Constructivism is a theory of learning traced back to the work of developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. In the early 20th century, predominant theories of learning proposed by those of the behaviorist school of thought — like Skinner, Watson, and Pavlov — emphasized the role of reward and reinforcement in driving learning. In contrast, Piaget did not believe that children were tabla rasa (blank slates) who learned exclusively through being rewarded for performing particular behaviors. Instead, Piaget was able to demonstrate that children consciously built on prior knowledge and experiences to guide their own learning. He also demonstrated that children had to reach certain developmental stages before they could learn certain things (such as what he called formal operations) — conditioning and reinforcement were not enough. Piaget also developed the concepts of assimilation and accommodation in learning: assimilation happens when new knowledge is incorporated into one’s existing knowledge base; accommodation occurs when one’s worldview in some way has to be changed to incorporate new information.

Another early constructivist was Lev Vygotsky, who developed the concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD). This emphasized the role of social interactions in learning: the zone of proximal development is the difference between what a child can do on their own, and what they can do with the help of an adult. The ZPD in a sense reflects what children are ready to learn, since before the tasks in question are typically ones that children can’t perform even with an adult’s help prior to achieving a certain level of development. Vygotsky also emphasized the role of self-talk in learning and problem-solving — that we often need to use our “inner voice” to frame problems in ways that make sense to us, and essentially “teach ourselves” the solution.

Although these originated as theories of children’s development, constructivist theories have since been expanded to describe adult learning as well. The 21st century view of constructivism in education emphasizes the role that social interactions play in learning: “knowledge is created among learners, working together, drawing on their individual perspectives and past experiential learning” Conrad and Openo [CO18]. Formative assessment is also an important part of learning in a constructivist perspective, because learning relies on feedback from others, and on self-reflection; indeed, these two can form a cycle, since effective self-reflection is necessary to be able to teach others.

You have likely engaged in constructivist practices in the past. For example, even for courses that emphasize individual study and learning (e.g., through exams written individually), students often form study groups (or even just talk about class over coffee) to share knowledge, and support and encourage each other. In this course, the constructivist approach is deliberately integrated into the design of the course, through self-assessments, paired and team activities and projects, and peer assessments. Ultimately, each student needs to be able to demonstrate individual mastery of the course material — but along the way, learning is a collective effort that should have everyone feeling supported.