Overview & Objectives

In this unit you will be introduced to many of the issues to understanding and applying Constructivism and Constructivist principles for instructional design purposes. The objectives for this unit are these:

  • Differentiate the underlying assumptions and worldview of Constructivism in contrast to Behaviorism and Cognitivism
  • Differentiate between “Constructivism the philosophy (i.e., epistemology)” and “Constructivism as a guide to instructional strategies”
  • Detail antecedents and influences on Constructivism in instruction and learning
  • Submit a position that indicates, with examples, which paradigm resonates most closely with your own thinking and worldview based on experience and readings
  • Articulate instructional strategies that can be derived from Constructivist principles
  • Articulate a stable (though most likely tentative) position on Constructivism

Required Readings

Textbook: Driscoll, Chapters 5, and 11

Available through course website:
Airasian, P. W., & Walsh, M. E. (1997). Constructivist cautions . Phi Delta Kappan , 78(6), 444-449.
Anderson, J. R., Reder, L. M., & Simon, H. A. (1996). Situated learning and education. Educational Researcher, 25 (4), 5-11.
Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18 (1), 32-42.
Greeno, J. G. (1997). On claims that answer the wrong questions. Educational Researcher, 26 (1), 5-17.
Phillips, D. C. (1995). The good, the bad, and the ugly: The many faces of constructivism. Educational Researcher, 24 (7), 5-12.

Instructor Notes

In this unit we will engage in the still controversial paradigm referred to as Constructivism . Much of the contention has to do with whether Constructivism is a philosophy of knowledge (an epistemological position) or less grand a theory of learning. The lecture notes and readings are meant to help you steer a somewhat steady course through the material, though there's always the chance of an unexpected squall appearing over the horizon. At the very least, you should come away from this unit with a slightly more informed understanding of Constructivism and its current influence on education and instructional design. I say “slightly more” only because the course of a unit by no means can do justice to such a deep, side-taking issue.

What is constructivism?
One thing that can make constructivism difficult to grasp is that sometimes it seems like a philosophy, and sometimes it seems like a set of instructional practices. People may use these two senses of the word constructivism interchangeably, often without being clear about whether they mean one, the other, or both. A goal of this unit is for you to get a better grasp of Constructivism so that you can use the term more precisely. Moreover, it will help you to judge the claims of others who advocate constructivist principles. Muddy thinking on this topic is not an option.

As a philosophy, constructivism suggests that, while there is a real world out there, no meaning is inherent in it. Meaning is imposed by people and cultures. So, for example, one who followed the constructivist philosophy might say that there is nothing inherently correct about the way we classify living things (genus, species, etc.). This classification system is a human invention, and it is subject to revision or replacement. Thus, when we teach this classification system, we should teach it not as fact, but as the current system accepted by scientists. And we should also teach about the process of creating a classification system, not just the end product.

As a set of instructional practices, constructivism favors processes over end products; guided discovery over expository learning; authentic, embedded learning situations over abstracted, artificial ones; portfolio assessments over multiple-choice exams, etc.

Why is this distinction between constructivism as a philosophy (epistemology, to be more accurate) and constructivism as a set of teaching practices important? Because it is very possible that one could be a constructivist philosophically without always using constructivist-teaching methods. A useful analogy is with physics: Newtonian mechanics have been demonstrated to be inadequate and replaced by Einstein-ian mechanics. However, we can continue to use Newtonian laws for many local situations because they work well enough and are simpler. Similarly, I may believe that people must construct their own knowledge--even of objects in the physical world--but I may choose to use relatively didactic approaches for some kinds of learning because it is expedient and works well enough.

On the other hand, someone who espouses an objectivist philosophy (if you can find anyone who admits to it!) would likely agree that constructivist-like teaching approaches are appropriate for areas of “knowing” that are highly divergent, say in the arts, literature, ethics, etc. Can you imagine teaching an ethics course didactically? It would be absurd. You would likely have to acknowledge that an ethical sense is something learners have to develop uniquely, and that the job of the course would be to provide an opportunity to do that with guidance.

Also, keep in mind that believing in a constructivist philosophy or epistemology does not automatically dictate using any particular set of teaching strategies--any more than being a behaviorist automatically dictates using teaching machines. Different learning theories may suggest particular kinds of instructional strategies, but they do not determine them fully. The key point t take away is that one sophisticated in their understanding of the Constructivist worldview (and of the Behaviorist and Cognitivist worldviews, for that matter) will be able to articulate their position while defending strategic choices that are not only informed by this worldview. Consider this to be a pragmatic approach to reconciliation theory and practice. All too often, one encounters an advocate of the Constructivist philosophy who they themselves do not realize their practice often violates these principles. What we are trying to achieve are not purist interpretations of theories, merely researchers and practitioners who realize the limitations of any one particular paradigm.

Influences on constructivist-inspired “theories” of instruction and learning
Constructivism, of course, did not simply spring up out of nowhere. In addition to the historical antecedents that your text discusses, constructivism seems to be related to a number of other ideas from the “cultures” of education, psychology, and other fields. These include the following:

  • Qualitative and naturalistic research paradigms : Finding meaning in particulars (idiographic) rather than generalities (nomothetic). Increasing interest in these forms of research supports the constructivist notion that what is unique (in people, events, institutions, etc.) is at least as important as what one can generalize about them
  • Situated cognition and learning: Learning in the “natural” setting seems to be quite different from learning in school. Lave, Brown, Resnick, along with other psychologists have written extensively about the ways in which typical school learning tasks seem to be remote from the kind of learning we do outside of formal instructional settings. Thus, educators have sought ways to make school learning more “authentic”
  • Donald Schön's notion of reflective practice in the professions: The real challenge of professional practice is framing a problem not solving it after it has already been defined. Schön's ideas have been influential, particularly in education in the professions. What is important in the practice of most professions, Schön says, is the artistry of framing a problem in a useful way, not the “science” of solving it once it has been framed
  • Cognitive and intellectual development theorists: Theorists including Vygotsky, Bruner, Piaget, William Perry, and Mary Belenky (the last two investigating different ways of knowing”) all have had something to say about the ways in which children or young adults “construct” their understanding of the world at various stages
  • Hypertext and hypermedia: The notion of bodies of information that can be connected and organized in various, idiosyncratic ways (of which the World Wide Web is a prime example) is an obvious analogy to the constructivist idea of uniquely constructed understandings

As you can surmise, it is possible to bring support for Constructivism from diverse sources. As one who is becoming a sophisticated user of learning theory, you must be sure to remain critical of the claims made from these sources. For example, those who promoted the liberating effects of the World Wide Web have been hard pressed to collect empirical evidence to back up their claims. If we were to critically analyze most of the work done on web-based instruction, we might find that Behaviorism and Cognitivism had just as much representation as Constructivism in these research and development programs.

Constructivism: Opposing viewpoints to ponder
Point: “[Constructivism] holds that learning is infinite and not subject to the sorts of analyses favored by objectivists except in the most trivial cases [emphasis added]. Things can be known from a variety of sign systems (verbal, mathematical, visual, musical, gestural, etc.), a variety of metaphors ... , and with varying degrees of self awareness of the processes by means of which constructions are made. The role of education in a constructivist view is to show students how to construct knowledge, to promote collaboration with others to show the multiple perspectives that can be brought to bear on a particular problem, and to arrive at self-chosen positions [emphasis added] to which they can commit themselves, while realizing the basis of other views with which they may disagree.” (from D. J. Cunningham, Assessing constructions and constructing assessments, p. 36. In Constructivism and the technology of instruction: A conversation (1992), Duffy, T. M. & Jonassen, D. H., eds. Hilldale , NJ : Lawrence Erlbaum Associates).

Counterpoint: “... [C]onstructivists argue that specific learning objectives are not possible--that meaning is always constructed by, and unique to, the individual; that all understanding is negotiated. In our opinion this is a very extreme position. Let me speak up for the vast amount of “trivial cases,” those situations where shared meaning is not only possible but necessary. Do we want students to have a “self-chosen position” with regard to the sound of letters in learning to read? Do we want students to have a “self-chosen position” about the meaning of the integers. Will a machine allow us to have a “self-chosen position” about how it works? ... Do we want students to have a “self-chosen position” ... about how to solve a linear equation? Do we want drivers to have a “self-chosen position” about the meaning of a red light? ... If I hire a surgeon to do heart surgery, PLEASE let me have one who has learned the trivial case and knows that my heart looks like every other human heart. Please don't let him negotiate new meanings and hook up my veins in some “self-chosen position to which [she/he] can commit [herself/himself].” I want her/him committed to the standard objective view. The trivial case is not so trivial. To dismiss so casually the objective case is perhaps the greatest danger of radical constructivism.“ (From M. D. Merrill, Constructivism and instructional design, pp. 107-108. (same publication as above)

Assignments & Deliverables

Lesson 6.1: summary & analysis
Concisely summarize what you have read and learned in this unit. Below are help and directions for completing this assignment.

  • How does learning occur according to situated cognition”?
  • What are the outstanding issues with the concepts and principles of situated cognition”?
  • What are available constructivism instructional methods?
  • How would you measure learners' performance in a constructivist-inspired curriculum or classroom?
  • Currently, what is your position on Constructivism” and how does it align with your worldview?

Additional directions:
  • Convey your knowledge of information found in readings and critically analyze in terms of personal position and larger issues at hand; you must cite at least one additional reading found in the syllabus or an education database.
  • The summary and analysis will not exceed 500 words and must be single-spaced.
  • You are required to use concepts and principles from textbook and readings, citing sources in APA format.

Lesson 6.2: Learning activity #4
Evaluate and respond to the statements concerning Constructivism made by Cunningham and Merrill (see above). Can you reconcile these two points of view? Is some middle ground possible? Desirable? Are these two theorists having a real conversation, or are they talking past one another? Post your response to the course discussion board.