Schulte, P. L.  (1996).  A definition of constructivism.  Science Scope         20(6), 25-27.



A Definition of Constructivism

By Paige L. Schulte


    The philosophy of constructivism is a popular topic for graduate school lectures and research articles.   Unfortunately, the abstract nature of these presentations is often of little value to the classroom teacher.   To help teachers view constructivism as a viable framework for instructional strategies, I offer the following practical explanation.

 Studies by Piaget and others since the 1970s have led to the constructivist philosophy, which focuses on the framework that students carry into learning situations.  Constructivism says that learners bring their personal experiences into the classroom and these experiences have a tremendous impact on students' views of how the world works.  Students come to learning situations with a variety of knowledge, feelings, and skills, and this is where learning should begin.  This knowledge exists within the student and is developed as individuals interact with their peers, teachers, and the environment.  Learner's construct understanding or meaning by making sense of their experiences and fitting their own ideas into reality.

    Children construct thoughts, expectations, and explanations about natural phenomena to make sense of their everyday experiences.  Their explanations form an intricate framework that often differs from scientific views and are referred to as misconceptions, alternative conceptions, or alternative frameworks.  Studies indicate that alternative conceptions common to elementary students are also found among high school and college students, as well as adults (1).  These misconceptions often interfere with learning because students resist change unless they are dissatisfied with their current explanations and can find sensible alternatives with supporting evidence.  The more dissatisfied students are the more likely they will search for and accept new explanations.  This reorganization of ideas may require students to discard old views and construct new ones (2).  The learner must first recognize that his or her current knowledge is insufficient to explain an experience.  As the learner experiences this conflict between their misconceptions and newly discovered scientific explanations, a state of disequilibrium occurs and the student becomes uncomfortable (3).  Once a particular explanation fits the situation, equilibrium exists.  Piaget believes that people are always trying to reach this state of equilibrium and constantly test the adequacy of their ideas through assimilation and accommodation.  Constructivists believe that actual learning takes place through accommodation, which occurs when students change their existing ideas in response to new information.

    Traditional teaching methods focus on assimilation more than accommodation.  Assimilation has been referred to as positivism, objectivism, and behaviorism.  The main goal of science instruction through assimilation is for students to arrive at scientifically acceptable solutions.  In a traditional classroom, students wait for the teacher to present the correct information, which is then reinforced by a textbook (3).  Actual learning is accomplished through practice, repetition, and reinforcement of correct answers.  Content is broken down into behavioral objectives to be met, skills to be mastered, and tests to be evaluated.  Educators concentrate on how to teach and what to evaluate (4).  Students are passive receivers who learn what the teacher tells them to learn and in the way they are told to learn it.  As a result, students strive only to complete the activity quickly or correctly with little thought of the tasks significance.  The teacher measures observable behavior rather than conceptual change or understanding.  Lectures, objectives, textbooks, tests, and grades reinforce this approach.  The result is that students memorize a variety of terms but often cannot apply them to problems or outside experiences because they do not truly understand them.

    In contrast, students who gain an understanding of scientific concepts through constructivist strategies successfully accommodate scientific knowledge with their own view of how the world works.  Knowledge is not simply transferred from teacher to student or from textbook to student.  Students build their own explanations and ideas.

    In the constructivist classroom, the focus is not on meeting objectives or mastering tests, as this does not sufficiently determine how much learning has occurred or track the process of conceptual change.  Constructivists believe that science educations should be student-centered and that the teacher facilitates learning rather than acts as an authority who transmits information to students.  The teacher examines each students understanding and develops instructional techniques that create cognitive conflict to help adjust the students alternative conceptions (5).  Progress is slow as a smaller number of concepts are covered and greater value is placed on understanding.

    Students must actively participate in learning because the teacher does not just provide answers.  Learning depends on the shared experiences of students, peers, and the teacher.  Collaboration with others is so important that cooperative learning is a major teaching method used in the constructivist classroom.

    Constructivism recognizes that students are at different levels of understanding and elicit a variety of ideas.  Sharing their ideas with others allows them to clarify their own thoughts and consider those of their peers.  Heterogeneous cooperative groups allow students to share ideas, reflect on the ideas of others, and debate differences in views.  Students may not be thinking in the same manner, but they are learning ideas in ways that are meaningful to them.

    A constructivist science classroom also requires hands-on learning.  According to Fosnot, a constructivist takes a position that the learner must have experience with hypothesizing and predicting, manipulating objects, posing questions, researching answers, imagining, investigating, and inventing(6).  The learning cycle also belongs in the constructivist science classroom.  Through the process of exploration, concept introduction, and application, students are able to disclose and discuss conceptions and then construct patterns and relationships (7).  

    The constructivist model is also consistent with Science, Technology, and Society (STS), which require students to develop problem-solving strategies and change misconceptions through reflecting and discussing problems in society related to science and technology.  Students learn by using their senses and manipulating objects rather than just listening to a teacher or reading a textbook.  Textbooks are a part of the constructivist classroom as long as the teacher does not rely on them for meaningful learning and students clearly understand the purpose of the reading.  Reading is an active process in which students construct their own meaning.  Words alone do not carry meaning (8).  Teachers can use strategies such as concept mapping along with textbook readings to help students find the relationship between terms rather than merely memorizing their definition.

    Education at all  levels is a cycle in that educators often repeat the same techniques by which they were taught.  Teachers who incorporate the constructivist model into their classrooms may need to change the way they plan and use activities in order to encourage student interactions, decision-making, reflection, debate, and problem solving.  Contructivist teacher must use outside resources and materials such as additional books, videotapes, and computer programs and not rely solely on a textbook to enhance learning.  In planning a lesson, teachers must not overestimate or underestimate the learning abilities of each student.  Constructivist teachers must observe the students' actions and listen to their views without making judgments or trying to correct answers.  This strategy encourages students to take risks and develop their own ideas without fear of being incorrect.  Teachers in the constructivist classroom may have to alter existing grading systems and rely more on observation, writing assignments, and portfolios rather than test scores, to assess learning.

    Selecting appropriate tasks, modifying existing grading systems, and other changes from traditional to the constructivist mode of teaching require a large amount of time and energy.  It is difficult to eliminate teaching practices that have become entrenched in our culture.  Simple workshops will not accomplish this objective.  Teachers must believe in the new ideas and make them a part of their own teaching frameworks.

Figure 1

  Comparison of models and examples of how a unit on weathering and erosion  would be taught in a traditional and constructivist classroom


   Students are assigned to read the chapter on weathering and erosion.  The

    teacher gives the definition of terms and lectures on the topic, giving

    causes, effects, and examples.  Once the concept is introduced, hands-on

    activities and demonstrations are completed to show concepts.  Students answer

    review questions based on the text, lectures, activities, and handouts.  A

    chapter test includes questions such as "Name the four agents of erosion," and

    "Give an example of a landform shaped by erosion."



    unexpected outcomes that arouse curiousity.  Terms have not yet been

    introduced.  Students discuss the results of the activities with group

    memebers.  The teacher poses questions looking for misconceptions and

    activities are sequenced to challenge them.  Once studetns begin to make

    connections between activites and understand the concept, the vocabulary is

    introduced.  Questions focus on application and look for student

    understanding:  "Why are the tombstones in New Orleans difficult to read?"  

   Alternative forms of assessment my also focus on issues in society:  "Design a

    beachfront home to build, considering the concept of erosion.  Research

    methods that people are using to stop erosion in certain areas."




1.        Kyle, W.C., and J.A. Shymansky.  1989.  Enhancing learning through conceptual change teaching.  NARST (21).

2.        Posner, G.J., K.A. Strike, P. W. Hewson, and W. A. Gertzog.  1982.  Accommodation of a scientific conception toward a theory of conceptual change.  Science Education 66(2):                  211-227.

3.        Appleton, K.  1993.  Using theory to guide practice:  Teaching science from a constructivist perspective.  School Science and Mathematics 93(5):  269-274.

4.        Collette, A. T.  1994.  Science Instruction in the Middle and Secondary Schools.  Columbus, Ohio:  Merrill Publishing Company.

5.        Alkove, L. D., and B. J. McCarty.  1992.  Plain talk:  Recognizing positivism and constructivism in practice.  Action in Teacher Education 14(2):16-22.

6.        Fosnot, C. T.  1989.  Enquiring Teachers, Enquiring Learners:  A Constructivist Approach for Teaching.  New York:  Teachers College Press.

7.        Lawson, A. E.  1988.  A better way to teach biology.  The American Biology Teacher 50(5):  266-274.

8.        Yager, R. E.  1991.  The constructivist learning model.  The Science Teacher 58(61):  52-57.



Paige L. Schulte is a graduate student at the University of New Orleans, New Orleans, Louisiana