Education Theory/Constructivism and Social Constructivism

Education Theory

Constructivism and Social Constructivism

"Constructivism is the philosophical and scientific position that knowledge arises through a process of active construction."
(Mascolol & Fischer, 2005)

"As long as there were people asking each other questions, we have had constructivist classrooms. Constructivism, the study of learning, is about how we all make sense of our world, and that really hasn’t changed."
(Brooks, 1999)


Constructivism and Social Constructivism are two similar learning theories which share a large number of underlying assumptions, and an interpretive epistemological position.

Both approaches Social constructivism
  • Deep roots classical antiquity. Socrates, in dialogue with his followers, asked directed questions that led his students to realize for themselves the weaknesses in their thinking.
  • Learning is perceived as an active, not a passive, process, where knowledge is constructed, not acquired
  • Knowledge construction is based on personal experiences and the continual testing of hypotheses
  • Each person has a different interpretation and construction of knowledge process, based on past experiences and cultural factors.
  • Emphasis is on the collaborative nature of learning and the importance of cultural and social context.
  • All cognitive functions are believed to originate in, and are explained as products of social interactions
  • Learning is more than the assimilation of new knowledge by learners; it was the process by which learners were integrated into a knowledge community.
  • Believed that constructivists such as Piaget had overlooked the essentially social nature of language and consequently failed to understand that learning is a collaborative process.

Underlying Assumptions

Jonassen (1994) proposed that there are eight characteristics that underline the constructivist learning environments and are applicable to both perspectives:

  1. Constructivist learning environments provide multiple representations of reality.
  2. Multiple representations avoid oversimplification and represent the complexity of the real world.
  3. Constructivist learning environments emphasize knowledge construction inserted of knowledge reproduction.
  4. Constructivist learning environments emphasize authentic tasks in a meaningful context rather than abstract instruction out of context.
  5. Constructivist learning environments provide learning environments such as real-world settings or case-based learning instead of predetermined sequences of instruction.
  6. Constructivist learning environments encourage thoughtful reflection on experience.
  7. Constructivist learning environments "enable context- and content- dependent knowledge construction."
  8. Constructivist learning environments support "collaborative construction of knowledge through social negotiation, not competition among learners for recognition."


The default epistemology in education is an empirical/reductionist approach to teaching and learning. The shared epistemological basis for these two perspectives, on the other hand, is interpretativism, where knowledge is believed to be acquired through involvement with content instead of imitation or repetition (Kroll & LaBoskey, 1996).

There is no absolute knowledge, just our interpretation of it. The acquisition of knowledge therefore requires the individual to consider the information and - based on their past experiences, personal views, and cultural background - construct an interpretation of the information that is being presented to them.

Students ‘construct’ their own meaning by building on their previous knowledge and experience. New ideas and experiences are matched against existing knowledge, and the learner constructs new or adapted rules to make sense of the world. In such an environment the teacher cannot be in charge of the students’ learning, since everyone’s view of reality will be so different and students will come to learning already possessing their own constructs of the world.

Teaching styles based on this approach therefore mark a conscious effort to move from these ‘traditional, objectivist models didactic, memory-oriented transmission models’ (Cannella & Reiff, 1994) to a more student-centred approach.

Main Theorists

John Dewey (1933/1998) is often cited as the philosophical founder of this approach. Bruner (1990) and Piaget (1972) are considered the chief theorists among the cognitive constructivists, while Vygotsky (1978) is the major theorist among the social constructivists.


John Dewey rejected the notion that schools should focus on repetitive, rote memorization & proposed a method of "directed living" – students would engage in real-world, practical workshops in which they would demonstrate their knowledge through creativity and collaboration. Students should be provided with opportunities to think from themselves and articulate their thoughts.

Dewey called for education to be grounded in real experience. He wrote, "If you have doubts about how learning happens, engage in sustained inquiry: study, ponder, consider alternative possibilities and arrive at your belief grounded in evidence."


Piaget rejected the idea that learning was the passive assimilation of given knowledge. Instead, he proposed that learning is a dynamic process comprising successive stages of adaption to reality during which learners actively construct knowledge by creating and testing their own theories of the world.

Although less contemporary & influential, it has inspired several important educational principles such as:

  • Discovery learning
  • Sensitivity to children’s’ readiness
  • Acceptance of individual differences
  • Learners don’t have knowledge forced on them – they create it for themselves

A common misunderstanding regarding constructivism is that instructors should never tell students anything directly but, instead, should always allow them to construct knowledge for themselves. This is actually confusing a theory of pedagogy (teaching) with a theory of knowing. Constructivism assumes that all knowledge is constructed from the learner’s previous knowledge, regardless of how one is taught. Thus, even listening to a lecture involves active attempts to construct new knowledge.


Influenced by Vygotsky, Bruner emphasises the role of the teacher, language and instruction. He thought that different processes were used by learners in problem solving, that these vary from person to person and that social interaction lay at the root of good learning.

Bruner builds on the Socratic tradition of learning through dialogue, encouraging the learner to come to enlighten themselves through reflection. Careful curriculum design is essential so that one area builds upon the other. Learning must therefore be a process of discovery where learners build their own knowledge, with the active dialogue of teachers, building on their existing knowledge.

Bruner initiated curriculum change based on the notion that learning is an active, social process in which students construct new ideas or concepts based on their current knowledge. He provides the following principles of constructivistic learning:

  • Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that make the student willing and able to learn (readiness).
  • Instruction must be structured so that it can be easily grasped by the student (spiral organization).
  • Instruction should be designed to facilitate extrapolation and or fill in the gaps (going beyond the information given).


Social constructivism was developed by Vygotsky. He rejected the assumption made by Piaget that it was possible to separate learning from its social context.

According to Vygotsky:

Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level and, later on, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals. (p. 57)

Although Vygotsky died at the age of 38 in 1934, most of his publications did not appear in English until after 1960. There are, however, a growing number of applications of social constructivism in the area of educational technology.

By the 1980s the research of Dewey and Vygotsky had blended with Piaget's work in developmental psychology into the broad approach of constructivism. The basic tenet of constructivism is that students learn by doing rather than observing. Students bring prior knowledge into a learning situation in which they must critique and re-evaluate their understanding of it.

This process of interpretation, articulation, and re-evaluation is repeated until they can demonstrate their comprehension of the subject.

Models of Learning

1. Discovery Learning (Bruner)

In discovery learning, the student is placed in problem solving situations where they are required to draw on past experiences and existing knowledge to discover facts, relationships, and new information.

Students are more likely to retain knowledge attained by engaging real-world and contextualised problem-solving than by traditional transmission methods.

Models that are based upon discovery learning model include: guided discovery, problem-based learning, simulation-based learning, case-based learning, and incidental learning.

1. Piaget's Cognitive Development theory (1970)/ Conception of equilibration (1985)

Piaget (1970) proposed that children progress through a sequence of four stages, assumed to reflect qualitative differences in children's cognitive abilities. Limited by the logical structures in the different developmental stages, learners cannot be taught key cognitive tasks if they have not reached a particular stage of development.

He later (1985) expanded this theory to explain how new information is shaped to fit with the learner's existing knowledge, and existing knowledge is itself modified to accommodate the new information. The major concepts in this cognitive process include:

  • Assimilation: it occurs when a learner perceives new objects or events in terms of existing schemes or operations. This information is compared with existing cognitive structures
  • Accommodation: it has occurred when existing schemes or operations must be modified to account for a new experience.
  • Equilibration: it is the master developmental process, encompassing both assimilation and accommodation. Anomalies of experience create a state of disequilibrium which can be only resolved when a more adaptive, more sophisticated mode of thought is adopted.
Social Constructivist
1. Language, Culture, & Knowledge

Vygotsky (1934) emphasized the role of language and culture in cognitive development and in how we perceive the world, and claimed that they provide frameworks through which we experience, communicate, and understand reality.

He demonstrated the importance of language in learning by demonstrating that in infants, communication is a pre-requisite to the child’s acquisition of concepts and language. But, he suggests that people learn with meaning and personal significance in mind, not just through attention to the facts:

I do not see the world simply in colour and shape but also as a world with sense and meaning. I do not merely see something round and black with two hands; I see a clock…. (p. 39)

Language and the conceptual schemes that are transmitted by means of language are essentially social phenomena. Knowledge is not simply constructed, it is co-constructed.

2. The Zone of Proximal Development

Vygotsky believed that learning takes place within the Zone of Proximal Development. In this, students can, with help from adults or children who are more advanced, master concepts and ideas that they cannot understand on their own. This model has two developmental levels:

  1. The level of actual development – point the learner has already reached & can problem-solve independently.
  2. The level of potential development (ZDP) – point the learner is capable of reaching under the guidance of teachers or in collaboration with peers.

The ZDP is the level at which learning takes place. It comprises cognitive structures that are still in the process of maturing, but which can only mature under the guidance of or in collaboration with others.

The Zone of Proximal Development

The Zone of Proximal Development

White circle: what the student can learn unaided
Blue circle: what student can learn with help
ZDP: area of ‘potential’ where learning takes place

To ensure development in the ZDP, the assistance/guidance received must have certain features:

  1. Intersubjectivity – the process whereby two participants who begin a task with different understandings arrive at a shared understanding (Newson & Newson, 1975). This creates a common ground for communication as each partner adjusts to the perspective of the other.
  2. Scaffolding – adjusting the support offered during a teaching session to fit the child’s current level of performance. This captures the form of teaching interaction that occurs as individuals work on tasks such as puzzles and academic assignments.
  3. Guided participation – a broader concept than scaffolding that refers to shared endeavours between expert and less expert participants

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