What is Constructivism?

Constructivism is a philosophy of learning which draws on the work of Jean Piaget, Lev Vygostky and several others. The theory states that people construct their understanding and knowledge of the world through their own experiences and by reflecting on those experiences. That is, as we experience things in life, we reflect on those experiences and construct our own understanding of the world around us. Each person generates his or her own “schemas” from those experiences. A schema is a mental structure used to organize the knowledge we obtain from the world. As we experience more, we adjust or adapt our schemas as to incorporate the new knowledge or experience. The two important terms associated with this adjusting or adaptation and the Constructivism approach are accommodation and assimilation. Assimilation occurs when an individual must incorporate new information into old or existing information without changing the existing schema. Accommodation occurs when an individual experiences something new that conflicts with the old information they have stored. The individual must then change the schema they have to “accommodate” the new experience or information.

Educational Significance

According to this theory, students will learn best by attempting to make sense of new information on their own with the teacher acting as a guide helping them throughout the process. This means that the traditional teaching style in which the teacher transmits information to the students and the students passively listens may not be the best way for them to process and store information to later apply it correctly. The student must interact with the content in some way to make sense of it for him or herself in order to more effectively understand it and recall it later. The teacher should act as a facilitator, guiding the students to come to an understanding of the content on his or her own rather than the traditional lecturing. This theory of learning would fit most appropriately with a student-centered strategy of teaching rather than a teacher-centered strategy. One instructional strategy that would fit well within this theory is peer teaching. During peer teaching, the student must interpret the content in a way that makes sense to him/herself in order to reiterate it in his/her own words. From a constructivist point of view, experiencing the content in this way will promote optimal learning. Also activating prior knowledge and purposefully connecting new content to previous content covered is extremely important within the constructivism framework. This way, students know where to store this information and which schema they may need to potentially accommodate or assimilate the new information. Supporters of this theory argue that a constructivist classroom produces learners who are autonomous, inquisitive thinkers who question, investigate, and reason. (Gray)

Critique of Constructivism

Some argue that the constructivism theory excludes some key concepts in how people learn. For example, information presented to an individual must be appropriate to his or her developmental age or it is not learnable, regardless of how the individual experiences and interacts with that information. It is also argued that there is little empirical evidence to support that “learning by doing” is more effective for novice learners. If a student does not have any existing schema about a topic it will be difficult for him or her to come to an understanding of that topic on his or her own. Constructivism seems to support a technique of allowing students to discover information on their own, where many scholars argue that guided discovery has proven to be much more effective. Also, students with special needs often require more guidance and support than the constructivist approach offers; therefore, it may not be appropriate for all learners.

References

Gray, A. Constructivist Teaching and Learning. http://saskschoolboards.ca/research/instruction/97-07.htm#What is Constructivism?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constructivism_(learning_theory)