Educators are completely able to use constructivist learning theory to help their students understand their previous knowledge. If you are a current educator or aspiring educator, it is important to get the education and the credentials you need. But it is also important to understand learning theories and how they impact you and your students.

Let us consider the constructivist learning theory and investigate how it helps you as a teacher.

Exploring  the principles of constructivism

There are certainly many specific elements and principles of constructivism that do shape the way the very theory works and applies to students. 

Knowledge is always constructed. This is the basic principle, meaning that knowledge is built upon existing knowledge. It is the students that take the pieces and put them together in their own unique way, building something completely different from what another student will possibly do. The student’s previous knowledge, experiences, beliefs, and more so insights, are all important foundations for their continued learning. 

 People learn to learn, as they move forward to learn. So, this makes learning involve constructing meaning and systems of meaning. For instance, if a student is learning the chronology of dates for a series of historical events, then at the same time they are also learning the meaning of chronology. As a student is writing a paper about history, they are also learning the principles of grammar and writing. Each thing we learn gives us a better and more thorough understanding of other things in the future.

Learning is an absolutely active process. Learning involves the sensory input to construct meaning. The learner needs to do something in order to learn, it is not a passive activity. Learners do need to engage with the world so they are actively involved in their own learning and development. You cannot just sit and expect to be told things and then say you have learnt, you do need to engage in discussions, reading, activities, etc. in order to be a perpetual learner.

Learning is also a social activity. Learning is directly associated with our very connection with other people. Our teachers, our family, or our peers, and our acquaintances do impact our learning. Educators are more likely to be successful as they do understand that peer involvement is the key to learning. Isolating learnings is not the best way to help the students learn and grow together. Progressive education does recognise that social interaction is the key to learning and they make use of the conversation, interaction, and group applications to help students retain their knowledge. 

Learning is also totally contextual. Students do not learn isolated facts and theories separate from the rest of our lives; they do learn in ways that are connected to things we as teachers already know, what we as teachers believe, and even more. So, the things we learn and the points we tend to remember are connected to the things going on around us. 

Knowledge is also very personal. Because constructivism is based on your own experiences and beliefs, knowledge does become a personal affair. Each person will have their own prior knowledge and experiences brought to the table. The way and things that people learn and gain from education will all be very different. 

The best way to look at things is that learning exists in the mind. Hands-on experiences and physical actions are so necessary for learning, but those elements are not enough. Engaging the mind is key to successful learning. Learning does need to involve activities for the mind, not just our hands. Mental experiences are then needed for retaining knowledge. Motivation is the key to learning. Students are completely unable to learn if they are unmotivated. Educators need to have ways to engage and motivate learners to activate their complete minds and help them be excited about education. Without motivation, it is difficult for learners to reach into their past experience and make vivid and plausible connections for new learning.

Types of constructivism. There are different types of constructivism that motivated educators can use to find success with this learning theory. 

The first one is cognitive. Cognitive constructivism always focuses on the idea that learning should be related to the learner’s stage of cognitive development. These methods in turn work to help students to learn new information by connecting it to things they already know, enabling them to make all the modifications in their existing intelligence in order to accommodate the new information. Cognitive constructivism comes from the work of Jean Piaget and his research done on cognitive development in children. 

The second one is social. Social constructivism focuses on the very collaborative nature of learning. Knowledge develops from how people do interact with each other, their total culture, and the society at large. Students do rely on others to help create their building blocks, and learning from others does help them construct their own knowledge and reality. Social constructivism does come from Lev Vygotsky, and is closely connected to initiate cognitive constructivism with the added element of societal and peer influence.

The third one is radical. Radical constructivism is very different from cognitive and social constructivism. It does focus on the idea that the learners and the knowledge they construct tell us nothing real, but only help us function in our own environment. The overall idea is that knowledge is totally invented, not discovered. The things we bring to the table make it impossible for us to have the truth, so we only have interpretations of knowledge. This theory was specifically developed by Ernst von Glasersfeld in 1974. 

Essential components towards constructivist teaching

Take into account that there are several main components to include if you plan on adhering to constructivist principles in your classroom or when designing lessons. 

  1. Elicit prior knowledge
    New knowledge is created in relation to the learner’s pre-existing knowledge. Lessons, therefore, do require eliciting relevant prior knowledge. Activities do include: pre-tests, informal interviews and small group warm-up activities that go on to require a recall of prior knowledge.
  2. Create cognitive dissonance
    Go ahead to assign problems and activities that will challenge students. Knowledge is built as learner’s encounter novel problems and then revise existing schemas as they work through the challenging problem.
  3. Apply knowledge with feedback
    Encourages all students to evaluate new information and modify the existing knowledge. Activities should allow for students to compare pre-existing schema to a novel situation. Activities might include presentations, small group or class discussions, and quizzes.
  4. Reflect on learning
    Provide students with a complete opportunity to show you (and themselves) what they have suitably learned. Activities might include presentations, reflexive papers or creating a step-by-step tutorial for another student.

Here are some examples of constructivist classroom activities you can try:

  • Reciprocal teaching/learning
    Allow pairs of students to teach each other.
  • Inquiry-based learning (IBL)
    Learners pose their own questions and seek answers to their questions via research and even direct observation. They present their supporting evidence to answer the questions. They chalk out connections between their pre-existing knowledge and the knowledge they have acquired through the activity. Finally, they draw conclusions, highlight the remaining gaps in knowledge and develop plans for future investigations.
  • Problem-based learning (PBL)
    The main idea of PBL is similar to IBL: Learners do acquire knowledge by devising a solution to a problem. PBL differs from IBL in that PBL activities provide students with a real-world of problems that do require students to work together to devise a solution. As the group works through the challenging real-world problem, learners do acquire communication and collaboration skills in addition to knowledge.
  • Cooperative learning
    Students work together in small groups to maximize their own and more so each other’s learning. Cooperative learning differs from typical group work in that it does require an interdependence among group members to solve a problem or even to complete an assignment.