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Constructivism - a learning process

Quite simply, constructivism is the process of the student learning new material, using previous knowledge as a foundation for new concepts. Followers of this idea believe that learning is affected by a number of factors including context, beliefs and attitudes - see diagram below.

Key Concepts

  • Learning is an 'active' process which allows students to construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current and past knowledge.
  • Students develop a cognitive structure, making meaning out of experience. This means the student can develop ideas beyond what he or she has been given.
  • Bruner (1990) has expanded his theoretical framework to encompass the social and cultural aspects of learning. Constructivism is made up of two main schools of thought: cognitive constructivists and sociocultural constructivists.
  • Much of the theory is linked to child development research.


Constructivist teaching is based on recent research about the human brain and what is known about how learning occurs.

Constructivist learning

There is now a large consensus amongst expert researchers on learning and on the brain, that we do not learn by passively receiving, and then remembering what we are taught.

Instead, learning involves actively constructing our own meanings. This literally involves the construction of connections between neurones. We invent our own concepts and ideas, linked to what we already know. This “meaning-making” theory of learning is called ‘ constructivism' .

When you have learned something you have changed your brain physically. We notice this creative meaning-making process most, when it goes wrong.

Examples of when it goes wrong

Diarrhoea is ear ache ‘dire ear'

Name a food suitable for pickling: ‘a branston'

‘Beethoven expired in 1827, and later died for this.'

Teacher: ‘Is 7 a prime number?'

Student: ‘Yes'

Teacher: ‘Why?

Student: ‘Because it's odd.'

‘Chaucer wrote many poems and plays, and also wrote literature'

These genuine mistakes show ‘meaning-making' in practice. If students just remembered what they were told, they would not make such mistakes; they would either remember or not. Conceptual errors show that we make our own mental constructs, we don't just remember other peoples.'

So it is important to use teaching methods that:

  1. require students to form constructs; that is require them to form their own meaning or interpretation of the material being studied
  2. allow the learner and the teacher to detect misconceptions, errors and omissions in learning and correct them

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