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Constructivist Learning: Applying a Student-Centered Approach in Your Classroom

Friday, September 22, 2017 -- Regina Waddell

Constructivist learning—it’s a buzzword that most educators have heard at least once or twice. But, do you actually know what’s behind the excitement surrounding this approach? Start by comparing a traditional approach with a constructivist one in this example of a 2nd grade lesson on insects:

Traditional lesson on insects - 2nd Grade:

  • The teacher provides the students with information on insects, possibly through reading from a science book, lecturing using images, showing a video about insects, etc.
  • The teacher guides students through applying what they have learned and formatively assesses them by presenting them with a picture and having them identify whether it is an insect or not an insect. The instructor calls on individual students and uses thumbs-up and thumbs-down voting to elicit responses. The teacher then corrects any misconceptions students have.
  • The students take a test on insects. Students have to answer some questions about insects, identify which given images are insects, and then draw a picture of an insect and label the parts.

Constructivist lesson on insects - 2nd Grade:

  • The teacher divides the students into groups and gives each group of students 10 images and says, "Each group has 10 images. Seven of those images are insects, and three are not. It's your job to figure out which are insects and which are not. When time is up, you will have to tell the class your answer and explain your thinking."
  • The teacher walks around the room as the groups work and provides assistance through probing questions like "Do you see any similarities among some that you don't see in others?" or "What resources could you use?" when groups are struggling.
  • Student groups take turns sharing their findings to the whole class, while the teacher compiles a list on the board of " attributes of insects and attributes not belonging to insects" and "problem-solving strategies" that the students describe in their presentations.
  • The students discuss the list of insect attributes and non-attributes that the teacher compiled, while the teacher facilitates the discussion. They make a few updates to the list until they are happy with the final product (the teacher makes sure that it's correct). The students also discuss the list of strategies and discuss which ones were the most useful in figuring out the answer.
  • The teacher guides students through applying what they have learned and formatively assesses them by presenting them with a picture and having them identify whether it is an insect or not. The teacher calls on individual students and uses thumbs-up and thumbs-down voting to elicit responses. The teacher guides students through correcting misconceptions by asking them pointed questions: “What insect attributes do you see?” “Does it have any attributes not belonging to insects?
  • For the assessment, students have to create a new insect, and label all of its insect attributes. The insect must show all of the insect attributes and can't show any attributes not belonging to insects.

While reading the two lessons above, you likely compared them to each other and used your own prior knowledge to come up with an idea of what a constructivist lesson is. So, congratulations are in order—you just participated in constructivist learning. Constructivism asserts that learning is an active, constructive process. The learner constructs knowledge rather than acquiring it. In the classroom, this means encouraging students to use active techniques, such as experiments and problem-solving, to create or construct knowledge and then to reflect on the process, rather than the traditional approach of absorbing knowledge from the instructor. The three big ideas of constructivism as a paradigm for teaching and learning are that:

  • Students are actively constructing knowledge, rather than it being given to them
  • Students are actively reflecting on how they are learning
  • The teacher's role is that of a facilitator and a guide--providing students with the tools that they need to construct the learning, and guiding them through pointed questions so that they can figure out things and correct their own misconceptions

Even if you didn't realize it until now, you likely are already using some constructivist learning techniques in your classroom, like science experiments, research reports, problem-solving, or groupwork. However, in a traditional classroom, we teach the facts first and then have the students do some type of project in order to apply what they learned. In a constructivist classroom, the order of the lesson is switched. Instead of students starting with the parts and building to the whole (for instance, learning individual facts about insects first in order to build an understanding of their key attributes), students begin with the whole and are asked to break it down to individual components (i.e., looking at images of insects to determine their key attributes). A constructivist approach asks students to start with the culminating activity and learn the facts in the process.

Ready to give constructivism a try in your classroom? Here are three tips to get you started.

1. Begin at the end. When planning a constructivist lesson, start by asking yourself, “How do I want my students to be able to apply this knowledge?” Think about real-world or career-based applications. Then, develop your lesson from there. For instance, let's say that the next topic for 3rd grade students is multiplication, and by the end of the lesson, they should be able to solve word problems using multiplication. Instead of starting by teaching your students what multiplication is, present them with a real-world problem involving multiplication to solve and guide them through it—asking questions, providing support, and even offering mini lessons when they get stuck in the process. A simple example would be to ask students to determine how many pizzas need to be ordered if a pizza has eight slices and each one of their six family members will eat at least two slices. By the end, students will not only understand what multiplication is, but they will also have discovered why they need it.

Note: A common criticism of constructivist teaching and learning is that students don't learn basic facts. But, once students have constructed an understanding of the concept of multiplication, they can later be required to memorize the basic facts (like multiplication tables) that will help them be successful in higher-level math classes.

2. Make sure that students do the work. I can remember preparing a lesson for my 4th grade students on organic and inorganic systems. I spent more than an hour searching the Internet for pictures of car engines and photosynthesis so that I could offer them examples that illustrate the differences. If I were planning a constructivist lesson, my planning time instead would be spent developing a problem for them to solve that incorporates the standards they need to learn, and part of what they would be doing during the lesson is searching for examples of organic and inorganic systems. If you find yourself doing lengthy prep or research for a lesson, ask yourself—could your students be doing this work instead?

3. Provide time for reflecting on learning. One of the benefits of a constructivist classroom is that students become aware of how learning occurs. The result is that they become better learners because they are always refining their learning process and strategies. This happens through deliberate reflection, asking students questions about how they arrived at a certain conclusion and requesting that they explain that process to their peers. Students will pick up strategies from other students and become experts at learning, instead of just mastering specific content.

Looking for more tips to start using a constructivist approach in your classroom? Check out these resources from WNET Education. And, if you’re interested in learning more about how Edmentum’s online programs constructivist learning, check out this blog post on the research base behind our online Courseware!