Constructivism For Real

I have always considered myself a constructivist teacher. But it’s only been in the last couple years that I realized there was so much more to my narrow, subjective version of the learning theory. That’s because it can get quite warped in its application. For example, one of my master’s teachers explained to the online class at the beginning of term that he was a constructivist. “Ah good,” I thought, “we’ll get along just fine.” But his application of constructivism seemed to suggest that we were mostly on our own for the semester, with the curriculum already typed out and his email just a click away should we need it. Needless to say, it was a lonely and isolating experience.

A Constructivist Approach

We can’t expect learners to build their own connections and knowledge without providing proper support and encouragement. In this article, I’m going to explain the 4 essential principles of constructivism based on Baviskar, Hartle, and Whitney’s (2009) research.

These principles can help us make informed applications of a constructivist approach to learning. Keep in mind that there isn’t a regimented application for constructivism to work. This theory is always about making the right choice for the learners and content to teach. These principles are simply meant to guide the way.

Principle 1: Elicit Prior Knowledge

Constructivism recognizes that learners need to connect to their prior learning in order for new learning to happen. Students also need a clear link between “prior” and “new” knowledge, and it’s important to help students make those connections because they can’t always do it themselves. Here are strategies for eliciting current knowledge:

  • Concept map
  • Short knowledge check
  • Student polling

Principle 2: Create Cognitive Dissonance

Now that students have recognized their background knowledge on the topic, they need to be made aware of how their current mental model could have some gaps. For this to happen, the instructor might choose a problem or ask a question she knows will cause a disruption in student thinking. She is not presenting the information as a prescribed way to think, but rather an opportunity for reflection and inquiry. Strategies for creating cognitive dissonance:

  • Share shocking statistics
  • Present a provocative quotation or photo
  • Ask students to research different sides of an issue
  • Get students to solve a problem or puzzle

Principle 3: Apply Knowledge and Receive Feedback

According to constructivist theory, students now have to expand or modify their new knowledge in the context of their prior understanding. This is a great opportunity for students to work with each other and get feedback from their peers and formative feedback from instructors. Strategies for applying knowledge and receiving immediate feedback:

Principle 4: Reflect on Learning

I think this is an area many of us struggle with. We want to fill in the silences and help students tie up the loose ends. But once students have acquired new knowledge, it’s important for them to reflect on what they’ve learned. Making time for metacognition can be as simple as a class debrief or as complicated as an exam. Here are more strategies:

  • 1-minute paper
  • Muddiest Point
  • Exit Pass

Final Takeaway

It’s important to note that just because a lesson applies active learning strategies or is “student centred” does not mean it’s constructivist. As well, social constructivism is different from the classic constructivism theory. It is not a constructivist lesson unless an instructor elicits prior knowledge, supports students through dissonance, provides feedback on applied learning, and helps students reflect on the journey!

I am a firm believer in using multiple learning theories in my teaching, but I like the idea of a constructivist approach being at the core of my lesson plans.


Baviskar, S. N., Hartle, R. T., & Whitney, T. (2009). Essential criteria to categorize Constructivist teaching: Derived from a review of the literature and applied to five constructivist-teaching method articles. International Journal of Science Education, 31(4), 541-550.

Water ripple image taken from Unsplash:

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