Cognitive, Constructivist Learning

Constructivist Theories

The area of constructivism, in the field of learning, comes under the broad heading of cognitive science. Cognitive science is an expansive area. It has its roots in the first half of the twentieth century at a time when academics from the disciplines of psychology, artificial intelligence, philosophy, linguistics, neuroscience and anthropology realised that they were all trying to solve problems concerning the mind and the brain.


Cognitive scientists study (among other things) how people learn, remember and interact, often with a strong emphasis on mental processes and often with an emphasis on modern technologies. Cognitive science investigates ‘intelligence and intelligent systems, with particular reference to intelligent behaviour’).


Cognitive psychology is the scientific study of mental processes such as learning, perceiving, remembering, using language, reasoning and solving problems.


Constructivists view learning as the result of mental construction. That is, learning takes place when new information is built into and added onto an individual’s current structure of knowledge, understanding and skills. We learn best when we actively construct our own understanding.


Jean Piaget, who is considered to be one of the most influential early proponents of a constructivist approach to understanding learning, is one of the best known psychologists in the field of child development and learning. Many teachers are introduced to what is known as his ‘developmental stage’ theory, which sets out age-related developmental stages. The stages begin with the sensori-motor stage and end with the stage of formal operations. The developmental stage theory is a useful guide to intellectual growth, but modern thought has gone beyond Piaget’s view.


Period Age Characteristics of the Stage
Sensori-motor 0–2 years Simple reflexive behaviour gives way to ability to form schemas and to create patterns and chains of behaviour. Over time children come to realise that objects exist even if they cannot be seen.
Pre-operational 2–7 years Children are essentially egocentric and unable to consider events from another’s point of view. The use of symbolic thought begins and the imagination also begins to develop.
Concrete operational 7–11 years Children begin to use logical thought about physical operations; they are able to conserve– that is, they realise that two equal physical quantities remain equal even if the appearance of one changes.
Formal operations 11+ years Children are able to think hypothetically and abstractly, although this is limited by lack of depth and breadth in knowledge.


During the sensori-motor period, Piaget said that a child’s cognitive system is more or less limited to motor reflexes which are present at birth, such as sucking. The child builds on these reflexes to develop more sophisticated behaviour. Children learn to generalise specific actions and activities to a wider range of situations and make use of them in increasingly complex patterns of behaviour. At Piaget’s pre-operational stage, children acquire the ability to represent ideas and to engage in mental imagery. In particular they do this through the medium of language. They have an egocentric view; that is, they view the world almost exclusively from their own point of view and find it difficult to consider situations from another’s perspective.

In the concrete operational stage, children become more able to take another’s point of view and they begin to be able to take into account multiple perspectives. Although they can understand concrete problems, Piaget would argue that they cannot deal effectively with more abstract problems. At the stage of formal operations, children are capable of thinking logically and in the abstract. Piaget considered this stage to be the ultimate stage of intellectual development, and said that although children were still in a position of having relatively little knowledge, their thought processes were as well developed as they were ever likely to be. Whether Piaget was correct or not, it is safe to say that his theory of cognitive development has had a great influence on all work in the field of developmental psychology. Piaget’s view of a child’s intellectual development has influenced teaching practices too. It gives teachers approximate guidance concerning the level of complexity that might be expected in a child’s thought processes at approximate stages in their development. The exactness of the stage of development in relation to a child’s age has been criticised; that is to say, a child may well pass through the stages but it is not clear that they will pass through them at specific ages. However, as a developmental trail, it is useful.

Another aspect of Piaget’s work is concerned with the growth of knowledge and understanding, and the ways in which new information is dealt with by young learners. Piaget’s descriptions of assimilation and accommodation, which we will consider next, are not restricted to young learners, and give a good representation of the process of learning for learners of all ages.

Jean Piaget

For Piaget, learning is a process of adjustment to environmental influences. He describes two basic processes which form this process of adjustment. They are assimilation and accommodation. Piaget’s view is influenced by his background in biology and he sees organisms, including human beings, as constantly seeking to maintain a stability in their existence. A physical example of this would be the maintenance of a constant body temperature. If external conditions change – get hotter, for example – a sophisticated organism will make physical changes in order to maintain stability. The body’s temperature regulation systems come into operation and a constant temperature is held. Piaget’s model for learning is similar. External experiences can have an impact on what is already ‘known’. It could be that a new experience can add to and reinforce ‘knowledge’ that is held or it could contradict existing knowledge. For example, a young child might know that a small creature covered in fur, with four legs and having a tail, is a dog. The more examples of dogs that the child comes across, the more secure this idea becomes. However, a cat is also small, furry and has a tail. New environmental experience – being introduced to a cat – contradicts the currently held knowledge and understanding concerning the definition of a dog. The new information is added to the existing information, and gradually a deeper and broader understanding of creatures with fur and tails is developed.

Assimilation is the process whereby new knowledge is incorporated into existing mental structures. The knowledge bank is increased to include new information.

Accommodation is the process whereby mental structures have to be altered in order to cope with the new experience which has contradicted the existing model.

Equilibration is the process of arriving at a stable state where there is no longer a conflict between new and existing knowledge.

Piaget’s early work formed the basis of the constructivist movement. In constructivist learning theory, the key idea is that ‘. . . students actively construct their own knowledge: the mind of the student mediates input from the outside world to determine what the student will learn. Learning is active mental work, not passive reception of teaching’ (Woolfolk 1993).

In constructivist learning, individuals draw on their experience of the world around them, in many different forms, and work to make sense of what they perceive in order to build an understanding of what is around them.

Within constructivist theory there are, naturally, different interpretations of the basic ideas of the construction of knowledge and understanding.

It is schema theory which gives a model of, and an explanation for, what underpins the complex process of building new knowledge and understanding.

Some of the characteristics of schemas are:

  • They are based on our general world knowledge and experiences.
  • They are generalised knowledge about situations, objects, events, feelings and actions.
  • They are incomplete and constantly evolving.
  • They are personal.
  • They are not usually totally accurate representations of a phenomenon.
  • They typically contain inaccuracies and contradictions (misconceptions).
  • They provide simplified explanations of complex phenomena.
  • They contain uncertainty but are used even if incorrect.
  • They guide our understanding of new information by providing explanations of what is happening, what it means and what is likely to result.

Prior knowledge has a crucial part to play in constructivist learning. An existing schema represents the sum of an individual’s current state of knowledge and understanding of the particular topic, event, action and so on. New learning concerned with the particular topic will involve the processes of accommodation and assimilation, and the expansion and increase in complexity of the schema in question.


The origins of the constructivist view of learning have their roots in the work of Piaget. Piaget’s view of the growing child was as what he called a ‘lone scientist’. This description gives an image of a child alone, exploring the immediate environment, and drawing conclusions about the nature and structure of the world. Social constructivism adds an important dimension to the constructivist domain. In social constructivist theory, emphasis is placed upon interaction between the learner and others. The others can come in many forms – it is the dimension of social interaction that is crucial to the social constructivists. The main proponents of this branch of constructivism are Lev Vygotsky, a Russian whose work was carried out at the start of the twentieth century but not widely available in the West until many years later; and Bruner, an American publishing his work in the second half of the twentieth century.

Social constructivism gives a high priority to language in the process of intellectual development. Dialogue becomes the vehicle by which ideas are considered, shared and developed. The dialogue is often with a more knowledgeable other, but this need not always be the case. Dialogue with peers can be of equal value. Prior knowledge, naturally, has a part to play. It is an individual’s prior and current knowledge that forms the basis of any contribution to a dialogue. It is with reference to existing knowledge and understanding (schemas) that new ideas and understanding can be constructed in the course of dialogue. When we consider the more knowledgeable other, it is easy to assume that this person will be a teacher or a parent, but this need not be the case. More knowledgeable need not imply older nor in a position of responsibility for learning. It is very often the case that learning will take place in very different environments. Most learning does not take place in school. Any social interaction with anybody at all may well lead to learning. The building and exchange of thoughts and ideas which takes place in the course of a discussion, in any context at all, is likely for at least one of the participants, and often for both or all of them, to lead to a greater understanding of, or insight into, the topic of the conversation.

The role of the more knowledgeable other in formal learning situations is usually taken by a teacher. The teacher has the role of stimulating dialogue and maintaining its momentum. Ina very real way, the teacher engages groups and individuals in dialogue and supports the development of understanding. The undertaking of this role, in a planned way, has a particular name and is known as ‘scaffolding’. To fully understand the concept of scaffolding, we need to first look at an aspect of Vygotsky’s work, which is the notion of a zone of proximal development (ZPD).

The zone of proximal development is a refreshingly simple description of something which many teachers and other adults understand and work with. It is an idea from Vygotsky’s work which has impacted on practice over the last 30 years or so as more importance has been given to the notion of differentiation in teaching.

The zone of proximal development is a theoretical space of understanding which is just above the level of understanding of a given individual. It is the area of understanding into which a learner will move next. In the zone of proximal development, a learner is able to work effectively, but only with support.

Passing through the zone of proximal development is a process which can be aided by the intervention of another. A teacher can fulfil this role and so can a range of other people or materials. In planning work for children, a teacher needs to take into account the current state of the understanding of the children in question, and plan accordingly and appropriately.

Scaffolding is the process of giving support to learners at the appropriate time and at the appropriate level of sophistication to meet the needs of the individual. Scaffolding can be presented in many ways: through discussion – a good socially constructive approach; through the provision of materials – perhaps supplying practical apparatus to help in the solution of simple problems in arithmetic; or by designing tasks which match and give help appropriate to the individual – a list of words given to help in the process of completing an exercise designed to assist understanding, or a list of reminders concerning the process of undertaking the task in question; a writing frame to support a particular style of written piece is also an example.

Working collaboratively, in pairs or small groups, is an obvious socially constructive approach to learning. The converse of this would be working in a silent classroom, where contact with others is discouraged. There are times when quiet individual working is useful and important, and teachers are able to describe times when a child should be encouraged to work quietly and alone. As a mainstay approach to teaching and learning, this would totally ignore all that we know about socially constructed learning.


‘Cognition’ is a global term which seeks to cover all of the mental activities that serve the acquisition, storage, retrieval and use of knowledge. Cognition is the ability of the brain to think, to process and store information, and to solve problems. Cognition is a high level behaviour which is thought, in many respects, to be unique to humans. Obviously the role of cognition in the processes of learning is crucial. ‘Metacognition’ refers to the idea of an individual’s considering, being aware of and understanding their own mental (cognitive) processes and ways of learning. It is cognition about cognition. An individual’s awareness of their own thought processes will have a bearing on the way that they view their own learning and is likely, with encouragement, to lead to recognition of the ways in which they might learn most effectively.


Metacognitive knowledge is the knowledge that an individual has about their own cognition, which can be used to consider and to control their cognitive processes. To work metacognitively is to consider and take active control of the processes involved in learning and thinking as they are happening.

The term ‘metacognition’ is most closely associated with the psychologist John Flavell. He tells us that metacognition consists of metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive experiences or regulation. Metacognitive knowledge is knowledge about cognitive processes, which an individual has come to understand, and can be used to control mental processes. ‘Metacognition refers to one’s knowledge concerning one’s cognitive processes and products or anything related to them . . . metacognition refers, among other things, to the active monitoring . . . regulation and orchestration of these processes’ (Flavell 1976). Brown (1987) offers a simpler version of this when he says that ‘Metacognition refers loosely to one’s knowledge and control of [one’s] own cognitive system.

Wray and Lewis (1997) single out four aspects of constructivist learning theory which they consider to be of paramount importance:

  • Learning is a process of interaction between what is known and what is to be learnt.
  • Learning is a social process.
  • Learning is a situated process.
  • Learning is a metacognitive process.

From these four aspects of constructivist theory they go on to formulate four principles for teaching:

  • Learners need enough previous knowledge and understanding to enable them to learn new things; they need help making links with new and previous knowledge explicit.
  • Provision should be made for social interaction and discussion in groups of varying sizes, both with and without the teacher.
  • Meaningful contexts for learning are very important; it must be remembered that what is meaningful for a teacher is not necessarily meaningful for the child.
  • Children’s awareness of their own thought processes should be promoted.


Constructivist learning theory is built around a set of important features which can be summed up as follows:

  • The construction of knowledge and not the reproduction of knowledge is paramount.

It is the processes that the learner puts into place and uses that are important, rather thanthe fact of knowing something as an end product. A learner is actively engaged with, and in control of, the learning process.

  • Learning can lead to multiple representations of reality.

When learning involves the use of a variety of resources (e.g. first-hand experience, secondary sources, interactive materials, independent research, dialogue), alternative viewpoints of the subject in question are formed; this in turn can be used to foster the skills of critical thinking.

  • Authentic tasks in a meaningful context are encouraged.

Authentic tasks, such as problem-solving, are used to situate learning in familiar and realistic contexts.

  • Reflection on prior experience is encouraged.

Learners are prompted to relate new knowledge and concepts to pre-existing knowledge and experience, which allows the ‘new’ to integrate with what is known already and in this way adding to a learner’s framework of understanding (schema) or amending it.

  • Collaborative work for learning is encouraged.

Dialogue with others allows additional and alternative perspectives to be taken into account when developing personal conclusions. Different knowledge, points of view, and understanding can be given and considered before moving on.

  • Autonomy in learning is encouraged.

Learners are given, and accept, increasing amounts of responsibility for their own learning. This happens in a number of different ways: by collaborating with others, by working on self-generated problems and by the formulating of, and testing of, hypotheses, for example.


Both were constructivists. Both Piaget and Vygotsky believed that individuals actively construct their own knowledge and understanding; Vygotsky stressed the importance of the social interaction in which an individual participates; Piaget stressed the inner motivation to balance new information with existing knowledge and understanding.

Social Constructivism Cognitive Constructivism
Children learn through being active. Children learn through being active.
Learning is a socially mediated activity. Children operate as ‘lone scientists’.
Emphasis placed on the role of the teacher or ‘more knowledgeable other’ as a ‘scaffolder’. If a child is shown how to do something rather than being encouraged to discover it for themselves, understanding may actually be inhibited.
The teacher is a facilitator who provides the challenges that the child needs for achieving more. The teacher is the provider of ‘artefacts’ needed for the child to work with and learn from.
Development is fostered by collaboration (in the Zone of Proximal Development), and not strictly age related. Cognitive growth has a biological, age related, developmental basis.
Development is an internalisation of social experience; children can be taught concepts that are just beyond their level of development with appropriate support. ‘What the child can do with an adult today, they can do alone tomorrow.’ Children are unable to extend their cognitive capabilities beyond their stage of development. There is no point in teaching a concept that is beyond their current stage of development.

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