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Constructivist Teaching: A Primer

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.”

Gamification and German Board Games

What do German board games have to do with the gamification of education?

As it turns out, quite a lot. Check out this Knewton brownbag talk by our very own James Boo — self-declared board game geek and founder of the long-standing German Board Game Night at Knewton HQ — for a fun, informative look at what German board games can teach us about student engagement, agency, and more.


What is Teaching, Anyway? [VIDEO]

Welcome back to another installment of Knewton’s brownbag series! This time, I took matters into my own hands to bring you “What is Teaching, Anyway?”

I realized that while Knewton is an education company, not many people in our office actually “teach” in the traditional sense. But whether giving Hack Day presentations, talks like this one, or just leading a meeting, everyone’s jobs incorporate elements of teaching sometimes. Check out my thoughts on what the heck teaching is, anyway, and then take a look at our awesome panel discussion, featuring Knewton employees with extensive and varied teaching experience!


With so many experienced teachers in our midst, we’d be remiss not to ask them what they think! Check out our moderated panel discussion below and see what our former-teachers-turned-content-developers have to say:


What video talks would you like to see next? Let us know in the comments!

WTF are Programming Languages and APIs? [VIDEO]

It’s that time again – time for our third WTF video! This time, we’re going back to our technology roots with “WTF are Programming Languages and APIs?” led by API Community Manager and Senior Software Engineer Devon Jones. Check out the video for a short history of programming languages, what they really are, and how they work.

Leave any questions, comments, or suggestions for future WTF talks in the comments!

WTF is Startup Marketing? [VIDEO]

Welcome to our second installment of the WTF series, where experts explain something you’ve always wanted to know in terms you can understand. This week, check out WTF is Startup Marketing?, presented by Robbie Mitchell, a Senior Marketing Associate at Knewton.

Marketing is an indispensable part of any company’s strategy, but how does it really work? What makes marketing a start-up different? Watch the video below to find out.


Introducing the “WTF” Series: WTF Is the Internet? [VIDEO]

Here at Knewton, we’re lucky enough to work with some of the brightest educators, developers, designers, and marketing gurus around. With so much brainpower floating around, it might seem like it should be easy to learn from one another. But what we realized recently is that while we want to share knowledge and bounce ideas off one another, often it feels like we’re all speaking different languages. We’re such n00bs when it comes to the other guy’s area of expertise that we don’t even know how to ask about what we don’t know. You know?

Introducing WTF Brown Bags. These informal lunchtime presentations aim to give team members a basic level of knowledge about… something. We’re talking simple stuff, stuff that (if you’re not in that particular field) you’ve probably been pretending to understand for too long. WTF is the Internet? WTF is a programming language? WTF is marketing?

We love our WTF talks. And then we realized: we can’t be the only people out there with some gaps in our knowledge base. So we decided to share them with the world outside Knewton, too. Welcome!

First up: WTF is the Internet? You think you know… but do you really? Knewton CTO Pete Miron takes us through it. Enjoy, and leave any questions in the comments!

WTF Brown Bags are curated by Sean Miller and Ian Parker. Video editing was done by Ian Parker and Justin Bonilla.