The Teachers Toolbox – Resources

Constructivism – a learning process

Quite simply, constructivism is the process of the student learning new material, using previous knowledge as a foundation for new concepts. Followers of this idea believe that learning is affected by a number of factors including context, beliefs and attitudes – see diagram below.

Key Concepts

  • Learning is an ‘active’ process which allows students to construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current and past knowledge.
  • Students develop a cognitive structure, making meaning out of experience. This means the student can develop ideas beyond what he or she has been given.
  • Bruner* (1990) has expanded his theoretical framework to encompass the social and cultural aspects of learning. Constructivism is made up of two main schools of thought: cognitive constructivists and sociocultural constructivists.
  • Much of the theory is linked to child development research.

*Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press


Constructivist teaching is based on recent research about the human brain and what is known about how learning occurs.

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.

Examples of when it goes wrong

Diarrhoea is ear ache ‘dire ear’

Name a food suitable for pickling: ‘a branston’

‘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’

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 peoples.’

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 them

Related topics

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 renowned 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 to 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 practise 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 students’ 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 ceratonin 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 mintues 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 students 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:

25 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 over constructivism.

Also see Carole Dweck’s theory of motivation. This shows that students do not hold a constructivist view, but believe that learning depends on talent.

Constructivist Teaching Strategies

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

•  Ensure that all students are participating in making constructs; holding them accountable for their learning.

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

•  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.

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

•  Require students to correct these learning errors and omissions.

•  Make the above fun!

For example:

  • Problem solving tasks with self assessment and peer assessment
  • Evaluation matrix

•  Decisions-decisions:

Students, working in pairs are given a text or watch a video etc, along with:

  • Summary cards‘ which purport to summarise key points from the text, some of which are true and some of which are false: e.g.
    •  The left ventricle feeds the lung
    •  Heart rate is measured in beats per minute, and if you are very fit your heart rate will probably be lower than average.
  • Consequences cards‘ which state consequences of the facts given in the text.
    These consequences are not actually stated in the text itself. Again some are true and some false E.g.
    •  If you blocked the left ventricle no blood would get to the head
    •  Furring of the arteries would usually raise blood pressure.

The pairs of students must decide which cards are correct, and what is wrong with the incorrect ones.

This is a greatly enjoyed activity with the atmosphere of a game.

•  Peer explaining

Students in pairs are given two related texts about topics that have not been explained to them, for example one about measles and another about mumps. They each study one of these alone for say 5 minutes. Alternatively they could use the same text/video etc, but look at different aspects of it. For example students could watch a video or read a text on the marketing policy of a small company, and one student could look out for strengths in the policy and another for weaknesses. Each student explains their topic to the other who asks questions until they understand. Integrative task: The pair then works together at a task that requires them to work together on both topics. A useful question for this is to ask students to “State what is the same, and what is different about measles and mumps.” Or “Considering both strengths and weaknesses, what do you think of the marketing policy? How could strengths be built upon, and weaknesses addressed?”

• jigsaw


A Cooperative learning method

Jigsaw is one of many cooperative learning methods with high effect sizes*.

  1. Divide a topic up into, say, four sub-topics. For example childhood diseases could be divided into mumps, measles, whooping cough and German measles. Alternatively students can be given four different key questions or ‘spectacles’ that require students to analyse the same materials from a different point of view. For example all students are given the same information about the beliefs and policies of the Nazi party, and different groups look at this from the point of view of women, the working class, the middle class and the church.
  2. Divide students into four groups. The teacher chooses the groups and they should be mixed ability, experience, ethnicity gender etc. Don’t use friendship groups. Students may complain at first but will soon accept it if you are insistent.

Each group studies one disease or question with the help of texts and worksheets etc. This is usually done in class time, though you might be able to adapt the method for students to do their learning outside of class time. (See Independent Learning)

  1. The students now form new groups. Each new group is a ‘jigsaw’, with one student from each of the four original groups. Any students left over act as pairs in a full group. Each group now has one ‘expert’ in each of the four childhood diseases. (They may have two experts in one disease)
  2. The new group now completes an activity that requires them to Peer Teach each other about their disease, and requires them to cooperate with the rest of the group over a combined task that requires them to integrate the four topics. For example they could be asked to:
    1. Explain your disease to the rest of your new group, using the same headings as for the earlier tasks. (incubation time, mode of transmission etc)
    2. Cooperate to find three things all the diseases have in common
    3. Cooperate to find, for each of the four diseases, four unique characteristics.
    4. Design a leaflet on childhood diseases. In your place the four diseases in order of:

• i. Severity of potential consequences • ii. Ease of protection

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