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About constructivism

Opposing to behaviorism and cognitivism, learning paradigms which begin from a point of view that world external to the learner is objective and real and the learner needs to map it's principles and facts, constructivism as a learning paradigm1) suggests that2):

  • learning is not a passive, but an active, socially enhanced process of knowledge construction,
  • knowledge cannot (and need not) be transferred to the learner, but rather constructed by the learner,
  • the learner constructs his own subjective interpretation and subjective meaning of the objective reality by cognizing subject,
  • learning occurs through interaction of learner's prior knowledge (knowledge schemata), ideas and experience,
  • learning occurs in certain social, cultural and linguistic settings.

Teaching of a discipline should therefore:

  • focus not teaching of the body of knowledge, but experiencing the processes and procedures, and
  • use language as a tool that can help in guiding student's construction, but keep in mind that language users create subjective meaning based on their experience.

Although constructivist ideas can be tracked back to 18th century and authors like Giambattista Vico3) it mostly emerged in the 1970s4) and has been recognized as a paradigm, but also as a theory5). Today constructivism usually appears in the literature in a number of variants6) with two dominant variants7):

  • social constructivism (also known as personal constructivism or radical constructivism) derived from works of Lev Vygotsky and extended in works of Jean Lave, Allan Collins, John Brown, and Ernst von Glasersfeld8), which suggest knowledge is situation-specific and context-dependent and that social environment has a key role in learning, and
  • cognitive constructivism (also known as realist constructivism) presented in works of authors like Jean Piaget or Jerome Bruner, which, since knowledge cannot be directly transmitted from person to person, focuses on individual's knowledge construction and learning through discovery.

Learning theories

Instructional design theories and learning models:


Constructivist instructional design models have been subjected to much criticisms lately9)10), mostly for promoting pure discovery-learning and minimally guided instruction. Richard Mayer11) has reviewed results of pure discovery-based learning experiments from 1950s to 1980s and concluded that every decade a new similar approach was invented under different name not making any significant difference. In his own words,

  • Pure discovery did not work in the 1960s, it did not work in the 1970s, and it did not work in the 1980s… The debate about discovery has been replayed many times in education, but each time, the research evidence has favored a guided approach to learning.”.12)

Critics claim discovery-learning and minimally guided instruction, although more enjoyable to students13),

  • can lead to frustration due to failure or misconceptions14)15),
  • are not as effective as guided learning16),
  • cause great cognitive load17)18),
  • provide worse results than worked examples19)20),
  • result in greater time consumption without results improvement21),
  • do not show statistically significant improvements in knowledge when implemented in medical schools22), and
  • that these disadvantages will apply especially to novice learners23).

Although constructivism also includes learning methods with a certain degree of guidance and not just discovery learning and minimally guided instruction, critics claim that those methods still ignore proven benefits guidance, worked examples, and induce a higher cognitive load resulting in lower resources available for learning due to orientation on finding a solution to a problem.

It is important to notice that these findings do not indicate that the initial assumptions of constructivism of a learner constructing his own representation of knowledge are wrong. The indicate that suggested instructional design consequences described in discovery learning models with minimal guidance do not necessarily follow. Today it is generally considered that advantages of guidance during instructional process begin to fade only when learners possess sufficient amount of prior knowledge to provide guidance by themselves24).


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Constructivism is a term often used in different fields with many different meanings.
learning_paradigms/constructivism.txt · Last modified: 2012/01/12 11:42 (external edit)