Constructivism: Piecing it Together

Constructivism has always been one learning theory that I personally feel makes a lot of sense, but gets overlooked in the rush to generate content. At its heart, Constructivism proposes that our experiences and reflections on them help us construct our world view. We are the sum of our experiences plus the knowledge we gain from them. In this way we use what we already understand to help us understand and assimilate new knowledge. Constructivism challenges “traditional” learning by shifting the responsibility of the curriculum to the learner and the teacher is a facilitator.

So what does this mean to those of us who create content for learning? First we must understand that everyone has unique experiences and understandings which contribute to their learning. So there is no silver bullet training or technology that will work for everybody. We must understand the culture of the learner to maximize understanding and application. We must know the learner and offer the new content in a way that matches their constructed view. I think we are all familiar with the phrase give a man a fish he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime. I propose that Constructivism allows learners to construct conclusions using critical thinking and experimentation, which therefore enriches and grows the learner.

Well Steve, this sounds good and all but how can I use this in my training programs? Good question. Lets look at the two big areas in the field: in person and online training. Both of these areas use the fundamental concepts. In online training, the instructor just interacts through technology. You must create an environment and provide the tools available to the learner to ensure that the outcome will be attainable. Above all, the instructor must be good at asking thought-provoking questions to keep the group on track and on target. But above all, the learners must come prepared. There must be some base level of understanding as well as an atmosphere of trust and understanding. Granted, this is no easy task and requires lots of prep and upkeep. The end goal is to empower the learner to find solutions to problems using observation and critical thinking skills. With the added bonus of the learner also realizing and attaining skills to problem solve on their own.

Now Constructivism is not all rainbows and fluffy clouds. There are some critics of this theory. The process itself can take more time than traditional instruction and some complain of reinventing ideas. Also, Constructivism is not as structured as traditional learning, leading many learners to complain and get frustrated when they fail to grasp a concept or problem.

Constructivism, like all learning theories, has pros and cons. I have seen great success and have also seen it crash and burn. The difference between the two has been in the preparation and implementation of the curriculum.

What are your thoughts or experiences with this theory? Please share in the comments below!


Steve leads the Learning & Professional Development team, with over a decade of Instructional Design and professional development experience in higher education at Northern Arizona University.

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