Contemporary Educational Psychology/Constructivism: Changes in How Students Think

Behaviorist models of learning may be helpful in understanding and influencing what students do, but teachers usually also want to know what students are thinking, and want to enrich what they are thinking. For this aspect of teaching, some of the best help comes from constructivism, which is a perspective on learning focused on how students actively create (or “construct”) knowledge out of experiences. Constructivist models of learning differ among themselves, and one of the most important differences is about how much the model focuses on learners as independent individuals, compared to the social links between an individual and people who may be more expert and who can help the individual to learn (Fosnot, 2005; Rockmore, 2005)[1][2]. For convenience (and because others sometimes use these same terms) I will call these psychological constructivism and social constructivism, even though both versions are in a sense explanations about thinking in individuals.

Psychological Constructivism: The Independent Investigator


The main idea of psychological constructivism is that a person learns by mentally organizing and reorganizing new information or experiences. The organization happens partly by relating new experiences to prior knowledge that is already meaningful and well understood. Stated in this general form, individual constructivism is sometimes associated with a well-known educational philosopher of the early twentieth century, John Dewey (1938/1998)[3]. Although Dewey himself did not use the term constructivism in most of his writing, his point of view amounted to a type of constructivism, and he discussed in detail its implications for educators. He argued, for example, that if students indeed learn primarily by building their own knowledge, then teachers should adjust the curriculum to fit students’ prior knowledge and interests as fully as possible. He also argued that a curriculum could only be justified if it related as fully as possible to the activities and responsibilities that students will probably have later, after leaving school. To many educators these days, his ideas may seem merely like good common sense, but they were indeed innovative and progressive at the beginning of the twentieth century.

A more recent example of psychological constructivism is the cognitive theory of Jean Piaget' (Piaget, 2001; Gruber & Voneche, 1995)[4][5]. Piaget described learning as interplay between two mental activities that he called assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the interpretation of new information in terms of pre-existing concepts, information or ideas. A preschool child who already understands the concept of bird, for example, might initially label any flying object with this term—even butterflies or mosquitoes. Assimilation is therefore a lot like the idea of generalization in operant conditioning, as well as the idea of transfer that I described at the beginning of this chapter as an enduring concern of teachers. In Piaget’s viewpoint, though, what is being transferred to a new setting is not simply a behavior, as in operant conditioning, but a mental representation for an object or experience.

Assimilation operates jointly with accommodation, which is the revision or modification of pre-existing concepts in terms of new information or experience. The preschooler who initially generalizes the concept of bird to include any flying object, for example, eventually revises the concept to include only particular kinds of flying objects, such as robins and sparrows, and not others, like mosquitoes or airplanes. For Piaget, assimilation and accommodation work together to enrich a child’s thinking and to create what Piaget called cognitive equilibrium, which is a balance between reliance on prior information and openness to new information. At any given time, cognitive equilibrium consists of an ever-growing repertoire of mental representations for objects and experiences. Piaget called each mental representation a schema (all of them together—the plural—was called schemata). A schema was not merely a concept, but an elaborated mixture of vocabulary, actions, and experience related to the concept. A child’s schema for bird, for example, includes not only the relevant verbal knowledge (like knowing how to define the word “bird”), but also the child’s experiences with birds, pictures of birds, and conversations about birds. As assimilation and accommodation about birds and other flying objects operate together over time, the child does not just revise and add to his vocabulary (such as acquiring a new word, “butterfly”), but also adds and remembers relevant new experiences and actions. From these collective revisions and additions the child gradually constructs whole new schemata about birds, butterflies, and other flying objects. In more everyday (but also less precise) terms, Piaget might then say that “the child has learned more about birds.”

Figure 4 diagrams the relationships among the Piagetian version of psychological constructivist learning. Note that the model of learning in the figure is rather “individualistic,” in the sense that it does not say much about how other people involved with the learner might assist in assimilating or accommodating information. Parents and teachers, it would seem, are left lingering on the sidelines, with few significant responsibilities for helping learners to construct knowledge. But the Piagetian picture does nonetheless imply a role for helpful others: someone, after all, has to tell or model the vocabulary needed to talk about and compare birds from airplanes and butterflies! Piaget did recognize the importance of helpful others in his writings and theorizing, calling the process of support or assistance social transmission. But he did not emphasize this aspect of constructivism. Piaget was more interested in what children and youth could figure out on their own, so to speak, than in how teachers or parents might be able to help the young to figure out (Salkind, 2004)[6]. Partly for this reason, his theory is often considered less about learning and more about development, which is long-term change in a person resulting from multiple experiences. For the same reason, educators have often found Piaget’s ideas especially helpful for thinking about students’ readiness to learn, another one of the lasting educational issues that I discussed at the beginning of this chapter. I will therefore return to Piaget in Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 3: Student Development, which discusses development and its importance for teaching in more detail.

Social Constructivism: Assisted Performance


Unlike Piaget’s rather individually oriented version of constructivism, some psychologists and educators have explicitly focused on the relationships and interactions between a learner and more knowledgeable and experienced individuals. One early expression of this viewpoint came from the American psychologist Jerome Bruner (1960, 1966, 1996)[7][8][9], who became convinced that students could usually learn more than had been traditionally expected as long as they were given appropriate guidance and resources. He called such support instructional scaffolding—literally meaning a temporary framework, like one used in constructing a building, that allows a much stronger structure to be built within it. In a comment that has been quoted widely (and sometimes disputed), he wrote, “We [constructivist educators] begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development” (1960, p. 33). The reason for such a bold assertion was Bruner’s belief in scaffolding—his belief in the importance of providing guidance in the right way and at the right time. When scaffolding is provided, students seem more competent and “intelligent,” and they learn more.

Similar ideas were proposed independently by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1978)[10], whose writing focused on how a child’s or novice’s thinking is influenced by relationships with others who are more capable, knowledgeable or expert than the learner. Vygotsky proposed that when a child (or any novice) is learning a new skill or solving a new problem, he or she can perform better if accompanied and helped by an expert than if performing alone—though still not as well as the expert. Someone who has played very little chess, for example, will probably compete against an opponent better if helped by an expert chess player than if competing alone against an opponent. Vygotsky called the difference between solo performance and assisted performance the zone of proximal development (or ZPD for short)—meaning the place or area (figuratively speaking) of immediate change. From this perspective learning is like assisted performance (Tharp & Gallimore, 1991)[11]. Initially during learning, knowledge or skill is found mostly “in” the expert helper. If the expert is skilled and motivated to help, then the expert arranges experiences that allow the novice to practice crucial skills or to construct new knowledge. In this regard the expert is a bit like the coach of an athlete—offering help and suggesting ways of practicing, but never doing the actual athletic work himself or herself. Gradually, by providing continued experiences matched to the novice learner’s emerging competencies, the expert-coach makes it possible for the novice or apprentice to appropriate (or "make his or her own") the skills or knowledge that originally resided only with the expert.

In both the psychological and social versions of constructivist learning, the novice is not really “taught” so much as just allowed to learn. The social version of constructivism, however, highlights the responsibility of the expert for making learning possible. He or she must not only have knowledge and skill, but also know how to arrange experiences that make it easy and safe for learners to gain knowledge and skill themselves. These requirements sound, of course, a lot like the requirements for classroom teaching. In addition to knowing what is to be learned, the expert (i.e. the teacher) also has to break the content into manageable parts, offer the parts in a sensible sequence, provide for suitable and successful practice, bring the parts back together again at the end, and somehow relate the entire experience to knowledge and skills already meaningful to the learner. But of course, no one said that teaching is easy!

Implications of Constructivism for Teaching


Fortunately there are strategies that teachers can use for giving students with this kind of help—in fact they are a major theme throughout this book and throughout most preservice teacher education programs. For now, let me just point briefly to two of them, saving complete discussion for later. One strategy that teachers often find helpful is to organize the content to be learned as systematically as possible, because doing this allows the teacher to select and devise learning activities that are more effective. One of the most widely used frameworks for organizing content, for example, is classification scheme proposed by the educator Benjamin Bloom, published with the somewhat imposing title of Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Handbook #1: Cognitive Domain (Bloom, et al., 1956; Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001)[12][13]. Bloom’s taxonomy, as it is usually called, describes six kinds of learning goals that teachers can in principle expect from students, ranging from simple recall of knowledge to complex evaluation of knowledge. (The levels are defined briefly in Table 3, with examples from “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”)

Bloom’s taxonomy makes useful distinctions among possible kinds of knowledge needed by students, and therefore potentially helps in selecting activities that truly target students’ “zones of proximal development” in the sense meant by Vygotsky. A student who knows few terms for the species studied in biology unit (a problem at Bloom’s knowledge and comprehension levels), for example, may initially need support at remembering and defining the terms before he or she can make useful comparisons among species (Bloom’s analysis level). Pinpointing the most appropriate learning activities to accomplish this objective remains the job of the teacher-expert (that’s you), but the learning itself has to be accomplished by the student. Put in more social constructivist terms, the teacher arranges a zone of proximal development that allows the student to compare species successfully, but the student still has to construct or appropriate the comparisons for him or herself.

A second strategy may be coupled with the first. As students gain experience as students, they become able to think about how they themselves learn best, and you (as the teacher) can encourage such self-reflection as one your goals for their learning. These changes allow you to transfer some of your responsibilities for arranging learning to the students themselves. For the biology student mentioned above, for example, you may be able not only to plan activities that support comparing species, but also to devise ways for the student to think about how he or she might learn the same information independently. The resulting self-assessment and self-direction of learning often goes by the name of metacognition—an ability to think about and regulate one’s own thinking (Israel, 2005)[14]. Metacognition can sometimes be difficult for students to achieve, but it is an important goal for social constructivist learning because it gradually frees learners from dependence on expert teachers to guide their learning. Reflective learners, you might say, become their own expert guides. Like with using Bloom’s taxonomy, though, promoting metacognition and self-directed learning is important enough that I will come back to it later in more detail (especially in Chapter 8: Instructional Strategies).

By assigning a more visible role to expert helpers—and by implication also to teachers—than does the psychological constructivism, social constructivism is seemingly more complete as a description of what teachers usually do in classrooms, and of what they usually hope students will experience there. As we will see in the next chapter, however, there are more uses to a theory than whether it describes the moment-to-moment interactions between teacher and students. As I explain there, some theories can be helpful for planning instruction rather than for doing it. It turns out that this is the case for psychological constructivism, which offers important ideas about the appropriate sequencing of learning and development. This fact makes the psychological constructivism valuable in its own way, even though it (and a few other learning theories as well) seem to “omit” mentioning teachers, parents, or experts in detail. So do not make up your mind about the relative merits of different learning theories yet!

Go Back to Introductory Section to Chapter 2...


  1. Fostnot, C. (Ed.). (2005). Constructivism: Theory, perspectives, and practice, 2nd edition. New York: Teachers College Press.
  2. Rockmore, T. (2005). On constructivist epistemology. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  3. Dewey, J. (1938/1998). How we think. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  4. Piaget, J. (2001). The psychology of intelligence. London, UK: routledge.
  5. Gruber, H. & Voneche, J. (Eds.) (1995). The essential Piaget. New York: Basic Books.
  6. Salkind, N. (2004). An introduction to theories of human development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  7. Bruner, J. (1960). The process of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  8. Bruner, J. (1966). Toward a theory of instructionl. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  9. Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  10. Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  11. Tharp, R. & Gallimore, R. (1991). Rousing minds to life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  12. Bloom, B., et al. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: Handbook #1: Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay.
  13. Anderson, L. & Krathwohl, D. (Eds.) (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing." New York: Longman.
  14. Israel, (2005). Metacognition in literacy learning. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.