Cognitive Constructivist Theories 


Constructivist models have emerged from the work of developmental theorists such as Jerome Bruner, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky. There are, however, two major strands of the constructivist perspective. One strand might be called cognitive constructivist; it adopts the epistemology of Piaget as a foundation for practice. Perhaps the most important responsibility of the teacher in a Piagetian classroom is to provide an environment for the spontaneous research of the child. The classroom filled with plenty of authentic activities to challenge students will allow students to construct their own knowlede. In this theory, children construct their own knowledge of the world through assimilation and accommodation. It is easy to assimilate information as we read provided that it fits within our existing schemata. When there is a conflict between what we think we know and what we are learning, accommodation must occur to rebuild those schema.

General Implications

There are three key Piagetian principles:

Within the field of educational computing, the best-known cognitive constructivist theoretician is Papert (1993), who characterizes behavioral approaches as "clean" teaching whereas constructivst 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 integrative (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 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. As a point of departure for your study of constructivist learning, consider the eight characteristics (Johassen, 1994) that differentiate constructivist learning environments (CLEs).

Types of Instruction

In a Piagetian classroom, students must be given opportunities to discover truths at their own pace and through their own experiences. 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. By the end of the 1980s a significant percentage of the more innovative educational computer programs were based on constructivist theories. The face of educational software changed dramatically. The appropriate setting for technology in the classroom is one tht invites social interaction.

Technology provides essential tools with which to accomplish the goals of a constructivist classroom:

Electronic Books


Reading/Writing Workshop

Whole Language

Graphic Organizer/Semantic Web

Additional Information

Classroom Compass: Constructivism (Winter 1995 Volume 1 Number 3)

SEDL is the regional education laboratory serving Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. SEDL conducts applied research and development, delivers training, and provides technical assistance to K-12 educators and decision makers. Classroom Compass, e-journal sponsored by SEDL, devotes the whole Winter 1995 issue to the topic of constructivism. Informative articles include:

Constructivism Web Pages

This web site provides links to web pages for those interested in constructivism.

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