Constructivist Teaching

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Constructivist Teaching

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. For example in slips made by children, or exam howlers:
Diarrhoea is ear ache ‘dire ear’

Name a food suitable for pickling: ‘a branston’

‘History calls them Romans because they never stayed in one place for very long ‘

‘Large animals are found in the sea because there is no-where else to put them’

‘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’

‘Worms hold themselves together by the suction power of their little legs.’
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 people’s.
It is not just children and students who learn in this constructivist way. If well educated adults experience the same film or novel and are then asked to describe it, they come up with very different conceptions. They interpret the motivations of characters and the meanings of the story in very different ways. Ask adults about the meanings of terms such as ‘democracy’ or the use of the apostrophe, and again very different constructs will be evident. If adults experience the same lesson, again they come away having made very different constructs. 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 these.

Folk Psychology

Unfortunately most students, and many teachers, have a ”folk psychology” view of learning rather than a constructivist view, and this is very hard to budge. Folk theory is considered a real obstacle to effective teaching and learning by renouned theorists such as J. Bruner and Charles Desforges: Folk psychology assumes:

  • Knowledge is stuff

  • The mind is a vessel

  • Learning is storing stuff

  • Acquisition only requires listening reasonably attentively, or even just being there.

  • Assessment is stock taking

  • Analogies for learning involve transfer rather than constructivism:

The mug is filled by the jug

Teacher as petrol pump attendant filling student’s empty tanks.

Constructivist Teaching – Brain friendly teaching

  • Learning requires a stage where students are required to process the information given them. They need activities which require them to make personal sense of the material and so construct their own meanings.

  • Research shows that learning activities that require active student processing improve recall by as much as a factor of ten, are more enjoyed, and create deeper learning.

  • Meaning is personal and unique, and is built upon personal prior learning and experience, which differs from student to student. There is no one way to learn something and a variety of tasks and experiences are required to meet individual need.

  • A useful analogy for effective teaching is sports coaching. The student is an athlete, and the teacher their coach. The teacher (coach) may explain, but this is not enough. The student (athlete) must train to practice and develop their skills, and the teacher (coach) provides suitable activities for this, and then provides feedback on the student’s performance during the practice and suggests remedial work where this is necessary. The athlete can only improve performance by training, the student can only improve performance by learning activities.

  • The brain is a parallel processor not a sequential processor. So learners need to think about parts and wholes at the same time, and to integrate topics.

  • Skills such as high order reasoning need to be taught along with content, not separately

  • Learning is enhanced by a challenge, but weakened by a threat. Threats release cortisol into our body causing high order thinking skills to take a back seat.

Constructivist Teaching Strategies.

Learning should involve activities to process the new material, linking it to what the student already knows. Tasks should be authentic, set in a meaningful context, and related to the real world. They should not just involve repeating back facts as this causes ‘surface’ learning.

As student’s learning will involve errors, tasks should offer opportunities for self-assessment, correction, peer discussion, teacher feedback and other ‘reality checks’.
Brain friendly strategies involve plenty of water, oxygen, protein, good diet, rest, and physical exercise as well as brain exercise. Learning drops by 20% if you eat excessive carbohydrates as this causes the release of serotonin into our blood which relaxes us.
Full focus can only be attained for the same number of minutes as your age, up to about 20 or 25 minutes maximum. Short breaks and changes of focus help.

  • ‘Teaching by Asking’ or guided discovery

  • Explaining tasks that require students to express their understanding to each other, and to develop this understanding before expressing it (e.g. peer explanation, and Jigsaw)

  • Ask ‘diagnostic’ question and answer, and use wrong answers to explore and correct misunderstandings. ‘Socratic Questioning’.

  • Use thought provoking tasks and questions that are high on Bloom’s Taxonomy, rather than simple recall as these require more thought and processing.

Analysis: ‘why’ questions,

Synthesis: ‘how’ could you.. questions

Evaluation: judgement questions.

These high order questions require student to construct their own conceptions of the new material. You can’t reason with material until you have conceptualised it, so questions that require reasoning force conceptualisation.

  • Use Case studies that relate the topic to real life or former experience and so former learning

  • Use Group work requiring students to discuss the material, so that peer checking and teaching takes place

  • Learning involves ‘pattern making’, so use mind maps and summaries that point out the relation of the parts of a topic to the whole. Also point out the relation of today’s topic to other topics

  • Teach skills in the context of the topic of your subject. Think of yourself as a skills teacher who uses content to teach the skills.

  • Stimulation increases the learning rate. So Use rich multi-sensory resources, lively activities and generate a sense of fun where you can.

For more constructivist teaching strategies see the following handouts:

23 ways of teaching without talking

Formative Teaching Methods

See also the chapter in Teaching Today called ‘Teaching is a two way process’. This includes a game which is an excellent experiential way of putting constructivism over.
Also see my handout on Carole Dweck’s theory of motivation which shows that students do not hold a constructivist view, but believe that learning depends on talent. This can be downloaded from
Constructivist Teaching Strategies

  1. Use teaching strategies that require students to make a construct. (Presenting information is not enough.) Students must apply, use, or process the information.

  1. Ensure that all students are participating in making constructs. Holding them accountable for their learning.

  1. Ensure the tasks require students to process the information at a high level on Bloom’s taxonomy: Evaluation, synthesis, analysis etc

  1. Require the students to make a product that is used to diagnose learning errors and omissions. E.g. speaking to a partner, matching cards, written work etc

  1. Require students to check for their own, and each other’s learning errors and omissions

  1. Require students to correct these learning errors and omissions

  1. Make the above fun!

For example:

  • Decisions-decisions

  • Evaluation matrix

  • Peer explaining, jigsaw

  • Problem solving tasks with self assessment and peer assessment

What is Learning? The PAR Model and Constructivism Geoff Petty

Learning and Teaching involve three phases:

Present Apply and Review.


The student is presented with the new knowledge, concepts, skills, theories, explanations etc.

Explanations are given, (or better, constructed by the student) to persuasively link the material to prior learning and experience. Likely methods:

  • Teacher talk and Q&A to check

  • Video, ILT/ICT, other visual aids

  • R
    The student forms the concepts weakly. Most will be forgotten in two days (unless constructivist methods are used)
    eading written material

  • Peer explaining

Constructivist methods of presenting are rare

and include:

  • Students discovering for themselves

  • Socratic questioning

  • Jigsaw etc


The student carries out an activity that requires them to apply the material presented. (Learning by doing.)

  • Question and answer

  • Exercises and examples

  • Worksheets

  • Past paper questions

  • P
    The student forms the concepts more strongly, linking it with prior learning. Knowledge and skills are organised into a logical structure which facilitates memory.
    As errors and omissions come to light,

    constructs are corrected and expanded

    roblems to solve

  • Evaluation of a case study etc.

As errors and omissions in their conceptions are discovered the student corrects and adds to their learning. This is facilitated by:

  • Self assessment, self checking etc

  • Peer checking and peer explaining

  • Acting on feedback from the teacher

  • Comparing own work with other answers or model answers

  • Doing corrections or completions to improve work.

The apply phases makes the learning visible to the student and the teacher so enabling correction and improvement. In the best teaching the ‘present’ and ‘apply’ phases often become one, see jigsaw for example.



Key points are strengthened by emphasis and repitition. This facilitates recall.]

The student confirms that their conceptions are correct and linked with prior learning and corrects errors and deficiencies in their learning.

he key points are confirmed and emphasised with explanations that link the new learning with former learning. This strengthens the links that will be used during subsequent recall.


New learning

Existing Learning

New learning is corrected, and

becomes richer and more connected with prior learning

New learning

Existing Learning

Existing Learning


is learning? The PAR Model and Constructivism Geoff Petty

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