For a general intro to constructivism click: Overview of constructivism.

Overview of Cognitive Constructivism

Cognitive constructivism is based on the work of Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. Piaget's theory has two major parts: an "ages and stages" ('s_stages.html) component that predicts what children can and cannot understand at different ages, and a theory of development that describes how children develop cognitive abilities. It is the theory of development that will be the focus here because it is the major foundation for cognitive constructivist approaches to teaching and learning.

Piaget's theory of cognitive development proposes that humans cannot be "given" information which they immediately understand and use. Instead, humans must "construct" their own knowledge. They build their knowledge through experience. Experiences enable them to create schemas ( - mental models in their heads. These schemas are changed, enlarged, and made more sophisticated through two complimentary processes: assimilation and accommodation (

There are thousands of books, articles, and papers on the theories of Piaget and the implications of those theories for teaching and learning. This brief summary cannot do the theory justice, but if you would like to explore Piaget's basic ideas more thoroughly, the links below are all rich sources of information:

One important generalization of Piagetian theory is role of the teacher. In a Piagetian classroom an important teacher role is to provide a rich environment for the spontaneous exploration of the child. A classroom filled with interesting things to explore encourages students to become active constructors of their own knowledge (their own schemas) through experiences that encourage assimilation and accommodation.

General Implications of Cognitive Constructivism

There are a two key Piagetian principles for teaching and learning:

Within the field of educational computing, the best-known cognitive constructivist theoretician is Papert (1993), who characterizes behavioral approaches as "clean" teaching whereas Constructivist approaches are "dirty" teaching. The contrast emphasizes the differences between approaches that isolate and break down knowledge to be learned (clean) versus approaches that are wholistic and authentic (dirty).

Papert's idea of clean and dirty learning gives us a somewhat fuzzy feel for the differences between behavioral and constructivist visions for teaching and learning. Copley's (1992) contrast of the two approaches to instruction -- didactic (behavioral) and constructivist -- provides a bit more detail.

Constructivist approaches to technology in the classroom are not yet commonplace. However, a number of promising approaches exist within this theoretical framework.

Types of Instruction of Cognitive Constructivism

In a Piagetian classroom, students must be given opportunities to construct knowledge through their own experiences. They cannot be "told" by the teacher. There is less emphasis on directly teaching specific skills and more emphasis on learning in a meaningful context. Technology, particularly multimedia, offers a vast array of such opportunities. With technology support such as videodisks and CD-ROMs, teachers can provide a learning environment that helps expand the conceptual and experiential background of the reader. Although much of the educational software created in the 1970s and 1980s was based on behavioral principles, much of the new multimedia educational software is based on constructivist theories. Technology provides essential tools with which to accomplish the goals of a constructivist classroom.

In this section, you will explore several types of cognitive constructivist learning environments. Sometimes you will read only a description of an instructional approach, but you will also have an opportunity to explore some of the software that supports constructivist learning environments.

 Examples of Social Constructivist Classroom Activities


Anchored  Instruction


Information  Banks 


Symbol  Pads 

Construction  Kits/

Whole Language


Additional Information

Cognitive Constructivism

As opposed to the social constructivist perspective that describes the mind as a distributed entity that extends beyond the bounds of the body into the social environment, cognitive constructivists describe the mind in terms of the individual, restricting it's domain to the individual's head. Cognitive constructivism approaches learning and knowing from the perspective of the individual.


Constructivist Classrooms

A basic premise to educational reform starts with the view of studying student learning and understanding. The authors of this web page offer a constructivist view that focuses on the learning environment of the students. They consider the activities and approaches between teacher and student interaction. The authors discuss the importance of constructivism, principles of constructivism, and creating constructivist settings.


Metaphor of Instruction: Why We Talk About Learning Environments

Clearly associated with the constructivist movement, learning environments call to mind a number of images yet to be explored. The purpose in this paper is to get clear about what we mean by constructivist learning environments and to explain why the idea is worthy of study.


Using Authentic Contexts and Situations to Improve the Effectiveness of Multimedia Learning Materials

The authors of the web page describe a number of multimedia projects which have incorporated the use of the authentic contexts and situations in the instructional design process.


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