Another day, another learning theory! Today, we’ll be giving you a breakdown of constructivism and constructivist learning theory.
The theory focuses on the idea that humans ‘construct’ their own understanding of topics based on their previous experiences and knowledge.
Consequently, how well learners retain information depends on their own interpretation of it.
In this article, we’ll dive deeper into constructivist learning theory. We’ll take you through its history, how it works and how you can use it as part of an online learning approach. Let’s go!
What is Constructivist Learning Theory?
The roots of constructivist learning theory date back to Jean Piaget’s work in the 20th century. He suggested that through processes of assimilation, humans build their own knowledge.
In other words, new information is integrated with whatever knowledge they already hold. Our previous experiences, skills and knowledge act as the scaffolding from which we can expand our understanding.
For example, when children start school, they build from the knowledge they acquired from nursery, or kindergarten or informal real-world learning experiences. In this sense, constructivist learning theory has strong links to cognitive learning theory.
Knowledge can’t emerge from sensory experience alone. Piaget wanted to show that we create meaning based on our relation to the experience itself. We apply a structure to the sensory data that fuels our comprehension.
As a result of our previous experiences, we have a generalised way of responding to the world. What we call behaviour patterns, or reflexes, Piaget would call ‘schemes’.
These schemes are methods of organisation. We assimilate new information by applying it to existing schemes.
What About Now?
The question of how learning happens and knowledge forms remains. Multiple studies have taken place since Piaget’s heyday. For example, researchers conducted an experiment in 2004 on third-grade students.
Three learning approaches were used: a traditional approach, an instruction only approach, and an approach with constructivist motivation techniques like hands-on activities. This is called CORI (Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction).
CORI was shown to be the most effective and resulted in improved reading comprehension, cognitive strategies, and motivation!
It’s also really impacted computer science and programming. A few famous programming languages have been created by noted constructivists. People often use these languages for constructivist teaching.
Types of Constructivism
Constructivism has influenced a variety of theories in different disciplines, including psychology and education. This results in different versions of the theory, such as social constructivism and radical constructivism.
While Vygotsky held similar views to Piaget, he maintained that students built their own knowledge via conversation and interaction with others. The theory also posits that social interactions with those around us are vital for acquiring the meaning that we apply to new knowledge.
Radical constructivism, or cognitive constructivism, is defined by Ernst von Glasersfeld as ‘a theory of knowing that provides a pragmatic approach to questions about reality, truth, and human understanding.’
Radical constructivism has two basic principles. Firstly, people actively construct knowledge (not passively acquire). And secondly, cognition is the means by which we make sense of the world, not the way we construct our own reality.
Constructivist Learning Theory in Practice
How does constructivism impact your training programme? Let’s take a look!
According to constructivist learning theory, each learner constructs knowledge based on prior information and experiences. As such, you should take care to treat every learner as an individual.
They will naturally make their own deductions based on their background or culture.
This means learner-led experiences, personalisation and open access to training content are the order of the day. After all, the expectation for learners to take charge of their learning is greater.
However, as we’ve seen from social constructivist theory, this individualism should not prevent you from adopting a social learning strategy. Each individual learner can still construct their knowledge through interactions with others.
Despite the focus on the individual, instructors still play an important role! After all, to help encourage learners to construct their own interpretations, you’ll need to create a supportive learning environment.
The right instructor can help to make this happen.
With a social constructivist approach, instructors need to become adept at facilitating learning rather than delivering it. Instead of telling learners about concepts, ask them so they can draw their own conclusions.
Consequently, the learning process becomes much more active and learners are much more engaged. According to Gallup, engaged learners are 2.5 times more likely to report good test results!
Characteristics of Constructivism
Let’s take a look at some of the key characteristics of a constructivist learning / teaching approach:
- Learning is a never ending experience. Our understanding of the world is constantly expanding.
- In this sense, learning could be seen as a search for meaning.
- We should make sure that we understand concepts as a whole, rather than just in parts.
- Curricula should be customised for different students.
- Collaborative and conversational learning can be remarkably effective.
- And regular assessments and assignments are useful to check understanding.
Now let’s take a look at a few of the ways constructivist learning theory can help with your online learning initiatives!
Online Learning and Constructivist Learning Theory
As mentioned earlier, social constructivist theory frames learning in a more collaborative context. A lot of social constructivist models make it clear that collaboration between learners is essential.
Therefore, making use of collaborative tools on an online learning platform is really beneficial.
On Growth Engineering LMS, there are features that facilitate this. For example, learners are able to post to various Social Feeds on the platform. Social Feeds provide learners with a comprehensive view of discussions and enable them to join in on the action.
As a facilitator rather than teacher, you can ask a discussion question on a social feed and wait for learners to chime in. Learners can then collaborate and bounce ideas off of each other.
Social Feeds also help to provide a safe space where learners can reflect on their experiences and connect it with new knowledge.
This can help to drive real business impact. Did you know that collaborative tools are able to increase workplace productivity by 30%? That’s the power of social!
In addition, a Raconteur survey found that 56% of employees ranked a collaborative measure as the top reason for improved profitability.
With any training initiative, communication with your learners is vital. A survey of 400 companies found that those with poor communication reported an average loss of $62.4 million per year.
This is why social features on an LMS are great to use in conjunction with constructivist theory. Together they have the power to cause an incredible increase in knowledge retention and performance. Features include:
1. Expert Area: In this area, subject matter experts (SMEs) reside to answer any questions that your learners may have. What’s more, all questions and answers are made available for everyone to view! Therefore, saving people time asking the same questions over and over again.
2. Live Chat: This puts the power of instant messaging in the hands of learners. They can easily discuss topics with each other in a free-flowing environment.
3. Clubs: On Growth Engineering LMS, you have the ability to create Clubs. These Clubs can be based on any topic that you choose.
Learners are then able to join Clubs relating to a topic they want to learn about. As learners add their own contributions to the discussion, Clubs become a library of user-generated content.
Consequently, any future learner who wants to find out more about something can head there! In a world that’s increasingly shifting towards remote learning, this is a major benefit to take advantage of.
Lastly, there also needs to be increased communication between you and your learners.
With constructivist learning approaches, your role becomes more of a facilitator than instructor. Therefore, you should also make use of push notifications.
On Growth Engineering Learning App, you can send learners custom notifications. This way you’ll be able to direct them to new content, or exciting discussions taking place.
As a result, learners still remain in control of their learning, they just have a little more guidance and direction.
Constructivist learning theory is also great for boosting the motivation of your learners. As you’ve trusted them to be in charge of their own learning, they will feel more empowered.
This in turn increases employee engagement. In a recent study, empowered employees scored engagement levels in the 79th percentile. On the other hand, disempowered workers scored engagement levels in the 24th percentile.
You need to make your learners feel competent and intrinsically motivated. You can do this with Epic Meaning.
Epic Meaning is that sense of purpose that fuels a learner’s passion for progress. Gamification, the use of game mechanics in a non-gaming environment, is great for creating Epic Meaning.
On Growth Engineering LMS, as learners progress through their learning they ‘Level Up’. Additionally, you can give them rewards for completing modules or assessments. These include Experience Points, Badges and Achievements. These all help to build their confidence and sense of progression.
Criticisms of Constructivist Learning Theory
Like many alternative theories, constructivist learning theory is subject to its fair share of criticism.
Some critics say that it encourages an unguided learning style with a lack of structure. For some students, structure in their learning works better for them.
Other critics note that the theory focuses a lot on cognitive elements at the expense of considering technological/environmental factors.
Lastly, a common criticism argues that some students find it difficult to link new knowledge with their past experiences.
There’s one criticism in particular that you need to be quite mindful of. Keep reading!
Something to Be Mindful Of
One small note — you need to consider how you give your students free reign.
Letting students take control of their own learning can result in disorganisation. In a recent study, the results showed that it was important for students to set their own goals. As a result, they were able to tailor their learning to their own requirements.
However, many of the participants were worried that their goals wouldn’t meet external requirements or expectations. These concerns stemmed from not knowing what was needed for their roles and their lack of familiarity with the learning content.
Suggestions to counter this include clearly outlining the responsibilities associated with each role. This way learners know what content is relevant to them and can select that on their platform.
Additionally, encouraging collaboration and providing advice beforehand as well as feedback afterwards, is really helpful.
We’ve covered a lot. And we did it bit by bit, building on our knowledge as we went!
The key takeaway is that constructivist learning theory is all about allowing learners to construct their own knowledge. After all, we all process information in different ways, based on previous experiences. We’re all different people!
However, it’s still important that you set clear parameters, provide guidance where necessary and assess how your learners are getting on.
Growth Engineering have been experts in helping companies construct training programmes for over twenty years. Download our ‘Learning Theories’ white paper now to find out how to add structure, shape and form to your training initiative!