34 Constructivism and Social Constructivism in the Classroom

In the constructivist classroom, the focus tends to shift from the teacher to the students. The classroom is no longer a place where the teacher (“expert”) pours knowledge into passive students, who wait like empty vessels to be filled. In the constructivist model, the students are urged to be actively involved in their own process of learning.

In the constructivist classroom, both teacher and students think of knowledge as a dynamic, ever-changing view of the world we live in and the ability to successfully stretch and explore that view – not as inert factoids to be memorized.

Key assumptions of this perspective include:

  1. What the student currently believes, whether correct or incorrect, is important.
  2. Despite having the same learning experience, each individual will base their learning on the understanding and meaning personal to them.
  3. Understanding or constructing a meaning is an active and continuous process..
  4. Learning may involve some conceptual changes.
  5. When students construct a new meaning, they may not believe it but may give it provisional acceptance or even rejection.
  6. Learning is an active, not a passive, process and depends on the students taking responsibility to learn.

The main activity in a constructivist classroom is solving problems. Students use inquiry methods to ask questions, investigate a topic, and use a variety of resources to find solutions and answers. As students explore the topic, they draw conclusions, and, as exploration continues, they revisit those conclusions. Exploration of questions leads to more questions.

There is a great deal of overlap between a constructivist and social constructivist classroom, with the exception of the greater emphasis placed on learning through social interaction, and the value placed on cultural background. For Vygotsky, culture gives the child the cognitive tools needed for development. Adults in the learner’s environment are conduits for the tools of the culture, which include language, cultural history, social context, and more recently, electronic forms of information access.

In social constructivist classrooms collaborative learning is a process of peer interaction that is mediated and structured by the teacher. Discussion can be promoted by the presentation of specific concepts, problems or scenarios, and is guided by means of effectively directed questions, the introduction and clarification of concepts and information, and references to previously learned material.

Role of the teacher

Constructivist teachers do not take the role of the “sage on the stage.” Instead, teachers act as a “guide on the side” providing students with opportunities to test the adequacy of their current understandings

Theory Implication for classroom
The educator should consider the knowledge and experiences students bring to class
Learners construct their knowledge through a process of active enquiry
‘Discovery’ is facilitated by providing the necessary resources
Knowledge is actively constructed & learning is presented as a process of active discovery
Provide assistance with assimilation of new and old knowledge
Learning programme should be sufficiently flexible to permit development along lines of student enquiry
Due to its interpretivist nature, each student will interpret information in different ways
Create situations where the students feel safe questioning and reflecting on their own processes
Present authentic tasks to contextualize learning through real-world, case-based learning environments
Support collaboration in constructing knowledge, not competition
Encourage development through Intersubjectivity
Providing Scaffolding at the right time and the right level
Provide opportunities for more expert and less expert participants to learn from each other

Role of the student

The expectation within a constructivist learning environment is that the students plays a more active role in, and accepts more responsibility for their own learning.

Theory Implication for classroom
The role of the student to actively participate in their own education
Students have to accommodate & assimilate new information with their current understanding
One important aspect of controlling their own learning process is reflecting on their experiences
Students begin their study with pre-conceived notions
Students are very reluctant to give up their established schema/idea & may reject new information that challenges prior knowledge
Students may not be aware of the reasons they hold such strong ideas/schemata
Learners need to use and test ideas, skills, and information through relevant activities
Students need to know how to learn or change their thinking/learning style
Because knowledge is so communally-based, learners deserve access to knowledge of different communities
For students to learn they need to receive different ‘lenses’ to see things in new ways.
Learners need guidance through the ZDP
In social constructivism tutors and peers play a vital role in learning

Social Constructivism in the classroom

Reciprocal Teaching

Where a teacher and 2 to 4 students form a collaborative group and take turns leading dialogues on a topic. Within the dialogues, group members apply four cognitive strategies:

  1. Questioning
  2. Summarizing
  3. Clarifying
  4. Predicting

This creates a ZPD in which students gradually assume more responsibility for the material, and through collaboratation, forge group expectations for high-level thinking, and acquire skills vital for learning and success in everyday life.

Cooperative Learning

More expert peers can also spur children’s development along as long as they adjust the help they provide to fit the less mature child’s ZPD.

Situated Learning

As early as 1929 concern was raised (Whitehead) that the way students learned in school resulted in a limited, ‘inert’ form of knowledge, useful only for passing examinations. More recently several theorists have argued that for knowledge to be active it should be learned:

  • In a meaningful context
  • Through active learning

The general term for this type of learning activity is situated learning. Situated learning proponents argue that knowledge cannot be taught in an abstract manner, and that to be useful, it must be situated in a relevant or “authentic” context (Maddux, Johnson, & Willis, 1997).

Anchored Instruction

The anchored instruction approach is an attempt to help students become more actively engaged in learning by situating or anchoring instruction around an interesting topic. The learning environments are designed to provoke the kinds of thoughtful engagement that helps students develop effective thinking skills and attitudes that contribute to effective problem solving and critical thinking.

Anchored instruction emphasizes the need to provide students with opportunities to think about and work on problems and emphasizes group or collaborative problem solving.

Other things you can do:

  • Encourage team working and collaboration
  • Promote discussion or debates
  • Set up study groups for peer learning
  • Allocate a small proportion of grades for peer assessment and train students in the process and criteria
  • Show students models of good practice in essay writing and project work
  • Be aware of your own role as a model of ‘the way things are done…’be explicit about your professional values and the ethical dimensions of your subject


Constructivists believe that assessment should be used as a tool to enhance both the student’s learning and the teacher’s understanding of student’s progress. It should not be used as an accountability tool that serves to stress or demoralise students. Types of assessment aligned to this epistemological position include reflective journals/portfolios, case studies, group-based projects, presentations (verbal or poster), debates, role playing etc.

Within social constructivism particularly there is greater scope for involving students in the entire process:

  1. Criteria
  2. Method
  3. Marking
  4. Feedback

Brooks and Brooks (1993) state that rather than saying “No” when a student does not give the exact answer being sought, the constructivist teacher attempts to understand the student’s current thinking about the topic. Through nonjudgmental questioning, the teacher leads the student to construct new understanding and acquire new skills.

Selected Bibliography

Driscoll, M. (2005). Psychology of learning for instruction. Allyn & Bacon, Boston: MA

Hill, W.F. (2002) Learning: A survey of psychological interpretation (7th ed), Allyn and Bacon, Boston, MA.

Jordan, A., Carlile, O., & Stack, A. (2008). Approaches to learning: A guide for teachers. McGraw-Hill, Open University Press: Berkshire.

Ormrod, J.E. (1995). Human Learning (2nd ed.). New Jersey, Prentice Hall.

Ryder, M (2009) Instructional Design Models. Downloaded from http://carbon.cudenver.edu/~mryder/itc_data/idmodels.html on 30 March 2009)

Selected Resources

List of learning theories and how they apply to practice:

List of models and good info on each:

Outline of learning theories:



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