Constructivism as a learning theory revolves around an assumption that learning happens when people “construct” meaning from their collection of experiences (Merriam & Bierema, 2014). This approach to learning and teaching is one I have always found most comfort with, and can be applied in many settings, both in the classroom and in the workplace. Constructivist instructors are more facilitators than traditional teachers, and learners need to be actively engaged and participate in their own learning. In this paper, I will illustrate three examples of constructivism in action, one from pop culture, one from the workplace, and finally one from the classroom.
Constructivism as a learning theory evolved from the works of Piaget, Dewey, and Vygotsky, and has laid the foundation for future approaches to education, particularly in personalized and experiential learning. Constructivists look to inquiry, reflection and experiential learning as critical parts of the learning process, and take an evolutionary approach. In other words, we build upon our previous experiences as we learn by taking in new experiences and then applying them to what we already know or creating new meaning from them, thus furthering our knowledge.
Piaget looked at how people gain knowledge and proposed that humans learn in progressively more complex ways, going through four different stages from infancy to adulthood, all of which draw on the principle that accommodation (adapting to create meaning from a new experience) and assimilation (adding new experiences to your existing frame of reference) are a part of the learning process, and build in layers as we continue our cognitive development.
Dewey added to this train of thought by introducing the concept of experiential learning. Experiential learning was part of Dewey’s progressive educational philosophy, and surmised that education and experience were related, but not necessarily directly. He posed that not all education comes about through experience nor or all experiences educational (Dewey, 1938), but that positive experiences encourage educational moments and experiences that are discouraging can have the opposite effect and lead to limiting future growth in that area. He further challenged educators to include both the teacher and the learner’s experiences into their teaching and stated “The teacher’s suggestion is not a mold for a cast-iron result but is a starting point to be developed into a plan through contributions from the experience of all engaged in the learning process.” (p.31)
Vygotsky introduced the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) which concludes that by targeting learning experiences to that which is just beyond the ability of the learner to do unassisted, we create the opportunity for the individual to grow and develop. (Vygotsky, 1978) By identifying what the learner can do on their own, what the learner can do with assistance (the ZPD), and what the learner cannot do, educators can create meaningful learning experiences.
This was expanded upon to the concept of scaffolding, or a series of supports that help perform an action. Scaffolding in the educational context refers to the support provided by someone able to provide assistance to the learner, allowing the learner to focus on those aspects of the task that are within his or her range of competence (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976, p.90) Together, the concept of applying meaning gained from past experiences to further one’s development with some guidance through instruction, mentoring, or other supports can be applied to many different learning experiences, both formal and informal.
Modern educators have further expanded on constructivist principles and many aspects of and approaches to modern education are based on the premise that education and experience are intrinsically linked.
The constructivist approach resonates with me both as a learner and a teacher. I have always tried to relate any new experience to that which I already know, and in many years of mentoring apprentices in the workplace, always tried to encourage them to do the same. The process of accommodation and assimilation or taking meaning from every experience and applying it appropriately has always seemed to be the most natural way of learning, especially if you take the view that learning in its most holistic sense includes developing the capability to not only perform a task but to understand why and how it is done most effectively. This point of view encompasses learning in all three domains – cognitive, affective, and psychomotor, and is the basis for much competency based education and assessment.
Roles of the instructor and learner
The constructivist educator is a facilitator in a truer sense than a traditional “stand in the front of the classroom and share your expertise” teacher. Since the theory revolves heavily around the learner creating their own meaning through a combination of experiences and new ideas, the role of the instructor is to guide the learners and provide opportunities and activities that will allow that meaning to take place. This is not to say that the constructivist educator does not provide the learner with new information, concepts, or ideas, but rather that new information is presented in a way, and with a process, that allows the learner to absorb and adapt in his or her own way. The instructor also needs to be continually engaged in identifying how each individual is progressing, in order to keep challenging the learner to continue his or her developmental process, and is there to provide the support or “scaffold” as the learner heads into unfamiliar territory.
Since the constructivist approach assumes the learner will create meaning from experience and ideas, the classroom becomes a place of inquiry and exploration. Group discussion, peer to peer learning, collaboration, and latitude in terms of how new concepts are learned and evaluated are all part of the learning process. This requires the learner to be an active participant, and fosters independent thinking, creativity, and self-direction. While this may not work with all learners, particularly those who have limited experiences to draw from, such as younger students or novices in vocational programs, constructivism offers opportunities for individualized learning that other, more traditional educational approaches do not.
When reflecting on constructivist theory in action, a few thoughts come to mind that exemplify how leveraging and linking the learner’s prior experience to come to a new understanding can be an effective strategy. I always remember a moment from my youth that made me think about how we all have different ways of learning. In an episode of Happy Days, Potsie Weber decides to quit school after failing his anatomy final (1979). Fonzie plays the role of the constructivist, and suggests that using music as a tool to remember the terminology and how the circulatory system operates might be an effective approach, which is proven when Potsie writes a song called “Pump your blood”, retakes the test (while humming the song to himself), and scores 100%. The teacher is so amazed by the result, that he accuses Potsie of cheating, as in his limited pedagogical view there is no possible way that Potsie could have learned and understood the material in such a short time.
The practical application of scientific concepts also works well with a constructivist approach. Theoretical concepts and explanations about what is happening at a molecular level are often hard for people to grasp in real terms, and being able to build understanding of the concept through a hands on activity can be helpful. When learning to cook, apprentices must be able to monitor changes that are happening as heat is applied to food and then translating that information into an understanding of the cooking process. Coagulation, such as when proteins cause custard to thicken as it heats, is a good example. Young cooks must learn to apply their understanding of how the heat affects the protein (in this case in the egg yolks) by look and feel in order to fully master the process, as the mixture needs continual stirring, making any formal method of checking for a target temperature nearly impossible. Similarly, mathematical concepts like fractions are sometimes better understood when portioning a whole item (such as a cake or pie) into equal size pieces.
In the classroom, creating opportunities for learners to develop their own knowledge not only engages the entire classroom, but allows for the collective experience of the group to be leveraged. Think of the classic exercise of having groups of students try to build the longest or strongest bridge they can using a fairly weak building material – spaghetti or straws. The students need to share their collective knowledge and experience, come up with some new ideas, and then through trial and error determine which type of design will yield the greatest success. I doubt that the average grade 7 student is well versed in the tensile strength of spaghetti or the principles of construction that make a strong bridge possible, but any group of students, given this task will come up with a wide range of possibilities, and with various degrees of success.
Although constructivism is more a collection of similar trains of thought around the role experience plays in learning than a single learning theory (Merriam & Bierema, 2014), it has greatly influenced the world of adult education. Constructivist approaches can be applied in a variety of settings, from informal learning and self study, to formal training and the workplace, and are the foundation of so many of the guiding principles that modern educators apply today. By creating environments where our students can turn new experiences into rich learning moments, each with their own context and frame of reference, we as educators can help them get from learning to understanding and from knowledge to capability.
Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education. New York: Kappa Delta Pi. Retrieved from: http://ruby.fgcu.edu/courses/ndemers/colloquium/experienceducationdewey.pdf
Merriam, S.B., Bierema, L.L. (2014) Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Paris, J. (Director), Marshall, G. K. (Producer). (1979). Happy Days: Potsie Quits School (season 6, episode 27). Hollywood, CA: Paramount Television. Retrieved from: http://youtu.be/rh5chIzEk8g
Vygotsky, L.S., Cole, M (1978). Mind in society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
WNET Education (2015) Concept to Classroom: Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/index.html
Wood, D., Bruner, J., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. In Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (vol. 17), 89–100.