What Is a Constructivist Approach to Teaching?

Updated June 13, 2017

The constructivist theory of education was developed by Lev Vygotsky, a psychologist and educator born in 1896. Vygotsky's theory was centred on the principles of social constructivism. Jerome Bruner later combined Vygotsky's theories with those of Jean Piaget, a cognitivist who regarded students as learners in their own right, learning through their experiences. Vygotsky's ideas, along with those of Piaget, became widely influential in the 1960s. Their "child-centred" theory challenged didactic teaching, the more authoritative approach that had previously been favoured. The theories of constructivism put forth by Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner all have implications for contemporary classroom practice.

Working With Others

Constuctivist approaches to learning assert that children as having their own way of thinking. Students should be treated as individuals and should have the opportunity to work with others and learn through observation, talking and group work. Students have ideas and skills that have not fully emerged but have the potential to be developed, particularly through this type of interaction with others. Constructivism also acknowledges the importance of social and cultural influences on intellectual development, and this, in turn, has an effect on how children learn from each other. Each student brings with him knowledge, opinions and experiences from his individual background that will have an influence on what he brings to the group.

Active Learning

Constructivists believe that students should be engaged in active learning. The teacher's role is to assist her students in what they are doing. They should be given the opportunity to explore a problem, try out solutions, build on this new knowledge to make adjustments and evolve new solutions, all having an input and actively discussing and developing ideas. Students must be encouraged to draw, discuss and write about what they are learning. They should talk to others, actively working, not just sitting, in groups.

Scaffolding Learning

The constructivists suggest that as a child learns new things, he should be given lots of support, a process known as "scaffolding." This can be done through the use of word banks, writing frames, concrete materials and questioning techniques. Teachers should provide stimuli and prompts, varying their presentation. As the student's learning develops, the scaffolding is removed. The way in which new ideas are introduced and presented to students influences the way in which they are mastered. Instruction must be structured so that it can be grasped easily and presented in a way that involves children's experiences and contexts so that they can build on their knowledge and are willing to learn.

The Spiral Curriculum

According to the constructivist approach, students' prior knowledge needs to be developed and built on. Ideas should be reintroduced at different stages and levels --- the "spiral curriculum" --- which enables a continuous development of knowledge. Reintroducing concepts already learnt helps students to reach a deeper level of understanding. Teachers should help students to develop what they know already and use their previous knowledge to solve problems, to explore and to question. This approach says teachers must be facilitators of their students' learning; not transmitting knowledge but encouraging students and stimulating their ideas.

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About the Author

Based in Hampsire in the south of England, Alison Williams has been writing since 1990. Her work has appeared in local magazines such as "Hampshire Today" and "Hampshire the County Magazine." Williams is qualified in newspaper journalism and has a Bachelor of Arts in English language and literature from the Open University. She has recently published her first novel "The Black Hours" and has a master's in creative writing.