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Constructivism: Constructivist Theory And Social Development Theory

Just as Cognitive Learning Psychology began replacing the predominant Behavioral Psychology in the 1970's, Constructivist Learning Psychology has been challenging the cognitive approach from the 1990's.

Constructivism can be seen as a philosophy as well as a set of instructional practices. As a philosophy, constructivism suggests that although there is a real world out there, there is no meaning inherent in it. Thus, meaning is imposed by people and cultures. As a set of instructional practices, constructivism favors processes over end products; guided discovery over expository learning; authentic, embedded learning situations over abstracted, artificial ones; portfolio assessments over multiple-choice exams, and so on. This distinction may suggest that one can be a constructivist in philosophy without always using constructivist teaching methods.

Constructivism is an approach to teaching and learning based on the premise that cognition (learning) is the result of mental construction. Knowledge is not received from outside, but by reflecting on our experiences, by fitting new information together with what we already know we construct knowledge in our head. Thus, we construct our own understanding of the world we live in. Learning is the process of adjusting our mental models to accommodate new experiences. Constructivist theorists support that people learn best when they actively construct their own understanding.

In the Constructivist theory the emphasis is placed on the learner rather than the teacher. It is the learner who interacts with objects and events and thereby gains an understanding of the features held by such objects or events. The learners individually discover and transform complex information constructing their own conceptualizations and solutions to problems. In constructivist thinking learning is also affected by the context and the beliefs and attitudes of the learner.

There are two major strands of the constructivist perspective: Cognitive constructivism and Social constructivism; Although different in emphasis they share the same basic assumption about learning. Jonassen (1994) proposed that there are eight characteristics that differentiate constructivist learning environments. These eight characteristics would be supported by both social and cognitive constructivists:

1. Constructivist learning environments provide multiple representations of reality.

2. Multiple representations avoid oversimplification and represent the complexity of the real world.

3. Constructivist learning environments emphasize knowledge construction inserted of knowledge reproduction.

4. Constructivist learning environments emphasize authentic tasks in a meaningful context rather than abstract instruction out of context.

5. Constructivist learning environments provide learning environments such as real-world settings or case-based learning instead of predetermined sequences of instruction.

6. Constructivist learning environments encourage thoughtful reflection on experience.

7. Constructivist learning environments"enable context- and content- dependent knowledge construction."

8. Constructivist learning environments support "collaborative construction of knowledge through social negotiation, not competition among learners for recognition."



Jerome Bruner

Jerome Bruner: Constructivist Theory

Bruner's early research on thinking stirred his interest in educational approaches that encourage the development of thinking. He formulated a theory of cognitive growth that postulates:

"The development of human intellectual functioning from infancy to such perfection as it may reach is shaped by a series of technological advances in the use of mind " (1964)

He supported that as children develop their actions are less constrained by immediate stimuli, and that cognitive process mediate the relationship between stimulus and response. This implies that learners might maintain the same response in a changing environment or perform different responses in the same environment, according to what they consider adaptive.

Jerome Bruner identified three stages of cognitive growth:

Enactive stage: the child represents and understands the world through actions which involve motor responses, or ways to manipulate the environment.

Iconic stage: the child represents the world in images that stand for certain objects or evens. This stage corresponds to Piaget's preoperational thinking and its principle of Conservation.

Symbolic stage: the child is able to use abstract ideas, symbols, language, and logic to understand and represent the world.

A major theme in the theoretical framework of Bruner is that learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge. Bruner's work emphasized the importance of understanding the structure of a subject being studied, the need for active learning as the basis for true understanding, and the value of reasoning in learning. His constructivist theory is a general framework for instruction based upon the study of cognition.

In Bruner's Constructivist Theory learners engage in discovery learning obtaining knowledge by themselves. They select and transform information, construct hypotheses, and make decisions, relying on a cognitive structure to do so. In order for discovery to occur learners require background preparation in the form of a cognitive structure that provides meaning and organization to experiences and allows the individual to "go beyond the information given".

Bruner emphasized teaching as a means of enhancing cognitive development, hence the task of the teacher is to translate information to be learned into a format appropriate to the learner's current state of understanding. The instructor should try and encourage students to discover principles by themselves, and both learners and teachers should engage in an active dialog (Socratic learning). Curriculum should be organized in a spiral manner so that the student continually builds upon what they have already learned.


Bruner (1966) states that a theory of instruction should address four major aspects:

  1. Predisposition towards learning
  2. The ways in which a body of knowledge can be structured so that it can be most readily grasped by the learner
  3. The most effective sequences in which to present material
  4. The nature and pacing of rewards and punishments.

Good methods for structuring knowledge should result in simplifying, generating new propositions, and increasing the manipulation of information.


Bruner illustrated his theory in the context of mathematics and social science programs for young children. The following is an example taken from Bruner (1973):

"The concept of prime numbers appears to be more readily grasped when the child, through construction, discovers that certain handfuls of beans cannot be laid out in completed rows and columns. Such quantities have either to be laid out in a single file or in an incomplete row-column design in which there is always one extra or one too few to fill the pattern. These patterns, the child learns, happen to be called prime. It is easy for the child to go from this step to the recognition that a multiple table , so called, is a record sheet of quantities in completed multiple rows and columns. Here is factoring, multiplication and primes in a construction that can be visualized."





Bruner, Jerome S. & Goodman, Cecile C. (1947). Value and need as organizing factors in perception. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 42, 33-44.

Bruner, Jerome S. & Postman, Leo. (1949). On the perception of incongruity: A paradigm. Journal of Personality, 18, 206-223.

Bruner, J. (1960). The Process of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J. (1966). Toward a Theory of Instruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J. (1973). Going Beyond the Information Given. New York: Norton.

Bruner, J. (1983). Child's Talk: Learning to Use Language. New York: Norton.

Bruner, J. (1986). Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.



Lev Semenovich Vygotsky

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky: Social Development Theory

Vygotsky is the main proponent of the Social Constructivist approach to learning. His theoretical framework supports that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition:


"Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, 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."

Vygotsky (1978; p57)


In terms of cognitive development Vygotsky's theory supports that learning proceeds development. He believes that developmental processes lag behind the learning processes pointing out that children can often complete tasks with the help of others that they could not accomplish working independently. The abilities that children can demonstrate when given assistance are in the process of becoming internalized, what implies that cognitive development is limited to this certain time span which he calls the "zone of proximal development" (ZPD).

The zone of proximal development is the difference between an individual's current level of development and his or her potential level of development. The range of skill that can be developed with adult guidance or peer collaboration exceeds what can be attained alone. Furthermore, full development during the ZPD depends upon full social interaction.

Vygotsky argues that at any given time in development there are certain problems that children are on the verge of being able to solve, all they need is structure, clues, reminders, help with remembering details, encouragement, and so on.

"Suppose I investigated two children upon entrance into school, both of whom are ten years old chronologically and eight years old in terms of mental development. Can I say that they are the same age mentally? Of course. What does this mean? It means that they can independently deal with tasks up to the degree of difficulty that has been standardized for the eight year old level. If I stop at this point, people would imagine that the subsequent course of mental development and of school learning for these children will be the same, because it depends on their intellect. Of course, there may be other factors, for example, if one child was sick for half a year while the other was never absent from school: but generally speaking, the fate of these children should be the same. Now imagine that I do not terminate my study at this point, but only begin it. These children seem to be capable of handling problems up to an eight year old's level, but not beyond that. Suppose that I show them different ways of dealing with the problem. Different experimenters might employ different modes of demonstration in different cases: some might run through an entire demonstration and ask the children to repeat it, others might initiate the solution and ask the child to finish it, or offer leading questions. In short, in some way or another, I propose that the children solve the problem with my assistance. Under these circumstances, it turns out that the first child can deal with problems up to a twelve year old's level, the second up to a nine year old's. Now, are these children mentally the same?"

L.S. Vygotsky


Another the way to represent Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development is the following graph:


Zone of Proximal Development


Vygotsky's ZPD implies that learners should be put into situations where they have to reach to understand, nonetheless support from peers or from the teacher should also be available. The task of the teacher would go beyond a mere activity of arranging the environment so that students can discover on their own.

Vygotsky's theory was an attempt to explain consciousness as the end product of socialization. For example, in the learning of language, our first utterances with peers or adults are for the purpose of communication but once mastered they become internalized and allow "inner speech".

This is a Quicktime video discussing the significance of Vygotsky's theory


Constructivism Mindmap:
A Schematic presentation of the features of Constructivism as well as the related factors and applications for practice.



Vygotsky, L.S. (1927). The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology: A Methodological Investigation

Vygotsky, L.S. (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Min d in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.