How do you learn? If you ask the average person this question, they’ll probably recount a few standard answers; memorising facts, researching data, reading textbooks, discussing topics with friends or colleagues, or completing online courses. Some people may go a step further and consider themselves visual learners or aural learners (despite learning styles being a myth). While most of these are valid answers, they describe learning activities, rather than getting to the core of how we learn.
At Go1, we believe it is vital to understand how we learn — to learn about learning, as it were. While this is a vast, complex topic, and there is much we still don’t understand about our brains, neuroplasticity, or how we learn, a love of learning is a core component of what makes us human, so it is a worthy pursuit to understand learning on a deeper, more meaningful level.
Thankfully, there are a variety of theories that describe how we learn. The five most common learning theories are constructivism, behaviourism, humanism, connectivism, and cognitive learning theory.
In the coming months, we’ll be launching a learning theories series. Throughout this series, we’ll analyse each of the five most common learning theories to help you better understand how people learn. Already, you can check out our article on cognitive learning theory, and be sure to check back regularly in the coming weeks for more content on behaviourism, humanism, and connectivism.
Today, we’ll kick off our learning theories series (say that five times fast!) by discussing constructivism, to help you understand constructivist learning theory. We’ll start by asking what constructivism is, before breaking down the types of constructivism and key constructivist principles, and finally analysing the benefits of constructivism for learning and development.
Constructivism is one of the five most common learning theories, alongside behaviourism, humanism, connectivism, and cognitive learning theory. Constructivist learning theory posits that learning is an active and internal process whereby learners construct information based on their experience of the world. In this way, they build on a foundation of prior knowledge.
The words ‘active’ and ‘internal’ are key to understanding constructivism, differentiating constructivism from many other learning theories. For example, behaviourism views learning as a passive process that happens in response to external stimuli, whereas constructivism views learning as an active process that happens internally.
Think of constructivism like an architect designing a skyscraper: each new piece of knowledge is a brick that builds upon your pre-existing foundation. Just as we use mortar to bind bricks together to form a greater whole, constructivism encourages us to synthesise pieces of information to form a deeper, more well-rounded understanding of a given subject.
As American psychologist Anita Woolfolk summarises, “learning is active mental work, not passive reception of teaching.” In this way, constructivism gives learners more control and agency throughout the learning process.
The University of Buffalo expands on this definition, explaining, “[with constructivism] learners construct knowledge rather than just passively taking in information. As people experience the world…they build their own representations and incorporate new information into their pre-existing knowledge.”
For example, a group of high-school students are asked to measure a piece of wood without using a ruler or measuring tape. Rather than simply stabbing in the dark, the students can bring their prior knowledge to the table to construct an informed guess. One student knows that they are 5 feet 11 inches tall, another adds that the heels on their standard-issue school shoes are 1.5 inches, while another knows the exact length of an A4 piece of paper. Using this pre-existing foundation of knowledge, they can construct a close estimate of the wood’s length.
Thus, one of the key defining principles of constructivism is that each new piece of information builds on our prior understanding of the world, rather than each piece of knowledge being discreet.
Accordingly, the University of Phoenix adds that “constructivists believe learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Instead, the theory suggests that people internally and unconsciously relate new information with existing information. In this way, learners actively “construct” their knowledge: They organise information into a unique, individualised base of knowledge.”
To help solidify these definitions, most conceptions of constructivism outline a few shared, overarching principles. These are:
1. Knowledge is constructed within learning environments.
2. People discover new ideas as they learn. That is, they learn about learning.
3. Learning is an active process.
4. Learning is a social process.
5. Learning is highly contextual.
6. Learning is personal, individual, and unique to the learner.
7. Learning is an internal mental process, not a response to external stimuli.
8. Motivation is essential to learning.
For a more detailed analysis of these constructivist principles, see this handy guide by Simply Psychology.
Ultimately, while understanding an entire theory of learning can feel like a daunting task, keeping these eight simple principles in mind will go a long way to comprehending constructivism.
Broadly, there are three main types of constructivism: cognitive constructivism, popularised by Jean Piaget, social constructivism, popularised by Lev Vygotsky, and radical constructivism, popularised by Ernst von Glasersfeld. Below, we will outline the key features of each type of constructivism.
Cognitive constructivism was popularised by Jean Piaget, expanding his theories of cognitive development. Cognitive constructivism is similar to the constructivist theories we outlined above, emphasising that learning should tie in closely to the learners’ specific stage of cognitive development.
According to the GSI Teaching and Resource Centre, “cognitive constructivism states knowledge is something that is actively constructed by learners based on their existing cognitive structures. Therefore, learning is relative to their stage of cognitive development. Cognitivist teaching methods aim to assist students in assimilating new information to existing knowledge.”
The University of Phoenix notes that cognitive constructivism was born out of frustrations with behaviourist learning theory, with many psychologists being “critical of behaviourism’s focus on behaviour that could be observed externally, and what they felt was its disregard for the internal psychology of individuals.”
Lev Vygotsky popularised social constructivism. As the name suggests, social constructivism believes learning is an inherently collaborative and social process. According to social constructivism, learners develop knowledge from interactions with their peers, culture, and society. Therefore, learners rely not just on themselves to construct knowledge, but on others too.
While social constructivism builds on the pioneering work of Piaget, Vygotsky believed Piaget didn’t go far enough. Rather, he saw cognitive constructivism as a theory that “conceived of the learner as an independent entity absorbing information from the environment. That process could be seen as essentially spontaneous and independent.” In contrast, Vygotsky proposed that “learning could not be separated from its social context.”
Finally, Ernst von Glasersfeld popularised radical constructivism. As the name suggests, von Glasersfeld proposed a far more radical notion of constructivism than either Piaget or Vygotsky.
As the University of Phoenix explains, “von Glasersfeld proposed that objective reality does not exist. In other words, he proposed that subjective knowledge constructions are the entirety of a person’s reality…whereas constructivists say that new knowledge (objective, shared) builds on existing knowledge (subjective, personal) Von Glasersfeld simply takes that concept to its most radical form: that at their most basic level, human beings grow what they know from a place of subjectivity.”
Likewise, Simply Psychology notes that according to radical constructivism “the knowledge individuals create tells us nothing about reality, and only helps us to function in your environment. Thus, knowledge is invented, not discovered.”
While this is a difficult concept for many to get their heads around (we don’t blame you if this one’s a head-scratcher), radical constructivism simply proposes that knowledge doesn’t offer us any objective, shared, or universal truth. Instead, it merely helps us to function and interpret the world around us. Therefore, all knowledge is subjective — it is ‘invented’ based on our interpretation, not ‘discovered’ based on absolute fact. Because of our inherent biases and limitations, von Glasersfeld believes it is impossible to construct an objective truth, so we have to make do with interpretations of knowledge, which will vary from person to person.
For further insights, this helpful guide puts radical constructivism in von Glasersfeld’s own words.
Now that we understand what constructivism is, common constructivist principles, and the different types of constructivism, it’s time to ask the big question: what are the benefits of applying constructivism over other learning theories?
As we’ve alluded to, constructivism is a more active process than other learning theories, affording learners more agency, control, and ownership over what and how they learn. This, in turn, makes learners feel more engaged and invested in the learning process.
By giving learners more agency and ownership over their learning, constructivism also helps to promote more diverse voices, ideas, and opinions. Moreover, it can aid students in developing crucial skills such as analysis, synthesis, critical thinking, and evaluation. This is because constructivism forces students to think more deeply and ‘join the dots’ to synthesise existing knowledge with new ideas.
Constructivism (particularly cognitive constructivism) can also provide a more relevant and targeted approach to learning, as educators are encouraged to design lessons to suit their students' unique cognitive needs and abilities. By encouraging collaborative learning, students also have the opportunity to develop social skills.
Don’t just take our word for it, several studies have quantified the benefits of constructivism for learning and development. For example, one study explored the benefits of constructivism for first-year environmental management students. To achieve this, students were “introduced to the idea of a learning or professional journal and provided with guidelines on its structure, but the content was very much of their own choosing.”
Accordingly, the researchers found that students became far more motivated and active participants in their study, using phrases like “I must commit myself here and [I am] at the centre of my own learning.” More specifically, researchers found that students were motivated by “their perception that the topic offered room for autonomy, independent learning, commitment, expanded conceptual understanding and improved capacity to reason.”
Finally, a study published by the Informing Science Institute found that students who followed a constructivist approach had better overall outcomes in terms of grades and motivation. They state, “students taught under the constructivist approach have higher mean scores, higher grades, and higher motivation levels as compared to their counterparts taught with other teaching approaches.”