FAQ – Constructivism

This series of posts tackles some common issues that keep arising as I write about education.


Why do you write about constructivism as if it is a theory of teaching when it is actually a theory of learning?


It is true that constructivism is a theory of learning or, more properly, a set of learning theories. In essence, constructivists suggest that we learn by relating new knowledge to what we already know. In schema theory, knowledge is organised in the mind within interrelated schema rather than a flat system of files such as in a filing cabinet.

I find this relatively uncontroversial although I disagree with those who argue for a more postmodernist interpretation; that all that actually exists are different people’s perceptions as represented by these schema; that there is no external reality. That seems quite mad. But if constructivism, more broadly, is true then it must describe how we learn whether we are reading, watching a lecture, solving a problem or are engaged in a debate.

Yet some educators really do draw implications for specific teaching methods from constructivist theory. It is these methods that I am generally arguing against because I find the evidence in favour of them to be weak.

For instance, in this article for ASCD, constructivism is defined as having five properties:

  • First, constructivist teachers seek and value students’ points of view. Knowing what students think about concepts helps teachers formulate classroom lessons and differentiate instruction on the basis of students’ needs and interests.
  • Second, constructivist teachers structure lessons to challenge students’ suppositions. All students, whether they are 6 or 16 or 60, come to the classroom with life experiences that shape their views about how their worlds work. When educators permit students to construct knowledge that challenges their current suppositions, learning occurs. Only through asking students what they think they know and why they think they know it are we and they able to confront their suppositions.
  • Third, constructivist teachers recognize that students must attach relevance to the curriculum. As students see relevance in their daily activities, their interest in learning grows.
  • Fourth, constructivist teachers structure lessons around big ideas, not small bits of information. Exposing students to wholes first helps them determine the relevant parts as they refine their understandings of the wholes.
  • Finally, constructivist teachers assess student learning in the context of daily classroom investigations, not as separate events. Students demonstrate their knowledge every day in a variety of ways. Defining understanding as only that which is capable of being measured by paper-and-pencil assessments administered under strict security perpetuates false and counterproductive myths about academia, intelligence, creativity, accountability, and knowledge.

Some of this is clearly just a grab for apple-pie statements. The idea that constructivist teachers value students’ points of view is a bit like saying that they favour treating students with respect, the implication being that it’s those nasty non-constructivist teachers who don’t care what students think.

But there are other statements that set-out a clear agenda. The requirement for ‘relevance’ places a barrier to the selection of abstract curriculum items such as the Ancient Egyptians, quadratic equations or romantic poetry. I would characterise this as constructivism’s commitment to the mundane and commonplace.

We can also see that teaching must proceed from the whole-to-the-part rather than from the part-to-the-whole. My reading of the evidence is that this is actually a poor way to build robust schema and so it is not necessarily something implied by constructivist learning theory. And yet, here it is, stated as such.

Finally, we have the requirement for classroom investigations, side-lining more didactic, teacher-led forms of instruction. This is why constructivist teaching is often associated with problem-based-learning, project-based-learning and inquiry learning whilst being seen as in contrast to anything approaching explicit instruction.

Indeed, the authors go on to describe a lesson of which they approve;

“…a teacher asked 9th graders to ponder the effect of temperature on muscle movement. Students had ice, buckets of water, gauges for measuring finger-grip strength, and other items to help them consider the relationship. The teacher asked a few framing questions, stated rules for handling materials safely, and then gave the students time to design their experiments. He posed different questions to different groups of students, depending on their activities and the conclusions that they seemed to be drawing. He continually asked students to elaborate or posed contradictions to their responses, even when they were correct.”

Interestingly, they later suggest that it is incorrect to conflate constructivism with discovery learning and yet this vignette clearly represents a form of student-led discovery.

On a final, personal note, it is relatively recently that I have called constructivist approaches by this name. Before I engaged with the research, I would have known them as ‘the use of science investigations’ or ‘problem solving’ or even ‘good practice’. I think this is interesting.


39 Comments on “FAQ – Constructivism”

  1. Geoff petty says:

    I agree that constructivism is not discovery learning indeed it can help us to understand good explicit instruction.

  2. Stan says:

    Thanks Greg, and what an awful paper. I imagine the subset of people who are fans of ASCD and critical thinking weren’t involved in its editing or publishing or don’t exist.

    I would add that even the phrase constructivist teacher is conflating a theory of the science of learning with the act of teaching.

    Would you add another FAQ or two on problem based learning and using problems as a part of learning.

    It is unfortunate that people coining their simple phrases for what are complex topics don’t take more care. Even the terms direct instruction and explicit instruction cause difficulties. No one proposing these thinks of them as merely providing instruction yet the critics compulsively create straw man arguments using that assumption.

    As another example, Jumpmath.org has taken to calling its approach guided discovery. All their material looks very much like what you call explicit instruction. Is their new stance just a marketing approach or a meaningful departure from explicit instruction as you understand it?

    • Stan says:

      Further on jumpmath.org. They are a very interesting case. An unpleasant take on their current description of their approach is that they operate in an environment where you simply cannot get your important message out unless you include the terms discovery learning, differentiated instruction and multiple representations. A more positive take is that they are using what is worthwhile from those ideas and incorporating them with the correct balance of instruction and assessment based teaching. Further they are describing things in a way that will appeal to those who like the ideas behind these terms but providing the necessary balance with other ideas.

      The nice thing is that they offer extremely detailed descriptions of a complete grade 1 to 8 curriculum. It is not necessary to interpret what they mean by their general approach. You can examine the details of what they mean in a huge range of lessons.

      • Stan says:

        I was referring to jump math here but weirdly wordpress doesn’t show it at least on IE. It is there in the html source but not showing above.

  3. […] seems that many people see constructivist teaching approaches as simply good teaching. Certainly, I used to believe that there was strong research evidence to […]

  4. […] Notwithstanding Klahr’s caution about the idea of ‘approaches’, I find it bizarre to suggest that the Klahr and Nigam ‘direct instruction’ condition represents a constructivist approach to teaching. Of course, if we take constructivism as a theory of learning then any type of instruction is constructivist. However, common understandings of constructivist teaching would not include a teacher setting-up, demonstrating and fully explaining a procedure. I have explore these issues in an FAQ post. […]

  5. […] to lay it all out in front of them.” Which is quite in keeping with a discovery learning, constructivist approach. Is this good practice? Is this the standard that all Australian teachers should meet? If so, […]

  6. […] whether cognitive conflict is actually a tenet of constructivism. It is probably worth reading my FAQ on constructivism. In this FAQ, I link from an article by ASCD which contains the following […]

  7. […] that are still teaching about learning styles – to the more subtle – a commitment to constructivist teaching practices or ill-defined concepts of ‘differentiation’. And the literature is full of studies […]

  8. […] on how to manage behaviour, for instance. The only pedagogical approach going was essentially constructivist teaching, although it wasn’t described that way at the time. Instead, it was generally referred to as […]

  9. […] constructivist or reform mathematics movement tends to set-up a distinction between the kind of mathematics that […]

  10. […] ‘project-based learning’ and ‘team-based inquiry’ are all inspired by constructivism which is itself a latter day manifestation of the philosophy of John […]

  11. […] Problem based learning, project based learning, inquiry learning, the maker movement and other constructivist approaches seem […]

  12. […] known as ‘reform’ mathematics. The antecedents of this movement can be traced to the constructivism of Piaget and Vygotsky from earlier in the 20th century and further back to progressive education in […]

  13. […] the early twentieth century, this view has been subsumed in a verbose way into the later theory of constructivism where, for instance, “Challenging, open-ended investigations in realistic, meaningful contexts […]

  14. […] history; figures including Rousseau and Herbert Spencer. The most up-to-date version is embodied by constructivist approaches to teaching which derive from Jerome Bruner’s work on discovery learning in the 1960s. The idea is to […]

  15. […] questions are clearly inspired by constructivism but I doubt they lead to a tidy response. For instance, the statement that, “The teacher […]

  16. […] is an explicit approach where all concepts and procedures are fully explained and there is the constructivist alternative where students are asked to figure certain things out for themselves, with varying […]

  17. […] Hattie’s, ‘Visible Learning,’ and I was reading the section where he discusses constructivism. I distinctly remember seeing the in-line reference and then looking this up in the references […]

  18. […] based learning and ‘makerspaces‘ are all the fashion. These ideas are based upon constructivist theories that have been repeatedly debunked since at least the 1980s and that few serious cognitive […]

  19. […] upon the transmission of knowledge in favour of innovative teaching practices – a familiar constructivist argument. He complains […]

  20. […] Journalists turn to academics to interpret things like PISA results and academics tend to hold to constructivist ideology in the face of all evidence to the […]

  21. […] I first started writing about cognitive load theory and the need for explicit instruction, a lot of constructivists responded to me by suggesting that I was ignoring the role of motivation. Perhaps explicit […]

  22. […] claim is quite catchy and fits with the fashionable constructivist view of maths teaching promoted by Dan Meyer, Jo Boaler and others. It originates in a 2016 report […]

  23. […] that comes out of university departments. It frustrates me when this is presented as evidence for constructivist teaching methods because I consider it nothing of the sort. Typically, a straight, non-interactive lecture is […]

  24. […] to take this attitude, you have to have both a pretty low view of physics and a predilection for constructivist teaching methods. Both stands are […]

  25. […] addition and subtraction, recording my ideas and solutions in different ways.” This is constructivist maths involving the use of practical investigation and multiple […]

  26. […] collaboration.” “Authentic contexts” are also important, giving a hint of the constructivist philosophy that underpins Donaldson’s […]

  27. […] after its developers) and Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley Mathematics, did not, preferring a ‘constructivist‘ approach. For instance, TERC encourages students to ‘develop their own strategies for […]

  28. […] ‘constructing’ their own understandings, drawing on the psychological theory of constructivism. Unfortunately, self-directed learning of this kind is not supported by experimental evidence. […]

  29. […] has been a debate in Ontario about its maths curriculum and some have linked its embrace of constructivist teaching approaches to this decline. You cannot prove a cause with a correlation but in this case it […]

  30. […] decline in U.S. maths performance which is, no doubt, related to the increasing influence of constructivist maths […]

  31. […] system and this reflected in teacher education. It has been described as student- or child-centred, constructivist or progressive education, although all of these labels are disputed. The key theme that emerges […]

  32. […] has been studied in the previous two years, and the numeracy assessment should abandon it’s constructivist focus on wordy problems which acts to conflate mathematical and reading ability. Nonetheless, any […]

  33. […] for some time now. My hypothesis is that this decline has been caused by a move towards a more constructivist mathematics curriculum; one that prioritises students developing their own strategies for solving […]

  34. […] There are lots of excellent teacher educators out there. Although my own P.G.C.E. was grounded in constructivist teaching, a doctrine I now reject, my instructors where highly intelligent people who made the course […]

  35. […] don’t really like the idea that explicit instruction is effective. It is at odds with the constructivist teaching philosophy that still permeates education faculties and in the social sciences, it is always possible to […]

  36. […] “A constructivist approach to mathematics learning involves the child as an active participant in the learning process. Existing ideas are used to make sense of new experiences and situations. Information acquired is interpreted by the learners themselves, who construct meaning by making links between new and existing knowledge. Experimentation, together with discussion among peers and between the teacher and the child, may lead to general agreement or to the re-evaluation of ideas and mathematical relationships. New ideas or concepts may then be constructed. The importance of providing the child with structured opportunities to engage in exploratory activity in the context of mathematics cannot be overemphasised. The teacher has a crucial role to play in guiding the child to construct meaning, to develop mathematical strategies for solving problems, and to develop self-motivation in mathematical activities.” [Here’s a good summary of constructivism.] […]

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