Constructivist Learning in the Classroom (mid-1990s)

In practice, constructivist learning theory is often manifest in the form of[1] a variety of teaching methods and techniques that are considered to be revolutionary or enlightened improvements upon old school traditional education in which knowledge is simply imparted by teachers to students. Sternberg and Williams (2010), reflecting what appears to be the common perception in both public and private educational institutions of the present day, equated “constructivist” teaching with “student-centered” teaching, and described constructivism as bringing “an increased awareness of the roll of individual differences” and “a renewed emphasis in learning on the role of student motivation” (p. 449).  They listed five ways in which “expert teachers think about creating student-center learning situations” (pp. 449-450):

1. Accepting complexity

When engaging in student-centered learning, expert teachers create complex learning environments instead of deliberately simplified ones, as is often the case for traditional methods of instruction. Student-centered teaching involves giving students real-world problems to solve, with all of the confusion inherent in such problems. The idea is that students should work on ecologically meaningful problems (in other words, problems that they might encounter in their daily lives, and that have some personal meaning for them), the solutions for which represent workable real-world solutions, rather than simply being expected to memorize and then restate correct answers on tests. (p. 449)

2. Learning through social interaction

Student-centered learning often involves social interactions with other students in varied formats, including group instruction, in which students learn, process, and discuss material in groups. Group discussions are conversations amoung students in which students pose and answer their own questions; the teacher does not play the dominant role. Thus learning becomes a socially mediated and facilitated activity. (pp. 449-450)

3. Presenting content in several contexts

Student-centered approach involve using multiple representations of content to help students generalize and transfer what they learn. This richer and more varied approach attempts to give students information they can use. It is also intended to help students develop realistic, flexible, and useful mental representations of knowledge that are not artificially limited as a function of having been learned in a particular context. (p. 450).

4. Using psychological principles to structure teaching

Student-centered teaching requires teachers to sue the principles and findings of cognitive and educational psychology to structure instruction to it best enhances the intellectual development of the student. Teachers must be aware of what it really means to learn as well as how the process of learning is affected by different factors. As this point suggests, student-centered teaching places high demands on teachers who use this approach. (p. 450)

5. Recognizing meaningful learning

It is…difficult to recognize when meaningful learning is taking place—sometimes students may talk animatedly about a subject and be learning nothing. At other times, students take the opportunities of group work to gossip or joke around. You have less control, and it can be difficult to monitor what is going on. (p. 450)

In addition to these five ways of creating student-centered learning situations, Sternberg and Williams list, in complete detail, fourteen learner-centered psychological principles produced by a task force of the American Psychological Association assigned to develop a set of guidelines for school redesign and reform. The principles are divided into four groups: (a) cognitive and metacognitive, (b) motivational and affective, (c) developmental and social, and (d) individual difference factors in learning. They are written with the intent that they should “apply to all learners—to children, to teachers, to administrators, to parents, and to community members involved in our educational system” (Learner-Centered Work Group of the American Psychological Association’s Board of Education Affairs, 1997, para. 9).  The principles, in brief, state the following:


Cognitive and Metacognitive Factors:

Principle 1. Nature of the learning process.  The learning of complex subject matter is most effective when it is an intentional process of constructing meaning from information and experience.

Principle 2. Goals of the learning process. The successful learner, over time and with support and instructional guidance, can create meaningful, coherent representations of knowledge.

Principle 3. Construction of knowledge. The successful learner can link new information with existing knowledge in meaningful ways.

Principle 4. Strategic thinking. The successful learner can create and use a repertoire of thinking and reasoning strategies to achieve complex learning goals.

Principle 5. Thinking about thinking. Higher-order strategies for selecting and monitoring mental operations facilitate creative and critical thinking.

Principle 6. Context of learning. Learning is influenced by environmental factors, including culture, technology, and instructional practices.

Motivational and Affective Factors:

Principle 7. Motivational and emotional influences on learning. What and how much is learned are influenced by the learner’s motivation. Motivation to learn, in turn, is influenced by the individual’s emotional states, beliefs, interests and goals, and habits of thinking.

Principle 8. Intrinsic motivation to learn. The learner’s creativity, higher-order thinking, and natural curiosity all contribute to motivation to learn. Intrinsic motivation is stimulated by tasks of optimal novelty and difficulty, is relevant to personal interests, and provides for personal choice and control.

Principle 9. Effects of motivation on effort. Acquisition of complex knowledge and skills requires extended learner effort and guided practice. Without the learner’s motivation to learn, the willingness to exert this effort is unlikely without coercion.


Developmental and Social:

Principle 10. Developmental influences on learning. As individuals develop, there are different opportunities and constraints for learning. Learning is most effective when differential development within and across physical, intellectual, emotional, and social domains is taken into account.

Principle 11. Social influences on learning. Learning is influenced by social interactions, interpersonal relations, and communication with others.

Individual Differences:

Principle 12. Individual differences in learning.  Learners have different strategies, approaches, and capabilities for learning that are a function of prior experience and heredity.

Principle 13. Learning and diversity.  Learning is most effective when differences in learners’ linguistic, cultural, and social backgrounds are taken into account.

Principle 14. Standards assessment. Setting appropriately high and challenging standards and assessing the learner as well as learning progress—including diagnostic, process, and outcome assessment—are integral parts of the learning process.

(Learner-Centered Work Group of the American Psychological Association’s Board of Education Affairs, 1997)

Sternberg and Williams (2010) also noted that “as was the case with direct instruction, good teaching from a constructivist perspective depends on the effective combination of specific techniques to reach the widest possible audience” (p. 451). They listed several methods for “teaching constructively” (pp. 451-465):

1. Individualized instruction – individualized instruction plans allow for variations in time to complete objectives, learning activities engaged in, and the instructional materials used by each student.

2. Discovery approaches students construct their own understanding based on available or supplied information.

Unstructured discovery occurs when students make discoveries on their own. Guided discovery occurs when the teacher assists the students in making discoveries. Guided discovery is more practical and effective; unstructured discovery often leads students to become confused and frustrated and may result in students’ drawing inappropriate conclusions. (p. 455)

3. Group discussion – “in group discussion, students do not just respond to teacher-initiated questions; they also respond to one another’s questions in an open discussion format” (p. 455).

4. Inquiry methods – teachers begin by asking students a question. The students formulate multiple hypotheses that are possible answers to the question, then collect information to evaluate the various hypotheses and draw appropriate conclusions.

5. Group work – “student groupwork entails small groups of students working together on tasks in relatively informal settings” (p. 457). One of the main advantages of groupwork is that every student has more of a chance to actively participate.

6. Cooperative learning – similar to groupwork, but more highly structured by the teacher and under tighter teacher control. Cooperative learning generally involves competition between groups to complete the goal, evaluated by time to completion or group performance on post-learning assessments.

7. Reciprocal teaching – students are first taught four steps to improve understanding of what they read: summarizing, asking a question about an important point in the text, clarifying the difficult portions of what was read, and predicting what is likely to come next. Once they have learned the method, students take turns teaching and leading the class or group.

8. Computer-assisted learning – “a type of individualized instruction administered by a computer” (p. 461).

Computer-assisted instruction can become a part of a technology-enhanced student-centered learning environment that encourages the students’ manipulation of information and that roots the learning process in concrete experience and extended investigation. (p. 461)

Another example of how constructive learning theory has manifest in the practice of education is Brooks and Brooks’ In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms (1993). Although this text presents many very good ideas on effective teaching and learning, it also demonstrates how the concept of constructivism has been stretched far beyond the simple boundaries of the fundamental concept that learners construct their own knowledge, and is now a change catalyst “serving as the basis for many of the current reforms in education” (p. vii). While such extremism may not be warranted, the constructive movement is now one of the mainstream “banners and bandwagons”[2] around which frustrated educators find opportunity for expression and action:

Constructivism stands in contrast to the more deeply rooted ways of teaching that have long typified American classrooms. Traditionally, learning has been thought to be a “mimetic” activity, a process that involves students repeating, or miming, newly presented information (Jackson 1986) in reports or on quizzes and tests. Constructivist teaching practices, on the other hand, help learners to internalize and reshape, or transform, new information. Transformation occurs through the creation of new understandings (Jackson 1986, Gardner 1991b) that result from the emergence of new cognitive structures. Teachers and parents can invite transformations, but can neither mandate nor prevent them. (Brooks & Brooks, 1993, p. 15)

Brooks and Brooks suggested five guiding principles of constructivism (pp. 33-98):

1. Posing problems of emerging relevance to students

Teacher mediation is the key factor: The structuring of the lesson around questions that challenge students’ original hypotheses presents students with the initial sparks that kindle their interest. Students must be given time and stimulation to seek relevance and the opportunity to reveal their own points of view. Students need opportunities to ponder the question, form their own responses, and accept the risk of sharing their thoughts with others. (pp. 37-38)

2. Structuring learning around primary concepts

Structuring curriculum around primary concepts is a critical dimension of constructivist pedagogy. When designing curriculum, constructivist teachers organize information around conceptual clusters of problems, questions, and discrepant situations because students are most engaged when problems and ideas are presented holistically rather than in separate, isolated, parts. Much of traditional education breaks wholes into parts and then focuses separately on each part. But many students are unable to build concepts and skills from parts to wholes. These students often stop trying to see the wholes before all the parts are presented to them and focus on the small, memorizable aspects of broad units without ever creating the big picture. (p. 46)

When concepts are presented as wholes, on the other hand, students seek to make meaning by breaking the wholes into parts that they can see and understand. Students initiate this process to make sense of the information; they construct the process and the understanding rather than having it done for them.(p. 47)

3. Seeking and valuing students’ points of view

Students’ points of view are windows into their reasoning. Awareness of students’ points of view helps teachers challenge students, making school experiences both contextual and meaningful. Each student’s point of view is an instructional entry point that sits at the gateway of personalized education. (p. 60)

4. Adapting curriculum to address students’ suppositions

The adaptation of curricular tasks to address student suppositions is a function of the cognitive demands implicit in specific tasks (the curriculum) and the nature of the questions posed by students engaged in these tasks (the suppositions)…we don’t know what ideas are within students’ reach unless we do something specific to find out. (p. 72)

5. Assessing student learning in the context of teaching

Tests, then, particularly multiple-choice tests, are structured to determine whether students know information related to a particular body of knowledge—usually a curriculum guide or syllabus. The focus is outward, not inward, on material, not personal constructions. Therefore, the overarching question asked by the test is “Do you know this material?” Authentic activities (tasks and problems already relevant or of emerging relevance to students) also relate to a particular body of knowledge, but rather than structuring assessment around specific bits of information, they invite students to exhibit what they have internalized and learned through application. (pp. 96-97).

Brooks and Brooks (1993) also listed twelve descriptors of constructivist teaching behaviors as a guideline for how teachers can become constructivist teachers:

1. Encourage and accept student autonomy and initiative. (p. 103)

2. Use raw data and primary sources, along with manipulative, interactive, and physical materials. (p. 104)

3. When framing tasks, use cognitive terminology such as “classify,” analyze,” “predict,” and “create.” (p. 104)

4. Allow student responses to drive lessons, shift instructional strategies, and alter content. (p. 105)

5. Inquire about students’ understandings of the concepts before sharing [your] own understandings of those concepts. (p. 107)

6. Encourage students to engage in dialogue, both with the teacher and with one another. (p. 108)

7. Encourage student inquiry by asking thoughtful, open-ended questions and encouraging students to ask questions of each other. (p. 110)

8. Seek elaboration of students’ initial responses. (p. 111)

9. Engage students in experiences that might engender contradictions to their initial hypotheses and then encourage discussion. (p. 112)

10. Allow wait time after posing questions. (p. 114)

11. Provide time for students to construct relationships and create metaphors. (p. 115)

12. Nurture students’ natural curiosity through frequent use of the learning cycle model. (p. 116)

These guiding principles, and the methods listed above by Sternberg and Williams are a good reflection of how constructivist teaching is typically brought into the present day classroom. We now turn to the source behind many of these guidelines and practices: the ideas of Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner, on which these methods are based.[3]

[1] Or perhaps better said, “confused to be”

[2] Close (1977)

[3] The work of Les Vygotsky is also of great influence to constructivist learning theory, although perhaps mistakenly so (Langford, 2005, pp. 152.153). His ideas will be included in our review of social learning theory.

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