Constructivism is a theoretical perspective in education that postulates that students actively create their own understanding through personal experience.
By building upon previous experiences and knowledge, students gradually form more complex and advanced comprehension of academic concepts.
In a constructivist classroom, teachers play the role of facilitator more so than instructor. Instead of teachers telling students what and how to think, the teacher creates a learning environment where students are encouraged to explore and become active participants in their educational experiences.
For this reason, it is crucial for teachers to understand where each student is at in terms of their skills and current level of understanding, and then adjust their instructional approaches accordingly.
Constructivism in the Classroom: Key Theorists
Over the last 100+ years, there have been may key figures that endorsed the principles of constructivism in the classroom. Below are a few of the most recognized.
1. John Dewey (1859 – 1952)
Dewey was an American philosophy and educator who wrote prolifically about education reform, founding the progressive education movement. He believed that schools should foster student independence and the development of problem-solving skills.
Rather than being the recipient of instruction from the teacher, he argued that students should learn through experience. Dewey (1961) insisted that the “contents of the child’s experience” are more important than the “subject matter of the curriculum” (p. 342).
Because every child is unique and develops according to their own naturally occurring developmental processes, educational experiences and growth should emerge from the child rather than through an external agent (Stone, 1996).
Progressive schools operate on the principle of “Building the idea of individualist development instead of the idea of top-down forcing…. practicing active education instead of passive learning from teachers and texts” (Dewey, 1998, pp. 22-23).
2. Maria Montessori (1870-1952)
An Italian physician by training, her work with physically disable children had a strong influence on her philosophy of education. She rejected the traditional classroom configuration of desks in rows where students sat immobilized and passive.
Her educational vision placed an emphasis on student movement and academic activities that developed daily living skills, including social skills, hygiene and self-discipline (Hedeen, 2005).
The classroom environment should support a child’s natural sense of curiosity and propensity to explore. Crucial elements of her philosophy emphasize children working independently, choosing what they want to do and who they want to work with.
Allowing this freedom encourages creativity and problem-solving, helps children develop self-control, and fosters a sense of independence. As she once stated to illustrate the role of the teacher as facilitator, “The children are now working as if I didn’t exist” (Montessori, 1995, p. 283).
Instead of the teacher being the authority on course material, it is shared. Students can make decisions regarding their educational goals and participate in the critiquing of their work.
Montessori was a ‘cognitive constructivist’, with a stronger focus on the role of cognitive development as the driver of intellectual progress than the importance of social interaction. She believed that children went through a range of relatively set stages called the planes of development, as depicted above, and explained below:
- Infancy: The first stage, from birth to six years, is characterized by the child’s “Absorbent Mind” where they absorb information from their environment like a sponge. It’s divided into two sub-phases: the unconscious creation (from 0-3 years) where the child absorbs the world unconsciously, and the conscious creation (from 3-6 years) where the child starts to purposefully interact with their environment.
- Childhood: The second stage, from six to twelve years, is the “Reasoning Mind” stage where children begin to think logically and explore their imagination and social relationships. During this stage, children seek knowledge and have a thirst for understanding the “why” and “how” of things.
- Adolescence: The third stage, from twelve to eighteen years, often referred to as the “Humanistic” or “Social Justice” stage, is when adolescents are discovering their social selves and developing their individual identities. They begin to look beyond their immediate family and become more focused on how they fit into the larger society.
- Maturity: The final stage, from eighteen to twenty-four years, is the “Specialist” stage, where young adults start to focus on their place in the world, using all they’ve learned about themselves and society to determine their path in life and their contribution to the world. In all these stages, the role of education, according to Montessori, is to support the natural developmental process of children.
3. Jean Piaget (1896-1980)
Often identified as a Swiss psychologist (due to most of his work being in the area of child development), Piaget’s early training was actually in zoology! This is where his skills of observation were first honed.
Piaget’s work has had a tremendous impact on educational philosophy and classroom practices. He viewed the child as in a constant state of creating and modifying their understanding of the world. A process that was a result of experience and naturally occurring biological growth processes.
Astute observations and extensive note-taking on his own children’s behavior from the moment they were born led to his theory of cognitive development and many of its fundamental concepts.
According to Piaget, the child’s understanding of the world is constantly evolving. They form schemas regarding stimuli encountered in the environment, which are then continuously modified through the processes of assimilation and accommodation.
Assimilation is when new knowledge is processed in terms of the existing schema. If that information is inconsistent with the existing schema, then the schema is modified, referred to as accommodation (Piaget (1953, 1969). In some instances, the formation of an entirely new schema will occur.
Like Montessori, Piaget proposed a range of stages of cognitive development.
These stages are outlined briefly below:
Sensorimotor Stage (0 – 2 years)
- Object permanence: Babies learn that objects out of sight still exist.
- Goal Directed Action: Babies learn to act intentionally to achieve a goal.
- Deferred Imitation: Babies continue to imitate others after the event.
Preoperational Stage (2 – 7 years)
- Symbolic Thought: Young children learn to use language to represent their thoughts. They develop imaginative play.
- Egocentrism: Young children struggle to see things from other perspectives
Concrete Operational Stage (7 – 12 years)
- Logical thought: children begin to see relationships between mass, time, space, etc.
- Conservation: Children discover that changes in appearance do not necessarily correspond with changes in weight, volume, etc.
Formal Operational Stage (12 – 18 years)
- Children form inductive and deductive reasoning. They can use abstract thought and general principles to develop increasingly complex hypotheses.
4. Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934)
Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist at the Moscow Institute of Psychology that was interested in linguistics, education, and child development. He was a firm believer in ‘social’ constructivism and the notion that new learning was always built upon previous learning experiences.
He emphasized the social nature of learning and education, arguing that social interaction is essential for learning to progress. This interaction not only involved the parents and teacher, but also society as a whole.
Vygotsky is most famous for creating the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). He defines it below:
“…the distance between the actual development as determined by independent problem solving and level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86).
There are three zones that represent the learner’s abilities.
The first zone consists of what the learner can accomplish independently, with no assistance. The second zone is what the learner can accomplish with some guidance. The third zone consists of what the learner cannot do.
A key factor in a child’s progress involves the role of the more knowledgeable other (MKO). An MKO is any person (parent, teacher, or peer) that possesses a more advanced understanding or skill level than the student. The interaction between the student and the MKO is key to student progress.
It is the responsibility of the MKO to apply a level of instructional difficulty that matches the student’s zone of development. Tasks that are too easy do not benefit the student, whereas tasks that are too difficult lead to failure and frustration.
Constructivism in the Classroom Examples
- Conflict Resolution Simulation: University students in a leadership course are given a simulation involving two employees having an intense interpersonal conflict. The leader will participate in the simulation with the two employees and try to implement a resolution.
- Classroom Debate: At the beginning of the academic term, students are asked to generate a list of controversial topics in society. They then select sides of the issues they wish to represent and then work together to prepare for a debate to be held three weeks later.
- Building a Marble Run: Students in third grade form small groups and are provided with an assortment of materials such as cardboard, tape, scissors, and paper-towel tubes. Their goal is to construct a marble run with the materials so that the marble is in motion for a minimum period of time, as designated by the instructor.
- Constructing Vertical Gardens: Students in an Environmental Studies course work with community stakeholders to construct vertical gardens in underserved areas of a nearby city.
- The Paper Bridge Contest: At the end of a structural engineering course, students work in small groups and participate in a competition on who can build the strongest bridge from paper and tape.
- In Medical School: A team of 8 medical students is given several binders of diagnostic information regarding an actual patient case history. They must work together to identify the illness and devise a treatment regimen. An experienced doctor sits in on their meetings and offers as little assistance as possible.
- Reflection Worksheets: After completing a project, each member of the team is given a reflection worksheet. They respond to questions about their experience, identify what they think went well and didn’t go well, and describe how they would approach various aspects of their participation if given the opportunity to do it all over again.
- Designing a Research Study: A psychology instructor asks students to work in small groups and design a study to test the effectiveness of meditation on treating patients with social anxiety disorder.
- Oral Presentations: Each student selects a topic covered in the course and then is given two weeks to construct a 15-minute presentation delivered to the rest of the class.
- Formulating an Action Plan: Students in an Educational Leadership course form small groups of three and are tasked with developing an action plan for a kindergarten in which one of the students has just been diagnosed with a highly contagious disease.
Strengths of Constructivism in the Classroom
1. It Is Engaging
Constructivist classroom activities are very engaging. Students get much more out of classroom instruction when they are actively involved in the learning process.
Compared to traditional instructional approaches, which are passive, constructivist-driven approaches are also motivating. When students are engaged and motivated, their learning advances substantially.
2. It Fosters Deep Learning
When students must become active participants in a project or problem-based activity, their learning is much deeper. They must think more critically about concepts involved in the project, conduct comparisons with other concepts, and may need to explain and defend their point of view.
Critical-thinking and problem-solving require much deeper levels of cognitive processing than traditional instructional approaches in which students receive information from a teacher.
3. It Is Differentiated
When teachers follow Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, it means they tailor their instructional approach to each individual student. They recognize their role as the MKO and the importance of matching the demands of the learning activity with the skill level of the student.
This means that advanced students will not get bored and students at lower levels or progress will not feel frustrated and incapable.
Weaknesses of Constructivism in the Classroom
1. It Often Lacks Structure
One of the most often heard criticisms of constructivist-driven classroom activities is that they lack structure. In fact, from a Montessori perspective, the less structure the better.
However, critics argue that some students need clear parameters to guide their learning process. Without structure, their learning lacks coherence, their understanding will not be well-organized, and may actually contain misconceptions and errors.
2. Preparation Is Time-Consuming
Constructivist activities can be very time-consuming for teachers. Most teachers are already incredibly hard-working. They often work after school hours and on weekends to fulfill their numerous job demands.
The additional tasks needed to design activities and gather and prepare materials needed can add a lot of hours to the work week. Many teachers simply find it challenging to endure these additional demands.
3. Differentiation Is Time-Consuming
Similar to the increased demands of preparing activities, the matter is compounded by the need for differentiation. Not only must a teacher design, gather, and prepare materials for one activity, but often they must develop different versions of that activity that are suitable to the different skill levels of their students.
4. It Doesn’t Match Well With Standardized Testing
Standardized tests contain a large number of fact-based test items. Of course, it is important that students know basic definitions and key dates associated with a given subject, but that takes classroom time.
However, constructivist-driven classroom activities are more focused on developing higher-order cognitive skills. Those take time as well.
When a teacher sees their students working well together on a group project, they surely will be pleased. But at the same time, they surely recognize that they are not engaging in an activity that translates well to the high-stakes standardized tests they will be required to take at the end of the academic year.
Constructivism proposes that students are active builders of their knowledge. As they encounter new information, it is processed and understood within the context of their existing knowledge base.
That base is then adjusted accordingly.
This is a continuous process that every student experiences from their earliest days in kindergarten until their final days as university graduates.
The constructivist approach to learning incorporates several key features. Instruction is student-centered. Activities are engaging and collaborative, and designed to build higher-order cognitive skills. The teacher’s role is as facilitator, not director.
While these features are beneficial to student learning and development, they don’t come without challenges.
The additional demands on teachers can be extensive. Designing and preparing constructivist activities takes time, and developing differentiated versions for a classroom of 30 students is even more demanding.
At the same time, while students are collaborating in small groups and honing their teamwork and problem-solving skills, they are not devoting time to mastering material they will see on important standardized tests later.
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