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Background Knowledge

Constructivism in education is a cognitive perspective of learning with profound implications for teaching and research methodology.

All cognitive perspectives focus on mental behaviors. In cognitive views of learning, the " work of mental behavior turns information into useful knowledge Grabe/Grabe, 1998)." Constructivism, as part of a cognitive family tree, branches out in many directions with a rich history in philosophy, psychology, and education (Mahoney, 1991). Today's constructivist-oriented research, classroom pedagogy, and spirit builds on such key contributors to education as Jean Piaget, John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, and Davio Ausubel. (See resources in this Concept Cart). While there are multiple positions amongst constructivists, all constructivist positions share some common beliefs about ways of knowing:

  • "....constructivist knowing assumes the active and proactive nature of all perception, learning, and knowledge...." (Mahoney, 1991)

  • .... prior knowledge and experience is the springboard for useful, personal knowledge construction....

  • ".... constructivist learning experiences and appropriate classroom practices include reflective thinking and productivity; authentic activities, including student collaboration and consideration of multiple perspectives, and student access to content area experts who can model domain-specific skills...." (Grabe/Grabe, 1998)

  • ....constructivist-oriented teachers mediate between student prior, knowledge and their lived worlds, creating learning environments that will help them develop increasingly complex understandings and skills.

Constructivist concepts compared to behaviorist concepts reveals significant differences in basic assumptions about knowledge, knowers, and learning:

Cognitive/Constructivist Perspective

Behavioral Perspective

Knowledge is active, situated in lived worlds

Knowledge is inert

Individuals construct knowledge

Individuals are passive receipients of knowledge

Meaningful learning is useful and retained, building on what the learner already knows

Learning occurs with programmatic, repeated activities

Teacher's role is coach, mediator, strategic

Teacher's role is authoritative, directive

Today's cognitive revolution has replaced behaviorism as the prevailing paradigm. Behaviorism is a simple, elegant scientific theory that has both methodological and intuitive appeal. But humans are more complicated than behaviorism allows...(Bruer, 1993). Although most teachers use varied strategies, their basic assmptions make an enormous difference in life is like in classrooms. Classroom environment, expectations, selection and creation of pedagogy, and assessment are guided by tacit or known teacher assumptions. If you have doubt about how learning happens, engage in sustained inquiry: study, ponder, consider alternative possibilities and arrive at your belief grounded in evidence. (Dewey, 1933).

Here is a summary of constructivist principles. See the section in this web site on what constructivist strategies look like "in practice."

Constructivist Principles

What a person knows is actively constructed.

Learning serves an adaptive function; its role is to help the individual operate within his or her personal world; thus learning is not the storage of "truths," but of useful personal knowledge.


Bruer, J.T. 1993. Schools for Thought: A Science of Learning in the Classroom. The MIT Press.

Dewey, J. 1993/1998. How We Think: Revised and Expanded Edition with Foreword by Maxine Greene. Houghton Mifflin.

Gage, N.L, and Berliner. D.C. 1998. Educational Psychology, 6e. Houghton Mifflin.

Grabe, M. and Grabe C. 1998. Integrating Technology for Meaningful Learning 2e. Houghton Mifflin.

Mahoney, M.J. 1994. Human Change Processes. Basic Books.

Noddings, N. Constructivism in Mathematics Education. 1990. In Davis, R.B., Maher, C.A., Noddings, N. Constructivist Views on the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics. NCTM Publications.

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