SEDL Home Southwest Educational Development Laboratory
  Classroom Compass Teaching Math with Music
Previous Page Next Page

Building an Understanding of Constructivism

Written activities and exercises alone do not go to the heart of constructivism, but books have laid the groundwork for this approach to learning. The basic writings in this field are sometimes interesting and often illuminating, even though they cannot "give" anyone constructivism. Teachers, however, can use these works to build their own understanding of constructivism and its place in the classroom. Here are some representative selections of constructivist thinking and of useful guides to constructivist ideas.

As a philosophy of learning, constructivism can be traced at least to the eighteenth century and the work of the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico, who held that humans can only clearly understand what they have themselves constructed. Many others worked with these ideas, but the first major contemporaries to develop a clear idea of constructivism as applied to classrooms and childhood development were Jean Piaget and John Dewey.

For Dewey education depended on action. Knowledge and ideas emerged only from a situation in which learners had to draw them out of experiences that had meaning and importance to them (see Democracy and Education, 1916). These situations had to occur in a social context, such as a classroom, where students joined in manipulating materials and, thus, created a community of learners who built their knowledge together.

Piaget's constructivism is based on his view of the psychological development of children. In a short summation of his educational thoughts (To Understand is to Invent, 1973), Piaget called for teachers to understand the steps in the development of the child's mind. The fundamental basis of learning, he believed, was discovery: "To understand is to discover, or reconstruct by rediscovery, and such conditions must be complied with if in the future individuals are to be formed who are capable of production and creativity and not simply repetition." To reach an understanding of basic phenomena, according to Piaget, children have to go through stages in which they accept ideas they may later see as not truthful. In autonomous activity, children must discover relationships and ideas in classroom situations that involve activities of interest to them. Understanding is built up step by step through active involvement.

The Russian Lev. S Vygotsky is also important to constructivism, although his ideas have not always been clear to the English-reading public both because of political constraints and because of mistranslations. Some commentators believe that Vygotsky is not a constructivist because of his emphasis on the social context in learning, but others see his stress on children creating their own concepts as constructivist to the core. Mind in the Society (English translation, 1978) is a popularization of some of his ideas for an American audience; also available is a collection of shorter works, The Vygotsky Reader (ed. Rene van der Veer and Jaan Valsiner, 1994). Vygotsky believed that children learn scientific concepts out of a "tension" between their everyday notions and adult concepts. Presented with a preformed concept from the adult world, the child will only memorize what the adult says about the idea. To make it her property the child must use the concept and link that use to the idea as a first presented to her. But the relation between everyday notions and scientific concepts was not a straight development to Vygotsky. Instead the prior conceptions and the introduced scientific concepts are interwoven and influence each other as the child works out her own ideas from the generalizations that she had already and that have been introduced to her.


Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press, 1966.

Piaget, Jean. To Understand is to Invent. New York: Grossman, 1973.

Vygotsky, Lev S. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

The Vygotsky Reader. Rene van der Veer and Jaan Valsiner, eds. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1994.

Since the groundwork of constructivism was laid several authors have added to it. The following recent works (of varying levels of abstraction) provide further insights into constructivism and its relation to classroom learning. Most of these works have bibliographies that will be useful to those who wish to read more about these ideas:

Brooks, Jacqueline Grennon, and Martin G. Brooks. In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1993.

Duckworth, Eleanor, Jack Easley, David Hawkins, and Androula Henriques. Science Education: A Minds-on Approach for the Elementary Years. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1990.

Tobin, Kenneth, ed. The Practice of Constructivism in Science Education. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993.

Previous Page Next Page

1995 Southwest Educational Development Laboratory Credits
SEDL online accessibility