Inquiry Learning

How Constructivism Makes for a Meaningful Learning Environment

Everyone's' individual experiences make their learning unique, a concept that's at the heart of constructive learning.

This is a guest post from Trishna Patnaik

Constructivism is something that all educators use to help their students learn well. It suggests the notion that people can actively "construct" their knowledge, and that learning gets determined by your own experiences. All learners use previous knowledge as a foundation and build on it with new things that they learned. So everyone's' individual experiences make their core learning unique to them.

Educators are able to use constructivist learning theory to help their students experience useful and meaningful learning. Let us look further into the constructivist learning theory and how it helps you as a teacher.

The Principles of Constructivism

There are many elements and principles of constructivism that shape the way the very theory works and applies to all the students. Let's begin with the idea that knowledge is always constructed. This is the basic principle, meaning that experience is built upon another knowledge.

It is the students, and not the teacher, who create the learning. It is the students who take tidbits of knowledge and experience and put them together in their unique way, building something completely different from what another student will make. The student's previous knowledge, beliefs, and insights are all essential foundations for their continued learning.

Learning is an active process involving sensory input to construct meaning. In other words, the learner needs to do something to learn; it is not a passive activity. 

This makes learning involve the construction of meaning and systems of meaning. For instance, if a student is learning the chronology of dates for a series of historical events, they are simultaneously learning the purpose of chronology. If a student is writing a history paper, they are also learning the principles of grammar and writing. Each thing we learn gives us a better and more thorough understanding of other concepts that directly relate to it.

Learning is an active process involving sensory input to construct meaning. In other words, the learner needs to do something to learn; it is not a passive activity. They must engage in the world, so they are actively involved in their learning and development. It doesn't work to sit and be told things and then say you have learned—at some point an action to reinforce that learning must take place, which could take the form of discussions, reading, self-assessment, or other activities that engage thought and stimulate perpetual learning.

Interestingly, learning is also a social activity that's directly associated with our connections to other people. Our teachers, family, peers, and acquaintances all impact our learning. Educators fundamentally understand that peer involvement and social interaction are crucial to learning in the modern age, and they make use of conversation, interaction, and group applications to help students retain their knowledge.

Learning is contextual, and knowledge is also very personal. Because constructivism is based on your own experiences and beliefs, knowledge does become a personal affair. Each person will have their prior knowledge and experiences to bring to the table. The ways people learn and benefit from education will all be very different.

Motivation is the key to learning. Students are entirely unable to learn if they are unmotivated. 

The best way to look at it is to understand that learning exists in the mind and also the heart. Hands-on experiences and physical actions are necessary for learning, but those elements are not enough. Engaging the mind is the key to successful understanding. Education does need to involve activities for the minds, not just our hands. Mental experiences are then needed for retaining knowledge.

Also, learning is more powerful when it has context and relevance for students, and especially if it can provoke passion and emotion within them. In other words, without interest and connection, there is no learning.

Motivation is the key to learning. Students are entirely unable to learn if they are unmotivated. Educators need to have ways to engage and motivate learners to activate their minds. Without motivation, it is difficult for learners to reach into their past experience and make vivid and plausible connections for new learning.

Types of constructivism

Cognitive

Cognitive constructivism focuses on the idea that learning should be related to the learner's stage of cognitive development. These methods, in turn, work to help students in learning new information by then connecting it to things they already know, enabling them to make all the modifications in their existing intelligence to accommodate the new information. Cognitive constructivism comes from the work of Jean Piaget and his research on cognitive development in children.

Social

Social constructivism focuses on the collaborative nature of learning. Knowledge develops from how people interact with each other, their total culture, and then society at large. Students rely on others to help create their building blocks and learning from others to help them construct their knowledge and reality. Social constructivism comes from Lev Vygotsky, and is connected to cognitive constructivism with the added elements of societal and peer influence.

Radical

Radical constructivism focuses on the idea that the learners and their knowledge tell us nothing real, but only help us function in our environment. The overall idea is that knowledge is invented, rather than discovered. The things we bring to the table make it impossible for us to have the truth, so we only have interpretations of knowledge. This theory was developed by Ernst von Glasersfeld in 1974.

Essential Components of Constructivist Teaching

There are several main components to include if you plan on adhering to constructivist principles in your classroom or when designing your lessons.

1. Elicit prior knowledge

New knowledge is created concerning the learner's pre-existing knowledge. Lessons, therefore, require eliciting relevant prior knowledge. Activities can include pre-tests, informal interviews and small group warm-up activities that require recall of prior knowledge.

2. Create cognitive dissonance

Go ahead and assign problems and activities that will challenge students. Knowledge is built as learners encounter difficulties and then revise existing schemas as they work through the challenging issue.

3. Apply knowledge with feedback

Encourage all students to evaluate new information and modify the existing knowledge. Activities should allow for students to compare pre-existing schema to the novel situation. Activities might include presentations, small group or class discussions, and quizzes.

4. Reflect on learning

Provide students with an unlimited opportunity to show you (and themselves) what they have learned. Activities might include presentations, reflexive papers or creating a step-by-step tutorial for another student.

Examples of constructivist classroom activities are:

  • Reciprocal teaching/learning: Allow pairs of students to teach each other.
  • Inquiry-based learning (IBL): Learners pose their own questions and seek answers via research and even direct observation. They present their supporting evidence to answer the questions. They chalk out connections between their pre-existing knowledge and the knowledge they have acquired through the activity. Finally, they draw in conclusions, highlight the remaining gaps in knowledge and develop plans for future investigations.
  • Problem-based learning (PBL): The main idea of PBL is similar to IBL in that learners do acquire knowledge by devising a solution to a problem. PBL differs from IBL in that PBL activities provide students with real-world problems that require them to work together to devise a solution. As the group works through together, learners acquire communication and collaboration skills in addition to knowledge.
  • Cooperative learning: Students work together in small groups to maximize their own and each other's learning. Cooperative learning differs from typical group work in that it requires interdependence among group members to solve a problem or even to complete an assignment.

Trishna Patnaik is a BSc (in life sciences) and MBA (in marketing) by qualification but an artist by choice. Previously a corporate professional, she realised that she wanted to do something more meaningful. She found her true calling in her passion, painting. Trishna is now a full-time professional painter based in Mumbai, as well as an art therapist and healer.