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 process.

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.

Historical Perspectives

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 learning.

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. 1977).

Contemporary Constructivism

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 is required.

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.” (p .627).

The following are some basic principles of constructivism applied to education.

  1. Knowledge is generated by both the external world and the subjective internal world of the learner.
  2. A learner’s general and domain-specific knowledge determines the meaning that he or she derives from any experience.
  3. Each learner is an active participant in constructing meaning from external reality.
  4. Multiple interpretations of reality exist in any given instructional setting.
  5. Learning involves understanding concepts and procedures at ever increasing levels of complexity.
  6. 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.

  1. 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).
  2. 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, 1995).
  3. 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 projects.
  4. 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.

In Sum

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 different.

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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