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Learning Theory Connections


Constructivism compared to and developed from other learning theories.

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Constructivism and its relation to other learning theories.

The main difference between contructivist learning theories and both behavioural and social cognitive learning theories is the location of knowledge.  Both behavioural (Standeridge,2002)  and social cognitive theories (Schunk, 2008) view knowledge acquisition by the learner as an objective process where the knowledge exists outside the person and, through the process of learning, is assimilated into the learners mind.  Constructivism, on the other hand, says that knowledge is constructed within the mind of the learner (Driscoll, 2005)and is therefore located internally.  Ausubel’s learning theory (Novack, 1998) of assimilation through meaningful learning opportunities falls between the contructivist and behavioural theories.

According to Dougiamas (1998) as shown by the diagram below, the learning theory we call constructivism is a collection of several learning theories which continue to be developed.  Some of these theories (Critical (Kincheloe, 2008) and Cultural (Hutchison, 2006))  are more connected to the idea of constructivism as a philosophical/epistemological concept.  The other three relate more to practical classroom learning and will be discussed here.

Trivial/Personal constructivism, so named by von Glasersfeld as quoted by Dougiamas (1998) was Jean Piaget’s theory of learning called Genetic Epistemology.  Piaget (Campbell, 1997) defined constructivist learning where the learner takes on an active role in constructing knowledge rather than passively receiving knowledge from the environment as behaviorists would suggest.  Piaget believed that each child had a similar 4-step development process based on their cognitive ability.  This is shown in the following diagram.

Piaget also formalized a description of knowledge construction.  This involves the processes of assimilation of agreeable information into existing schema, accommodation of disagreeable information into existing schema and the equilibration between assimilated and accommodated information.

Social Constructivism was a theory of learning developed mainly by Lev Vygotsky (Miller, 2002) and then expanded on by Jerome Bruner.  Vygotsky felt that a learner’s social interactions, especially through language, is the primary means by which new knowledge is constructed.  He felt that each child had a level of knowledge that they could display on their own, another level that they could display with help and a last level that was beyond their developmental ability.  The region of knowledge that a child could display with help was called the Zone of Proximal development.  Vygotsky felt that it was the teacher’s role to provide learning opportunities that challenged learners to the top of their Zone of Proximal Development.

Bruner (Driscoll, 2005) expanded on Vygostsky’s ideas by explaining how learners display knowledge in different ways, indicating their level of “knowing” for a particular concept.  Learners who only had a basic knowledge could only display this enactively through motor responses.  Those who knew the concepts at a higher level could display this iconically through images and pictures.  Learners who had the highest level of knowledge could display this symbolically using language. 

To enhance the movement of a learner from lower enactive levels to the highest symbolic levels, Bruner proposed that students learn best through discovery.  In discovery, learners are able to develop hypothesis and immediately test them.  In this way, students are encouraged to think metacognitively and reflectively to encourage the necessary knowledge constructs.

Radical Constructivism was proposed by Ernst von Glasersfeld (Dougiamas, 1998) as a learning theory.  He theorized that as new knowledge is constructed in the learners, the brain is in a constant state of adaptation.  This new knowledge, however, does not need to be a reflection of lived reality.  This allows each learners knowledge construct to be unique.  As long as one learners construct does not come into direct conflict with another, the illusion of agreement is maintained.

In a practical, classroom sense, the following table copied from  provides an excellent comparison between classrooms that use the behavioural/cognitive information processing theories for learning and those that use constructivist principles for learning.

Traditional ClassroomConstructivist Classroom

Curriculum begins with the parts of the whole. Emphasizes basic skills.

Curriculum emphasizes big concepts, beginning with the whole and expanding to include the parts.

Strict adherence to fixed curriculum is highly valued.

Pursuit of student questions and interests is valued.

Materials are primarily textbooks and workbooks.

Materials include primary sources of material and manipulative materials.

Learning is based on repetition.

Learning is interactive, building on what the student already knows.

Teachers disseminate information to students; students are recipients of knowledge.

Teachers have a dialogue with students, helping students construct their own knowledge.

Teacher's role is directive, rooted in authority.

Teacher's role is interactive, rooted in negotiation.

Assessment is through testing, correct answers.

Assessment includes student works, observations, and points of view, as well as tests. Process is as important as product.

Knowledge is seen as inert.

Knowledge is seen as dynamic, ever changing with our experiences.

Students work primarily alone.

Students work primarily in groups.



Campbell, R. (1997). Jean Piaget's Genetic Epistemology: Appreciation and Critique.  Available online at:

Dougiamas, M. (1998).  A journey into Constructivism.  Available online at:

Driscoll. M.P. (2005). Psychology of Learning for Instruction (pp. 227-244 and 384-407; Ch. 7 Interactional Theories of Cognitive Development & Ch. 11 - Constructivism). Toronto, ON: Pearson.

Educational Broadcasting Corporation. (2004) Concept to Classroom; Workshop: Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning.  Retrieved from

Hutchison, C. B. (2006). Cultural constructivism: the confluence of cognition, knowledge creation, multiculturalism, and teaching. Intercultural Education, 17(3), 301-310. doi:10.1080/14675980600841694

Kincheloe, J. L. (2008) Critical Constructivism Primer.  Retrieved from

Miller, P. H. (2002). Theories of Developmental Psychology, 4th Ed. (pp. 367-396; Vygotsky’s Socio-Cultural Approach). New York: Worth.

Novak, J. D. (1998). Learning, Creating, and Using Knowledge: Concept Maps as Facilitative Tools in Schools and Corporations (pp. 49-78; ch 5 – Ausubel’s Assimilation Learning Theory). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Schunk, D. H. (2008). Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective, pp. 77-181(Chapter 3 aand 4).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Standridge, M.. (2002). Behaviorism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Available online: