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Constructivism is the theory that says learners construct knowledge rather than just passively take in information. As people experience the world and reflect upon those experiences, they build their representations and incorporate new information into their pre-existing knowledge (schemas).

Related to this are the processes of assimilation and accommodation.

    • Assimilation refers to the process of taking new information and fitting it into an existing schema.
    • Accommodation refers to using newly acquired information to revise and redevelop an existing schema.

For example, if I believe that friends are always nice, and meet a new person who is always nice to me I may call this person a friend, assimilating them into my schema. Perhaps, however, I meet a different person who sometimes pushes me to try harder and is not always nice. I may decide to change my schema to accommodate this person by deciding a friend doesn’t always need to be nice if they have my best interests in mind. Further, this may make me reconsider whether the first person still fits into my friend’s schema.

The consequences of constructivist theory are that:

    • Students learn best when engaged in learning experiences rather than passively receiving information.
    • Learning is inherently a social process because it is embedded within a social context as students and teachers work together to build knowledge.
    • Because knowledge cannot be directly imparted to students, the goal of teaching is to provide experiences that facilitate the construction of knowledge.

A traditional approach to teaching focuses on delivering information to students, yet constructivism argues that you cannot directly impart this information. Only experience can facilitate students to construct their knowledge. Therefore, the goal of teaching is to design these experiences.

Consequences for the Classroom

There are many consequences for teaching and the classroom if one adhere to constructivist principles.

Traditional ClassroomConstructivist Classroom
The curriculum begins with the parts of the whole. Emphasizes basic skills.The curriculum emphasizes big concepts, beginning with the whole and expanding to include the parts.
Strict adherence to a fixed curriculum is highly valued.The pursuit of student questions and interests is valued.
Materials are primarily textbooks and workbooks.Materials include primary sources of material and manipulative materials.
Learning is based on repetition.Learning is interactive, building on what the student already knows.
Teachers disseminate information to students. Students are recipients of knowledge.Teachers have a dialogue with students, helping students construct their knowledge.
The teacher’s role is directive, rooted in authority.The teacher’s role is interactive, rooted in negotiation.
Assessment is through testing and correct answers.Assessment includes student works, observations and points of view, as well as tests. The process is as important as the product.
Knowledge is seen as inert.Knowledge is seen as dynamic, ever-changing with our experiences.
Students work primarily alone.Students work primarily in groups.

Essential Components of Constructivist Teaching

There are several main components to include if one plans on adhering to constructivist principles in his classroom or when designing his lessons.

  • Elicit prior knowledge
    New knowledge is created about the learner’s pre-existing knowledge. Lessons, therefore, require eliciting relevant prior knowledge. Activities include pre-tests, informal interviews and small group warm-up activities that require recall of prior knowledge.
  • Create cognitive dissonance
    Assign problems and activities that will challenge students. Knowledge is built as learners encounter novel problems and revise existing schemas as they work through the challenging problem.
  • Apply knowledge with feedback
    Encourage students to evaluate new information and modify existing knowledge. Activities should allow students to compare pre-existing schema to the novel situation. Activities might include presentations, small group or class discussions, and quizzes.
  • Reflect on learning
    Provide students with an opportunity to show what they have learned. Activities might include presentations, reflexive papers or creating a step-by-step tutorial for another student.

Social Constructivism

Peers and people in society majorly influence the experience and learning process of an individual. Teachers family, friends, administrators and peers directly affect a student in various activities in a classroom. Even outside the school, this influence is significant. Hence, social constructivism is also an essential type of constructivism.

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Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.