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Chhaapptteerr 55::
Upon completion of this chapter, you should be able to:
Define what is constructivism
Trace the proponents of constructivism
Discus the principles of learning derived from constructivism
Compare the constructivist and traditional classroom

In the Chapters 2, 3 and 4, we examined behavioural and cognitive theories of learning. In

this chapter, we discuss another school of thought about learning called constructivism.
Constructivism has its roots in 18th century philosophy. It provides an alternative view of
explaining how humans learn. As the name suggests, it focuses on learners constructing
knowledge based on their prior knowledge and experience. Reality is not in the object
observed or the events experienced but reality is constructed by person. .


Constructivism is not a new concept and its roots can be traced to the work of 18th
century philosopher Giambattista Vico, who held that humans can only clearly
understand what they have constructed themselves. He commented that one only
knows something if one can explain it. Another philosopher Immanuel Kant further
elaborated on this idea by asserting that human beings are not passive recipients of
information. More recent advocates of constructivism include John Dewey, Jean
Piaget, Jerome Bruner, von Glaserfeld and Vygotsky.

Jerome Bruner (1960) He defines constructivism as a learning theory in

which learning is seen as an active process in which learners construct new
ideas of concepts based upon their current and past knowledge.

Dewey (1916): Education depends on action. Knowledge and ideas emerged

only from a situation in which learners had to draw them out of experiences
that had meaning and importance to them. These situations had to occur in a
social context, such as a classroom, where students joined in manipulating
materials and, thus, creating a community of learners who build their
knowledge together.

Piaget (1930): The growth of human thought occurs through the construction
of knowledge through assimilation and accommodation. Knowledge is not
something that individuals gain from the outside rather it is something that
they gain through their own active experiences, their own acting on the world
physically or mentally to make sense of it.

Von Glaserfeld (1984): He sees knowledge as being actively received

through the senses or by way of communication and actively constructed by
the subject. The subject interprets and constructs a reality based on his or her
experiences and interaction with his or her environment.

Vygotsky (1962): A person constructs knowledge through social interaction in

the context of a culture. Culture and social interaction teaches a person both
what to think and how to think.

Cunningham and Duffy (1996) stated that learning is an active process of

constructing rather than acquiring knowledge. Instruction should be directed
towards supporting that construction of knowledge rather than communicating
or transmitting knowledge.

The main principle of constructivism is that a person interprets events, objects

and perspectives from his or her experiences, mental structures and beliefs. People
construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing
things and reflecting on those experiences. For example, when we encounter
something new, we have to reconcile or settle it with our previous ideas and
experiences, maybe changing what we believe, or maybe discarding the new
information as irrelevant [Refer to the concepts of assimilation and accommodation
proposed by Piaget which we discussed in Chapter 3]. Thus, based on this principle,

knowledge is constructed and not merely reproduced. The knowledge constructed is

personal and individualistic. In other words, we as human actively construct
knowledge and knowing is an adaptive process in which we make sense of the world
on the basis of our experiences, goals, curiosities and beliefs (Wilson and Cole, 1991).

Snake Encounter!!!
What is your initial reaction when you encounter a snake? For most people
the initial reaction is fear and to run away, even though they have not seen a snake
in real-life. For the slightly braver ones, they might come back with a stick or
changkul to kill the snake. Why do we fear snakes? Why do we have the urge to
kill the creature?
We have constructed the concept of fear of snakes based on our prior
knowledge of snakes. This prior knowledge could have been built from what we saw
on TV, the movies or stories we have heard about snakes. The concept of fear is not in
the snake but created by us based on our belief that snakes are evil and cold-blooded
killers capable of dealing quick death in a single venomous strike.
When we encounter new information, we relate it to our previous ideas and
experiences. We are constantly doing something to the new information and what we
already know and in the process create of our own knowledge. To do this, we always
are asking questions, exploring and assessing what we know. According to the
constructivist perspective, knowledge cannot be imposed or transferred intact from
the mind of the knower to the mind of another (see Figure 5.2). If this be the case than
learning and teaching cannot be synonymous. Even if we teach very well, students
may not learn unless they have constructed their own knowledge. By reflecting on our
experiences, we construct our own understanding of the world we live in. Each of us
generates our own "rules" and "mental models," which we use to make sense of our

experiences. Learning, therefore, is simply the process of adjusting our mental models
to accommodate new experiences.

Socrates said;
I only wish that wisdom were the kind of
thing one could share by sitting next to
someone if it flowed, for instance, from
the one that was full to the one that was
empty, like the water in two cups finding
its level through a piece of worsted
(Symposium, 175d).

Figure 5.1 The Greek philosopher

Socrates, talking with some of his
students in Athens


Even if we teach very well, students may not learn unless

they have constructed their own knowledge
a) To what extent do you agree with the above statement?
b) Comment on the statement by Socrates in Figure 5.1.


Constructivism promotes social and communication skills by creating a
classroom environment that emphasises collaboration and exchange of ideas. Students
must learn how to articulate their ideas clearly as well as to collaborate on tasks
effectively by sharing in group projects. Students must therefore exchange ideas and
so must learn to "negotiate" with others and to evaluate their contributions in a
socially acceptable manner. This is essential to success in the real world, since they

will always be exposed to a variety of experiences in which they will have to

cooperate and navigate among the ideas of others.
The Russian scholar, Lev Vygotsky contributed
much towards our understanding of an important aspect
of constructivism. His career was cut short by his death
from tuberculosis in 1934 at the age of 38. His theory was
made famous when his books Thought and Language
(1962) and Mind in Society (1978) were translated into
English. His ideas formed the basis for social
constructivism which emphasised the importance of social
interaction and culture in the construction of knowledge
and learning. According to him knowledge and learning
are constructed through humans interacting with one
another. Knowledge is a human product that is socially
and culturally constructed (Gredler, 1997).
Lev Vygotsky
Why is
there a

But I
only see a
when it is

it just

Youre right
there must
be sun.

So we need
sun and rain
for a rainbow!

Figure 5.2 Social Construction of

Knowledge about Rainbows
[source: Beaumie Kim (2001). Social

constructivism. In M. Orey (Ed). Emerging

perspectives on learning, teaching and

Learning is not simply the assimilation and accommodation of new knowledge

but acquired by actual relationships between learners. Figure 5.2 shows a simple
example of how knowledge about a rainbow is socially constructed from the
interaction between two children. The two children share their personal meaning of a
rainbow and through the process of negotiation shape their understanding of
rainbows. Vygotsky believed strongly that language and culture play an important
role in the intellectual development of humans. Language and culture are the
frameworks through which humans experience, communicate and understand
phenomena. For example, when you see the colours red, yellow or white in the
environment, you do not merely see colours but more importantly the meaning
associated with the colours. You may associate the colour white with clean, pure,
reflects light and so forth which are determined by your culture.
Based on his believe that learning is a collaborative process and influenced by
culture, he distinguished two levels of development (see Figure 5.3). The level of
Actual Development is the level of development that the learner has already reached.
It is the level at which the learner is capable of solving problems independently. The
level of Potential Development is the level of development that learners are not
capable of doing at the moment but have the potential to do so. In between the actual
and the potential level, Vygotsky proposed what is called the Zone of Proximal
Development (ZPD). "Proximal" simply means "next". The three stages may be
viewed as a check-list of
what learners can do alone (Actual)
what learners can do with help (ZPD)
what learners cannot yet do (Potential)

The Learners
present abilities

Beyond the
reach of
at the
Zone of

Figure 5.3 Zone of Proximal Development

The ZPD is not a permanent state but is the next step towards learners being
able to do something on their own. The key is to "stretch" learners to know their ZPD
so that teachers and other adults can lead them towards realising their potential. He
observed that when children were tested on tasks on their own, they rarely did as well
as when they were working in collaboration with an adult. Hence, for him, the
development of language and articulation of ideas was central to learning and

a) What is social constructivism?

b) Explain the zone of proximal development. How would you
apply it in teaching?


You would have observed that at any construction of a high rise building, a
series of structures called scaffolding are erected.
This is to which permit workers to carry out their
work in high places. When the building is complete,
the scaffolding is removed. Scaffolding instruction
originated from Vygotskys ideas on learning. The
term has become a useful metaphor to describe how
teachers help students in learning. Generally, teachers
would focus on the ZPD. Teaching or instruction that
falls outside the zone (above or below a student's
ZPD will not contribute to the intellectual
development of students. Why? It would be pointless
to focus on what learners can do or what learners
cannot yet do. So, the most logical step would be for
the teacher to mediate between learners actual
development and potential development; i.e. the
Figure 5.4. Teacher
scaffolding students by
The teacher should act as a scaffold,
constantly challenging them
providing the support necessary for learners to
proceed towards the next stage or level and
independently complete the task (see Figure 5.4). To effectively scaffold a student, a
teacher should stay one step ahead of the student, always challenging him or her to
reach beyond his or her current ability level. The challenge for the teacher, then, is to
find the optimal balance between supporting the student and pushing the student to act
independently. The role of the teacher is not teaching students how to perform a task,
but to refine their thinking through engagement and enhancing their performance. The
teacher continually adjusts the level and amount of help in response to the learners
level of performance. The purpose of scaffolding is to instil the skills necessary for
independent learning in the future. To effectively scaffold students within their ZPDs,
a teacher could also model the behaviours needed. For example;

The teacher could model a particular skill that students are weak in
Students imitate the teachers behaviour in performing the skill
Students practice the skill until it is mastered by all in the classroom.

Scaffolding Activities
Motivating learners to be interested in the task
Simplify the task to make it more manageable and achievable
Keep students on task by focusing on the goals and the path to choose
Indicate the differences between the learners work and the desired standard
Reduce confusion, frustration and risk by providing clear instructions towards meeting
Model the skills required
[source: adaptation of Bransford, J. Brown, A. & Cocking, R,. 2000; McKenzie, J. 2000]

So, scaffolding instruction guides learners towards independent and selfregulated competence of skills. Since the work that learners have to perform are more
structured and focused time on task is increased and efficiency in completing the task
is increased. Through the structure provided by scaffolding, students spend less time
searching and more time on learning and discovering, resulting in quicker learning
(McKenzie, 2000). Scaffolding instruction minimises the level of frustration among
learners, especially among academically weak learners who become frustrated very
easily, then shut down and refuse to participate in further learning.

a) How do you scaffold instruction?

b) What are some benefits of scaffolding instruction?
c) Is scaffolding the same as giving tuition? Explain


Let us now examine how constructivism operates applies to teaching. As

mentioned earlier, constructivism argues that learners construct knowledge
individually and socially. Teaching in a non-constructivist setting, involves imparting
a body of knowledge that has been predetermined by the curriculum. As teachers, we
present this information to learners because we believe that is what they should
know. We may engage them in activities and hands-on learning, with opportunities
to experiment and manipulate objects. But, our main purpose is still to show learners
how the facts, concepts and principles of a body of knowledge are organised and

applied. In short, we merely present content and at no point do we encourage them to

construct their own knowledge or understanding of the facts, concepts and principles


In 1786, Francis Light

opened Penang. The island
was chosen because of its
location and deep water

Figure 5.5 The Teacher presenting information and the learner

constructing his own conception of the information
In Figure 5.5, the teacher is talking about Francis Light and the opening of
Penang. The learner is constructing his own meaning or conception of the information
presented about Penang. Most probably, the teacher is not aware of the learners
own construction of meaning. If we accept the constructivist theory of learning,
teachers have to accept that there is no such thing as knowledge out there that is
independent of the learner, but only knowledge learners construct for themselves as
they learn. This may be very much different from what teachers usually do in the
classroom. The constructivist position requires that teachers provide learners with the
opportunity to interact with the information presented and allow them to construct
their own meaning or interpretation of the information. However, the teacher cannot
assume that all learners have the same background knowledge or experiences on
which to build new knowledge. In such situations, the teacher has to design
instruction in such a way as to make the missing connections for learners. In other


Ernest (1999), Brooks and Brooks (1999) offer the following guiding
principles of constructivism. They argue that when applied to the classroom, the
concept of learning should be viewed differently (see Figure 5.6). Specifically,
Learning should be viewed an active process in which learners receive
information and constructs meaning out of the information received. The
learner needs to do something, because learning involves the learners
engaging with the world.

Learning is an active (mental or physical)

People learn to learn as they learn
principles of
derived from

Learning involves language

Learning is a social activity
Learning is contextual
Learning needs knowledge
Learning takes time

Figure 5.6 A Constructivist View of Learning

It should be understood that people learn to learn as they learn. In other

words, we learn by constructing meaning which in turn influences further
learning. For example, if we learn about climate of different countries, we are
simultaneously learning the meaning of climate. Each meaning we construct
makes us better able to give meaning to other information which can fit a
similar pattern.

Learning involves language. In other words, the language that we use

influences our learning. Language and learning are inextricably intertwined. It
is not surprising that many people talk to themselves as they learn.

Learning is a social activity. Our learning is closely related with our

connection with other human beings (our teachers, our peers, our family, etc).
Much of present education is directed towards isolating the learner from social
interaction. It is seen as a one-to-one relationship between the learner and the
material to be learned.

Learning is contextual. We do not learn facts and theories in isolation, but

rather we learn in relationship to what we know, what we believe, our
prejudices and our fears.

It should be understood that one needs knowledge to learn. It is not possible

to absorb new knowledge without having some structure developed from
previous knowledge to build on. Therefore, any effort to teach must be
connected to the state of the learner. The learner is brought to interact with the
information based on the learners previous knowledge.

Learning needs time. It takes time to learn because we need to revisit ideas,
ponder on them, try them out, play with them and use them. For example, an
insight into an idea comes about after long periods of thinking and

In short, learning is a search for meaning. Therefore, learning must start with
the issues around which students are actively trying to construct meaning. Meaning
requires understanding wholes as well as parts. And parts must be understood in the
context of wholes. Therefore, the learning process focuses on primary concepts, not
isolated facts. In order to teach well, we must understand the mental models that
students use to perceive the world and the assumptions they make to support those
models. The purpose of learning is for an individual to construct his or her own
meaning, not just memorise the "right" answers and regurgitate someone else's
meaning. Since education is inherently interdisciplinary, the only valuable way to
measure learning is to make the assessment part of the learning process, ensuring it
provides students with information on the quality of their learning.


A constructivist classroom is different from non-constructivist classroom.

Generally the teacher in the constructivist classroom guides learning, scaffolds
instruction, help learners in the zone of proximal development and develops the
metacognitive ability of learners [We will discuss metacognition in Chapter 6].
Jacqueline G. Brooks and Martin G. Brooks (1993) offer the following suggestions as
to how constructivism is to be applied in the classroom. According to them, in the
constructivist classroom:

The ideas and opinions of students are respected

Students are encouraged to express their opinions, give ideas and comments
(see Figure 5.7). This encourages independent thinking among students who
take responsibility for their own thinking.




Figure 5.7 Ideas and Opinions of Students are Respected

Teacher asks questions.

The questions framed encourage students to reflect on their thoughts and attain
their own intellectual identity. Sufficient wait time is given for students to
respond to questions.

Students engage in dialogue with the teacher.

o Encourage students to engage in dialogue, both with you and one
another. Classrooms discourage dialogue and teachers often
monopolise the talking and teaching becomes a lecture.
o Draw students our especially those who are shy or inarticulate.

Students discuss in groups

Through group discussions, students change or reinforce their ideas. If they
have the chance to present what they think and hear others' ideas, students can
build a personal knowledge base that they understand. Only when they feel
comfortable enough to express their ideas will meaningful classroom dialogue

Prompt inquiry by engaging in tasks requiring higher-level thinking

o The questions asked go beyond simple factual response.
o Students are encouraged to make connections, summarise information,
analyse, predict and defend their ideas.
o Students generate and test their hypotheses by manipulating raw data,
primary sources and physical materials. For example, community
resources provide opportunities for students to collect and classify
primary material.
o Students are viewed as thinkers with emerging theories about the
Opinions and ideas of
students are accepted

Students enjoy their

work and want to learn

Students become
interested in what is being

Students take
ownership of what is
being studied

Figure 5.8 The Benefits of Student Involvement in Learning

What are the benefits of constructivism? Advocates of constructivism argue that
when the opinions and ideas of students are accepted, they will become more
involved and interested in what is being studied (see Figure 5.8). When students
become involved and interested, they will take ownership in what is being studied
and enjoy their work and want to learn. Constructivist teaching fosters critical and

creates active and motivated learners (Zemelman, Daniels and Hyde, 1993).
Constructivist teaching creates learners who are autonomous, inquisitive thinkers
who question, investigate and reason.


a) How is constructivist teaching different from traditional

b) What problems do you foresee in applying constructivist
in the classroom?

In its strict sense, CONSTRUCTIVISM:

Curriculum Constructivism calls for the elimination of a standardised
curriculum. Instead, it promotes using curricula customized to the students' prior
knowledge. Also, it emphasizes hands-on problem solving.
Instruction Under the theory of constructivism, educators focus on making
connections between facts and fostering new understanding in students. Instructors
tailor their teaching strategies to student responses and encourage students to
analyse, interpret, and predict information. Teachers also rely heavily on openended questions and promote extensive dialogue among students.
Assessment Constructivism calls for the elimination of grades and standardized
testing. Instead, assessment becomes part of the learning process so that students
play a larger role in judging their own progress.


Comment on the implication of constructivism on the

curriculum, instruction and assessment of your subject
area as stated above.

5.8 CASE STUDY: Teaching Science from a Constructivist


Non-Constructivist Science Teaching

Teaching of science tends to resemble a
one-person show with a captive
audience. Lessons are usually driven by
teacher-talk and depend heavily
textbooks and notes for the structure of
the course.
There is the idea that there is a fixed
world of knowledge that the student
must know. Information is divided into
parts which are built into a whole
Teachers serve as pipeline and seek to transfer their thought and meanings to the
passive student. There is little room for student-initiated questions, independent
thought or interaction between students.
Cook book experiments are common where students follow closely the
instructions on what hypotheses to test and method of carrying out experiments.
The goal of the learner is to regurgitate the accepted explanation or methodology
presented by the teacher.
Constructivist Science Teaching:
The teacher organises information around problems, questions and issues in order
to engage the interest of students. eg. do a demonstration, show a short film,
present data.
Next, present some information or data that does not fit with their existing
Students break up into small groups to formulate their own hypotheses and
experiments. They plan their own investigation and activities to resolve the
discrepancy between the new information presented and their previous learning
and understanding.
The role of the teacher is to move from group to group asking probing questions
that aid students in coming to an understanding of the concept or principle being
studies. The teacher is a resource and facilitator.
After sufficient time for experimentation, the small groups share their ideas and
conclusions with the rest of the class. The idea is to come to a consensus about
what they learned. Concepts and principles emerge from the discussions and they
suggest how the concepts and skills may be applied to new situations.

We have all been in a classroom where the teacher
asks question and students hands fly up excitedly
because they feel they know the answer. The teacher
then looks around the room and chooses as student
She answers, and the teacher says, No. The teacher
then calls on another student who answers and the
teacher says, Close but not quite. The teacher then proceeds to all on
a third student who answers and then the teacher replies, Yes, that is
the right answer! The teacher has conveyed many messages by
conducting the classroom in this manner. The student now knows that
there is one answer to the teachers questions and that they have to
find that one right answer. Another thing is that students now know
that they put themselves at risk if they raise their hand, unless they
are certain that they have the right answer.

a) Is this an example of a constructivist classroom?

b) If this was a constructivist classroom, how would it be different?


Constructivism is not a new concept and its roots can be traced to the work of
18th century philosopher Giambattista Vico.

Knowledge is not something that individuals gain from the outside rather it is
something that they gain through their own active experiences.

Constructivism promotes social and communication skills by creating a

classroom environment that emphasises collaboration and exchange of ideas.

Social constructivism: A person constructs knowledge through social

interaction in the context of a culture.

Learning is a search for meaning.

In order to teach well, we must understand the mental models that students use
to perceive the world and the assumptions they make to support those models.

The constructivist position requires that teachers provide learners with the
opportunity to interact with the information presented and allow them to
construct their own meaning or interpretation of the information.

Learning should be viewed an active process in which learners receive

information and constructs meaning out of the information received.

Benefits of constructivism: When students become involved and interested,

they will take ownership in what is being studied and enjoy their work and
want to learn.

Zone of proximal development
Constructivist principles of learning
Construction of knowledge
Social constructivism

Scaffolding instruction
Search for meaning


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experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University


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and Curriculum Development, 1993.

Ernest, P. (1991) Philosophy of Mathematics Education, London: Falmer.

Glasersfeld, E. von (1983) Learning as a Constructive Activity, in
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