| Constructivism is an epistemological belief
about what "knowing" is and how one "come to know."
Contructivists believe in individual interpretations of the reality, i.e.
the knower and the known are interactive and inseparable.
Constructivism rejects the notions that
- Knowledge is an identifiable entity with absolute truth value
- Meaning can be passed on to learners via symbols or transmission
- Learners can incorporate exact copies of teacher's understanding
for their own use
- The whole concepts can be broken into discrete sub-skills, and that
concepts can be taught out of context.
Constructivism, with focus on social nature of cognition, suggests
an approach that
- Gives learners the opportunity for concrete, contextually meaningful
experience through which they can search for patterns, raise their
own questions, and construct their own models.
- Faciliates a community of learners to engage in activity, discourse,
- Encourages students to take on more ownership of the ideas, and
to pursue autonomy, mutual reciprocity of social relations, and empowerment
to be the goals.
Who are primary contributors?
Perkins (1992) pointed out the origins of the constructivism:
"Constructivism has multiple roots in psychology and philosophy
of this century: the developmental perspective of Jean Piaget, the
emergence of cognitive psychology under the guidance of such figures
as Jerome Bruner and Ulric Neisser, the constructivist perspective
of philosophers such as Nelson Goodman."
This knowledge base will discuss particular the major influence from
the field of cognitive science, i.e. the work of Piaget
and Bruner, as well as from the work of socio-historical
psychologists, such as Vygotsky.
Piaget (Also see Cognitivism)
Piaget's theory is fundamental to cognitivism and to constructivism.
His central idea is that "knowledge proceeds neither solely from
the experience of objects nor from an innate programming performed in
the subject but from successive constructions." (Fosnot, 1996).
Piaget (1985) proposed that the mechanism of learning is the process
of equilibration, in which cognitive structure assimilates and accommodates
to generate new possibilities when it is disturbed based on human's
Vygotsky's sociohistorical development psychology focuses on the dialectic
between the individual and society, and the effect of social interaction,
language, and culture on learning. To Vygosky (1978), learning is a
continual movement from the current intellectual level to a higher level
which more closely approximates the learner's potential. This movement
occurs in the so-called "zone of proximal development" as
a result of social interaction. Thus, an understanding of human thinking
depends in turn on an understanding of the mechanism of social experience;
the force of the cognitive process deriving from the social interaction
is emphasized. Also, the role of the adult and the learners' peers as
they conversed, questioned, explained, and negotiated meaning is emphasized.
Vygostky's Sociohistorical Learning Theory or Sociocultural theory
Vygotsky was disappointed with the overwhelming control of environment
over human behavior that is represented in behaviorism. Vygotsky (1978)
objected to any tendency to equate human beings with animals on the
basis of innate reflexes and conditional reflexes. He recognized the
higher psychological functions of humans, especially the distinguishing
mental process of signification by which humans assign meanings to arbitrary
stimuli and with which human learning is determined by the social and
historical context. He believed that human development and learning
occur through their interactions with the environment and the other
people in it.
Three themes that form the core of Vygotsky's theoretical framework:
- A reliance on a genetic or developmental method:
Vygotsky (1978) recognized two basic processes operating continuously
at every level of human activity: internalization and externalization.
Vygotsky proposed that even though every complex mental function
is first an interaction between people, it subsequently becomes
a process within individuals. It is the transition from the external
operation to internal development which undergoes qualitative changes.
This transformation involves the mastery of external means of thinking
and learning to use symbols to control and regulate one's thinking.
- The claim that higher mental processes in the individual have their
origin in social processes.
The concept of Zone of Proximal Development: to Vygosky, learning
is a continual movement from the current intellectual level to a
higher level which more closely approximates the learner's potential.
This movement occurs in the so-called "zone of proximal development"
as a result of social interaction. The zone of proximal development
is the distance between the actual independent development level
and the potential development level under the guidance of or in
collaboration with peers (Vygotsky, 1978). Vygotsky believes that
human mental activity is a particular case of social experience.
Thus, an understanding of human thinking depends in turn on an understanding
of the mechanism of social experience; the force of the cognitive
process deriving from the social interaction is emphasized.
- Mediation: the claim is that mental processes can be understood
only if we understand the tools and signs that mediate them. Changing
a stimulus situation in the process of responding to it establish
mediation, e.g. the gesture of pointing could not have been established
as a sign without the reaction of the other person. This also implies
that any higher mental function necessarily goes through an external
stage in its development because it is initially a social function.
Implications to learning and instruction:
- Learning in authentic context:
The conception of mediation gives the emphasis to the interaction
between individuals and the historical and cultural development.
Situate learners in an authentic context, in which learners construct
via dialectical relations among people acting, the contexts of their
activity, and the activity itself.
Providing Scaffolding: Learning takes place in the social interaction
with older, more learned members of the society: learning occurs
when individual is prompted to move past current levels of performance
and develop new abilities. Thus, provide external support from the
instructor, peers, experts, artifacts or tools as the learners construct
A major theme of Bruner's construction theory is that learning is an
active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based
upon their current/past knowledge. The learner selects and transforms
information, constructs hypotheses, and makes decisions, relying on
a cognitive structure, e.g. schema and mental models, to do so. The
interconnection of the new experience with the prior knowledge results
in the reorganization of the cognitive structure, which creates meaning
and allows the individual to "go beyond the information given".
According to TIP's (Theory Into Practice database) abstract of Bruner's
theory, the principles of instruction based on Bruner include:
- Readiness: Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and
contexts that make the student willing and able to learn
- Spiral organization: Instruction must be structured so that it can
be easily grasped by the student
- Going beyond the information given: Instruction should be designed
to facilitate extrapolation and or fill in the gaps
Bruner's Constructive Learning
Bruner (1986) claims that constructivism began with Kant's concepts
of a priori knowledge, which focuses on the importance of prior knowledge
(what we know) to what we perceive from out interactions with the environment.
Jonassen (1991) described Kant's ideas of individual construction of
reality: " Kant believed in the external, physical world (noumena),
but we know it only through our sensation (phenomena) - how the world
appears to us."
TIP(Theory Into Practice database) described that Bruner's major theoretical
framework is that learning is an active process in which learners construct
new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge. In other
words, Learning is an active, social process in which students construct
new ideas or concepts based on current knowledge. The student selects
information, originates hypotheses, and makes decisions in the process
of integrating experiences into their existing mental constructs.
What are Bruner's key concepts? (Driscoll, 2000)
- Three Modes of presenting understanding
- Enactive representation, a mode of representing past events through
appropriate motor responses
- Iconic representation, which enables the perceiver to "summarize
events by organization of percepts and of images
- Symbolic representation, "a symbol system which represents
things by design features that can be arbitrary and remote, e.g.
Different from a fixed sequence of developmental stages, Bruner
emphasizes the influences from the environment on amplification of
the internal capabilities that learners possess.
|Readiness of the subject matter for the learner:
how to match instruction to the child's dominant mode of thinking
||Cognitive readiness of the learner to understand
the logical operations in a subject matter
||Appropriateness in terms of the child's prior
knowledge, i.e. what she knows and how she structure that knowledge
Schooling as an instrument of culture. Knowing is a process, not
a product. Children should be accepted as members and participants
in the culture and provide opportunities to make and remake the culture
in each generation.
Different from Piaget's cognitive development, which proposed that
the qualitative difference in thinking is a stage-like development,
Bruner's concept is that whereas symbolic representation is likely
to be used for learning something new in a familiar topic; learners
of all ages may resort to enactive or iconic representation when
they encounter unfamiliar materials. Thus, to determine what mode
of representation will be optimal for instruction requires knowing
something about the learner's prior knowledge and dominant modes
Bruner (1966) states that a theory of instruction should address four
- Predisposition towards learning
- The ways in which a body of knowledge can be structured so that
it can be most readily grasped by the learner
- The most effective sequences in which to present material
- The nature and pacing of rewards and punishments..
Bruner's influence on instruction
- Spiral Curriculum: Translating material into children's modes of
thought: presenting topics consistent with children's forms of thought
at an early age and then reintroducing those topics again later in
a different form
- Interpersonal interaction is a means that enable learners to develop
cognitive growth: questioning, prompting
- Discovery learning: discovery as" all forms of obtaining knowledge
for oneself by the use of one's own mind"
Students need to determine what variables are relevant, what information
should be sought about those variables, and when the information
is obtained, what should be done with it.
Discovery of a concept proceeds from a systematic comparison of
instances for what distinguishes examples from non-examples. To
promote concept discovery, the teacher presents the set of instances
that will best help learners to develop an appropriate model of
Contrast that lead to cognitive conflicts can set the stage for
Variables in instruction: nature of knowledge, nature of the knower,
and nature of the knowledge-getting process
Promote discovery in the exercise of problem solving
Feedback must be provided in a mode that is both meaningful and
within the information-processing capacity of the learner.
Intrinsic pleasure of discovery promote a sense of self-reward
Von Glasersfeld development of the epistemological basis of the psychological
variant incorporates both the Piagetian notion of assimilation and accommodation
and the cybernetic concept of viability (Cobb, 1994). The value of knowledge
no longer lies in its conveyance of truth, but its viability in individual
experience. Von Glasersfeld (1992) stated that "Truths are replaced
by viable models, and viability is always relative to a chosen goal."
Similar to Piaget, von Glasersfeld sees learning as an active process
of self-organization in which the individual eliminate 'perturbation'
(disequlibrium in Piaget's term) from the interaction with others as
well as an active construction of viable knowledge adapted from the
interaction with others. Individuals' construction of their ways of
knowing is the focus of von Glaserfeld. But, he also recognizes the
importance of social interaction as a process of meaning negotiation
in this subjective construction of knowing.
What does it mean to learning?
Constructivism, applied as an explanatory framework of learning, describes
how the learner constructs knowledge from experience, which makes it
unique to each individual. Points of view of constructivism bring forth
two major trends of explaining how leaning occurs: cognitive constructivists,
focusing on the individual cognitive construction of mental structures;
sociocultural constructivists, emphasizing the social interaction and
cultural practice on the construction of knowledge. Both trends believe
- Knowledge cannot exist independently from the knower; knowledge
cannot be reproduced and transmitted to another person.
- Learning is viewed as self-regulatory process:
Learners are active in making sense of things instead of responding
to stimuli. Unlike information processor taking in and storing up
information, learners " make tentative interpretations of experience
and go on to elaborate and test those interpretations"(Perkins,
- Cognitive constructivists focus on the active mental construction
struggling with the conflict between existing personal models of
the world, and incoming information in the environment.
- Sociocultural constructivists emphasis the process of enculturation
into a community of practice, in which learners construct their
models of reality as a meaning-making undertaking with culturally
developed tools and symbols (Vygotsky, 1978), and negotiate such
meaning thorough cooperative social activity, discourse and debate
(Von Glaserfeld, 1992)
Impacts on Instructional Design
Constructivism provides different views of learning. Learners are no
longer passive recipients and reproducers of information. Learners are
active constructors of their own conceptual understanding, and active
meaning makers interacting with the physical and social world. The design
of learning environment based on constructivist view of learning emphasizes
the integration of three types of human experiences (Vygotsky, 1978):
historical experience, e.g. the traditions and practices of a culture,
social experience, and adaptation experience, in which people engage
in active adaptation, changing the environment.
Below are some general principles of learning derived form constructivism
(Smith and Ragan, 2000; Driscoll, 2001; Duffy & Jonassen, 1992):
- Learning requires invention and self-organization on the part of
- Disequilibrium facilitates learning: Errors need to be perceived
as a result of learners' conceptions and therefore not minimized or
avoided. Thus, challenge students with open-ended investigations in
realistic, meaningful contexts need to be offered; allow learners
to explore and generate many possibilities, both affirming and contradictory.
- Reflective abstraction is the driving force of learning: As meaning-makers,
humans seek to organize and generalize across experiences in a representational
- Dialogue within a community engenders further thinking: the learners
are responsible for defending, proving, justifying, and communicating
their ideas to the classroom community.
Principles of designing learning environment
Jonassen (1996) proposed that learning environments should provide active,
intentional, complex, contextualized, reflective, conversational, collaborative,
and constructive learning.
Image from David
Driscoll (2000) listed constructivist principles for designing learning:
- Embed learning in complex, realistic and relevant environments
- Provide a social negotiation as an integral part of learning
- Support multiple perspectives and the use of multiple modes of representation
- Encourage ownership in learning
- Nurture self-awareness of the knowledge construction process
About design of instruction
Based on Jonassen (1992) and Driscoll (2000), constructivism has the
following impacts on instructional design:
- Instructional goals and objectives would be negotiated not imposed
- Task analysis would concentrate more on considering appropriate
interpretations and providing the intellectual tools that are necessary
for helping learners to construct knowledge
- Designers would provide generative, mental construction tool kits
embedded in relevant learning environments that facilitate knowledge
construction by learners
- About evaluation:
Since constructivism does not hold the that the function of instruction
is to transmit knowledge that mirrors the reality and its structures
to the learner's mind, criterion-referenced evaluation, which is based
on predetermined objective standards, is not an appropriate evaluation
tool to constructivistic environments (Jonassen, 1992). The focus
of evaluation should be placed on the process of knowledge construction
rather than the end products of learning. And even if the end results
are evaluated, it should emphasize the higher order thinking of human
- The evaluation of learning focus on the higher order thinking, the
knowledge construction process, and the building of the awareness
of such process.
- The context of evaluation should be embedded in the authentic tasks
and meaningful real-world context.
- The criteria of evaluation should represent multiple perspectives
in learning environment. From the perspective of socio-cultural constructivist,
since "no objective reality is uniformly interpretable by all
learners, then assessing the acquisition of such reality is not possible"
(Jonassen, 1992). Thus, the evaluation should focus on the learning
process rather than the product.
- Portfolio evaluation: different student interpretation at different
stages in their learning process. Learning is multifaceted and multiperspectival,
so as the results of learning.
- The function of evaluation is not in the reinforcement or behavior
control tool but more of "a self-analysis and metacognitive tool".
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Cobb, P. (1994). Where is the Mind? Constructivist and sociocultural
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