The Theory of Constructivism:

by Michael Medley

Major theorists include: Bandura, Bruner, Lave, Piaget, and Vygotsky.

Constructivism is based on the idea that when we learn, we compare new information with what we already know. By using analysis and synthesis, we develop new knowledge based on the results of the new and old information. When this occurs, it is said that we have constructed knowledge. This is not the same as simply memorizing a series of facts.

Boston Tea PartyAn example of constructing knowledge might be learning about the tax rebellion that resulted in the "Boston Tea Party." We can recall the information we already know about the event such as the dumping of crates filled with tea into Boston Harbor. We probably know that colonists, dressed as Mohawks, went aboard ships that carried tea from England. We also might know that the issue was taxation without representation. We may not know that the action was carried out by 150 members of The Sons of Liberty, led by Samuel Adams, on three separate ships and came about in the midst of a boycott on teas imported by England. We may also not know that the Crown had authorized the East India Company to sell the tea without paying taxes while colonist merchants had to pay them.

As we begin to analyze the new information, we realize that we also understand the economics of not charging the East India Company taxes while charging local merchants. That tactic would help the company get rid of excess stocks, earn an income, and ensure its financial viability. Furthermore, the cost would be borne by neither the Crown nor the company. By comparing what we know of the event and what we know of business practices, we can develop an understanding of what this action did to the colonists and why they boycotted tea from England. The process of putting all the facts together and developing an understanding that goes beyond the facts alone is an act of construction.

For construction to work, the learner needs to have enough initial knowledge to work with the new knowledge. If the topic of instruction is related to astronomy and the lesson is about the determination of an objectís material constituency, the student needs to have an understanding of spectral analysis and chemistry. If that knowledge is not present, then it must be gained in advance of the lesson on determination. The act of teaching sub elements needed for construction of the topic material is known as scaffolding. Just as a physical scaffold helps builders and painters reach the heights needed to do their job, the act of scaffolding information helps learners develop the knowledge they need to understand new materials. By giving students enough information on spectral analysis and chemistry, they can then learn about the methods involved in analyzing space objects.

Another facet of construction comes in the form of social construction. Social construction occurs when learners share their prior knowledge and their new constructions. Through the process of sharing, all learners involved are able to vicariously experience the analysis and synthesis of the other group members. The assimilation of other's understandings often results in a richer and deeper learning by each individual.

Constructivism in Practice:

Introducing new materials in a course is facilitated when students have a related understanding. Telling them in advance what they need to know prior to class start helps them to decide if they have the prerequisite knowledge. If they donít have the required knowledge, they know what they have to learn to successfully complete the upcoming sessions. In addition, time must be allotted for students to analyze the new information and to synthesize it in combination with what they already know. When information is very different from the information base of your students, scaffolding sessions may be needed to bring their understanding to the point where the new material can be learned. In areas of knowledge application, such as in problem solving, the experiences and knowledge of others can be helpful assets to all class members.

Opening a class session with a discussion on the fundamentals of your upcoming topic can help students explore and bring to the forefront of their consciousness information they have that will be needed later in the session. Explaining how the new material will fit into the context of the known will help your students develop strategies for processing the new information. When needed, covering the new material in small steps to help your students build or scaffold a knowledge base will support the new learning. As the new information is being delivered, let the students have some thinking time. Lead a discussion on what the new information means to each student and how they would apply it. Finally, assign homework that will let your students work with the new information, first in a context that is well known and understood, then on to more challenging applications.