The Constructive Perspective

Cognitive learning theory and constructive learning theory are sometimes spoken of by present day instructional designers in diametrical contrast to one another and as completely separate theories. However, untangling the two in my review and analysis of learning theory literature was no straightforward task. Sources often cited as the foundational literature of cognitive learning theory are also cited elsewhere as the foundation for constructive learning theory—for example, Ulric Neisser’s Cognitive Psychology (1967). Neisser’s publication is often noted as the seminal work that marks a shift from prominence of behavioral learning theory to a focus on cognitive learning theory. As it turns out, although Neisser set out to write “a dispassionate survey of cognitive psychology” he ended up with something that was not “as neutral or eclectic as had been planned” (p. vii).  In the act of writing he discovered that he had “a definite commitment to a particular kind of psychology”  and that his view of learning was one of construction rather than absorption (p. vii).

Rather than speaking of cognitive and constructive learning theory as two separate theories, it seems more accurate to say that constructive learning theory is a type or subset of cognitive learning theory, and not a true alternative to the same. O’Donnell, Reeve, and Smith (2007) go so far as to suggest that all cognitive theories are constructive in nature:

Cognitive theories include a variety of approaches to understanding the relationship between the individual and his or her environment. At the heart of most cognitive approaches to understanding learning is the notion that knowledge is constructed by the learner and affected by the learner’s prior experiences. All cognitive theories are constructivist in nature in that they all emphasize the active role of learners in making meaning out of their experience. (p. 241)

While the above statement might be a bit of an overgeneralization, it is obvious that what is, or is not, a constructive theory of learning is not always so clear. College-level educational psychology texts generally note two types of constructive learning theory: individual constructivism[1] and social constructivism (see, for example, Bohlin et al., 2009, p. 119; Eggen & Kauchak, 1999, p. 279; Ormrod, 2003, p. 231; Woolfolk, 2010, p. 311). Bohlin et al. defined these two types of constructivism as follows:

In individual constructivism, a person constructs knowledge by using cognitive processes to gain knowledge from experience rather than by memorizing facts provided by others. In social constructivism, individuals construct knowledge through an interaction between the knowledge they bring to the situation and social/cultural exchanges within that context. (p. 119)

Although individual constructivism is typically associated with the ideas of Piaget and social constructivism is typically associated with the ideas of Vygotsky,[2] Bohlin noted that the line between the two “can easily become blurred” (p. 119) for although Piaget was interested primarily in construction of meaning by individuals, he acknowledged social experiences as an important factor in individual cognitive development. Similarly, while Vygotsky’s ideas focused on social and cultural interactions as catalysts of cognitive change, his theory emphasized internalization of knowledge as both spurred on through social interaction and individually mediated. Moshman (1982), made a similar distinction, dividing constructivist learning theories into three categories, summarized here by Harris and Graham (1994):

  1. Endogenous constructivism – similar to individual constructivism in which the construction of new knowledge comes from within, and is based on existing knowledge. This paradigm “emphasizes internal construction of holistic knowledge structures, or the construction of new knowledge from old” (p. 234).
  2. Exogenous constructivism – in contrast with endogenous constructivism, this category denotes theories in which constructed knowledge mirrors objects in the environment. “These theories…to some extent have an underlying empiricist view—that knowledge is derived from one’s environment and thus can be seen as ‘learned.'” (p. 235)
  3. Dialectical constructivism – similar to social constructivism in which the construction of knowledge lies in the continual interaction between the individual and the environment. Dialectical constructivism “exists both separately from and within the tension between endogenous and exogenous constructivism” and the source of knowledge is seen “as lying in continuing interactions between the child and the environment” (p. 236).

In their preface to Constructivism in Education, Steffe and Gale (1995) noted six alternative paradigms of constructivism: “social constructivism, radical constructivism, social constructionism, information-processing constructivism, cybernetic systems, and sociocultural approaches to mediated action” (p. xiii).

Driscoll (2000) described a similar theoretical polymorphism:

There is no single constructivist theory of instruction. Rather, there are researchers in fields from science education to educational psychology and instructional technology who are articulating various aspects of a constructivist theory. Moreover, constructivism is only one of the labels used to describe these efforts. Its use probably stems from Piaget’s reference to his views as “constructivist” (see Chapter 6) and Bruner’s conception of discovery learning as “constructionist” (see Chapter 7). Other labels include generative learning (CTGV, 1991a, 1991b; Wittrock, 1985a, 1985b), embodied cognition (Johnson, 1987; Lakoff, 1987), cognitive flexibility theory (Spiro et al., 1991, 1995), and postmodern and poststructural curricula (Hlynka, 1991; Culler, 1990). (pp. 375-376)

The efforts to simplify or categorize constructivist learning theory, and the various constructivist paradigms mentioned above, are clear evidence that there is an obvious lack of consensus on what constructive learning theory really is. This confusion made the task of setting scope for my review of constructive learning theory rather difficult. In the end, I settled on approaching constructivist learning theory, first and foremost, by looking at how it has impacted the practice of teaching and how it is being implemented in the classroom, and second, by reviewing the ideas of two key figures who are commonly credited as supplying the foundational ideas behind the movement: Jean Piaget (developmental learning) and Jerome Bruner (discovery learning).


[1] Also referred to as “psychological” or “cognitive” constructivism.

[2] Ratner (2004) argues against certain neo-Vygotskian beliefs and their misunderstandings of the concept of sociogenesis—arguing that their concept of “co-constructionism” is, in fact, diametrically opposed to Vygotsky’s “emphasis on the social formation of psychology” (pp. 408, 409). Langford (2005) put it this way:

Contemporary psychologists are often keen to broadcast the idea that one of the most celebrated founders of the modern discipline, Vygotsky, agrees with them. In many cases they are quite justified in doing so. However, in others, the combination of their poor grasp of Vygotsky’s texts and their desire to have him support their ideas, when he really does not, results in falsification of his ideas. Both originated in the West and make him into a constructivist. ‘Constructivism’ is a term that contrasts with realism and means that gaining knowledge is not a process of getting to know about an objective world, but one in which the world is invented…Vygotsky, as previously stressed, was a moderate realist who thought that children come to have an approximate understanding of the world as it really is. There are numerous passages where he says this and none where he says he is a constructivist (Vygotsky, 1925a, Ch. 1, 1927d, Chs. 1, 4, 1930a, 1930b, 1930h, 1931b, Chs 1, 2, 1931d, 1932c, 1934c, Ch. 2)….A constructivist view stressing language is among the most popular in the West…[however] the linguistic-constructivist thesis is wrong, simply because Vygotsky was not, as we have seen, at any time a constructivist. (pp. 152-153)

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