John M. Jenkins
Constructivism is a contemporary epistemology which holds
that human beings construct knowledge by giving meaning to current experience
in light of prior knowledge, mental structures, experiences and beliefs.
It is based on the assumption that the source of a person’s understanding
of external phenomena is in the person’s mind. The grid of the mind
shapes the individual’s responses. Some constructivists believe
that there is no objective world independent of human mental activity.
They claim that each individual creates his or her personal world and
any one world is not more real than the other. Other constructivists believe
that the mind is instrumental in interpreting events, objects, and perspectives
in the real world and those interpretations produce a knowledge base that
is idiosyncratic (Jonnassen, 1991).
Applied to education, constructivist theory acknowledges the impact of
unobservable events on human behavior. The mind is viewed as an active
participant in helping people make sense of reality. Using the scientific
metaphor of the black box, a constructivist orientation attempts to make
sense of what comes between instruction (input) and achievement (output),
connecting students’ achievements to the knowledge, skills, and
strategies they bring to a learning situation.
The behaviorist tradition has dominated formal schooling for the past
one hundred years and is still a major determinant in how schools are
managed and how students are taught. To a behaviorist, all events are
clearly observable. Since activities of the mind are not observable, the
mind as is not useful concept. Behaviorists reason that, while the mind
may exist, it is an unnecessary construct in understanding the learning
Behaviorists believe that learning results when students
are taught to respond uniformly to an objective interpretation of reality.
Although reality may change in light of new discoveries, learning about
reality is a matter of reinforcing correct responses and extinguishing
incorrect ones. This orientation has led to a legion of school practices,
such as, teaching to the textbook, one-size-fits-all instructional methodology,
ability grouping, norm referenced testing, normal distribution curves,
and reward and punishment disciplinary programs.
The constructivist views learning as an individual matter. No two learners
are identical even though they may have similar needs and share common
experiences. Learners construct reality in terms of prior experiences,
their conceptual knowledge, their procedural schemata, their values, their
attitudes, and their preferred ways of knowing. Mind serves as the mediator
between the learner and external reality.
In a school setting, information presented to students in a lecture or
a text may not be the information that is ultimately received. No matter
how clearly a teacher or text presents information , no two learners receive
it in exactly the same way. The fidelity of the reception depends on several
preexisting variables within each learner. No matter how logical the curriculum
is presented, the individual learner determines the outcome.
Jerome Bruner (1986) claims that constructivism began with
Immanuel Kant who, in his Critique of Pure Reason, argued that
the human mind is an originator of experience rather than a passive recipient
of perception. Kant believed that the external physical world is known
only through individual sensations. The representation makes the object
possible. Humans are interpreters who construct their own reality by engaging
in mental activities.
John Dewey’s laboratory school at the University of Chicago (1896)
is arguably that first formal attempt to institute some form of constructivism
in an educational setting. Dewey believed in the centrality of the individual
student and organized the laboratory school accordingly. For Dewey, all
learning experiences were integrated from the vantage point of the individual
student. The laboratory-school program began and ended with the individual
student. The project method was the school’s mainstay.
The lab-school focus for the younger children was on familiar occupations.
Teachers led children from their initial understandings of the occupations
to more detailed investigations. As the children explored the community
directly, the teachers drew attention to carious aspects of the environment,
which the children often overlooked spontaneously. Children expressed
newly found understandings through oral expression, dictation to teachers,
writing, replicas, models and art work. As students progressed through
the school, they moved from group inquiry to group--and-individual inquiry
culminating at the secondary level with experimental research and formal
projects. For Dewey, life itself was the context for present and future
Jean Piaget, the Swiss genetic epistemologist, was perhaps the most influential
proponent of educational constructivism. He postulated that at different
periods, children use different mental structures to think about and make
sense of the world. The structures available to children are determined
by their biological readiness and their life experiences.
Bruner in The Process of Education went beyond Piaget to suggest
that language and experience affect when a child advances from one stage
to the next and can be directly influenced by appropriate instruction.
He argued that anything could be taught to anyone if it was presented
in an intellectually honest fashion. His assertion appeared to foreshadow
a new agenda for constructivist research (Also see the work of Chomsky.
Contemporary proponents of constructivism include Howard Gardner of Harvard
University who observed, “ . . . each child must construct his own
forms of knowledge painstakingly over time with each tentative action
or hypothesis representing his current attempt to make sense of the world
(Gardner, 1991, p.26). He posits three levels of understanding: the naïve
learner, the traditional student, and the expert. He further contends
that if naïve learners’ misconceptions are not challenged by
instruction, they remain with them, even through higher learning.
The idea of comparing a naïve learner with an expert or master is
found in much of today’s constructivist research. Researchers carefully
examine how experts approach a problem and compare this with the approach
of a less informed and less experienced person. Experts see problems differently
and initiate more sophisticated protocols. Their strategies become the
ultimate target behaviors for novices. For example, Palinscar and Brown
(1984) identified six functions that are essential to expert reading comprehension.
The expert reader understands that the goal of reading is to construct
meaning, activates relevant background information, allocates
attention to concentrate on major content ideas, evaluates
the constructed meaning for internal consistency and compatibility with
prior knowledge, draws and tests inferences, and monitors all
of the above to determine if comprehension is occurring.
To achieve expertise in reading comprehension, Palinscar and Brown proposed
four simple strategies—summarizing, questioning, clarifying and
predicting. They developed reciprocal teaching, an instruction approach
incorporating these strategies, to help students construct meaning from
written symbols. Teachers are counseled to model expert performance for
students with the goal of having a student invoke the strategies spontaneously.
As student performance becomes more expert, less and less teacher help
It is difficult to discuss constructivism without an understanding of
how individual learners process information. All learners construct meaning
from the external world by comparing and contrasting the new information
with information held in long-term memory (LTM). How that information
is stored in LTM contributes significantly to the quality and depth of
the meaning constructed.
Information processing begins with external information being accepted
or rejected by the individual. If accepted it proceeds through working
memory to LTM and back again. Expert learners approach learning tasks
differently because they are more in control of their learning than naïve
learners. They know how to learn, represent problems more realistically,
derive more meaningful constructs from external information, utilize working
memory more efficiently, and organize knowledge in LTM so that it readily
and appropriately available.
Earlier constructivism focused on general statements such as these:
- Individual learners construct knowledge by giving meaning
to current experiences in light of their prior knowledge.
- Each person makes sense of his/her world by synthesizing
new experiences into what he she has previously come to understand.
Today, researchers are more interested in determining the
specifics to which these generalizations refer so that strategies can
be prescribed to enable novice learners to advance to more sophisticated
levels. Fosnot (1993) observes, “Learning is not discovering more,
but interpreting through a different scheme or structure.” Blais
(1988), in a discussion of students becoming more proficient in algebra,
writes, “The available evidence indicates that novices sabotage
good conventional instruction by selecting from it only the minimum necessary
to achieve correct, mandated performance. They resist anything that is
not part of the algorithms they depend on for success. . . . Novices feel
they know what is important despite their not perceiving essence. They
do not understand shallowness because they do not experience depth.”
The following are some basic principles of constructivism
applied to education.
- Knowledge is generated by both the external world and the subjective
internal world of the learner.
- A learner’s general and domain-specific knowledge determines
the meaning that he or she derives from any experience.
- Each learner is an active participant in constructing meaning from
- Multiple interpretations of reality exist in any given instructional
- Learning involves understanding concepts and procedures at ever increasing
levels of complexity.
- As learners advance in learning they form more accurate pictures of
content and skills.
The Implications of Constructivism for School Practice
Is the mind merely a tool for reproducing the real world or does the mind
produce its own, unique conception of events and objects? The answer to
this question may pique the interest of current constructivist research,
but it does little to guide the educational practitioner searching for
ways to insure that all students reach their potentials. For most educators,
the answer lies somewhere between the scholar/practitioner extremes. Western
culture generally accepts the existence of a real world outside the apperceptions
of the individual. Current efforts at school accountability assume there
is a body of knowledge external to individual students that all should
be expected to achieve. The achievement of knowledge and skills associated
with that body of knowledge that guides the work of most educators.
Constructivism, buttressed by research in cognitive science, is changing
the way instruction is designed and delivered to students in contemporary
schools. The following constructivist ideas are beginning to find their
way with more frequency into educational theory and practice.
- Learning is an active process. Students act on information
based on their current knowledge and level of functioning. The activity
may be hands-on or it may be purely mental but some form of activity
occurs. Teachers grounded in cognitive research develop learning environments
supportive of where students are in the learning continuum and fashion
interventions to strengthen students’ abilities to make sense
of what they perceive. These interventions include diagnosing and accommodating
learning style differences, augmenting the skills that control a student’s
information processing system, and offering challenges to individual
students within their zone of proximal development (see the work of
Vygostsky, 1978 for an understanding of the latter concept).
- How students are taught is equally important to what they are taught.
Presenting information and skills to students in relevant contexts increases
the likelihood that they will be able to transfer knowledge and skills
to real-world situations. Resnick (1987) posits that learning occurs
most effectively in context and that context becomes an important part
of knowledge associated with learning. Thorndike’s theory of “identical
elements” supports the notion that what is learned in context
can be more easily transferred to situations beyond formal schooling.
For example, researchers at the Center on Organization and Restructuring
of Schools (CORS) characterize authentic human achievement in terms
of three criteria (a) construction of knowledge, (b) discipline inquiry,
and (c) value beyond school. To support authentic achievement, teachers
serve as facilitators, coaches, guides and mentors in a type of cognitive
apprenticeship and offer multiple opportunities for students to express
what they know in various kinds of activities (Newman, Marks, and Gamoran,
- Collaborative learning arrangements are fundamental to achieving
multiple representations of school content. Because individual students
bring a variety of experiences to any learning task, placing them in
collaborative groups facilitates the sharing of ideas, perspectives
and concepts and provides an opportunity for them to view things from
different perspectives. Brooks and Brooks (1993) observe, “ If
the conceptions held by students are not explicitly addressed, new information
is filtered through a lens that may cloud, rather than clarify, that
information.” Considerable evidence exists that students learn
better in cooperative groups than they do individually (Slavin, 1991,
1995). Constructivist teaching involves students in such collaborative
activities as cooperative learning, reciprocal teaching, and long-term
- Assessment of student learning in integrated into daily instructional
routines. From a constructivist perspective, when a student answers
a test question incorrectly, it is the teacher’s responsibility
to discover what question he or she answered correctly. How does the
student see the world in order to answer the question the way he or
she did? If the teacher successfully reconstructs the student’s
mental state, then he or she is in a position to intervene and help
the student improve, Newman, Griffin and Cole (1989) suggest, “Instead
of giving the children a task and measuring how well they do or how
badly they fail, one can give the children the task and observe how
much and what kind of help they need in order to complete the task successfully”
(pp.77-78). Students’ inaccurate responses often represent the
state of their current thinking about topics. Their responses can give
teachers clues as to what to do next. Establishing a learning environment
free of failure can invite students to exhibit more willingly what they
have internalized. Making assessment a part of instruction allows teachers
and students to make midterm corrections.
Constructivism is more closely aligned with the Eastern philosophic
belief of non-duality. As the world is brought closer together by computers
and the internet, the unity of the knower and the known has begun to filter
into Western thought and to challenge the concept of reality independent
of individual perceptions. This convergence of Eastern and Western thought
raises questions which have been raised over and over for centuries and
are not likely to be quickly answered. Nevertheless, the behaviorist tradition,
once the guiding force in education, is now challenged by a constructivist
view, which places the individual student at the center of knowing.
Individuals assign meaning to events, objects, and information
based on their prior experiences, depth of knowledge, and their ability
to control the human information processing system effectively. In this
sense, each person’s interpretation of reality is different
because each person’s background and resulting apperceptions are
Constructivist teaching practices are designed to help students internalize
new information in order to create new understandings. To a constructivist,
challenging students is more than memorizing material to pass a standardized
test. It involves developing new cognitive structures leading to more
sophisticated meanings. The ability to solve difficult problems depends
on the knowledge, skills, and strategies an individual possesses generally
and in a specific domain. To the constructivist, instruction is a developmental
process that begins with a student’s current level of functioning
and moves him/her along a continuum toward expert performance.
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