A note on constructivism

What is constructivism?

IB educational philosophy is based on a constructivist understanding of how people develop their knowledge and make meaning. This has implications for teachers and learners: we should focus on the learner when we think about learning, and not just on the subject or lesson to be taught.

This page is a side note exploring what is meant by constructivism. It considers nine principles of constructivist philosophy. We then explore the links between constructivism and 'Ways of Knowing'. Although originally the concept of 'ways of knowing' appears in the Diploma Programme Theory of Knowledge course these different ways of knowing are being used in a much wider way by the IB as the lens through which we explore how knowledge is constructed and meaning is made.

What is constructivism?

“Education is not an affair of telling and being told, but an active and constructive process.”  John Dewey

Constructivism is a theory of how learning happens. It describes how people construct knowledge and create their view of the world. It believes that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.

Constructivism is based on a theory that people learn best when they construct new ideas based on comparison with their current and previous knowledge. They do this in relation to the experiences they are having and the people they are with. A central idea of a constructivist view is that learning needs to be active, it is something people do.

This short video explains the learning theory of constructivism. Watch this video to see how you can incorporate constructivism into your classroom.

"Constructivism is an epistemology, or a theory, used to explain how people know what they know. The basic idea is that problem solving is at the heart of learning, thinking, and development. As people solve problems and discover the consequences of their actions–through reflecting on past and immediate experiences–they construct their own understanding. Learning is thus an active process that requires a change in the learner." (Education Encyclopedia, State University.com)

Research on the architecture of the brain, e.g. by Susan B. Chapman and Dan Siegel etc., suggests that synapses are actually created through inquiry.

In the following podcasts Dr. Amanda Waterman (Leeds University) outlines the thinking of Piaget (video 1) and Vygotsky (video 2). Their theories of cognitive development underlines constructivist understanding of knowledge and meaning making. People construct knowledge and meaning through interacting with their environment (Piaget) and their social setting (Vygotsky).

Piaget underlined the importance of students being active learning interacting with their experiences and the environment around them to construct their knowledge and meaning. Vygotsky said knowledge is constructed through social interaction not only with the environment but also in interaction with others. In different cultures learning may be approached in different ways and this needs to be recognised when teaching in different cultures.

Constructivist learning theory

Key constructivist ideas:

Professor Hein, Constructivist Learning Theory (1991) provides a useful overview of ideas central to constructivism. They are:

  1. Learning is an active process - it is not a matter of passively receiving knowledge; instead it is a matter of the learner engaging with the world.
  2. People learn to learn as they are learning - it is about constructing meaning as we learn.
  3. Learning happens in the mind - it is a reflective activity (Dewey).
  4. Learning involves language - the language we use influences learning (Vygotsky).
  5. Learning is a social activity - it is something we do together, in interaction with each other (Dewey).
  6. Learning happens in a context - is a social and active process (see points 1 and 5 above) and not something which is abstract.
  7. People need knowledge to learn - and builds on previous knowledge.
  8. It takes time to learn - it is not something that happens in an instant. It is a matter of reflection and deep thought.
  9. Motivation is key to learning - we need to know why we learn and how the knowledge we are acquiring can be used.

This is an excellent piece to share with your faculty - a good starter for a discussion. Click here to access it.

Implications for teachers

Another excellent piece is The courage to be constructivist by M. Brooks and J.G.Brooks. The key concept for them is that "Learners control their learning. This simple truth lies at the heart of the constructivist approach to education...controlling what students learn is virtually impossible. The search for meaning takes a different route for each student." They suggest that putting a constructivist theory of learning centre stage challenges such traditional concepts of teaching and learning such as that students learn the same material at the same time as each other and on demand. They challenge educational systems to be held accountable for student learning and not for achievement on high stakes tests. "Classroom practices designed to prepare students for tests clearly do not foster deep learning that students apply to new situations."

They identify the following five central tenets of constructivism (Grennon Brooks & Brooks, 1993).

  1. Constructivist teachers seek and value students' points of view. Knowing what students think about concepts helps teachers formulate classroom lessons and differentiate instruction on the basis of students' needs and interests.
  2. All students come to the classroom with life experiences that shape their views about how their worlds work. Only through asking students what they think they know and why they think they know it are we and they able to confront their suppositions.
  3. Constructivist teachers recognize that students need to see how learning is relevant in their daily activities.
  4. Constructivist teachers structure lessons around big ideas, not small bits of information. Exposing students to wholes first helps them determine the relevant parts as they refine their understandings of the wholes.
  5. Constructivist teachers assess student learning in the context of daily classroom investigations, not as separate events.

(Educational Leadership November 1999 | Volume 57 | Number 3).

Where does constructivism fit into the IB?

The IB advocates a collaborative approach to learning for all members of the school community: students and staff. One of the main reasons for this is because their approach to learning and knowledge building is based on constructivist theory. Learning and knowledge making is an active, constructive and lifelong process. People actively construct or create their own representations of reality.

“Teaching and learning in the IB celebrates the many ways people work together to construct meaning and make sense of the world. Through the interplay of asking, doing and thinking, this constructivist approach leads towards open, democratic classrooms. An IB education empowers young people for a lifetime of learning, independently and in collaboration with others. It prepares a community of learners to engage with global challenges through inquiry, action and reflection.” (What is an IB education? 2013 p4)

The IB suggest that one way of understanding how knowledge and meaning making is constructed is to use the different ways of knowing as lenses through which we explore how people gain knowledge and build their understanding.

Originally 'Ways of Knowing' were an essential part of the Theory of Knowledge component of the Diploma Programme.  Click How do we know that? to find out how they fit into this course. More recently the IB have used these ways of knowing as a lens through which to explore how people gain knowledge and make meaning. A number of pages following this will explore each of the ways of knowing in turn.

What does constructivism look like in the classroom?

A number of teaching strategies align with constructivism. They include: discovery learning, cooperative learning, inquiry learning, and problem-based learning.

The following video provides a comparison of traditional teaching and constructivist ways of learning. Whilst it presents the positive aspects of a constructivist approach it also acknowledges the limitations of such an approach.

Activator Activity: Constructing Meaning

The following taskis a useful activator to introduce the idea that people construct meaning by building on what they know and making connections. I am grateful to Angeline Aow for kindly contributing thisactivity.

Dig deeper


A summary of constructivist theory: Constructivism, Johnson,A (2014).

An introduction: Learning Theory - Constructivist Approach

The following TED talk video explores how meaning is constructed in the brain. It's a little technical but useful if you wish to have the neurological processes of meaning making explained.

Reflect and discuss

"This 'Knowledge Age' or '21st Future Learning' approach is gaining ground because it offers what some call an exciting digital utopianism. Dispense with the teacher, bring out the iPad, let's co-inquire together. But pupils don't know what they don't know. You can't look it up on Google when you don't know what you're looking for....A teacher who says 'I co-inquire with my students', 'I learn from them', 'We construct knowledge together' does not deserve that status." (Professor Elizabeth Rata, The Politics of Knowledge in Education, 2012)

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