = students become better learners and begin to construct knowledge on their own with minimal support


John Dewey

Dewey makes a distinction of learning that learning is an active process that requires an "active learner". He argues that the learner needs to do something, knowledge cannot be acquired by simply accepting knowledge that already exists, but also involves the learner engaging wtih the world. He critiques moder education and argues that it often isolates the learner and is thought to be a one-on-one relationship with the learner and the content.


Jerome Bruner

Bruner argues that the theory of instruction should address four major aspects:
  • Predisposition toward learning
  • The ways in which a body of knowledge can be structured so that it can be most readily grasped by the learner
  • The most effective ways in which to present the material
  • The nature and pacing of rewards and punishments

Bruner's learning spiral:


Related Theories

There are several theories either closely related to or derived of similar characteristics. For example, in generative learning, students have an opportunity to mentally "play with" information to create a personal understanding of the subject to be learned. Discovery learning is another similar theory. A list of related theories include:
  • situated learning: learning that takes place in the same context it is applied.
  • student centered teaching: focusing on the needs of the students rather than the educational system.
  • project-based learning: the use of classroom projects, intended to bring about deep learning, where students use technology and inquiry to engage with issues and questions that are relevant to their lives.
  • problem-based learning: students collaboratively solve problems and reflect on their experiences.
  • cooperative learning: organizing classrooms into academic and social learning experiences.
  • reciprocal learning: a unique partnership forged between students; students learn and work together.
  • critical exploration: discussion centers on a specific intellectual challenge that bas been represented in concrete form.
  • cognitively guided instruction: the practice of listening to children's mathematical thinking and using it as a basis for instruction.
  • inquiry based learning: open learning; no prescribed target or result.
  • cognitive apprenticeships:external image children.gifmaster of a skill teaches that skill to an apprentice.
  • group work: two or more group works collaborate together to solve a task.
  • anchored instruction: story or narrative that presents a realistic (but fictional) situation and raises an over-arching question or problem.
  • cognitive flexibility: the ability to switch behavioral response according to the context of the situation.
  • the silent way: a problem solving activity to be engaged in by the students both independently and as a group; teacher typically stays "silent."

What Teachers Do

The teacher's job in constructivist learning is to assist in making connections, helping the learner build upon what they already know with new information by making connections. Teachers go through a process in which they access existing information, provide new information and assist in making connections between the two. The teacher is the facilitator as students search for or discover information. The teacher is also a resource, serving as a point of reference for the student as they continue to make new connections. The process is very collaborative and student-centered.

Zahorik identifies five elements of constructivist teaching (1997):
1) activation of prior knowledge
2) acquiring knowledge
3) understanding knowledge
4) using or applying knowledge
5) reflecting on knowledge

What Students Do


The student must be actively involved in the learning process and in this theory, the responsibility of learning shifts from the teacher to the learner. This theory relies on learner motivation for successful learning. In learning, students will interact with their peers and the world around around them to connect new topics and concepts to their pre-existing knowledge and experiences. Learning for students is an active, social process that influences behavior and cognitive knowledge.

Technology has heavily influenced constructivist learning. Students now have access to more resources to draw connections, and more avenues to do so. For example, social networking sites allow students to make connections among other students with similar interests or thoughts, either in an academic atmosphere or a personal one. The internet also provides easier access for students to draw these connections. Students today are members of the "Digital Native" population, and therefore are very versed in the technology they can utilize to support constructivist learning. However, access to technology is an issue that can provide a wide learning gap in constructivist learning. If students do not have access to technology that will allow them to develop connections, constructivist learning can be inhibited, or simply limited to connections made only in the classroom.


Examples in Action

Students can construct knowledge by analyzing solutions to community problems, objects collected from nature, or environmental concerns at the local, national, or global level. They can also analyze mathematical problems and procedures. For example, students can learn a lot about the individual perspectives involved in solving environmental concerns such as storm water issues:

Students can also construct knowledge by writing screen plays, legal documents, song lyrics, academic journal, interviews, letters (or e-mails) to experts, or theoretical thought experiments.

Types of a thought experiments

In addition, students can design posters, cartoons, timelines, models, charts, maps, graphs, board games, concept maps, and multimedia presentations.

Students can perform plays, concerts, role-play lectures, a dance based on literature, or collected songs about a topic from another era.

external image images?q=tbn:ANd9GcTckR9iSdjqPczbp2srKj5AACCHVIAARfhWESyvxOqsyC4LuoI&t=1&usg=__s73QtRZpAk4IbHOBCyvlBpBu2D8=

Lastly students can participate in experimentation, field trips, watching films, research projects, or class discussions.

These activities are excellent examples of constructivist strategies as long as they are dedicated to helping students develop their own knowledge and not implemented for the sake of it--the activities most have a specific purpose in the learning process.

Examples of Schools that implement constructivist concepts:

Francis W. Parker School, Chicago, Illinois

Foxfire Schools

Other Examples/Resources:

Constructivist Lesson Plans

Mock Classroom Caucus

Parachute Project

Teacher Perspective

´╗┐Examples in Action Using Technology

Technology offers access to a massive collection of information, applications to express creativity, and tools for communication. These attributes complement constructivism. For example, the internet and specifically the world wide web have made vast amounts of information available. Acquiring knowledge has never been easier. Students can independently search information to use for projects, experiments, and papers. Primary sources, otherwise not available, such as books and journals are available to supplement classroom instruction and inquiry. Quality, current material is available. Teachers and students are able to connect classroom content with real-world content.

Software and internet applications allow students to use and reflect on information. Graphic organizers such as Inspiration allow students to create concept maps. Program language software such as Komodo allow students to design webpages using html. Simulation-building software such as Stella allow for systems representation. Graphics applications such as CorelDraw allows for visual illustration. Authoring tools like Powerpoint allow students to create presentations.

Technology has allowed students and teachers to stay connected outside of the physical classroom. Increased opportunities for communication help facilitate constructivism theories. Email, list-serves, and live chats allow extended classroom discussion. Websites, Google Apps, webquests, and classroom wiki's allow for collaboration between students, teachers, and professionals.