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What is constructivism?

...and what is it not?

Hello and welcome to the 41st edition of our fortnightly newsletter, Things in Education.

“Wonderful ideas do not spring out of nothing. They build on a foundation of other ideas.”

Harvard professor Eleanor Duckworth beautifully sums up the essence of constructivism in her book, “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning. But what is constructivism? And what does it look like in the classroom?

To understand this, let’s take an example of a Grade 8 History topic – How art became a symbol of resistance during the Indian Independence Movement.

Step 1: Make the objective clear.

Constructivism has earned the reputation of being completely unstructured and giving students the option to explore any concept of their choosing. However, this is far from the truth. When done right, the teacher as well as the students must clearly know what the learning objective is. Knowing this also helps students activate prior knowledge in their long-term memory and gives them a clear structure to manage information in their working memory. More about long-term memory and working memory here. So, it is important to tell students the learning objective: Analyse how art became a symbol of resistance during the Indian Independence Movement.

Step 2: Activate prior knowledge.

Next, the teacher must help students activate prior knowledge about the topic by asking them specific questions related to the learning objective. This serves to further clarify for students what exactly they must be thinking about, what key terms they must keep in mind, and what information they must actively think about in their working memory.

In this case, we must ask students specific questions such as: What forms of art do you know about from the time of the British rule? What did that art look like? Do you know of any Indian art from that time? What did it look like? What is a symbol of resistance? Why are such symbols important? Here, it is important that teachers know the topic very well and write only relevant terms shared by students on the board.

Step 3: Provide resources to explore.

Constructivism requires the teacher to not only know the topic very well, but also plan the right resources for students to explore. Once again, it is important to make the larger learning objective clear to students, along with mini objectives to focus on as they explore the resources.

In this case, students can be given specific paintings by the British rulers and by Indian artists to look at, identify features of and compare. For example, students can be asked to carefully look at each painting and note down key features, such as what each shows, what the theme of each is, what the aim of the painter may have been, what style of painting it is, what colours are used, and if a British or Indian painter painted it.


Step 4: Ask prompting questions and encourage discussion.

This step forms the essence of constructivism. In fact, an educational researcher named Chiu stated that knowing when to prompt students and when to give them the space to think is one of the hardest parts of this form of teaching, and as a learner, one of the most wonderful resources that the teacher can provide you with.

First, allow students to discuss the points they noted down. Then, restate the larger learning objective, followed by asking them prompting questions about each painting that will take them closer to understanding art as a symbol of resistance in the Indian Independence Movement. For example: Painting 1 – Who do you think painted this? Why? What are the British doing in this painting? The Indians? What do you think it made the British feel? The Indians? Painting 2: Who do you see? Do you think they are Indian or British? Why? Who do you think painted it?

As students discuss, it is important to listen carefully and course-correct when needed. For example, if a student states that Painting 2 shows a British man, ask students to notice features, dressing and clothes. With carefully-worded questions, guide them towards a discussion around how Indians were depicted in British paintings, how the style and theme of Indian paintings were different from the British ones, and how Indians used paintings to show resistance and individuality. Our role as teachers is to question, listen and course-correct, while letting students do the bulk of the thinking. This thinking is what activates and creates connections in their long-term memory.

Step 5: Conclude with clear information.

Finally, conclude the class with a quick explanation that includes facts and clear information. This helps students consolidate the information into their long-term memory.

Tell students when the paintings were made and by whom, how the British portrayed Indians as poor and helpless, and how Indian painters developed their own styles and themes as a symbol of nationalism.

What is NOT constructivism?

Educational researchers Paul Kirschner and John Sweller have raised many concerns about constructivism. Mainly, they argue that constructivism is a minimally-guided approach that gives only partial information to students, places too much load on their working memory and ignores long-term memory. And when constructivism is done wrong, these are exactly the problems that students will face. If we as teachers follow the steps of constructivism as given above, understand our subject matter well, plan our resources and our questions, and listen to students carefully, that’s when we can do constructivism right.


A note from Ritu (Founder, Things Education):

When I was studying at Harvard University, I enrolled in two different semester-long courses that used the constructivist approach. One course – The Having of Wonderful Ideas – was one of the most powerful learning experiences I have had, and it fundamentally changed how I think about and approach teaching and learning. It showed me how effective and enriching learning in a constructivist classroom can be. The other course, however, left me confused, scared and angry. There was minimal guidance, and students were given difficult concepts to explore and understand with close to no support. It showed me how damaging ‘constructivism-done-wrong’ can be. It is easy to go wrong with constructivism, but when done right, it does wonders for motivation, engagement and learning.


Useful links:

  • In this article, Ritu Lamba writes about her learnings from the Harvard course on constructivism, The Having of Wonderful Ideas.

  • In this interview, Paul Kirschner provides his criticisms of what we call ‘constructivism-done-wrong.’


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Edition: 2.15

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