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Constructivist Learning Theory: Building Knowledge with Deeper Learning

As an educator, you know better than anyone that learning is a complex process. You can’t simply upload information into a student’s brain and expect them to immediately understand it and remember it forever. And while hammering ideas through repetition might help them recall concepts long enough to regurgitate them for a quiz, it’s unlikely the information will transfer to their long-term memories. Deep learning requires a more strategic approach. 

Over the past several decades, cognitive psychology researchers and educational leaders have advocated for adopting the constructivist learning theory, which promotes a greater focus on active learning and boosting student engagement rather than traditional passive learning models.

Of course, while a constructivist model offers plenty of advantages, it also presents a few challenges. And as many teachers and administrators can vouch, you can’t simply flip a switch and expect change to drive positive results. So, what should you do?

To help answer this question, we’re sharing a refresher on the tenets of the constructivist theory, its pros and cons, and insight into how you can build student knowledge in meaningful ways.

What is the constructivist learning theory?

The constructivist learning theory, or constructivism, explains that humans learn best when we construct knowledge (like a builder might erect a skyscraper) and that learning is a complex cognitive process. As an approach, constructivism is student-centered and rooted in interactive dialogue, rather than traditional teacher-centered classrooms where teachers disseminate information based on a fixed curriculum.

The constructivist theory developed based on a few fundamental tenets:

  • Students learn through experiences
    According to constructivist pioneer and famed child development psychologist Jean Piaget, children learn through their experiences. Each time a learner encounters a new experience, they use it to better understand our world — and often compare it to experiences they’ve had before.

    Piaget maintained that students have a cognitive schema in their minds, and they add to this knowledge bank with each new experience. Some experiences may contradict previous learnings and require students to “fix” their “broken knowledge.” For example, a child may believe that everyone speaks English because it’s the only language they’ve ever heard. The first time they encounter someone speaking a different language, they will update their knowledge bank with the information that people speak different languages.
  • Students learn through social interactions
    Another constructivist, psychologist Lev Vygotsky believed that social interaction plays a vital role in constructing new ideas and that learners are social beings. In other words, we form strong logical conclusions by hearing new perspectives and discussing ideas with other people. According to social constructivism, effective learning requires collaboration, negotiation, and reflection.

  • Students leverage prior knowledge to understand new information
    Every learner has a unique point of view based on factors like the environment in which they live and their existing knowledge and values. So while every student in a classroom may experience the same lesson, their interpretations may differ. In this way, learning is contextual — we don’t learn in a vacuum, and students shape their ideas based on other things happening around them.

Why do schools choose to implement this theory? 

Over the past few decades, the constructivist theory of learning has become much more popular — and for a good reason. Research shared in the International Journal of Education shows that students in constructivist classroom environments demonstrated more “enthusiasm and interest in the subject matter” than those in classrooms with traditional instructional approaches — likely because students take a more active role in their education.

When leveraging the constructivist theory of education, teachers act as facilitators of learning rather than unquestioned authorities. Lessons are more interactive, and students are encouraged to ask questions and share their perspectives. They often work together to conduct experiments or discuss concepts, with teachers there to guide dialogue and support students in constructing ideas.

In short, many schools continue to adopt this hands-on, learner-centered approach because it helps foster authentic learning experiences, keeps students engaged, and supports critical thinking development.

What are the drawbacks of the constructivist theory?

Applying a constructivist model within the classroom can make learning more fun and make teaching a more positive experience. That said, compared with traditional approaches, it’s also a lot more work, and the lack of structure can be a slippery slope to losing control of a class.

Here are a few commonly cited drawbacks:

  • It’s time-consuming
    Planning problem-based lessons and leveraging trial-and-error learning often requires more time than teachers have available.

  • It’s not geared toward standardized testing
    Critics often argue that a constructivist approach fails to adequately prepare students for standardized tests, and that its unstructured style makes grading more challenging.

  • It requires teachers to differentiate lessons for each learner
    Because each student learns differently, teachers are expected to customize lessons to different types of learners and build personalized scaffolding for students who need additional support.

There’s no denying that student-centered learning is essential to building knowledge and helping students succeed long-term. But effectively applying the constructivist approach demands a lot from teachers at a time when most educators are already spread thin. 

How Propello can help

As with most teaching strategies and pedagogical philosophies, constructivism is not an all-or-nothing concept. We believe educators should have the power to customize and tailor techniques in whatever ways work best for them and their students. That’s why we approach constructivist teaching as a dial, not a switch.

The Propello platform helps teachers overcome the challenges of constructivist learning theory in a few key ways:

  • With click-and-go standards-aligned content, teachers can save time. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have control — you can also tailor lessons and rearrange elements to build lessons your way.
  • Our curriculum is standards-aligned, and we include assessments and tools to help you bring theory into practice. This way, you don’t have to choose between helping students construct knowledge through deep learning or preparing them for standardized tests. You can give them the best of both worlds.
  • Finally, with embedded supports and scaffolding for instructors and learners, and accelerated options for gifted and talented students, you can create differentiated learning paths to meet every student’s needs without adding more work to your plate.

Propello offers an approachable take on constructivist learning so you can help students build knowledge through experience and lay the foundation for life-long learning. 

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