Green Decorative Wheat


If you have ever heard someone talk about teachers being either "a sage on the stage" or a "guide on the side," then you have already seen the impact of Constructivism. Constructivism's heavy focus on the learner leads to the view that good instruction is there to support learning, but it is not possible for instructors to "impart" learning.

Although Constructivism was first developed in the 1980s, it is grounded in the work of Jean Piaget and other scholars and philosophers from the early 20th century. Piaget's argument that human beings use both their experiences and their thoughts/ideas to construct meaning, and this observation is at the core of a Constructivist worldview. Lev Vygotsky, another early 20th century thinker, had a similar set of observations, but instead of placing his arguments within the context of individual development, like Piaget did, Vygotsky advanced a theory of social constructivism. From Vygotsky's point of view, learners used interactions with others to build their own cognitive tools to support their learning. Vygotsky's concept of the "Zone of Proximal Development" has been especially influential in education. The Zone of Proximal Development is that "area" between what a learner can do fully on their own and the point where they have to have help from an outside source. You might think of this Zone as a "reach" or "stretch" assignment where a learner has to struggle to succeed on their own, and through that struggle, their learning takes place.

Ideas like the Zone of Proximal Development as well as Jerome Bruner's related concept called "instructional scaffolding" are influential in the field of Instructional Design. Scaffolding is the idea that educational opportunities should offer supports for the learner at the start, and over time, the "scaffolds" can and should be removed as learners learn. Ideally, a scaffold helps expand the Zone of Proximal Development by providing just enough support so learners feel confident in taking risks in order to expand their learning.

Constructivism became a well-developed learning theory in the late 20th century. Its basic arguments include:

  • All knowledge is constructed, and that process happens in an individual way for each learner. New information is incorporated into a learner's previous experiences, contextualized by their existing worldviews, and understood through the lens of their own experience.
  • Learners learn how to learn by going through the process of learning. Learning can't be understood separate from the process of learning itself.
  • Learning is inherently active. The learner must participate in the process. Passively receiving information is not learning, and the process of passively receiving information does not lead to learning.
  • Learning is inherently social. Constructivist educators focus on activities like discussion group work, and peer modeling.
  • Even though learning is social, knowledge itself is personal.
  • In order to be meaningful, learning must be contextualized in a way that makes sense for the learner. 
  • Failure is the key to learning. Learners must experience failures so they understand the edge of their own Zone of Proximal Development and so they have the ability to reflect on how they can improve and what they must learn to do that.
  • Learning is something that happens in the mind. While repetition may lead to "muscle memory," in order to make meaning of an activity, the learner must engage their mind as well as their body.
  • Because learning relies so much on the individual learner, in order to learn, they must be intrinsically motivated.