Learning Theories/Constructivist Theories

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Constructivism is a learning theory that attempts to explain how learners learn by constructing understanding for everyone. This section will explore the constructivist learning theory by defining constructivism, providing varying views of constructivism, and illustrating how constructivism relates to independent learning and higher education.

Constructivism really got its start in the late 1980s. But many people did not know how to label what they were doing.

In the 1990s, constructivist books abounded. Many people became interested in it.

The principles of Constructivism are broadly adopted in many areas of education today. The notions of authentic activities, social negotiation, juxtaposition of instructional content, nurturance of reflexivity, and student-centered instruction inspired many instructors to examine and think about the importance of interactions between teachers and students, students and students, and students and learning materials as well. Therefore, both instructors and students may have opportunities to enhance the effectiveness of their teaching and learning.

Constructivism gives teachers another perspective to rethink how students learn and to focus on process and provide ways of documenting change and transformation. It also reminds teachers to look for different ways to engage individual student, develop rich environments for exploration, prepare coherent problem sets and challenges that focus the model building effort, elicit and communicate student perceptions and interpretations(Abdal-Haqq, 1998).

Principles of Constructivism

  1. Constructivist learning environments provide multiple representations of reality.
  2. These representations represent that complexity of the real world.
  3. Knowledge construction is emphasized over knowledge reproduction.
  4. Authentic tasks are emphasized in meaningful context.
  5. Real world settings or case-based learning is provided.
  6. Thoughtful reflection on experience is encouraged.
  7. Enable context- and content- dependent knowledge construction.
  8. Supports collaboration and social negotiation among learners.
  9. Discovery learning
  10. Collaborative activity
  11. Integration and activation of prior knowledge
  12. Opportunities for hands-on activities

(Abdal-Haqq, I. 1998; Jonassen, 1994)

[This is mostly straight out of Educational Technology Journal 1994 vol.34(4) pp.34-37 - Perhaps Abdal-Haqq reprinted the list? Regardless Jonassen should be listed - and this is definitely Copyrighted work].

Constructivism defined

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Constructivism is a synthesis of multiple theories diffused into one form. It is the assimilation of both behaviorialist and cognitive ideals. The “constructivist stance maintains that learning is a process of constructing meaning; it is how people make sense of their experience” (Merriam and Caffarella, 1999, p. 260). This is a combination effect of using a person’s cognitive abilities and insight to understand their environment. This coincides especially well with current adult learning theory. This concept is easily translated into a self-directed learning style, where the individual has the ability to take in all the information and the environment of a problem and learn. Constructivism reflects the organismic world view (Goldhaber, 2000). Compared with behaviorism which is originated from the mechanistic world view, constructivism concerns how change occurs in development. For behaviorists, change comes about when an external force acts upon an object that is inherently at rest. For organismic theorists, behavioral change is inherent in the living organism itself rather than extremely driven.

Contrary to criticisms by some (conservative/traditional) educators, constructivism does not dismiss the active role of the teacher or the value of expert knowledge. Constructivism modifies that role, so that teachers help students to construct knowledge, rather than to reproduce a series of facts. Constructivism is also often misconstrued as a learning theory that compels students to "reinvent the wheel." In fact, constructivism taps into and triggers the student's innate curiosity about the world and how things work. And then, students create organizing principles that they can take with them to other learning settings.

View points

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Although varying constructivist theories exist, there is agreement between the theories “that learning is a process of constructing meaning; it is how people make sense of their experience” (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999, p. 261). Two viewpoints of constructivist theories exist. They include the individual constructivist view and the social constructivist view. The individualist constructivist view understands learning to be an intrinsically personal process whereby “meaning is made by the individual and is dependent upon the individual’s previous and current knowledge structure” (p. 261) and as a result can be considered an “internal cognitive activity” (p. 262). The social constructivist view, however, premises that learning is constructed through social interaction and discourse and is considered, according to Drivers and others (1994), to be a process in which meaning is made dialogically (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999).

Constructivist theory and independent learning

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When applying this theory to independent learning, it is essential to understand that we need to consider the cultural environment in which this learning takes place. Isolated learning is an oxymoron. Merriam and Caffarella (1999) suggest that adult learning, while self-directed, must have input from outside influences. That may take the form of investigation, social interaction, or more formal learning environments.

The constructivistic learning approach involves educators building school curriculum around the experience of their students. Constructivists believe learner-centric instructional classroom methods will strengthen the commitment and involvement of self-motivated learners because of their high level of interaction. Today, there is a trend for incorporating technology into the classrooms to support instructional learning methods. Yet, recent studies have revealed technology is not effectively integrated with the concepts of constructivism (Hare et al, 2005).

Nevertheless, constructivistic methods of instruction with using computer technology have developed to meet the instructional goals and conditions. One of the most powerful and versatile tools is the web-based learning. The web-based learning provides learners with optimal learning environment. They can be exposed to the multiple perspectives through collaborative social negotiation within peers or teachers. Additionally, in spite of PC games which originally have not been developed for instructional purposes, even in games such as games for virtual flight simulation or city planning simulation, learners can be exposed to the complex or probable environments. In order to improve the problem-solving skills, it is important for learners to be exposed to complex environments. Constructivism might be broad learning theory because it is synthesized with multiple theories into a single form. Thus it is evident that the method of instruction using technology can be applied with various approaches.

Constructivist theory's (J. Bruner) main theme is that learning is a process in which the learner is able to build on present and previous information. The student is able to take information, create ideas and make choices by utilizing a thought process. The trainer should encourage the student to develop the skills to find out principles on their own. There should be on-going dialog between the student and the trainer. The trainer is responsible for making sure the information is in a format the student can comprehend. The key is to assure the course builds on what has already been learned.

Constructivists think that learners build knowledge actively through the interactions with environmental stimuli. In other words, learning focuses on the learners' questions and exposure. Assessment should avoid standardized tests and grades such as achievement tests designed with multiple choices to test subject-specific knowledge. Assessment appears in the learning process, so students play an important role in examining their own progress.

Behavioralist Theories · Post-Modern Theories

Behavioralist Theories · Learning Theories · Post-Modern Theories
Introduction · References ·  This box: view  talk  edit 
Theories : Behavioralist · Constructivist · Post-Modern · Adult Learning
Organizational Learning : Contributions by Discipline · Triggers · Influencing Factors · Agents · Processes · Interorganizational · Practice
Knowldege Management : Challenges · Processes · Leadership · Change

See Also

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  • Definition(s) & Reading Links:


  • Constructivist Models:


  • Teaching Practices:


  • Constructivism (learning theory):


  • Instruction:


  • Institute for Learning Centered Education:


In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms, Revised Edition by Jacqueline Grennon Brooks and Martin G.

  • Book Introduction:


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Jonassen, David H. 1994. Thinking Technology: Toward a Constructivist Design Model. Educational Technology, 34(4), pp. 34-37.