Definition. Constructivism is a philosophy of learning founded on the premise that, by reflecting on our experiences, we construct our own understanding of the world we live in. Each of us generates our own "rules" and "mental models," which we use to make sense of our experiences. Learning, therefore, is simply the process of adjusting our mental models to accommodate new experiences.

Discussion. There are several guiding principles of constructivism:

Learning is a search for meaning. Therefore, learning must start with the issues around which students are actively trying to construct meaning.

Meaning requires understanding wholes as well as parts. And parts must be understood in the context of wholes. Therefore, the learning process focuses on primary concepts and not isolated facts.

In order to teach well, we must understand the mental models that students use to perceive the world and the assumptions they make to support those models.

The purpose of learning is for an individual to construct his or her own meaning, not just memorise the "right" answers and regurgitate someone else's meaning. Since education is inherently interdisciplinary, the only valuable way to measure learning is to make the assessment a part of the learning process, ensuring it provides students with information on the quality of their learning.

How Constructivism Impacts Learning

Curriculum. Constructivism calls for the elimination of a standardised curriculum. Instead, it promotes using curricula customised to the students' prior knowledge. Also, it emphasises hands-on problem solving.

Instruction. Under the theory of constructivism, educators focus on making connections between facts and fostering new understanding in students. Instructors tailor their teaching strategies to student responses and encourage students to analyse, interpret, and predict information. Teachers also rely heavily on open-ended questions and promote extensive dialogue among students.

Assessment. Constructivism calls for the elimination of grades and standardised testing. Instead, assessment becomes part of the learning process so those students play a larger role in judging their own progress.


Constructivism places emphasis on the mental processes involved in establishing meaning. It requires self-regulation and the building of conceptual structures through reflection and abstraction (Dick, 1991:41).

Constructivism presents an integrated and holistic theory to learning.

The learner plays a central role in mediating and controlling learning.

The following is a synthesis by Cronjé (1997:B7) of the characteristics of constructivist learning:

Learning is constructed from the experience of the learner.

Interpretation is personal.

Learning is an active process whereby experience is converted into knowledge and skills.

Learning is collaborative, thus allowing for multiple perspectives.

Knowledge is situated in real-life, which is ideally where learning should take place.

The social aspect of constructive learning is important because of the fact that collaborative methods of learning develop critical thinking through directing learners towards discussion, clarification of their own ideas and evaluation of others’ ideas (Pulkkinen & Ruotsalainen, 1997).


One of the biggest advantages of constructivism is that the learner will learn to apply their knowledge under appropriate conditions.

Use of scaffolding, provided by teacher or group, for individual problem solving (Wilson & Cole, 1991).

Learners will be able to develop metacognitive skills (Savery & Duffy, 1995).

Learners will get support via cognitive apprenticeship in the complex environment rather than simplifying the environment for the learner (Savery & Duffy, 1995).


One of the biggest disadvantages of constructivism is that the learner may be hampered by contextualising learning in that, at least initially, they may not be able to form abstractions and transfer knowledge and skills in new situations (Merrill, 1991) In other words, there is often, during the initial stage, confusion. and even frustration.

Learners will enjoy this new approach of discovering learning, but do not always actively construct meaning and building an appropriate knowledge structure (Merrill, 1991) [they simply copy what the better students do]..



Learners must be allowed to construct their own understanding.

The educator will contribute towards the development of the learner’s higher cognitive skills.

Assessment tools cannot focus on "right" or "wrong" anymore.

Assessment of the understanding must therefore focus on the learner’s reasoning (synthesis and evaluation).

Fellow learners play a major role in the development of knowledge and skills of the individual.

Collaborative ways of teaching must be developed to allow for towards discussion, clarification of their own ideas and evaluation of others’ ideas.

Standardised curricula have to change.

New curricula have to address the "gap" between the learner’s previous experience and new learning experience and should focus on problem solving models.

Teaching strategies have to change.

The teaching philosophy should be one of facilitation and interaction in order to allow for the construction of own understanding and meaning.



Cronjé, J.C. 1997. Education for technology, technology for education, Appendix B (In: Van Harmelen, T. Guidelines for technology-enhanced education at the University of Pretoria, Volume I, ITI Working Paper, No.ITI-97-9, June, Institute for Technological Innovation.)

Dick, W. 1991. An instructional designer’s view of constructivism. Educational Technology, 31(5):41-53, May.

Merrill, M.D. and the ID2 Research Group. 1996. Instructional Transaction Theory: Instructional Design Based on Knowledge Objects. Educational Technology, 36(3):30-37.

Pulkkinen, J. & Ruotsalainen, M. 1997. Telematics for teacher training: The lego/logo construction kit goes on the web. Book of Abstracts, On-line Educa Berlin International Conference on Technology Supported Learning, Oct 29-31: 87-91.

Savery, J.R. & Duffy, T.M. 1995. Problem Based Learning: An Instructional Model and Its Constructivist Framework. Educational Technology, 35(5):31-38.

Wilson, B. & Cole, P. 1991. A Review of Cognitive Teaching Models. ETR&D, 39(4):47-64.