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Constructivist Learning Theory: Pros & Cons

written by: wendyppp • edited by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • updated: 6/6/2012

Constructivist learning theory has its place in the educational setting, but may not be appropriate as an exclusive practice. We've detailed some of the pros and cons of constructivist learning theory as well as some ideas on how to integrate its principles into the learning environment.

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    Constructivist learning theory operates based on the principle that students build knowledge based upon prior knowledge. Constructivism theory states that there is no knowledge independent of the knower, only the knowledge that they create for themselves based on the information that they obtain from the world around them. Instead of having a finite answer, constructivism teaches that the learner creates the answer as they see it.

    Since students begin with existing knowledge as the starting point, teachers are less like dispensers of information and more like learning guides that allow students to make their own conclusions. This method of teaching tends to be more tolerant of different cultures and encourages diversity rather than other theories.

    In Practice:

    Constructivism avoids direct instruction. Instead, the teacher guides students in discovering knowledge on their own. In constructivism,

    • students are actively involved, rather than passively absorbing information;
    • the learning environment is democratic, the teacher is not seen as an authority figure as much as a learning guide;
    • the activities are interactive and student-centered instead of being lesson-centered;
    • a teacher facilitates activities in which students are responsible for their own learning and are autonomous from one another.

    Roles of the Teacher

    According to David Jonassen, Distinguished Professor of Learning Technologies at the University of Missouri, there are three roles for teachers who use the constructivist learning theory in their class.

    • Modeling
    • Coaching
    • Scaffolding-to provide sufficient support to promote learning when new concepts are introduced.

    Constructivist learning environments, according to Jonassen, should have specific learning goals, where teachers make activities interesting and engaging, but not overly structured. Examples of how teachers could approach learning goals would be having the students answer a specific, open-ended question or a broad issue, examine a case study, undertake a long-term project or examine a problem with multiple projects or cases integrated together.

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    Benefits

    Constructivist teaching places more emphasis on sensory input, something that has long been overlooked by many traditional educators. In the days of old, students were expected to sit through lectures, take notes and take tests. While some of that still occurs in classrooms, more and more educators are learning that students need to be fully involved in the learning process, using all of their senses, not just their eyes and ears. Learners aren’t just passive participants in the classroom; they need to be actively involved in “the bigger picture” of the world around them.

    The constructivist teaching method has been used in special education settings for some time. It is quite effective for those students who have special needs like sensory processing disorder or those on the Autistic spectrum. Some of these students have brilliant minds, but simply can't be reached through traditional methods. Rather than simply doling out information, a teacher is more of a guide for a learning journey and actively participates in the learning process with the students as well as encouraging them to challenge ideas.

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    Problems with Contructivism

    The biggest disadvantage is its lack of structure. Some students require highly structured environments in order to be able to excel.

    Constructivism calls for the teacher to discard standardized curriculum in favor or a more personalized course of study based on what the student already knows. This could lead some students to fall behind of others.

    It also removes grading in the traditional way and instead places more value on students evaluating their own progress, which may lead to students falling behind but without standardized grading and evaluations teachers may not know that the student is struggling. Since there is no evaluation in the traditional sense, the student may not be creating knowledge as the theory asserts, but just be copying what other students are doing.

    Another disadvantage is that it can actually lead students to be confused and frustrated because they may not have the ability to form relationships and abstracts between the knowledge they already have and the knowledge they are learning for themselves.

    Constructivism can have its place in the learning system, but as an absolute learning system it has some flaws. Students may benefit with some constructivism principles integrated into the classroom setting, however, most students need more structure and evaluation to succeed.