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Constructivist Teaching: A Primer

Posted in Teacher Tools on September 10, 2012 by

Photo by Editor B on Flickr

I’ve been a course developer at Knewton for just over 2 years. Prior to that, I served as a New York Teaching Fellow and completed my Masters in Education at Fordham University, where I wrote my thesis paper on the effects of teachers’ epistemological beliefs on the successful implementation of student-centered teaching practices.

A few weeks ago, I decided to share some of my knowledge on the subject of student-centered or “constructivist” teaching with my colleagues here at Knewton in a lunch-time “brown bag” presentation. The following post covers approximately the first half of my presentation, with a second part to follow.

Put as simply as possible, constructivism is a philosophy of education that views knowledge as being actively constructed within the mind of the student with the teacher’s guidance, rather than passed directly from teacher to student. Its roots are not just in pedagogy and educational psychology, but in epistemology—the branch of philosophy concerned with defining the nature of knowledge.

What does constructivism have to say about knowledge? I find it easiest to list four things that constructivism says are not true about knowledge:

1.     Knowledge is not just a collection of facts.

High-level knowledge comes from synthesis, application, and evaluation of facts; it is a whole greater than the sum of its parts. A piece of high-level knowledge is not equivalent to a bunch of facts any more than a house is equivalent to a pile of bricks.

2.      Knowledge does not live in a box.

While there are facts in the external world that contribute to knowledge (or we can assume so for now, leaving ontology for another post), knowledge only exists inside the minds of human beings.

Many people quickly grasp that the knowledge they wish for students to master lies in their own minds rather than anywhere external to themselves, but this often leads to two other fallacies: that students are “blank slates” waiting to be filled with knowledge, and that knowledge can be simply handed off from teacher to student.

3.      Students are not blank slates.

Everyone forms their own idea of the world, called a schema, based on their experiences. Even a 3-year-old entering preschool has a schema based on 3 years worth of sensory and social experiences that makes up his/her understanding of his/her environment. People do not simply push their old ideas out when they absorb new ones; they adapt their schema to make them fit, often twisting new information to fit a schema that is poorly formed.

4.      Knowledge cannot simply be handed off.

Simple facts like “Carson City is the capital of Nevada” can simply be told to a learner by a teacher, and the learner’s knowledge of such facts can be assessed by simply having them repeat the fact or answer a straightforward question like “What is the capital of Nevada?”

Complex pieces of knowledge like “a variety of social and economic factors lead to the decline of Feudalism in Europe” cannot be so easily handed off, and the ability to repeat such statements or answer questions such as “What led to the decline of Feudalism in Europe?” based on memorization (“Why, a variety of social and economic factors, of course!”) does not demonstrate true mastery of the given piece of knowledge.


A classic example used by professors of education to demonstrate points 3 and 4 has to do with students’ common misunderstanding of what causes the seasons on Earth. Equipped with a schema that includes the knowledge that the Earth revolves around the Sun, many students develop the idea that the Earth’s orbit is highly elliptical, with summer occurring when it is closer to the sun and winter when it is farther away.

Teachers frequently explain that seasons are actually caused by the tilt in the Earth’s axis without taking the time to assess and address this misconception. This leads students to adapt their current (incorrect) schema to include the new knowledge rather than replacing it, leading to the conclusion that summer occurs when the Earth is tilted closer to the sun and winter when it is tilted away from it. It is easy to imagine a student being able to answer a multiple-choice question “What causes the seasons?” with “Choice B: The tilt of the Earth’s axis,” while still maintaining that misconception.

An effective constructivist teacher would assess students’ understanding first, in order to identify their misconceptions. He or she could then not only fill in missing facts like “One hemisphere has summer while the other has winter” but use these facts to send students down a line of inquiry that allows them to construct a more accurate model for themselves.

For example, the teacher could show students—or, better yet, allow them to interact with—a model of the Earth and sun that clearly shows that the Earth is tilted in the same direction throughout, dispelling the idea that the entire Earth is closer or farther from the sun during any season. Finally, he or she could demonstrate the varying density of the sun’s rays at various angles (there’s a neat way to do this using a flashlight and Styrofoam ball).

Students could then demonstrate their conceptual understanding by recreating and narrating the model themselves and/or by reproducing, independently and in their own words, a verbal statement along the lines of: “Distance to the sun has almost nothing to do with the seasons. The tilt of the Earth’s axis causes the sun’s rays to hit one hemisphere and then the other at a more direct angle at different times of the year. This is why one hemisphere has summer while the other has winter.”