Constructivist learning theories

Constructivism is a belief that as learners we construct knowledge for ourselves. That is, we make sense of new information based on previous experiences. The impact of this approach for those supporting learning is that learning is an individual and social activity and each learner in a group of learners will be making meaning from a learning experience in slightly or significantly different ways. Learning must therefore focus on the learner and take into account her experiences, expectations, beliefs, personal learning style etc.

The construction of meaning is iterative and learners may frequently misunderstand or get things wrong as they learn. Getting it wrong, enables learners to challenge existing views and beliefs and develop new ways of interpreting information. This process is very well described in Kolb’s learning cycle.

Constructivist learning theory challenges many traditional ideas about the learning process. If we accept it, it means that knowledge does not exist as a universal truth, rather as a construct that each individual learner builds.

Considerations that support learning

Historically, information was categorised into subjects and disciplines, each with its own vocabulary and discourse. The subject was taught to groups, with little or no accommodation being made for individual learners. Understanding was seen as the learner's problem. The constructivist theory suggests that;

  1. Learning is an active not passive process for the learner – the active learner must do something and engage with the learning. You cannot do learning to people. Even reciting times tables, the most obvious rote learning example, involves the learner doing something, often with others.
  2. Learning is not just about constructing meaning but about constructing methods and systems for making meaning. For example, developments in women’s rights in the 70’s and 80’s required individuals to develop concepts around equality that were not about measuring like for like.
  3. Learning requires reflection on experiences, the assimilation of new information and building new models of understanding. It isn’t instant, so learning takes time.
  4. Learning requires language. People often talk to themselves as they learn. This flags up another important point, that the words themselves carry values and connotations that are culturally based. Learning and culture are inextricably mixed. The struggle to keep the Welsh language alive is not just about remembering words of the language but the values and beliefs they convey and are carriers of culture.
  5. Learning is a social activity and associated with family, friends, peers and colleagues. We naturally learn from each other. Learning is part of our lives and not a separate activity. We build knowledge, the more we know the more we can learn.
  6. We must be motivated to learn, that is, there must be a point to the learning. This may be a personal quest based on interest or the need to be held in esteem. If we can’t see the point of learning, we won’t do it.

To read a short summary of some of the theorists that have contributed to constructivist ideas read Building an Understanding of Constructivism.

For a fun way to understand ideas around Active Learning, go to Geoff Petty’s web site and download an Introduction to Constructivism. 

Or watch his video.

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