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What is Constructivism?

Constructivism is a learning theory that suggests that learners construct knowledge rather than passively taking in information presented to them. They use their everyday experiences to build their own representations and incorporate those experiences into their already existing mental structures (or schemas). Constructivism has its base in social cognitive theory, which suggests that learning happens in a social context and is impacted by the person, environment, and behavior.   
This theory suggests that people construct a mental model of the world in their brain. If their experiences correspond to that model, they are in a state of equilibrium (nothing new needs to be learned). However, when people have experiences that do not correspond or conform to their mental models, experiences that challenge their existing way of thinking, disequilibrium occurs. It is the challenge to our existing models that allows us to learn. We address the disequilibrium in the following ways: 

  • Assimilate the new knowledge into previous schemas or mental models. Assimilation means to add on to our already existing knowledge. For example, knowing about birds such as swallows and cardinals and then learning that ostriches and penguins are also birds even though cannot fly and are much larger.
  • Accommodate schemas to new knowledge: This approach calls for changing your mental model to fit the new knowledge. For example, suppose a child learns about dogs for the first time by seeing a German Shepherd. Later, when seeing a poodle, it causes some disequilibrium because they look very different, but they assimilate this new knowledge into an existing model because both German Shepherds and poodles are four footed, barking animals. However, if after this, they are introduced to cats, or a horse or cows, they tend to call these animals dogs too because they see a four-footed animal with a tail. When they are told that these animals are not dogs, but cats, horses and cows, it creates a great disequilibrium, and they have to change their mental models or rather create new models or schemas in their brains for cats, horses and cows.  
  • Reject new knowledge: this happens when someone’s disequilibrium is too great, and they are not willing to change or create new schemas. Prejudices are often the result of this third choice in the face of disequilibrium.

For learning to occur, instructors must create that useful sense of disequilibrium where things are interesting and new and not too weird or too threatening.  

Engaging Students in Constructivist Learning

Include multiple means of instruction and multiple opportunities to learn:  giving students the opportunity to talk, write, explain, debate, reflect, create etc. and not just have them listen to lectures will provide them with different ways to engage with the content and will lead towards constructing knowledge in different ways. 
High fidelity tasks and projects: learning activities and tasks must have a purpose beyond learning. Activities, tasks, and content must focus on how this knowledge can be used in the real world to solve real problems.  
Collaborative projects: Instructors must design projects which require collaboration with peers from different backgrounds and contexts. This mixing of learners from different cultures, experiences, ages, and backgrounds helps create different knowledge from the same instructional situation. Instructors must not look for “one right answer.” 
Since knowledge is constructed and constantly changing, instructors must focus on developing skills to help students learn. Activities focused on collaboration, working on high fidelity projects, solving real world problems, will help students interact socially and in the process construct new knowledge.  

Examples of Activities in a Constructivist Course

Reciprocal teaching/learning [video] 
Instructors can assign topics and allow pairs of students to teach each other and provide inputs and fill in gaps as and when required.

Inquiry-based learning (IBL) [Teaching in Higher Ed Podcast] 
Instructors can create opportunities for learners pose their own questions and seek answers to their questions via research and direct observation. Learners can then present their supporting evidence to answer the questions. They can draw connections between their pre-existing knowledge and the knowledge they’ve acquired through the activity. Learners can draw conclusions, highlight remaining gaps in knowledge and develop plans for future investigations.

Problem-based learning (PBL)  
The main idea of PBL is that learners acquire knowledge by devising a solution to a problem through collaboration. PBL activities provide students with real-world problems that require students to work together to devise a solution. As the group works through the challenging real-world problem, learners acquire communication and collaboration skills in addition to knowledge.

Cooperative learning 
Instructors can assign students to work together in small groups to maximize their own and each other's learning. Cooperative learning requires interdependence among group members to solve a problem or complete an assignment. 

Advantages & Disadvantages

Advantages of Constructivism

  • Students learn best when engaged in learning experiences rather than passively receiving information. Learners have a sense of agency and ownership of their learning and assessment.
  • Learning becomes a social process because it is embedded within a social context as students and teachers work together to build knowledge while creating social bonds.
  • A constructivist approach in teaching provides real experiences for learners that facilitate the construction of knowledge. Learners and teachers share authority and teachers act as guides or facilitators.  
  • Knowledge becomes a dynamic and ever-changing concept as contexts change. Learners can form many new mental models and schemas by accommodating and assimilating new knowledge and by remaining is a healthy, usable state of disequilibrium.  
  •  The process of learning becomes as important as the end product or goal and learners realize that there may be many rights answers and not just one right answer to a problem.  

Disadvantages of Constructivism 

  • A constructivist learning environment will not work for learners that require a highly structured learning environment to learn and reach their potential.  
  • A constructivist environment places the responsibility of evaluating their own progress on students which may not be suitable for students who depend on standardized tests and traditional instructor evaluations. This can cause them to fall behind.  
  • Instructors who do not thoroughly plan and design a constructivist learning plan, with regular check points for student participation and understanding (through discussions, reflections, meetings, etc.) may fail to know if students are struggling in their class.