John Dewey (1933/1998) is often cited as the philosophical founder of this approach. Bruner (1990) and Piaget (1972) are considered the chief theorists among the cognitive constructivists, while Vygotsky (1978) is the major theorist among the social constructivists.
John Dewey rejected the notion that schools should focus on repetitive, rote memorization & proposed a method of "directed living" – students would engage in real-world, practical workshops in which they would demonstrate their knowledge through creativity and collaboration. Students should be provided with opportunities to think from themselves and articulate their thoughts.
Dewey called for education to be grounded in real experience. He wrote, "If you have doubts about how learning happens, engage in sustained inquiry: study, ponder, consider alternative possibilities and arrive at your belief grounded in evidence."
Piaget rejected the idea that learning was the passive assimilation of given knowledge. Instead, he proposed that learning is a dynamic process comprising successive stages of adaption to reality during which learners actively construct knowledge by creating and testing their own theories of the world.
Although less contemporary & influential, it has inspired several important educational principles such as:
- Discovery learning
- Sensitivity to children’s’ readiness
- Acceptance of individual differences
- Learners don’t have knowledge forced on them – they create it for themselves
A common misunderstanding regarding constructivism is that instructors should never tell students anything directly but, instead, should always allow them to construct knowledge for themselves. This is actually confusing a theory of pedagogy (teaching) with a theory of knowing. Constructivism assumes that all knowledge is constructed from the learner’s previous knowledge, regardless of how one is taught. Thus, even listening to a lecture involves active attempts to construct new knowledge.
Influenced by Vygotsky, Bruner emphasises the role of the teacher, language and instruction. He thought that different processes were used by learners in problem solving, that these vary from person to person and that social interaction lay at the root of good learning.
Bruner builds on the Socratic tradition of learning through dialogue, encouraging the learner to come to enlighten themselves through reflection. Careful curriculum design is essential so that one area builds upon the other. Learning must therefore be a process of discovery where learners build their own knowledge, with the active dialogue of teachers, building on their existing knowledge.
Bruner initiated curriculum change based on the notion that learning is an active, social process in which students construct new ideas or concepts based on their current knowledge. He provides the following principles of constructivistic learning:
- Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that make the student willing and able to learn (readiness).
- Instruction must be structured so that it can be easily grasped by the student (spiral organization).
- Instruction should be designed to facilitate extrapolation and or fill in the gaps (going beyond the information given).
Social constructivism was developed by Vygotsky. He rejected the assumption made by Piaget that it was possible to separate learning from its social context.
According to Vygotsky:
Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level and, later on, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals. (p. 57)