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What is constructivism?
How does this theory differ from traditional ideas about teaching and learning?
What does constructivism have to do with my classroom?
Expert Interview
What is the history of constructivism, and how has it changed over time?
What are some critical perspectives?
What are the benefits of constructivism?

What does constructivism have to do with my classroom?

As is the case with many of the current/popular paradigms, you're probably already using the constructivist approach to some degree. Constructivist teachers pose questions and problems, then guide students to help them find their own answers. They use many techniques in the teaching process. For example, they may:

  • prompt students to formulate their own questions (inquiry)
  • allow multiple interpretations and expressions of learning (multiple intelligences)
  • encourage group work and the use of peers as resources (collaborative learning)
More information on the above processes is covered in other workshops in this series. For now, it's important to realize that the constructivist approach borrows from many other practices in the pursuit of its primary goal: helping students learn HOW TO LEARN.

In a constructivist classroom, learning is . . .

Students are not blank slates upon which knowledge is etched. They come to learning situations with already formulated knowledge, ideas, and understandings. This previous knowledge is the raw material for the new knowledge they will create.

Example: An elementary school teacher presents a class problem to measure the length of the "Mayflower." Rather than starting the problem by introducing the ruler, the teacher allows students to reflect and to construct their own methods of measurement. One student offers the knowledge that a doctor said he is four feet tall. Another says she knows horses are measured in "hands." The students discuss these and other methods they have heard about, and decide on one to apply to the problem.

The student is the person who creates new understanding for him/herself. The teacher coaches, moderates, suggests, but allows the students room to experiment, ask questions, try things that don't work. Learning activities require the students' full participation (like hands-on experiments). An important part of the learning process is that students reflect on, and talk about, their activities. Students also help set their own goals and means of assessment.

Examples: A middle-school language arts teacher sets aside time each week for a writing lab. The emphasis is on content and getting ideas down rather than memorizing grammatical rules, though one of the teacher's concerns is the ability of his students to express themselves well through written language. The teacher provides opportunities for students to examine the finished and earlier drafts of various authors. He allows students to select and create projects within the general requirement of building a portfolio 1. Students serve as peer editors who value originality and uniqueness rather than the best way to fulfill an assignment.


In a history class, asking students to read and think about different versions of and perspectives on "history" can lead to interesting discussions. Is history as taught in textbooks accurate? Are there different versions of the same history? Whose version of history is most accurate? How do we know? From there, students can make their own judgments.

Students control their own learning process, and they lead the way by reflecting on their experiences. This process makes them experts of their own learning. The teacher helps create situations where the students feel safe questioning and reflecting on their own processes, either privately or in group discussions. The teacher should also create activities that lead the student to reflect on his or her prior knowledge and experiences. Talking about what was learned and how it was learned is really important.

Example: Students keep journals in a writing class where they record how they felt about the class projects, the visual and verbal reactions of others to the project, and how they felt their own writing had changed. Periodically the teacher reads these journals and holds a conference with the student where the two assess (1) what new knowledge the student has created, (2) how the student learns best, and (3) the learning environment and the teacher's role in it.

The constructivist classroom relies heavily on collaboration among students. There are many reasons why collaboration contributes to learning. The main reason it is used so much in constructivism is that students learn about learning not only from themselves, but also from their peers. When students review and reflect on their learning processes together, they can pick up strategies and methods from one another.

Example: In the course of studying ancient civilizations, students undertake an archaeological dig. This may be something constructed in a large sandbox, or, as in the Dalton School's "Archaeotype" software simulation, on a computer. As the students find different objects, the teacher introduces classifying techniques. The students are encouraged to (1) set up a group museum by developing criteria and choosing which objects should belong, and (2) collaborate with other students who worked in different quadrants of the dig. Each group is then asked to develop theories about the civilizations that inhabited the area.

The main activity in a constructivist classroom is solving problems. Students use inquiry methods to ask questions, investigate a topic, and use a variety of resources to find solutions and answers. As students explore the topic, they draw conclusions, and, as exploration continues, they revisit those conclusions. Exploration of questions leads to more questions. (See the CONCEPT TO CLASSROOM workshop Inquiry-based Learning)

Example: Sixth graders figuring out how to purify water investigate solutions ranging from coffee-filter paper, to a stove-top distillation apparatus, to piles of charcoal, to an abstract mathematical solution based on the size of a water molecule. Depending upon students' responses, the teacher encourages abstract as well as concrete, poetic as well as practical, creations of new knowledge.

Students have ideas that they may later see were invalid, incorrect, or insufficient to explain new experiences. These ideas are temporary steps in the integration of knowledge. For instance, a child may believe that all trees lose their leaves in the fall, until she visits an evergreen forest. Constructivist teaching takes into account students' current conceptions and builds from there.

What happens when a student gets a new piece of information? The constructivist model says that the student compares the information to the knowledge and understanding he/she already has, and one of three things can occur:

  • The new information matches up with his previous knowledge pretty well (it's consonant with the previous knowledge), so the student adds it to his understanding. It may take some work, but it's just a matter of finding the right fit, as with a puzzle piece.
  • The information doesn't match previous knowledge (it's dissonant). The student has to change her previous understanding to find a fit for the information. This can be harder work.
  • The information doesn't match previous knowledge, and it is ignored. Rejected bits of information may just not be absorbed by the student. Or they may float around, waiting for the day when the student's understanding has developed and permits a fit.

Example: An elementary teacher believes her students are ready to study gravity. She creates an environment of discovery with objects of varying kinds. Students explore the differences in weight among similarly sized blocks of Styrofoam, wood, and lead. Some students hold the notion that heavier objects fall faster than light ones. The teacher provides materials (stories, posters, and videos) about Galileo, Newton, etc. She leads a discussion on theories about falling. The students then replicate Galileo's experiment by dropping objects of different weights and measuring how fast they fall. They see that objects of different weights actually usually fall at the same speed, although surface area and aerodynamic properties can affect the rate of fall.


Workshop: Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning
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