Content Frame
Skip Breadcrumb Navigation
Home  arrow Chapters  arrow Chapter 1  arrow On the Web!  arrow 1.6 Focus on Constructivists

1.6 Focus on Constructivists

Who contributed to this perspective?

Jean Piaget's cognitive perspective may well be the foundation of constructivist theory. His model of child development and learning suggests that children, depending of their level of development, create mental maps or cognitive structures that enable them to understand their environment. If new information is presented that fits into existing structures, the child incorporates (assimilates) the information. If it does not fit into a structure, the child accommodates it, that is, constructs new mental structures into which it fits. In doing so, the child continually constructs his or her understanding of the world around him or her. In terms of learning, application of Piaget's theories requires, first, that educators teach content for which the child is developmentally ready and second, that educators use childrens previous knowledge to help them assimilate or accommodate new information. Piaget's work laid the foundation for subsequent constructivist theory.

Robert Gagné is one of the key constructivist theorists. He is also known as a bridge theorist because he took the best of both worlds, behaviorism and cognitivism, to create his view of instruction and its design. Like Skinner, Gagné believes that learning results in behavior changes that are observable. He called these changes in behavior outcomes. Outcomes, according to Gagné, are descriptions of educational goals in terms of what is to be accomplished through the prescribed learning activities. Activities stem from performance objectives, that is, explicitly stated performances of behaviors as goals that a teacher can observe and evaluate to determine student achievement.

Gagné also maintains a cognitive perspective in which learning was recognized as a result of an individual's cognitive efforts to construct his or her personal knowledge. In his work, he focuses on memory and how to plan curriculum in chunks so as not to overload memory. His instructional design models reflect this emphasis on thinking and remembering. Because of the importance he assigns to mental processes in his theory while recognizing the significance of targeted behaviors, he bridges the gap from behaviorism to cognitivism.

The work of Lev Vygotsky is more deeply rooted in cognitivism. It remains a foundation to the social constructivists' view. Vygotsky theorized that social interaction has significant impact on cognition. He suggests that mental constructs cannot fully develop without social interaction. Thus learning is the transformation of social knowledge into individual knowledge, and that individual knowledge leads to the creation of the mental constructs that embrace it.

Because knowledge tends to relate to the culture through which it is presented, Vygotsky suggested that educators embrace the culture of the learner. Much of learning is acquired from family, peers, and teachers. Knowledge transmitted from these sources cannot help being tied to the social values of the community to which all belong. For Vygotsky, learning must therefore, at its most fundamental stage, be cooperative in nature. Vygotsky suggests that learning groups are critical components of the teaching and learning process and that teachers should move into the role of guide and commentator. Furthermore, curriculum should emphasize social issues and language skills to ensure communication between and among learning group members.

Complementing Vygotsky's view is Albert Bandura's social learning theory. In this theory, Bandura begins to integrate the various perspectives on learning. Social learning theory suggests that behavior is the result of continuous interaction among cognition, behavior, and the environment. This theory stresses the importance of observation and modeling; that is, imitating the behavior of others develops one's own mental models. Bandura summed up his vision of education as follows: "It is evident from informal observation that human behavior is transmitted, whether deliberately or inadvertently, largely through exposure to social models."

Bandura suggested that learning is a socially interactive process. Through modeling behaviors, conformity to social rules is attained. In this process, a learner is motivated to perform specific behaviors through outcome expectancies, that is, expectations of specific outcomes if a behavior is modeled correctly. Thus a learner who observes a respected adult perform a behavior that results in praise and community approval will develop expectancies of praise and approval if he or she correctly emulates that model's behavior. Learning, then, is a product of this type of social interaction on one's cognitive processes.

Adapting constructivist views to the use of technology, Seymour Papert, a mathematician and cofounder of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT, has researched how constructivist theories can be adapted to make educational technology more effective. Papert worked with Piaget and recognized his constructivist views as a seminal contribution to education. Papert developed the LOGO language, which allowed children to visually explore and create mathematical principles by programming a small "turtle" to move about on the screen while leaving trails showing its path. LOGO let children construct and see mathematical principles at work. His work on LOGO was later adapted to robotics for children through the LEGO Mindstorms products. Papert continues to investigate and explore the role of technology in learning.


Using the links below or others you find, research the contributors to this theory and current views on the impact of constructivism in education. Which theorist do you most agree with? How do you think the constructivist perspective might impact how you teach? Be prepared to share your views with the class.

Want to know more? Check out these sites:


Bandura, A. 1976. Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Gagné, R. M. (1985). The conditions of learning (4th ed.). Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Gagné, R. M., Briggs, L. J., & Wager, W. W. 1988. Principles of instructional design (3rd ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Papert, S., & Harel, I. 1991. Situating constructionism. Retrieved September 28, 2001, from

Piaget, J. 1952. The origins of intelligence in children. New York: International Universities.

Piaget, J. 1970. Science of education and the psychology of the child (D. Coltman, Trans.). New York: Orion.

Vygotsky, L. S. 1978. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. 1981. Thought and language (E. Hanfmann & G. Vakar, Trans.). Cambridge MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. 1987. The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky, Vol. 1, New York: Plenum.

Vygotsky, L. S. 1987. Thinking and speech (N. Minck, Trans.). New York: Plenum.

Pearson Copyright © 1995 - 2010 Pearson Education . All rights reserved. Pearson Allyn & Bacon is an imprint of Pearson .
Legal Notice | Privacy Policy | Permissions

Return to the Top of this Page