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Constructivism in Teaching English

The History of Constructivism

There is a history of two thousand years attached to constructivist thought in the Eastern tradition and a history of at least three hundred years in Western thought. Pritchard and Woolard (2010) cite the writing of Gautama Budha (560-477) BC): “We are what we think. All that we are arises within our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world”. In 535-474 BC, a pre-Socratic philosopher has also shown to be a very early constructivist-style thinker. He stated that we cannot step into the same river twice. The other statement comes from the founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu, a contemporary of Gautama Buddha states that reality is changing and variable entity which can be perceived differently by different individuals. The statements are indeed the view that individuals construct the world in which they live. They seem to be saying that the facts of the outer world are interpreted by the individual to form the beliefs to form the individual’s version of reality.

In Western context, Giambatista Viso (1668-1774) writes about human knowing involving an imaginary construction of order in experience (Mahoney, 2005). Additionally, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) describes that the mind as an active organ which transforms the chaos of experience into orderly thought (Pritchard and Woolard, 2010). Furthermore, it is worth to know as the history of constructivism is considered, since Kant is thought to have influence Jean Piaget. Piaget’s thoughts on constructivism learning seem to have been based on some of the ideas first promulgated by Kant.

We have seen that the notion of constructivist theory might actually date back to Greek times with Heraclius seen as the earliest Western contributor. It is possible to look to Buddha and Lao Tzu for even earlier. However, we can place the real development of constructivist learning theory in the twentieth century. It is the work of Jean Piaget (1896-1980) to be considered as the beginning of the constructivist approach to learning. His work leads to the expansion of understanding child development and learning as a process of construction that has underpinned much of the theory relating to social constructivism (Pritchard and Woolard, 2010). The other constructivist who works in a secretive Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century is Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934).

They worked in parallel with similar but occasionally diverging ideas. For them, the model development sequences provide experiences in which an individual externalizes processes. But in model development sequences, justification for small group activities derive from Piaget – influences cognitive perspectives at least as much as from Vygostky – influenced social perspectives: (Lesh & Doerr, 2003).

In short, constructivism can claim a long and prestigious heritage: Dewey, Piaget, Bruner, and, perhaps most importantly today, Vygotsky, are all taken to endorse the constructivist cause.

Some Concepts of Constructivism

Pritchard and Woollard (2010) state some figures that give some concepts about constructivism.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980)

Piaget’s constructivism offers a window into what children are interested in, and able to achieve, at different stages of their development. The theory describes how children’s ways of doing and thinking evolve over time, and under which circumstance children are more likely to let go of—or hold onto— their currently held views.

Lev Vygostsky (1896-1934)

He (1978) states that 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 (intrasychological). 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.

Jerome Bruner

Learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current and pre-existing knowledge. The learners select and transform information, construct hypotheses and make decision with reference to and reliance upon an internal cognitive structure.

Fundamentally, constructivism says that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. (Pritchard and Woollard, 2010).

The Principles of Constructivism

Fosnot (1996) states some principles of constructivism, they are:

Knowledge is actively constructed by the individual

Learning is not a passive activity. The process of learning takes place when individuals attempt to make sense of the world around them. In response to an environmentalist viewpoint, those who espouse a constructivist view would contend that learning takes effort on the part of the learner; there is no “osmosis” effect.

Learning is both an individual and a social process

Constructivists believe that knowledge is developmentally organized into universal cognitive structures. Moreover, knowledge has a social component-individuals’ interactions with their environment are critical and must not be discounted.

Learning is a self-regulated process

Individuals learn at different rates due both to their inborn characteristics (i.e., intelligence) and to the external factors that affect them (i.e., environment, including other people).

Learning is an organizational process that enables people to make sense of their world

This is the constructivist concept of equilibration. Experiences or concepts that are encountered for the first time undergo one of two processes: assimilation, subsuming a new idea into an existing schema (organizational group), or accommodation, creating new schema to contain novel information. This organization and reorganization takes place constantly within the human mind.

Cognition serves the organization of the experiential world

Because all individuals lead different lives, the purpose of learning is to allow people to organize what they have experienced. Thus, rather than “knowing” cold facts about “reality,” learning provides individuals with beliefs about the world in which they live.

Reality represents an interpretation

Information is sifted by the individual to create beliefs from interpretations of self-referent information and environmental contingencies. The construction of meaning relies on interpretation.

Constructivism in Teaching and Learning Process

Pritchard and Woolard (2010) proposed some practical strategies that can be applied in the classroom:

Activating Prior Knowledge

The learners are introduced to the use of a KWL grid. Working in pairs, the students indentify “what I Know, what I Want to find out, and what I have Learned”.

The strategy employed here which is designed to activate prior knowledge in commonly employed by teachers. Often, it is something which is done instinctively, sometimes quite swiftly as a reminder and sometimes at a greater length with more detailed attention paid to ensuring that both individuals and the group as a whole have explored their shared understanding and knowledge of a given topic.

Computer-mediated Collaboration

In practice, the learners communicate through a conventional online chat room. The students are individually subscribed to a private (bounded) chat room where only they and their teacher could read or write comments. The first messages in the chat room are sent by the teacher, as preparation, prior to the lesson. Those initial messages describe the activity and the provided the addresses of the websites to be evaluated. The teacher considers that there is no need for a formal introduction to the lesson since it has been described in detail at the end of the previous lesson and also because the lesson was short and time was at premium. The group enters the classroom and logs on and enters the chat room.

Some students do not immediately understand the problem, but others are able to give support by answering their questions in an informal way. The time soon comes when comments are sent to the chat room concerning the individual websites. In this way, a good evaluative practice is needed.

Working in Pairs

This strategy proposes the affordances of working in pairs, encouraging discussion and disagreement – social interaction and dialogue with a peer.


Brooks, J.G. & Brooks, M.G. 1999. In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classroom. USA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Fosnot, C. 1996. Constructivism: Theory, Perspectives, and Practice, (pp.8-33). New York: Teachers College Press

Lesh, R. & Doerr, H.M. 2003. Beyond Constructivism. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Mahoney, J. 2005. “Constructivist and Positive Psychology” in Snyder, R. and Lopez, S. (Eds). Handbook of Positive Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Pritchard, A. & Woolard, J. 2010. Psychology for the Classroom: Constructivism and Social Learning. New York: Routledge


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