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
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
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.