Learning, according to the constructivist theory, occurs when knowledge is constructed by the individual as a result of their experiences in the world. The core concept of constructivism is that knowledge is constructed as learners build new knowledge on the basis of what they have already learned. As learners enter learning situations with knowledge acquired from previous experiences, their prior knowledge influences what new or modified knowledge they will build from the new learning experiences.

To build from the new experiences, learning must be active, the learner is not a passive receiver of transmitted information. If the new experience is inconsistent with learners’ present knowledge, this knowledge must be adjusted to accommodate the new experience. Teachers would do this through the creation of scaffolds. This is where the teacher provides a means for learners to apply already existing skills to acquire new knowledge. The constructivist teacher is curious about learners’ current understanding, provides experiences in which learners are actively involved, allows responses to guide subsequent lessons, promotes relevant experiential learning, and fosters self-reflection.



Dissatisfaction with the limitations of Behaviourism led researchers to look for ways to explain the unobservable changes that took place when learning occurred. These developments were rooted in the work of Jean Piaget, in the 1920s. Piaget’s view was that learning occurs when knowledge is constructed by the individual as a result of their experiences in the world. This progresses through distinct stages (Stages of Cognitive Development), he termed:

  • Sensorimotor (birth - 2 years): experiencing the world through senses and actions
  • Pre-operational (2 years - 7 years): representing things with words and images but lacking logical reasoning
  • Concrete operational (7 years - 11years): thinking logical about concrete event
  • Formal operational (11 years - onwards): abstract, hypothetical thinking, systematic deductive reasoning, interest in issues

Furthermore, Piaget formalised that people construct new knowledge from their prior experiences through the processes of accommodation and assimilation. People assimilate when they integrate a new experience into their already established mental framework and accommodate when they reframe their mental representation of the world to incorporate their new experience.

Key principles and classroom implications

The main principles underpinning the constructivist learning theory are:

  • Learners come to the classroom with prior understandings and experiences. To promote learning, teachers must address and build upon this prior knowledge.
  • Teachers must think about what a child already knows, so that new knowledge can be related to existing schemata (assimilated or accommodated).
  • Teachers must look for misconceptions in the learners’ existing knowledge and provide learning activities that enable the learners to understand the limitations of their current conceptions.
  • Teachers must prepare learning tasks in which the learners can actively participate as learners’ own discovery as a crucial element in learning.


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Last modified: Friday, 21 August 2020, 4:53 PM