The Constructivist Theory – Yeah so, what’s that? The Theory Explained!

I’m often asked about the Constructivist Theory and to be honest, I’ve had to research this myself to really embed it into my practice. I’ve taken Kevin Blissett’s post about the Constructivist Theory from his blog, as I found his summary excellent. His last paragraph states his beliefs and I have to agree with him. Kevin Blissett writes a fantastic blog of which I am a regular reader. He is the principal of an international school in China.


A Critical Look at the Constuctivist Theory by Kevin Blissett 

The overwhelming trend in schools of education and “best practices” within many schools is founded in a philosophy known as constructivism. The simple version is this: constructivism maintains that we learn best when we a) construct our own meaning from our experiences and b) develop our own solutions to problems. Over the years, the philosophy has been put into practice under a variety of names such as discovery, experiential, problem-based, and inquiry-based learning. The philosophy is central to the approach espoused by the renowned and ubiquitous International Baccalaureate Organization.

Characteristics of the approach:

  • minimal teacher guidance
  • abundant classroom resources
  • minimal memorization and/or rote learning of rules, laws, fundamentals, etc.
  • a general emphasis slanted more towards skills than content
  • students “discover” solutions rather than being shown how to obtain solutions to problems

Most teachers–and many administrators–seem all too willing to accept this fundamental approach to teaching without questioning its underlying assumptions about the epistemology behind it and the mental processes that are employed as a result of it. I was always taught, as a philosophy major and elsewhere, not to drink the kool-aid before I find out what’s in it. Hence, I continue to maintain an open mind about the pros and cons of various instructional design paradigms as I explore the base philosophies underneath them.

This quest has been going on for some time and is back on my mental frontburners after reading a provocative paper by Paul A. Kirschner, John Sweller, and Richard E. Clark, which purports to demonstrate that minimal guidance as a pedagogy is not nearly as effective–at least for younger learners–as an approach which is much heavier on content and teacher guidance.

The centerpiece of their paper is the relationship between “working memory” and long-term memory. Long-term memory, they posit, is the focal point for human cognition.

Our understanding of the role of long-term memory in human cognition has altered dramatically over the last few decades. It is no longer seen as a passive repository of discrete, isolated fragments of information that permit us to repeat what we have learned. Nor is it seen only as a component of human cognitive architecture that has merely peripheral influence on complex cognitive processes such as thinking and problem solving. Rather, long-term memory is now viewed as the central, dominant structure of human cognition. Everything we see, hear, and think about is critically dependent on and influenced by our long-term memory.

Working memory, they explain, is the mechanism we use to actively process current information.The problem the writers identify is that our working memory is quite limited in the type and amount of information it can process at any given time.

Working memory has two well-known characteristics: When processing novel information, it is very limited in duration and in capacity.We have known at least since Peterson and Peterson (1959) that almost all information stored in working memory and not rehearsed is lost within 30 sec and have known at least since Miller (1956) that the capacity of working memory is limited to only a very small number of elements. That number is about seven according to Miller, but may be as low as four, plus or minus one (see, e.g., Cowan, 2001). Furthermore, when processing rather than merely storing information, it may be reasonable to conjecture that the number of items that can be processedmay only be two or three, depending on the nature of the processing required.

Their conclusion regarding the working memory:

Recommendations advocating minimal guidance during instruction proceed as though working memory does not exist or, if it does exist, that it has no relevant limitations when dealing with novel information, the very information of interest to constructivist teaching procedures. We know that problem solving, which is central to one instructional procedure advocating minimal guidance, called inquiry-based instruction, places a huge burden on working memory (Sweller, 1988). The onus should surely be on those who support inquiry-based instruction to explain how such a procedure circumvents the well-known limits of working memory when dealing with novel information.

So their conclusion is that minimally guided, inquiry-based learning places an undue burden of the ability of learners–particularly primary aged students–to process the information in their working memory. This task would be easier if students had more of a context stored in their long-term memories from which they could better make sense of the problem confronting them.

The authors then produce a number of studies indicating that learners who are extensively guided store more knowledge and skills in their long-term memories than those who receive minimal guidance. After discussion of the studies over several pages, they conclude:

After a half-century of advocacy associated with instruction using minimal guidance, it appears that there is no body of research supporting the technique. In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners. Even for students with considerable prior knowledge, strong guidance while learning is most often found to be equally effective as unguided approaches. Not only is unguided instruction normally less effective; there is also evidence that it may have negative results when students acquire misconceptions or incomplete or disorganized knowledge.

I strongly recommend that you read the whole paper as I’ve only scratched the surface.

So where does that leave us? For me, the paper supports some ideas which I’ve held onto for some time and muddles others. My danger radar sounds loud and clear whenever I confront a commercial, governmental, or philosophical monopoly and, under such conditions, I actively search out opposing points of view. My best guess, as usual, is that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. That is, I believe that novice learners need substantial guidance but also a decent dose of inquiry. As learners become more mature and establish a suitable context of knowledge and skills, inquiry can begin to take a  more central role in instruction until finally it takes the dominant role. Let me know your thoughts.

His last paragraph states his beliefs and I have to agree i.e ‘novice learners need substantial guidance but also a decent dose of inquiry.’ 

Cheers Nina 

Sometimes someone else just writes it better.


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3 responses to “The Constructivist Theory – Yeah so, what’s that? The Theory Explained!

  1. Helen

    Thanks for your reply Nina. I’ve just been looking at the personalised learning document that I found on your ning. (Thanks for the tip!) I am definitely all for this style of learning, but my worry is that people misunderstand the terms personalised and differentiation and think of them as synonymous with individualised learning. If we agree that learning is a social process then the only way to meet the individual learning needs of each child is to develop the group as a learning community where we can all learn from each other. I suppose this is how I interpret the zpd too – not as an individual zone of each child, but as creating a collective space where each participant learns from and contributes to the development of each other. This does not mean that everyone will necessarily be learning the same thing though, and this is where the personalised bit comes in – even a group task can still cater for the personalised needs and interests of each individual (either because they share similar interests and needs or because the task is open ended enough to allow everyone to work on their own interests and needs with the help of others as they contribute to the group task). Even the teacher working with a group on a maths task may not be learning the actual maths content but they are still learning about how best to teach the content for these particular students and learning more about each child’s level of understanding. In the zpd everyone is both a learner and a teacher and the whole is more than the sum of its parts!
    I really hope schools take up the challenge of personalised learning, but I also really hope they take it up with an understanding of the importance of social collaboration and interaction in learning. I see these as complementary, not contradictory, and I’m sure you do too. My fear is that others don’t get this and we will see teachers being told to create individual tasks for every child. This of course would be impossible and therefore nothing will change at all! And that is an even more frightening prospect (especially for my children, who are incessantly complaining about how BORING school is)!!!!!
    PS: I haven’t been teaching since I had my kids (12 & 8) but have written a few teacher resources, completed my M Ed, and am now half way through my PhD and teaching a few undergrad units at uni. Reading your blog makes me get a bit itchy to get back in the classroom though and try out some of the wonderful ideas and attempt to put some of the theory I’ve been accumulating into practice!

  2. nina davis

    Hi Helen,
    I eventually went back and taught seniors for a number of years. I’m very familliar with the ‘zone of proximal development’ and actually use the word ‘zone’ with my students. And I ‘believe we CO-construct knowledge through our interactions with other people (adults or peers) or other cultural mediators (books, TV, internet etc)’ to borrow your words.
    I guess we toss the word differentiation around, but I see that as having students work in their ‘zone’. I can see a post in this. You may be interested in joining the ning I host – The ‘problem of practice’ in many cases relates to differentiation and the ‘zone of proximal development’. You might fine some of the articles interesting, and congratulations – a PhD -phew!
    Are you still teaching?
    Cheers Nina

  3. Helen

    Hi Nina,
    Congratulations on such a fantastic blog! I’m wondering by your comment at the end of this post, and judging by what I’ve read in many of the other posts, whether you would actually feel a closer alignment with social constructivists?
    How familiar are you with Vygotsky and the zone of proximal development (zpd)? The terms don’t show up in a search of your blog and yet your teaching practice is a great example of Vygotskian cultural-historical theory in practice. The main difference is that constructivists seem to think we learn by constructing our own knowledge from our own individual experience, whereas Vygotskians believe we CO-construct knowledge through our interactions with other people (adults or peers) or other cultural mediators (books, TV, internet etc) . Your interactive strategies are perfect examples of this!
    I’m actually doing my PhD at the moment on teachers’ professional learning about cultural-historical theory, as I think it is a theory that many good teachers use unconsciously or instinctively without even knowing that there is a whole recognised research and theoretical base for what they are doing. Becoming consciously aware of the theory though provides a language to be able to discuss it and plan for it with other educators. Would love to hear your thoughts!
    PS: I think I may have taught with you nearly 20 years ago in 1993 (I inherited your grade 3 classroom when you changed to I think Grade 1 and you went on maternity leave part way through the year?) Obviously we were both VERY young and must have been child graduates! Seems like a lifetime ago…

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