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Constructivist teaching methods

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Constructivist teaching methods

Constructivist teaching is based on constructivist learning theory. Constructivist teaching is based on the belief that learning occurs as learners are actively involved in a process of meaning and knowledge construction as opposed to passively receiving information. Learners are the makers of meaning and knowledge. Constructivist teaching fosters critical thinking, and creates motivated and independent learners. This theoretical framework holds that learning always builds upon knowledge that a student already knows; this prior knowledge is called a schema. Because all learning is filtered through pre-existing schemata, constructivists suggest that learning is more effective when a student is actively engaged in the learning process rather than attempting to receive knowledge passively. A wide variety of methods claim to be based on constructivist learning theory. Most of these methods rely on some form of guided discovery where the teacher avoids most direct instruction and attempts to lead the student through questions and activities to discover, discuss, appreciate, and verbalize the new knowledge.


  • History 1
  • Constructivist teaching strategies 2
    • Characteristics of Constructivist Teaching 2.1
    • Examples of constructivist activities 2.2
    • Role of teachers 2.3
    • Constructivist Learning Environments (CLEs) 2.4
    • Constructivist assessment 2.5
  • An example of a lesson taught with a Constructivist background 3
  • Constructivism for Adults 4
  • Arguments against constructivist teaching techniques 5
  • Specific Approaches 6
    • Constructionism 6.1
    • Guided Instruction 6.2
    • Problem-Based Learning 6.3
      • Inquiry-Based Learning 6.3.1
      • Anchored Instruction 6.3.2
    • Cooperative Learning 6.4
      • Reciprocal Peer Teaching 6.4.1
      • Jigsaw 6.4.2
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


Constructivist teaching methods are based on [1]

Constructivist teaching strategies

Characteristics of Constructivist Teaching

One of the primary goals of using constructivist teaching is that students learn how to learn by giving them the training to take initiative for their own learning experiences.

According to Audrey Gray, the characteristics of a constructivist classroom are as follows:

  • the learners are actively involved
  • the environment is democratic
  • the activities are interactive and student-centered
  • the teacher facilitates a process of learning in which students are encouraged to be responsible and autonomous

Examples of constructivist activities

Furthermore, in the constructivist classroom, students work primarily in groups and learning and knowledge are interactive and dynamic. There is a great focus and emphasis on social and communication skills, as well as collaboration and exchange of ideas.[1] This is contrary to the traditional classroom in which students work primarily alone, learning is achieved through repetition, and the subjects are strictly adhered to and are guided by a textbook. Some activities encouraged in constructivist classrooms are:

  • Experimentation: students individually perform an experiment and then come together as a class to discuss the results.
  • Research projects: students research a topic and can present their findings to the class.
  • Field trips. This allows students to put the concepts and ideas discussed in class in a real-world context. Field trips would often be followed by class discussions.
  • Films. These provide visual context and thus bring another sense into the learning experience.
  • Class discussions. This technique is used in all of the methods described above. It is one of the most important distinctions of constructivist teaching methods.[2]

Constructivist approaches can also be used in online learning. For example, tools such as discussion forums, wikis and blogs can enable learners to actively construct knowledge. A contrast between the traditional classroom and the constructivist classroom is illustrated below:

The Traditional Classroom

  • Begins with parts of the whole–Emphasizes basic skills
  • Strict adherence to fixed curriculum
  • Textbooks and workbooks
  • Instructor gives/students receive
  • Instructor assumes directive, authoritative role
  • Assessment via testing / correct answers
  • Knowledge is inert
  • Students work individually

The constructivist Classroom

  • Begin with the whole – expanding to parts
  • Pursuit of student questions / interests
  • Primary Sources / manipulative materials
  • Learning is interaction – building on what students already know
  • Instructor interacts / negotiates with students
  • Assessment via student works, observations, points of view, tests. Process is as important as product
  • Knowledge is dynamic / change with experiences
  • Students work in groups Source : Thirteen Ed Online (2004)

Because existing knowledge schemata are explicitly acknowledged as a starting point for new learning, constructivist approaches tend to validate individual and cultural differences and diversity.

Role of teachers

In the constructivist classroom, the teacher’s role is to prompt and facilitate discussion. Thus, the teacher’s main focus should be on guiding students by asking questions that will lead them to develop their own conclusions on the subject. Parker J. Palmer (1997) suggests that good teachers join self, subject, and students in the fabric of life because they teach from an integral and undivided self, they manifest in their own lives, and evoke in their students, a capacity for connectedness”.

David Jonassen identified three major roles for facilitators to support students in constructivist learning environments:

A brief description of the Jonassen major roles are:

Modeling – Jonassen describes Modeling as the most commonly used instructional strategy in CLEs. Two types of modeling exist: behavioural modeling of the overt performance and cognitive modeling of the covert cognitive processes. Behavioural modeling in Constructivist Learning Environments demonstrates how to perform the activities identified in the activity structure. Cognitive modeling articulates the reasoning (reflection-in-action) that learners should use while engaged in the activities.

Coaching – For Jonassen the role of coach is complex and inexact. She acknowledges that a good coach motivates learners, analyzes their performance, provides feedback and advice on the performance and how to learn about how to perform, and provokes reflection and articulation of what was learned. Moreover, she posits that coaching may be solicited by the learner. Students seeking help might press a “How am I Doing?” button. Or coaching may be unsolicited, when the coach observes the performance and provides encouragement, diagnosis, directions, and feedback. Coaching naturally and necessarily involves responses that are situated in the learner’s task performance (Laffey, Tupper, Musser, & Wedman, 1997).

Scaffolding - Scaffolding is a more systemic approach to supporting the learner, focusing on the task, the environment, the teacher, and the learner. Scaffolding provides temporary frameworks to support learning and student performance beyond their capacities. The concept of scaffolding represents any kind of support for cognitive activity that is provided by an adult when the child and adult are performing the task together (Wood & Middleton, 1975).

Constructivist Learning Environments (CLEs)

Jonassen has proposed a model for developing constructivist learning environments (CLEs) around a specific learning goal. This goal may take one of several forms, from least to most complex:

  • Question or issue
  • Case study
  • Long-term Project
  • Problem (multiple cases and projects integrated at the curriculum level)

Jonassen recommends making the learning goals engaging and relevant but not overly structured.

In CLEs, learning is driven by the problem to be solved; students learn content and theory in order to solve the problem. This is different from traditional objectivist teaching where the theory would be presented first and problems would be used afterwards to practice theory.

Depending on students' prior experiences, related cases and scaffolding may be necessary for support. Instructors also need to provide an authentic context for tasks, plus information resources, cognitive tools, and collaborative tools.[3]

Constructivist assessment

Traditionally, assessment in the classrooms is based on testing. In this style, it is important for the student to produce the correct answers. However, in constructivist teaching, the process of gaining knowledge is viewed as being just as important as the product. Thus, assessment is based not only on tests, but also on observation of the student, the student’s work, and the student’s points of view.[1] Some assessment strategies include:

  • Oral discussions. The teacher presents students with a “focus” question and allows an open discussion on the topic.
  • KWL(H) Chart (What we know, What we want to know, What we have learned, How we know it). This technique can be used throughout the course of study for a particular topic, but is also a good assessment technique as it shows the teacher the progress of the student throughout the course of study.
  • Mind Mapping. In this activity, students list and categorize the concepts and ideas relating to a topic.
  • Hands-on activities. These encourage students to manipulate their environments or a particular learning tool. Teachers can use a checklist and observation to assess student success with the particular material.
  • Pre-testing. This allows a teacher to determine what knowledge students bring to a new topic and thus will be helpful in directing the course of study.[2]

An example of a lesson taught with a Constructivist background

A good example of a lesson being taught in a constructivist way, with the teacher mediating learning rather than directly teaching the class is shown by the example of Faraday's candle. There are various forms of this lesson, but all are developed from the Christmas lectures Faraday gave on the functioning of candles. In open constructivist lessons using these lectures as a basis, students are encouraged to discover for themselves how candles work. They do this first by making simple observations, from which they later build ideas and hypotheses which they then go on to test. The teacher acts to encourage this learning. If successful, students can use this lesson to understand the components of combustion, an important chemistry topic.[4]

Constructivism for Adults

Constructivist philosophy has a long history of application in education programs for young children, but is used less frequently in adult learning environments. As humans develop, there are qualitative changes in their ability to think logically about experiences, but the processes by which learning occurs, cognitive adaptation and social mediation, are believed to be continuous or remain the same throughout the life.[5] At the heart of constructivist philosophy is the belief that knowledge is not given but gained through real experiences that have purpose and meaning to the learner, and the exchange of perspectives about the experience with others [6] (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969; Vygotsky,1978).

Learning environments for adults based on constructivist philosophy include opportunities for students to make meaningful connections between new material and previous experience, through discovery. One of the simplest ways to do this is asking open-ended questions. Open-ended questions such as “Tell me about a time when….” or “How might this information be useful to you?” cause learners to think about how new information may relate to their own experience. Student responses to such questions are opportunities for experiencing the perspectives of others. For these questions to be effective it is critical that instructors focus on teaching content that is useful for participants. The importance of using these types of strategies with adults contributes to what [7] Bain(2004 p. 4) noted as critical learning environments where instructors “embed” the skills they are teaching in “authentic tasks that will arouse curiosity, challenge students to rethink assumptions and examine their mental modes of reality”. Mezirow J. (1997) who asserts that learners need to practice in recognizing frames of reference and using their imaginations to redefine problems from different perspectives. (pg. 10) I made the connection by also adding the point that “to promote discovery learning, the educator often reframes learner questions in terms of the learner’s current level of understanding. Learning contracts, group projects, role play, case studies, and simulations are classroom methods associated with transformative education.” Such approaches emphasize that learning is not an "all or nothing" process but that students learn the new information that is presented to them by building upon knowledge that they already possess. It is therefore important that teachers constantly assess the knowledge their students have gained to make sure that the students' perceptions of the new knowledge are what the teacher had intended. Teachers will find that since the students build upon already existing knowledge, when they are called upon to retrieve the new information, they may make errors. It is known as reconstruction error when we fill in the gaps of our understanding with logical, though incorrect, thoughts. Teachers need to catch and try to correct these errors, though it is inevitable that some reconstruction error will continue to occur because of our innate retrieval limitations.

In most pedagogies based on constructivism, the teacher's role is not only to observe and assess but to also engage with the students while they are completing activities, wondering aloud and posing questions to the students for promotion of reasoning (DeVries et al., 2002). (ex: I wonder why the water does not spill over the edge of the full cup?) Teachers also intervene when there are conflicts that arise; however, they simply facilitate the students' resolutions and self-regulation, with an emphasis on the conflict being the students' and that they must figure things out for themselves. For example, promotion of literacy is accomplished by integrating the need to read and write throughout individual activities within print-rich classrooms. The teacher, after reading a story, encourages the students to write or draw stories of their own, or by having the students reenact a story that they may know well, both activities encourage the students to conceive themselves as reader and writers.

Arguments against constructivist teaching techniques

Critics have voiced the following arguments against constructivist based teaching instruction:

  • A group of cognitive scientists has also questioned the central claims of constructivism, saying that they are either misleading or contradict known findings.[8]
  • One possible deterrent for this teaching method is that, due to the emphasis on group work, the ideas of the more active students may dominate the group’s conclusions.[1]

While proponents of constructivism argue that constructivist students perform better than their peers when tested on higher-order reasoning, the critics of constructivism argue that this teaching technique forces students to "[1]

Mayer (2004)[9] developed a literature review spanning fifty years and concluded "The research in this brief review shows that the formula constructivism = hands-on activity is a formula for educational disaster." His argument is that active learning is often suggested by those subscribing to this philosophy. In developing this instruction these educators produce materials that require learning to be behaviorally active and not be "cognitively active."[9] That is, although they are engaged in activity, they may not be learning (Sweller, 1988). Mayer recommends using guided discovery, a mix of direct instruction and hands-on activity, rather than pure discovery: "In many ways, guided discovery appears to offer the best method for promoting constructivist learning."[9]

Kirchner et al. (2006) agree with the basic premise of constructivism, that learners construct knowledge, but are concerned with the instructional design recommendations of this theoretical framework. "The constructivist description of learning is accurate, but the instructional consequences suggested by constructivists do not necessarily follow." (Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark, 2006, p. 78). Specifically, they say instructors often design unguided instruction that relies on the learner to "discover or construct essential information for themselves" (Kirchner et al., 2006, p75).

For this reason they state that it "is easy to agree with Mayer’s (2004)[9] recommendation that we “move educational reform efforts from the fuzzy and nonproductive world of ideology—which sometimes hides under the various banners of constructivism—to the sharp and productive world of theory- based research on how people learn” (p. 18). Finally Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) cite Mayer[9] to conclude fifty years of empirical results do not support unguided instruction.

Specific Approaches

Specific approaches to education that are based on constructivism include the following:


An approach to learning based on the constructivist learning ideologies presented by Jean Piaget (Harel & Papert, 1991). In this approach, the individual is consciously engaged in the construction of a product (Li, Cheng, & Liu, 2013). The utilization of constructionism in educational settings has been shown to promote higher-order thinking skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking (Li et al., 2013).

Guided Instruction

A learning approach in which the educator uses strategically placed prompts, cues, questions, direct explanations, and modeling to guide student thinking and facilitate an increased responsibility for the completion of a task (Fisher & Frey, 2010).

Problem-Based Learning

A structured educational approach which consists of large and small group discussions (Schmidt & Loyens, 2007). Problem-based learning begins with an educator presenting a series of carefully constructed problems or issues to small groups of students (Schmidt & Loyens, 2007). The problems or issues typically pertain to phenomena or events to which students possess limited prior knowledge (Schmidt & Loyens, 2007). The first component of problem-based learning is to discuss prior knowledge and ask questions related to the specific problems or issues (Schmidt & Loyens, 2007). Following the class discussion, there is typically time in which students individually research or reflect on the newly acquired information and/or seek out areas requiring further exploration (Schmidt & Loyens, 2007). After a pre-determined amount of time (as outlined by the educator), students will meet in the same small groups that were composed prior to the class discussion (Schmidt & Loyens, 2007). In the first meeting, groups will spend between one to three hours further discussing the problems or issues from class in addition to presenting any new information collected during individual research (Schmidt & Loyens, 2007). Following the first meeting, students will independently reflect on the group discussion, specifically in comparing thoughts regarding the problems or issues in question (Schmidt & Loyens, 2007). Typically, groups will meet a second time to critically analyse individual and group thoughts and discussions and will attempt to synthesize the information in order to draw conclusions about the given problem or issue (Schmidt & Loyens, 2007). Within the educational setting, problem-based learning has enabled students to actively construct individual understandings of a topic using both prior and newly acquired knowledge (Schmidt & Loyens, 2007). Moreover, students also develop self-directed and group learning skills which ultimately facilitates the comprehension of the problems or issues (Schmidt & Loyens, 2007).

Inquiry-Based Learning

An educational approach associated with problem-based learning in which the student learns through investigating issues or scenarios (Hakverdi-Can & Sonmez, 2012). In this approach, students pose and answer questions individually and/or collaboratively in order to draw conclusions regarding the specific issues or scenarios (Hakverdi-Can & Sonmez, 2012). Within the educational setting, inquiry-based learning has been beneficial in developing student inquiry, investigation, and collaboration skills, in turn, increasing overall comprehension of the issue or scenario (Hakverdi-Can & Sonmez, 2012).

Effective essential questions include student thought and research, connect to student's reality and can be solved in different ways (Crane, 2009). There are no incorrect answers to essential questions, rather answers reveal student understanding(Crane, 2009).

Anchored Instruction

An educational approach associated with problem-based learning in which the educator introduces an ‘anchor’ or theme in which students will be able to explore (Kariuki & Duran, 2004). The ‘anchor’ acts as a focal point for the entire task, allowing students to identify, define, and explore problems while exploring the topic from a variety of different perspectives (Kariuki & Duran, 2004).

Cooperative Learning

A variety of educational approaches focusing on individuals working together to achieve a specific learning outcome (Hsuing, 2012).

Reciprocal Peer Teaching

A cooperative learning approach wherein students alternate roles as teacher and learner (Krych, March, Bryan, Peake, Wojciech, & Carmichael, 2005). The utilization of Reciprocal Peer Teaching (RPT) in educational settings has been effective in the development of teamwork, leadership, and communication skills in addition to improving students’ understanding of course content (Krych et al., 2005).


A highly structured cooperative learning approach which is implemented in four stages: introduction, focused exploration, reporting and re-shaping, and integration and evaluation. In the introduction stage, the class is divided into heterogeneous ‘home’ groups consisting of between three to seven students (Karacop & Doymus, 2013). Upon establishing the ‘home’ groups, the teacher will discuss the subtopics pertaining to the subject matter (Karacop & Doymus, 2013). In the focused exploration stage, each student within all ‘home’ groups selects one of the subtopics (Karacop & Doymus, 2013). Students from each ‘home’ group that have selected the same subtopic will form a ‘jigsaw ’ group (Karacop & Doymus, 2013). It is in the ‘jigsaw’ group that students will explore the material pertaining to the subtopic and will prepare for teaching it to their ‘home’ group, the reporting and re-shaping stage (Karacop & Doymus, 2013). The approach concludes in the fourth stage, integration and evaluation, wherein each of the ‘home’ groups combine the learning of each subtopic together to create the completed piece of work (Karacop & Doymus, 2013).

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning
  2. ^ a b Strategies for Constructivist Teaching
  3. ^ a b Jonassen, D. H. (1999). Constructing learning environments on the web: Engaging students in meaningful learning. EdTech 99: Educational Technology Conference and Exhibition 1999: Thinking Schools, Learning Nation.
  4. ^ * Walker, M et al. (2008). "A bright spark: open teaching of science using Faraday's lectures on candles". Journal of Chemical Education 85 (1): 59–63.  
  5. ^ Piaget, J. & Inhelder, B. (1969). The Psychology of the child. New York: Basic Books, Inc. Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge: MA, Harvard University Press.
  6. ^ Piaget, J. & Inhelder, B. (1969). The Psychology of the child. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
  7. ^ Bain, Ken. (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  8. ^ Applications and Misapplications of Cognitive Psychology to Mathematics Education
  9. ^ a b c d e Should There Be a Three-Strikes Rule Against Pure Discovery Learning?, Mayer, 2004, American Psychologist, 59(1), 14–19
  • Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., and Clark, R. E. (2006). "Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching". Educational Psychologist 41 (2): 75–86.  
  • Mayer, R. (2004). "Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction". American Psychologist 59 (1): 14–19.  

Additional References

Laffey, J., Tupper, T., Musser, D., & Wedman, J. (1997). A computer-mediated support system for project-based learning. Paper presented at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, IL.

Taber, K. S. (2011). Constructivism as educational theory: Contingency in learning, and optimally guided instruction. In J. Hassaskhah (Ed.), Educational Theory (pp. 39-61). New York: Nova. Available from

Wood, & Middleton, (1975). A study of assisted problem solving. British Journal of Psychology, 66(2), 181-191.

Thirteen Ed Online (2004). Constructivism as a paradigm for teaching and learning.

External links

  • Constructivist Teaching and Learning Models
  • SSTA Research Centre Report on Constructivist Teaching and Learning
  • Constructivist Teaching
  • Association for Constructivist Teaching
  • Constructivist Teaching Practices: Perceptions of Teachers and Students
  • Constructivist Learning and Teaching
  • Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning
  • A follow up critique of constructivism by Eric Scerri
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