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This page was originally authored by Zilong Zhai (2007).
This page has been revised by Jane Mighton (2008), Yvonne Dawydiak (2008) and Robyn Young (2008)

Constructivism2.jpg The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be ignited. (Plutarch)

Cognitive-Construction, also known as Constructivism, was pioneered by Jean Piaget. Constructivists purport that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world through their experiences and their reflections upon these experiences. Current educational practice with respect to constructivism can be said to blend Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development with Piaget's earlier theories thus creating a learning theory versus a cognitive theory.

Constructivism insists that curriculum should be learner-centered rather than teacher-centered. Learners arrive in the educational setting with prior knowledge that they can use as a building block for acquiring new knowledge. They construct meaning and understanding based on this prior knowledge.

Learning is seen as a process of conceptual change whereby individuals construct new understandings of reality (Whittle et al, 2000). Knowledge is not passively received from the environment (i.e., the teacher), but is actively constructed by the learner. It is “…the result of an individual subject’s constructive activity, not a commodity that somehow resides outside the knower and can be conveyed or instilled by diligent perception or linguistic communication” (Glaserfeld, 1990, as cited in Matthews, M.R., 1994, pp. 139-140).

Constructivism is a highly progressive model of education because it transfers control of learning from the teacher to the learner.

Elements of Constructivism


Construction of knowledge

In a Constructivist Learning Environment, learning activities should examine the learner’s own prior conceptions and relate them to the new knowledge. It is not enough to memorize information, the learner must construct his/her own meaning through a variety of activities. To effectively teach in a constructivist setting, the instructor must understand the students existing cognitive structures and design learning learning activities accordingly. In order for the learner to construct knowledge, he/she must:

  • have access to resources for problem solving or scientific inquiry i.e., discussion forums and information banks.
  • be able to manipulate something ie., construct a product, change parameters, and make decisions.

Where Multimedia is used in a constructivist setting, it is as a medium for the learner to construct knowledge, not to simply deliver instruction.

Learners in a constructivist setting:

  • plan goals, topics, and relationships among topics.
  • access, transform and translate information into knowledge by developing new interpretations and perspectives.
  • evaluate the quality and quantity of gathered content
  • construct a perspective or understanding

No meaningful construction (or activity) is possible if all relevant information is given.

Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development

It is important to consider the work of Lev Vygotsky in any discussion of Constructivism. Vygotsky built upon and, in some respects diverged from, Piaget's theories to create a learning theory which puts collaborative learning at the center.Vygotsky's additions have made constructivism what it is today.

Pedagogical Approaches

A Constructivist learning environment requires revised teaching methods and a different outlook on the role of the instructor.

Situated Cognition

"Knowledge is situated, being in part a product of the activity, context and culture in which it is used." (Brown, Collins, Duguid, 1989) The notion of situated cognition is inherent in a constructivist approach. Learning must be relevant and authentic.

The learning environment should support Problem-based learning:

  • question/issue-based
  • case-based
  • project-based
  • problem-based activities.

Problems need to be interesting, relevant, and engaging. Further, the representation of problems should be appealing to learners and the context should help create a physical simulation of the real-world task. In other words, they should have 'ecological validity'. A problem-based learning environment provides an opportunity for inquiry, information gathering and reflection.

Reflexive Cognition

Students are encouraged to become:

  • self-regulatory
  • self-mediated
  • self-aware

Instructors and learners examine personal beliefs and theories about subject matter. Learners are asked to articulate their inquiry-based problem solving. Reflexive cognition can be seen as a synonym for "meta-cognition". Through metacognition, learners develop a deeper understanding of the processes involved in their learning as well as grasping the solution to the problem at hand. In a constructivist model, this deeper understanding is paramount to the "correct answer".

Cognitive Apprenticeship

A Cognitive Apprenticeship is necessitated in constructivist learning because the problem provided should be slightly too difficult for a learner to "handle the task" independently. To that end, students work in cooperative groups with the support of a coach who provides for scaffolding of instruction.The instructor is not the sole or most important model or source of information. There need to be opportunities for social interaction which allow learners to exchange perspectives, collaborate with peers, and reconstruct events. In other words, multiple perspectives.

Students, instructors and personnel who support learning should receive appropriate training. This training includes the use of:

  • Behavioural modeling of performance
  • Cognitive modeling to assist learners in task completion
  • coaching the learner to improve personal performance to reach a skilled level in task completion
  • Scaffolding to provide temporary frameworks to support learning and student performance beyond their capacities.

Assessment and Evaluation

It is important that learners assume responsibility for setting their own goals, determining their own strategies, and monitoring their own learning. Cognitive tools allow students to go beyond language to represent what they know in ways that are more highly structured and visual. Multiple perspectives are included in the evaluation ie, self-assessment, peer-assessment. In Process-based evaluation, the instructor has the opportunity to view and interact with the learners as they progress in their skill development.

Portfolios used in teaching programs afford opportunities for self-assessment (Foote & Vermette, 2001). Foote and Vermette describe how the constructivist perspective of learning is portrayed in portfolio development. The developmental process of the portfolio allows the learner “to demonstrate and document personal growth over time” (p. 31). In an introductory course, students learn how to organize and design the portfolio and include submissions, such as case studies and journal reflections. Rather than submit new material as the program progresses, students are encouraged to revise earlier submissions based on new field experiences. The self-assessment is evident in the reflective process which includes “dialogue [with peers and/or instructor] and writing experiences” (Foote & Vermette, p. 34) where the learner defends the inclusion of new submissions and revisions as evidence of achieving program outcomes. Foote states that “the process of reflection is what makes the portfolio a tool for life-long learning and professional development instead of merely a collection of work” (p. 35).

For "Behaviourists", student evaluation is based on whether a learner meets specific objectives. Assessment is based on individual tests to demonstrate mastery. Constructivists report on active, authentic experiences, activities, and projects. The emphasis is on "interaction, reflection and collaboration among a group of learners". Assessment tends to be integrated throughout the curriculum rather than solely in the final products. This evaluation may appear more subjective. For example, when you try to assess a student's success in a group learning environment and give a grade that is a true representation of the degree of learning, things get a little complicated. How much of the product is the student's own understanding and interpretation of the content and how much of it is the group's? How can you seperate the two? A pre- and post- test might address some of this apparent complication.

Teaching Applications

The ancient Greek philosopher Cicero once said: “The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn.”

This speaks to a key belief of constructivists — that the teacher must assume a different role in the classroom for students to learn best. In a constructivist classroom the teacher must function not as the "knower of all things", but as a facilitator of learning — a "guide on the side" if you will. The teacher sets the stage for what the students will learn then grants them more control over how they will learn it. At all times the teacher is there to pose questions of students that encourage them to think critically about their own learning and to draw further connections. The teacher helps students scaffold their learning, but does not dispense that learning to them. The teacher must not take over thinking for the learner by telling the learner what to do or think, but rather teaching should be done by inquiring at the “leading edge” of the protégés thinking (Fosnot, 1989, as cited in Matthews, M.R., 1994, p. 141).

Here are some ways to employ constructivist principles in your teaching.

1. Structure the learning tasks so that students can collaborate and socially negotiate meaning. According to Berge (as cited in VanSickle, 2002, p.9), “it is through discussion and interaction with others that students share their experiences, try out different ways of looking at their own experiences, and explore multiple perspectives and views that often conflict with their own.” It is through this interaction that students share ideas, agree, disagree, reformulate, refine, and synthesize their thinking. Collaborative engagement with others in a community of learners greatly enriches the educational experience. Increased interaction with their peers also empowers students to take greater control of their own learning and to share the goal of meaning making (Pallof & Pratt, 2001). As noted by Hiltz et al (2000), this can be far more effective than simply having students receive posted material and send it back individually, without the opportunity to first collaborate with others.

2. Allow students choice so they take ownership over their learning. In a constructivist classroom, students take ownership over their learning by choosing what they want to learn, within limits set by the teacher. In other words, students have some latitude in choosing problems or tasks that relate to the theme under study. They also determine with the teacher the suitable criteria for learning and for evidence of learning (Windschitl, 1999).

3. Design authentic tasks for the learner. It is important that the teacher help the student understand why this learning is important and help her put it into context that she can understand and appreciate. The teacher must help students to realize the ways they will use this knowledge in their everyday lives. They must provide their students with learning experiences where they can apply these skills to real life situations. Courses must also be written so that students are provided with opportunities to apply information and scenarios to broader, authentic contexts.

4. Make your instructional goals seem like the students’ goals as well. The trick, here, is to design the educational materials in such a way that they guide students in the direction you want them to go. Materials must “pre-kindle” students’ interest; it must pose questions or set the stage for the content in such a way that it emerges as an area of relevance for students, something they want to explore and assume ownership over.

As part of this process, the teacher must assume an integral role. He must structure the scaffolding upon which he will guide students to construct deeper understanding.

Constructivist Assumptions about Learning

  • Constructivism is a view in which knowledge is believed to be constructed rather than acquired. It is not one theory but a multitude of approaches.
  • Only the active learner is a successful learner. Learning by doing enables learners to achieve deep levels of understanding.
  • Knowledge is constructed by learners as they attempt to make sense of their experiences.
  • Learners are actively seeking meaning because learning with understanding is desired, as opposed to rote learning.
  • Many constructivist theorists agree that there is a social component to learning, as learners test their own understandings against those of others, such as those of teachers or more advanced peers. Therefore, the social structure of a learning environment is important

Constructivist Learning Goals

  • Emphasizes learning in context through meaningful activities.
  • Focus on high-level thinking activities to develop cognitive flexibility.
  • Constructivists are interested in having learners identify and pursue their own learning goals.
  • Problem solving, reasoning, critical thinking and reflection constitute the goals of constructivist instruction.

Constructivist Conditions for Learning

  • Focus on the process of learning, rather than the products of learning. This can be accomplished by embedding learning in complex, realistic and relevant environments.
  • Simplifying tasks for learners will prevent them from learning how to solve the complex problems they will solve in real life by providing for social negotiation as an essential part of learning.
  • Higher mental processes develop through social interaction. Students develop and defend individual perspectives while recognizing those of others and teachers support multiple perspectives and the use of multiple modes of representation.
  • Viewing the same content through different sensory modes (such as visual, auditory, or tactile) enables different aspects of it to be seen and encourages ownership in learning.
  • Students are actively involved in determining what their own learning needs are and how those needs can be satisfied, rather than being passive recipients of instruction that has been designed for them. Teachers share in the learning process rather than controlling it. It is imperative to nurture self-awareness of the knowledge construction process as the importance of metacognition and reflexivity is essential to the acquisition of goals such as reasoning, understanding multiple perspectives and articulating beliefs.

Computer Technologies and Constructivism

Web-based collaborative technologies can provide problem scaffolding in the form of virtual access to knowledge experts and on-line support. Students can identify learning goals, conduct investigations, monitor their progress, consider their ideas and those of others, and communicate to others within and outside the immediate learning community. The computer affords an effective means of implementing constructivist strategies that would be challenging to accomplish in other media, with the vast availability or interactive, user-friendly computer technologies.

Perceptions about Constructivist Learning

Constructivism is said to transform a learner from a passive listener and absorber of information to an individual who is "out there to get something for himself". One might say that the twenty-first century requires such an individual.

Constructivism requires the learner to take responsibility for his or her own learning by actively participating in the learning medium. The learner can create his/her own learning mediums as well by drawing on his own interpretations of the subject. He can share his thoughts, ideas and interpretations with both peers and teacher.

In Constructivism, the Instructional Designers attempt to design activities that are based on authentic situations, such as case studies. The learning is meaningful when it has a connection to the real world. Social and communicative skills are developed by encouraging students to interact with each other and share ideas. Students learn from each other while doing this.

Critics argue that the collaborative aspects of constructivist classrooms lead to the voices of only a few assertive students being heard. That the views of these learners dominate within the group.

Others argue that it allows divergence from uniformity. This can cause problems when prescribed learning outcomes are not reached.


Brooks, Jacqueline G., and Brooks, Martin G (1993). In Search of Understanding, The Case for the Constructivist Classroom. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Brown, J. S., Collins, A. & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. "Educational Researcher"; v18 n1, pp. 32-42

Derry, S. (1996). Cognitive Schema Theory in the Constructivist Debate. In Educational Psychologist, 31(3/4), 163-174.

Driscoll. M.P. (2005). Psychology of Learning for Instruction (pp. 384-407; Ch. 11 – Constructivism). Toronto, ON: Pearson

Driscoll. M.P. (2005). Psychology of Learning for Instruction (pp. 153-182; Ch. 5 – Situated Cognition). Toronto, ON: Pearson

Foote, C. J. & Vermette, P. J. (2001). Teaching portfolio 101: Implementing the teaching portfolio in Introductory courses. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 28(1), 31 – 38.

Honebein, P. (1996). Seven goals for the design of Constructivist learning environments. In B. Wilson, Constructivist learning environments, pp. 17-24. New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.

Jonassen, D. (1999). Designing constructivist learning environments. In C. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional design theories and models: Volume II. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

Krynock, K. B. & Robb, L. (1996). Is Problem-based Learning a Problem for your Curriculum? "Illinois School Research and Development Journal", Vol.33, No.1

Matthews, M. R. (1994). Science Teaching. New York : Routledge, chapter 7

Oxford, R. (1997). Constructivism: shape-shifting, substance, and teacher education applications. Peabody journal of education, v. 72 (n1), p35.

External links

Constructivism (learning theory) [[1]]

Constructivism: From Philosophy to Practice [[2]]

Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning [[3]]

Constructivism in Math Education [[4]]

Constructivism in Science Education [[5]]

Current Trends in Education – Constructivism [[6]]

Step-by-Step Lesson Planning with Prompts and Tips [[7]]

What Do Lesson Plans That Use Constructivist Ideas Look Like? [[8]]