The Basics of Constructivism

Bartlett (1932) pioneered what became the constructivist approach (Good & Brophy, 1990). Constructivists believe that "learners construct their own reality or at least interpret it based upon their perceptions of experiences, so an individual's knowledge is a function of one's prior experiences, mental structures, and beliefs that are used to interpret objects and events." "What someone knows is grounded in perception of the physical and social experiences which are comprehended by the mind." (Jonasson, 1991).

If each person has their own view about reality, then how can we as a society communicate and/or coexist? Jonassen, addressing this issue in his article Thinking Technology: Toward a Constructivist Design Model, makes the following comments:

If one searches through the many philosophical and psychological theories of the past, the threads of constructivism may be found in the writing of such people as Bruner, Ulrick, Neiser, Goodman, Kant, Kuhn, Dewey and Habermas. The most profound influence was Jean Piaget's work which was interpreted and extended by von Glasserfield (Smorgansbord, 1997).

Realistic vs. Radical Construction

Realistic constructivism - cognition is the process by which learners eventually construct mental structures that correspond to or match external structures located in the environment.

Radical constructivism - cognition serves to organize the learners experiential world rather than to discover ontological reality

(Cobb, 1996, in Smorgansbord, 1997).

The Assumptions of Constructivism - Merrill


It Boggles the Mind!

If you are reading about learning theories, you may notice that it is difficult to pin down what theory a certain theorist belongs to. This can confuse you, since, just as you think you have it cased, a name you originally thought was in the behavioral category shows up in a constructivism article.

This problem is often the result of theorists and their ideas evolving over time and changes they make to their original ideas. Davidson includes the following example in an article she wrote:

"Considered by most to be representative of [a] behaviourist learning paradigm, Gagne's theory of learning and events of instruction have evolved progressively to approach a more cognitive theory. His discussion of relating present information and past knowledge (event #3) and the inclusion of learning transfer (event#9) are indicative of this shift toward constructivism." (Davidson, 1998)


Mergel, B., (1998), Instructional Design & Learning Theory, University of Saskatchewan