The theory of constructivism states that people are only able to learn by making use of the previous social experiences in their lives. They use new information in association with their experience to create new mental representations of this information. Therefore, people create subjective ideas about objective concepts because the personal component is so important.
This theory has brought about some valuable teaching methods because it focuses on engaging the students to participate actively in the lessons so that they are able to construct solid ideas about the main focus points. But in order to fully grasp the use of the theory in education, you need to understand its basic aspects.
The Foundations of Constructivism – Cognitive and Social Constructivism
The founding fathers of constructivism are Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, American psychologist Jerome Bruner, and American philosopher and psychologist John Dewey. They have laid the basis of constructivism and have modeled its development over time.
Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory and Social Constructivism
The Vygotsky Theory is probably the most influential constructivist theory because it has relayed some of the most important ideas. In his view, social interaction lays at the base of the learning process and, therefore, defines a person’s entire development. Here are some noteworthy concepts:
The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)
The ZPD is the distance between a person’s ability to comprehend and perform a certain task when accompanied by others, such as a teacher or peers, and when they are completely on their own. According to the Vygotsky Theory, the learning process takes place in the ZPD.
“It is through others that we become ourselves“, said Lev Vygotsky. He argued that social interaction is actually what leads to the child’s development because his learning abilities are accentuated under adult guidance.
The More Knowledgeable Other (MKO)
The MKO is a person that the learner perceives to be more experienced and more skilled in a certain topic of interest. Therefore, the MKO is the provider of guidance towards learning new things. His presence is crucial to the outcome of the learning process because he can influence it significantly.
Lex Vygotsky has developed the notion of social constructivism, which is actually a variety of the initial theories that focuses on the relation between a person and the world around him, which is fundamentally social.
“The child begins to perceive the world not only through his eyes but alto through his speech“, said the Russian psychologist. He theorized that the child develops the ability to speak and then to write with the precise aim of interacting with the society he is part of, which will ultimately give way to his development.
Jean Piaget’s Theories of Cognitive Constructivism
Social constructivism states that social interaction actually precedes a child’s development. Cognitive constructivism, on the other hand, theorizes that development must precede social interaction. Swiss psychologist and biologist Jean Piaget is the founder of cognitive constructivism and his theories relay that the child’s development is not homogeneous and continuous.
Instead, there are some key moments generated by the child’s anatomical and psychological development that enable him to enhance his learning abilities. Here are some of the most important cognitive abilities developed by the child:
This is the process undergone by the child in order to connect with society. Adaptation is performed through assimilation and accommodation, which are directly interlinked.
Assimilation is the process by which a person is able to store material about the society into his mind.
The process of accommodation is the direct consequence of assimilation on the mind.
This term refers to a person’s ability to group certain objects together into certain classes according to common features that they share.
This is a thought process that enables people to recognize certain classes as being subcategories of larger classes.
This is a person’s ability to move focus from one class to another according to the certain environmental criteria.
This term refers to a person’s ability to experience the world through his eyes only. He is, therefore, the center of his universe because he is unable to experience the world through somebody else’s eyes.
The common ground of social and cognitive constructivism is the fact that the child needs to be stimulated to discover as many things as possible by himself. This way, he can get a better understanding of these notions, remember them for longer and connect them to other related ideas through adaptation and classification.
Constructivism in Education
Constructivist theories have given way to an entirely new teaching method, which is completely different from those centered on behaviorism and programmed learning. The constructivism method focuses on the presence of one or more MKO’s, who can be the teacher or the student’s peers, who will guide the student towards creating his own conclusions about the topic of the lesson.
“Every time we teach a child something, we prevent him from inventing it himself“, said Jean Piaget. This is actually the basis of the constructivist learning theories as their aim is to guide the student into the right direction, but to ultimately let him discover the essence of the lesson himself by making use of his own reasoning.
When a student is provided with the entire information, his cognitive input for drawing conclusions and assimilating ideas is minimal. On the other hand, if the student is obligated to connect ideas that will lead him to the correct conclusion, his cognitive input is considerably more important.
This type of learning will enable the student to develop advanced learning abilities, such as critical thinking and the ability to connect a large amount of different ideas about a common topic. Constructivist learning is in a way like mental exercise that in time leads to a stronger way of thinking.
But are constructivist strategies always the ideal way of learning? As any other teaching system, it has a series of benefits that recommend it, as well as several disadvantages that might make it inadequate for some students. Take a look at our pros and cons list and decide for yourself!
10 Advantages of Constructivist Learning
- It relies on active, hands-on tasks to engage the student into the lesson and enable him to get to know the topic of the lesson.
- The teacher is a guide and facilitates the students to create their own ideas. But this happens in a controlled environment, so the teacher can get to assess whether or not the student has drawn the correct conclusions.
- It engages the student’s prior knowledge about the topic of the lesson. Therefore, it can consolidate these previous notions and it can eliminate any inaccuracies regarding these that the student was not aware of.
- It stimulates self-confidence in the student because he will feel proud to have reached a certain conclusion on his own.
- It stimulates the student’s critical thinking and problem solving skills because he needs to work in order to reach the conclusion.
- It stimulates the student to explore, experiment and conduct research on his own about the topics that he is interested in.
- The students interact with each other, thus getting used to working as part of a team, which will be of great use to them in the future.
- The student is offered the possibility of choosing the part of the task that he wants to perform as part of the team.
- It obligates the student to formulate his conclusions for his peers, which ultimately maximizes knowledge construction.
- It prepares the student for facing issues in the real world by teaching him to deal with complex issues.
10 Disadvantages of Constructivist Learning
- Implementing solid constructivist strategies requires an extended preparation time for the teacher.
- Getting the students accustomed to the constructivist learning system will also take quite a long time.
- The student might be extremely active and follow the teacher’s instructions, but then develop the wrong conclusion.
- It is extremely difficult for the teacher to assess whether or not the student has reached the correct conclusions. On the other hand, in traditional teaching, the student’s understanding of the presented material is not fully assessed after every lesson, which makes constructivist strategies still superior.
- The previous knowledge that the students have is not necessarily on the same level. This can affect the learning process for those students who require considerable support to master these previous notions. Moreover, it can affect the learning process of the entire team.
- Since the student is the one who draws the conclusions, the teacher needs to implement considerably more assessment strategies than in the standard teaching system.
- Constructivist learning strategies need to be adapted to the student’s level of development discussed by Piaget. This makes this teaching system fit for only certain categories of students.
- Constructivist learning might not be compatible with certain subjects and a standardized curriculum, as it might take some students longer to complete certain tasks.
- Constructivist teaching methods require a different grading system than traditional ones because the student’s efforts need to be taken into consideration regardless of whether or not he has reached the correct conclusions.
To conclude, constructivism-based teaching methods are superior to traditional ones because they engage the student directly in the learning process and enable him to develop solid critical thinking skills for the future. In spite of the fact that these methods require a far longer preparation time, as well as complicated maintenance and assessment strategies, they are well worth the effort because they can consolidate previous knowledge and integrate the new information in connection with it.