MAY, 2017.



This work is a literature review on constructivist theory. In this work, I examined the meaning, principles, applications, schools of thoughts, philosophies, proponents, models, history, advantages and disadvantages of constructivist theory.


Earlier educational philosophies did not place much value on what would become constructivist ideas; children's play and exploration was seen as aimless and of little importance. Jean Piaget did not agree with these traditional views; he saw play as an important and necessary part of the student's cognitive development and provided scientific evidence for his views. Today, constructivist theories are influential throughout the formal and informal learning sectors.


In a constructivist classroom, learning is constructed, active, reflective, collaborative, inquiry-based and evolving.

Constructivism as a paradigm or worldview posits that learning is an active, constructive process with the learner being an information constructor and actively constructing or creating their own subjective representations of objective reality and that new information is linked to prior knowledge, thus mental representations are subjective. Very simply, constructivism states that learning is an active, contextualized process of constructing knowledge rather than acquiring it.

Constructivist learning theory operates based on the principle that students build knowledge based upon prior knowledge. Constructivism theory states that there is no knowledge independent of the knower, only the knowledge that they create for themselves based on the information that they obtain from the world around them. Instead of having a finite answer, constructivism teaches that the learner creates the answer as they see it.

Constructivist theory's main theme is that learning is a process in which the learner is able to build on present and previous information. The student is able to take information, create ideas and make choices by utilizing a thought process.


Within this theory falls two schools of thought, social constructivism and cognitive constructivism:

1. Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist and philosopher in the 1930's, is most often associated with the social constructivist theory. He emphasizes the influences of cultural and social contexts in learning and supports a discovery model of learning. This type of model places the teacher in an active role while the students' mental abilities develop naturally through various paths of discovery. The social constructivist view premises that learning is constructed through social interaction and discourse and is considered, according to Drivers and others (1994), to be a process in which meaning is made dialogically (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999).

2. Cognitive constructivism is based on the work of Jean Piaget. His theory has two major parts: an ages and stages component that predicts what children can and cannot understand at different ages, and a theory of development that describes how learners develop cognitive abilities. Piaget's theory of cognitive development proposes that humans cannot be given information, in which they immediately understand and use. Instead, learners must construct their own knowledge. They build their knowledge through experience. Experiences enable them to create schemas — mental models of the world. These schemas are changed, enlarged, and made more sophisticated through two complimentary processes: assimilation and accommodation.

Cognitive constructivism is based on two different senses of construction. First, on the idea that people learn by actively constructing new knowledge, not by having information poured into their heads. Moreover, constructivism asserts that people learn with particular effectiveness when they are engaged in constructing personally meaningful artifacts (e.g. computer programs, animations).


John Dewey (1933/1998) is often cited as the philosophical founder of this approach. Bruner (1990) and Piaget (1972) are considered the chief theorists among the cognitive constructivists, while Vygotsky (1978) is the major theorist among the social constructivists.

John Dewey

John Dewey rejected the notion that schools should focus on repetitive, rote memorization & proposed a method of "directed living" – students would engage in real-world, practical workshops in which they would demonstrate their knowledge through creativity and collaboration. Students should be provided with opportunities to think from themselves and articulate their thoughts.

Dewey called for education to be grounded in real experience. He wrote, "If you have doubts about how learning happens, engage in sustained inquiry: study, ponder, consider alternative possibilities and arrive at your belief grounded in evidence."

Jean Piaget

Piaget rejected the idea that learning was the passive assimilation of given knowledge. Instead, he proposed that learning is a dynamic process comprising successive stages of adaption to reality during which learners actively construct knowledge by creating and testing their own theories of the world.

Although less contemporary & influential, it has inspired several important educational principles such as:


  • Discovery learning
  • Sensitivity to children’s’ readiness
  • Acceptance of individual differences
  • Learners don’t have knowledge forced on them – they create it for themselves

A common misunderstanding regarding constructivism is that instructors should never tell students anything directly but, instead, should always allow them to construct knowledge for themselves. This is actually confusing a theory of pedagogy (teaching) with a theory of knowing. Constructivism assumes that all knowledge is constructed from the learner’s previous knowledge, regardless of how one is taught. Thus, even listening to a lecture involves active attempts to construct new knowledge.

The formalization of constructivism from a within-the-human perspective is generally attributed to Jean Piaget, who articulated mechanisms by which information from the environment and ideas from the individual interact and result in internalized structures developed by learners. He identified processes of accommodation and assimilation that are key in this interaction as individuals construct new knowledge from their experiences.

When individuals assimilate new information, they incorporate it into an already existing framework without changing that framework. This may occur when individuals' experiences are aligned with their internal representations of the world, but may also occur as a failure to change a faulty understanding; for example, they may not notice events, may misunderstand input from others, or may decide that an event is a fluke and is therefore unimportant as information about the world. In contrast, when individuals' experiences contradict their internal representations, they may change their perceptions of the experiences to fit their internal representations.

According to the theory, accommodation is the process of reframing one's mental representation of the external world to fit new experiences. Accommodation can be understood as the mechanism by which failure leads to learning: when we act on the expectation that the world operates in one way and it violates our expectations, we often fail, but by accommodating this new experience and reframing our model of the way the world works, we learn from the experience of failure, or others' failure.

Jerome Bruner

Influenced by Vygotsky, Bruner emphasizes the role of the teacher, language and instruction. He thought that different processes were used by learners in problem solving, that these vary from person to person and that social interaction lay at the root of good learning.

Bruner builds on the Socratic tradition of learning through dialogue, encouraging the learner to come to enlighten themselves through reflection. Careful curriculum design is essential so that one area builds upon the other. Learning must therefore be a process of discovery where learners build their own knowledge, with the active dialogue of teachers, building on their existing knowledge.

Bruner initiated curriculum change based on the notion that learning is an active, social process in which students constructs new ideas or concepts based on their current knowledge. He provides the following principles of constructivist learning:

  • Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that make the student willing and able to learn (readiness).
  • Instruction must be structured so that it can be easily grasped by the student (spiral organization).
  • Instruction should be designed to facilitate extrapolation and or fill in the gaps (going beyond the information given).


Lev Vygotsky

Social constructivism was developed by Vygotsky. He rejected the assumption made by Piaget that it was possible to separate learning from its social context.

According to Vygotsky:

Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level and, later on, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals. (p. 57)

Although Vygotsky died at the age of 38 in 1934, most of his publications did not appear in English until after 1960. There are, however, a growing number of applications of social constructivism in the area of educational technology.

By the 1980s the research of Dewey and Vygotsky had blended with Piaget's work in developmental psychology into the broad approach of constructivism. The basic tenet of constructivism is that students learn by doing rather than observing. Students bring prior knowledge into a learning situation in which they must critique and re-evaluate their understanding of it.

This process of interpretation, articulation, and re-evaluation is repeated until they can demonstrate their comprehension of the subject.






A list of writers who influenced constructivism includes:

1.     John Dewey (1859–1952)

  1. Maria Montessori (1870–1952)
  2. Władysław Strzemiński (1893–1952)
  3. Jean Piaget (1896–1980)
  4. Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934)
  5. Heinz von Foerster (1911–2002)
  6. George Kelly (1905–1967)


  1. Jerome Bruner (1915–2016)
  2. Herbert Simon (1916–2001)
  3. Paul Watzlawick (1921–2007)
  4. Ernst von Glasersfeld (1917–2010)
  5. Edgar Morin (1921–)
  6. Humberto Maturana (1928–)




It was Brooks (1999) that wrote:

“As long as there were people asking each other questions, we have ad constructivist classrooms. Constructivism, the study of learning is about how we all make sense of our world and that really hasn't changed.”

According to …………….. the concept of constructivism has roots in classical antiquity, going back to Socrates’ dialogues with his followers, in which he asked directed questions that led his students to realize for themselves the weaknesses in their thinking. The Socratic dialogue is still an important tool in the way constructivist educators assess their students' learning and plan new learning experiences.

Jean Piaget and John Dewey later developed the theories of childhood development and education, what we now call Progressive Education that led to the evolution of constructivism.

Piaget believed that humans learn through the construction of one logical structure after another. He also concluded that the logic of children and their modes of thinking are initially entirely different from those of adults. The implications of this theory and how he applied them have shaped the foundation for constructivist education.

Dewey called for education to be grounded in real experience. He wrote, "If you have doubts about how learning happens, engage in sustained inquiry: study, ponder, consider alternative possibilities and arrive at your belief grounded in evidence." Inquiry is a key part of constructivist learning.

Among the educators, philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists who have added new perspectives to constructivist learning theory and practice are Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner and David Ausubel.

Vygotsky introduced the social aspect of learning into constructivism. He defined the "zone of proximal learning," according to which students solve problems beyond their actual developmental level (but within their level of potential development) under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.

Bruner initiated curriculum change based on the notion that learning is an active, social process in which students constructs new ideas or concepts based on their current          knowledge.

Seymour Papert's groundbreaking work in using computers to teach children has led to the widespread use of computer and information technology in constructivist        environments.

Modern educators who have studied, written about, and practiced constructivist approaches to education include John D. Bransford, Ernst von Glasersfeld, Eleanor Duckworth, George Forman, Roger Schank, Jacqueline Grennon Brooks, and Martin G. Brooks.


Constructivism is an epistemology, or a theory, used to explain how people know what they know. The basic idea is that problem solving is at the heart of learning, thinking, and development. As people solve problems and discover the consequences of their actions–through reflecting on past and immediate experiences–they construct their own understanding. Learning is thus an active process that requires a change in the learner. This is achieved through the activities the learner engages in, including the consequences of those activities, and through reflection. People only deeply understand what they have constructed. Knowledge is constructed based on personal experiences and hypotheses of the environment. Learners continuously test these hypotheses through social negotiation. Each person has a different interpretation and construction of knowledge process. The learner is not a blank slate (tabula rasa) but brings past experiences and cultural factors to a situation.

A constructivist approach to learning and instruction has been proposed as an alternative to the objectivist model, which is implicit in all behaviorist and some cognitive approaches to education. Objectivism sees knowledge as a passive reflection of the external, objective reality. This implies a process of "instruction," ensuring that the learner gets correct information.


This model is an empirical/reductionist approach to teaching and learning. The shared epistemological basis for these two perspectives, on the other hand, is interpretativism, where knowledge is believed to be acquired through involvement with content instead of imitation or repetition (Kroll & LaBoskey, 1996).

There is no absolute knowledge, just our interpretation of it. The acquisition of knowledge therefore requires the individual to consider the information and - based on their past experiences, personal views, and cultural background - construct an interpretation of the information that is being presented to them.

Students ‘construct’ their own meaning by building on their previous knowledge and experience. New ideas and experiences are matched against existing knowledge, and the learner constructs new or adapted rules to make sense of the world. In such an environment the teacher cannot be in charge of the students’ learning, since everyone’s view of reality will be so different and students will come to learning already possessing their own constructs of the world.

Teaching styles based on this approach therefore mark a conscious effort to move from these ‘traditional, objectivist models didactic, memory-oriented transmission models’ (Cannella & Reiff, 1994) to a more student-centred approach.

1. Discovery Learning (Bruner)

In discovery learning, the student is placed in problem solving situations where they are required to draw on past experiences and existing knowledge to discover facts, relationships, and new information.

Students are more likely to retain knowledge attained by engaging real-world and contextualised problem-solving than by traditional transmission methods.

Models that are based upon discovery learning model include: guided discovery, problem-based learning, simulation-based learning, case-based learning, and incidental learning.

1. Piaget's Cognitive Development theory (1970)/ Conception of equilibration (1985)

Piaget (1970) proposed that children progress through a sequence of four stages, assumed to reflect qualitative differences in children's cognitive abilities. Limited by the logical structures in the different developmental stages, learners cannot be taught key cognitive tasks if they have not reached a particular stage of development.

He later (1985) expanded this theory to explain how new information is shaped to fit with the learner's existing knowledge, and existing knowledge is itself modified to accommodate the new information. The major concepts in this cognitive process include:

  • Assimilation: it occurs when a learner perceives new objects or events in terms of existing schemes or operations. This information is compared with existing cognitive structures
  • Accommodation: it has occurred when existing schemes or operations must be modified to account for a new experience.
  • Equilibration: it is the master developmental process, encompassing both assimilation and accommodation. Anomalies of experience create a state of disequilibrium which can be only resolved when a more adaptive, more sophisticated mode of thought is adopted.


According to George (1991) the guiding principles of constructivist thinking that we must keep in mind when we consider our role as educators are as follows:

1. Learning is an active process in which the learner uses sensory input and constructs meaning out of it. The more traditional formulation of this idea involves the terminology of the active learner (Dewey's term) stressing that the learner needs to do something; that learning is not the passive acceptance of knowledge which exists "out there" but that learning involves the learner s engaging with the world. 7

2. People learn to learn as they learn: learning consists both of constructing meaning and constructing systems of meaning. For example, if we learn the chronology of dates of a series of historical events, we are simultaneously learning the meaning of a chronology. Each meaning we construct makes us better able to give meaning to other sensations which can fit a similar pattern. 8

3. The crucial action of constructing meaning is mental: it happens in the mind. Physical actions, hands-on experience may be necessary for learning, especially for children, but it is not sufficient; we need to provide activities which engage the mind as well as the hands.9 (Dewey called this reflective activity.)

4. Learning involves language: the language we use influences learning. On the empirical level, researchers have noted that people talk to themselves as they learn. On a more general level, there is a collection of arguments, presented most forcefully by Vigotsky, that language and learning are inextricably intertwined. This point was clearly emphasized in Elaine Gurain's reference to the need to honor native language in developing North American exhibits. The desire to have material and programs in their own language was an important request by many members of various Native American communities.

5. Learning is a social activity: our learning is intimately associated with our connection with other human beings, our teachers, our peers, our family as well as casual acquaintances, including the people before us or next to us at the exhibit. We are more likely to be successful in our efforts to educate if we recognize this principle rather than try to avoid it. Much of traditional education, as Dewey pointed out, is directed towards isolating the learner from all social interaction, and towards seeing education as a one-on-one relationship between the learner and the objective material to be learned. In contrast, progressive education (to continue to use Dewey's formulation) recognizes the social aspect of learning and uses conversation, interaction with others, and the application of knowledge as an integral aspect of learning.

6. Learning is contextual: we do not learn isolated facts and theories in some abstract ethereal land of the mind separate from the rest of our lives: we learn in relationship to what else we know, what we believe, our prejudices and our fears. On reflection, it becomes clear that this point is actually a corollary of the idea that learning is active and social. We cannot divorce our learning from our lives.

7. One needs knowledge to learn: it is not possible to assimilate new knowledge without having some structure developed from previous knowledge to build on. The more we know, the more we can learn. Therefore any effort to teach must be connected to the state of the learner and must provide a path into the subject for the learner based on that learner's previous knowledge.

8. It takes time to learn: learning is not instantaneous. For significant learning we need to revisit ideas, ponder them try them out, play with them and use them. This cannot happen in the 5-10 minutes usually spent in a gallery (and certainly not in the few seconds usually spent contemplating a single museum object.) If you reflect on anything you have learned, you soon realize that it is the product of repeated exposure and thought. Even, or especially, moments of profound insight, can be traced back to longer periods of preparation.

9. Motivation is a key component in learning. Not only is it the case that motivation helps learning, it is essential for learning. This idea of motivation as described here is broadly conceived to include an understanding of ways in which the knowledge can be used. Unless we know "the reasons why", we may not be very involved in using the knowledge that may be instilled in us, even by the most severe and direct teaching.

Abdal-Haqq, I. (1998) and Jonassen (1994) also highlighted some similar principles of constructivism as:

1.    Constructivist learning environments provide multiple representations of reality.

2.    These representations represent that complexity of the real world.

3.    Knowledge construction is emphasized over knowledge reproduction.

4.    Authentic tasks are emphasized in meaningful context.

5.    Real world settings or case-based learning is provided.

6.    Thoughtful reflection on experience is encouraged.

7.    Enable context- and content- dependent knowledge construction.

8.    Supports collaboration and social negotiation among learners.

9.    Discovery learning

10.Collaborative activity

11.Integration and activation of prior knowledge

12.Opportunities for hands-on activities






1.    Learning should be an active process where learners should learn to discover principles, concepts and facts for themselves, hence the importance of encouraging guesswork and intuitive thinking in learners (Brown et al.1989; Ackerman 1996). Vygotsky's work suggests that knowledge is first constructed in a social context and is then appropriated by individuals.

2.    There should be a good relationship between instructor and learner i.e. the instructor and the learners are equally involved in learning from each other as well (Holt and Willard-Holt 2000).

3.    There should be collaboration among learners. Learners with different skills and backgrounds should collaborate in tasks and discussions to arrive at a shared understanding of the truth in a specific field (Duffy and Jonassen 1992).

4.    There should be Learning by Teaching. If students have to present and train new contents with their classmates, a non-linear process of collective knowledge-construction will be set up.

5.    The importance of context should be stressed.

6.  The selection, scope, and sequencing of the subject matter (knowledge)  should be discovered as an integrated whole

7.    Engaging and challenging the learner. Learners should constantly be challenged with tasks that refer to skills and knowledge just beyond their current level of mastery.

According to …………….. for constructivist learning theory to be well utilized, there should be previous knowledge, real and authentic problems, constructivist curriculum, cognitive conflict and social context, technology and constructivism and the teacher’s role.


According to David Jonassen, Distinguished Professor of Learning Technologies at the University of Missouri, there are three roles for teachers who use the constructivist learning theory in their class.

1.    Modeling

2.    Coaching

3.    Scaffolding-to provide sufficient support to promote learning when new concepts are introduced.


1.    Students are actively involved, rather than passively absorbing information;

2.    The learning environment is democratic, the teacher is not seen as an authority figure as much as a learning guide;

3.    The activities are interactive and student-centered instead of being lesson-centered;

4.    A teacher facilitates activities in which students are responsible for their own learning and are autonomous from one another.

5.    This method of teaching is effective for students who learn better in a hands-on environment and helps students to better relate the information learned in the classroom to their lives.

6.    Since students often work in groups, constructivists learning theory helps students learn social skills, support each other's learning process and value each other's opinion and input.

7.    Education works best when it concentrates on thinking and understanding, rather than on rote memorization. Constructivism concentrates on learning how to think and understand


1.    Constructivism calls for the teacher to discard standardized curriculum in favor or a more personalized course of study based on what the student already knows. This could lead some students to fall behind of others.

2.    It also removes grading in the traditional way and instead places more value on students evaluating their own progress, which may lead to students falling behind but without standardized grading and evaluations teachers may not know that the student is struggling. Since there is no evaluation in the traditional sense, the student may not be creating knowledge as the theory asserts, but just be copying what other students are doing.

3.    It can actually lead students to be confused and frustrated because they may not have the ability to form relationships and abstracts between the knowledge they already have and the knowledge they are learning for themselves

4.    Students may benefit with some constructivism principles integrated into the classroom setting, however, most students need more structure and evaluation to succeed.

5.    Training necessary for constructive teaching is extensive and often requires costly long-term professional development. This may be unreasonable for school budgets as well as disruptive to the students' learning. With an average number of students in one classroom, teachers are unable to customize the curriculum to each student, as their prior knowledge will vary.


Most educators have accepted the idea that learners need to be active, that in order to participate in learning we need to engage the learner in doing something, in hands-on involvement, in participatory exhibits and programs. In the constructivist theory, teachers are less like dispensers of information and more like learning guides that allow students to make their own conclusions. This method of teaching tends to be more tolerant of different cultures and encourages diversity rather than other theories.

Constructivism is first of all a theory of learning based on the idea that knowledge is constructed by the knower based on mental activity. Learners are considered to be active organisms seeking meaning. Constructivism is founded on the premise that, by reflecting on our experiences, we construct our own understanding of the world consciously we live in. Each of us generates our own "rules" and "mental models," which we use to make sense of our experiences. Learning, therefore, is simply the process of adjusting our mental models to accommodate new experiences. Constructions of meaning may initially bear little relationship to reality (as in the naive theories of children), but will become increasing more complex, differentiated and realistic as time goes on.



·      Bransford, John d.; Brown, Ann l.; and Cocking, Rodney. (1999). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

·      BROOKS, JACQUELINE G., and BROOKS, MARTIN G. 1993. In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

·      Bruner, J. (1960). The Process of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

·      Bruner, J. (1966). Toward a Theory of Instruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

·      Bruner, J. (1973). Going Beyond the Information Given. New York: Norton.

·      Cole, M. & Griffin, P. (1987.), Contextual Factors in Education. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Center for Educational Research

·      Cooper, P. A. (1993). Paradigm Shifts in Designed Instruction: From Behaviorism to Cognitivism to Constructivism. Educational technology, 33(5), 12-19.

·      Dewey (1916). Democracy and Education. MacMillan

·      Dewey (1938). Experience and Education. Kappa Delta Pi

·      Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective.Performance improvement quarterly, 6(4), 50-72.

·      Eddy, Matthew Daniel (2004). "Fallible or Inerrant? A Belated review of the "Constructivist Bible"". British Journal for the History of Science. 37: 93–8. doi:10.1017/s0007087403005338.

·       E. von Glaserfield. "An exposition of Constructivism: Why some like it radical" in R. B. Davis. C.A. Maher and N. Noddings, editors. Constructivist Views of the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics. Washington, D.C. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1991.

·      George, E. H. (1991). Constructivist Learning Theory: The Museum and the Needs of People. Lesley College. Massachusetts USA

·      Henriquesk, A. "Experiments in Teaching," in Duckworth, E., Easley, J. Hawkins, D., Henriques, A. Science Education: A Mind on Approach to the Elementary Years. Erlbaum, 1990.

·      Jonassen, David H. (1994). Thinking Technology: Toward a Constructivist Design Model. Educational Technology, 34(4), pp. 34-37.

·      Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge University Press.

·       Marjorie E. Steakley (2008), Advantages, Disadvantages, And Applications Of Constructivism University of Tennessee at Martin TCED 712 Principles of Learning and Instruction

·       Martin Dougiamas. (1998). A journey into Constructivism

·      Piaget, J. (2013). The construction of reality in the child, (Vol. 82). Routledge.

·      Resnick, L.B. Learning to Think. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

·      Resnick, L.B.  and Klopfer, L.E. (1989) Towards the Thinking Curriculum: Current Cognitive Research.  ASCD Yearbook. Alexandria, VA: American Association for Curriculum Development,.

·       Vigotsky, L. (1978).  Mind and Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,

·      Vigotsky, L.V. (1962), Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA. MIT Press,.

·      Vygotsky's philosophy: Constructivism and its criticisms examined Liu & Matthews, International Education Journal, 2005, 6 (3), 386–99.

 VYGOTSKY, LEV S. 1987. Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky, Vol. 1: Problems of General Psychology, trans. Norris Minick. New York: Plenum.

·      Wendy (2010),  Edited by Rhinehart M.N., (2012),  Constructivist Learning Theory: Pros & Cons


Contact Me

Get in touch today!