What Is a Constructivist Classroom?

I realized last week that those of you who are parents might not know what I was talking about when I used the word constructivist. So, let me explain.

Research (see my bibliography below) shows that constructivist learning is congruent with how the brain learns. There is plenty of research to prove, that constructivist education is the best way for learners to learn.

Constructivist education is when . . .

. . . learners actively construct meaning by building on background knowledge, experience and reflect on those experiences.

in other words . . .

“Learners are given the freedom to think, to question, to reflect, and to interact with ideas, objects, and others—in other words, to construct meaning.” Brooks and Brooks.

It’s “the idea that development of understanding requires the learner to actively engage in meaning-making.” – Brader-Araje & Jones (2002)

I’ve made a little comparison chart to make it more clear.

(1950s?) Old-School Classroom Constructivist Classroom
Teacher directed (didactic dissemination of information) Learner-centered. Teacher as facilitator – students construct knowledge through critical thinking, manipulatives, primary resources, and hands-on activities.
Student works independently. Student works collaboratively in groups, independently or in partners.
Small parts first. Big idea at the end. Big idea first. All parts support big idea.
Correct answers are the goal. Thinking and support of thinking are the goals.
Assessments are tests; separate from learning task. Assessments are observation, conferences, daily work, portfolios and included in learning tasks.
Worksheets, workbooks, basal readers. Books, journals, real-world situations, workshop approach.
Teacher evaluator. Self-reflection, student evaluator and teacher evaluator.
Product based learning: All students will learn on demand the same thing at the same time aka. One-size-fits-all approach. Process based learning: Learners create meaning and context by exploring new ideas and experiences, generating hypotheses,  problem solving.
Teacher talks to (at) students; students expected to listen and absorb knowledge. Teacher-student dialogue through conferring, questioning, and wondering.
Teacher makes all the decisions. Shared responsibility and decision making.
Students answer questions.  Empowered teacher. Students ask questions. Empowered learner.
Individual learners. Community of learners.

what is a constructivist classroom

Let me give you a few examples.

Let’s say the learning goal is to learn how to recognize main idea from details.

An old-school classroom might provide the children with worksheets and multiple choice answers after a whole group lesson on the overhead with the teacher presenting the information.

A constructivist classroom would start with a mini-lesson where the teachers asks the kids about going to a birthday party at  a familiar place such as Build-a-Bear. She might ask the class, what is the most important thing and what are some details? The teacher would write down the students’ responses on a large chart in two columns (big idea /details ) and as the learners respond encourage their thinking, ask for clarification, ask more questions, add some of her thinking. Then, the teacher would ask the learners to think about different scenarios such as big idea at dinner or big idea at shopping. Then, she’d show how to apply this to reading which they would tackle as a group. After that, the learners would get to apply and practice in their own self-selected books – using sticky  notes to write down details or main idea, probably only one of the two until that concept is mastered, then switch. (Or work in collaborative groups with a shared text.)

Do you see the difference between the two classrooms?

Or, what if your learning goal is to introduce meaning in poetry?

An old-school (some call this traditional) classroom teacher would read the poem to the group or have the students round-robin read. (Gack – don’t EVER do this! Round Robin reading = no comprehension happening!) Then, she would ask for the learners what the poem means. THERE WILL BE A RIGHT ANSWER: the poem means that spring is renewal or something of the sort.

A constructivist teacher will read the poem and stop and share her own thinking outloud. “Reading this part about the hard dirt makes me think of trying to plant bulbs last year and I couldn’t dig very deep because the ground was frozen.” The teacher shows how reading poetry connects to her prior knowledge and makes her visualize. She then will ask them to read the poem and practice making connections to their own prior knowledge. Then, she’ll have them partner share – so everyone gets a turn to talk. If she asks what the poem means, and she may not, she’ll accept any answer that shows the student constructed meaning from the poem and his or her background knowledge.

Teachers, what do you see happening in your own classroom that you can share which illustrates how you help students construct knowledge?

Parents, what do you see (or not see) happening in your child’s classroom with regards to a constructivist approach to learning?


Christie, A. (2005). Constructivism and its implications for educators. http://alicechristie.com/edtech/learning/constructivism/index.htm
Clarkson, B., & Brook, C. (n.d.). I can’t understand why I didn’t pass: Scaffolding student activities.
Grennon Brooks, J., & Brooks, M. G. (1999). In search of understanding: The case for constructivist classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Honebein, Peter. C. (1996). Seven goals for the design of constructivist learning environments. In Wilson, Brent. G. (Ed.). (1996)
Thirteen Ed Online (2004). Constructivism as a paradigm for teaching and learning. http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/index.html
Zemelman, Daniels, & Hyde. (1998) Best Practice New Standards for Teaching and Learning in America’s Schools.

(also, anything by Vygotsky)

Attribution Some rights reserved by flickingerbrad


The walls in an exemplary (constructivist) second grade classroom
What Makes an Excellent Teacher?


  1. says

    Melissa – Great overview of why and how kids need to ‘self-construct’ – I love the table!

    Your views sound very compatible with Montessori methodology, and ‘helping the child to help themself’. At Montessori Family Connection we’re aiming to give parents insights and practical tips for bringing self-constructive support to kids at home, too.

    Best wishes for continuing success in spreading these important messages!


  2. says

    I was not familiar with this, but I followed your link to the comparison chart last week in your post about the parent/teacher letter swap.

    I’ve volunteered in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom a few times, and at this point I’m happy with how the teacher engages the students. For instance, I was there during an unit on fall and she asked kids to tell her things they associate with fall. She wrote down their answers on the board and gave appropriate feedback. Then, later she read the class a fall book, their “Treasure book.” She sent home a small object (like an acorn) to help them remember the book along with a set of questions so that parents could ask their child about the book of the week and have their child share their thoughts about the things they learned.

  3. says

    Melissa, I hope you don’t mind, but I am going to say it again… you are great! This is an excellent post. You are so right… this IS how the brain learns!

    Children need EVERYONE to understand how we can easily have a positive impact on learning and optimal brain development! Thank you for your contribution to making it happen.

    Thanks for all you do!

  4. Candice Kingston says

    Hi Melissa,
    In theory, I think this is fantastic. I would love to have this in more classrooms. However, in practice, even when this type of teaching is in place, it seems that kids miss the main ideas. (Ha! Maybe it’s just my kids!) But I think they spend so much time on the little pieces, or on sharing, etc. that they don’t learn how to actually write the paragraph. Does that make sense? How do you make sure that it’s all sinking in? I hate the idea of teaching to the test, but I guess, as a parent, I wonder how you make sure the knowledge is there in the end? Love the explanation! Thanks, Candice

    • says

      It sounds like that’s a timing issue – connecting to the background knowledge and collaborating with ideas shouldn’t take more than 5 – 10 minutes.
      The whole purpose of constructivism learning is for differentiation – you’ll teach what each child needs to know.
      If you’re trying to build a house, you must start with a foundation and build up, that’s the constructivist model. The opposite is a teacher-centered classroom just starts in the middle with their preset curriculum, without making sure that each child has the foundation – or, that some children have already have the middle. That’s why it’s so important to figure out what the kids know with daily assessments like questions & observations.
      There are many ways besides standardized tests to know if the child knows the information – writing, portfolios, conferences with individual children (at least weekly if not daily), class work, classroom quizzes, and so forth.
      If a child is presented the information to write a paragraph without any context or understanding, it will be difficult. But, a constructivist teacher will try to connect it to something in the child’s brain that he or she can attach the learning to. So, if there’s a main idea and details, there are tons of ways to attach the information — Harry Potter is the main dude so what characters are details? Write that paragraph. What kid who doesn’t love H.P. wouldn’t be able to write a paragraph on this topic? Or soccer goalie defends the goal is the main idea and all the other stuff the goalie does are the details. Making these connections builds a bridge between the child’s brain and the new learning.

      What do you think now? Are you seeing something in particular that seems like fluff? Perhaps you’re seeing the a happy feel good environment with no academic rigor. That is not constructivist.

      Love to hear your thoughts!!!

  5. Maria G says

    I concur with Ronda–My daughter has been learning in a Montessori environment for the past four years (kindergarten-3rd grade). It’s very much focused on asking questions, critical thinking, and being creative, not rote repetition.

    The teachers provide lessons, but they are very much like facilitators and guiders vs. lecturers. What it instills is a curiosity and love for learning for the sake of learning (not getting an “A”).

  6. Maria G says

    One more thing– what I also like is that it focuses on the WHOLE child: on empathy, on community and the environment, as well as academics.

  7. Cynthia says

    Thank you for the articulate, well-founded and yet concise explanation of constructivism. This is a powerful and pertinent conversation with many young minds and… lives …at stake. In addition to supporting your stance, I’d like to add, in regards to Candice’s concerns, that this type of instructional approach is exactly what allows for “differentiation” of instruction –that is, that instruction meets each unique learner’s needs and strengths. It is not about waiting until a child ‘opens his own inner gifts’ but rather, an environment of learning that is intentional and well facilitated.

    In practice, by empowering students to “own” their learning community (with support for HOW to do that!) they take shared responsibility for how the classroom functions. Then, teacher is able to work with small groups to attend to specific instructional points. Direct instruction occurs apporpriately in a meaningful context. With intentional teaching and differentiation, no one is overlooked and each child constructs, with guidance, understandings about him or herself and others through the process together.
    In addition, it is important that the school have a curriculum and instructional time that is thoughtfully structured so that the most important learning is assured within time boundaries (see Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum, McREL).
    A constructivist approach allows ALL learners to benefit and to share in the creation of their own learning experiences in a context of rigor and relevance.
    Thank you again for opening this important conversation!

  8. says

    Thank you for such a wonderful post!! I am currently trying to write a paper for my 4th year curriculum class on why I think a constructivist approach would fit a certain grade (I’m thinking I’ll do primary). This was a HUGE help!! Thanks again!

  9. says

    Constructivism IS A SCIENCE, it is based on the socio psico genese des savoirs, the neural poda of psinaptic activity is an interest research , it shows that constructivism is really superior in a lot of ways to metholdologies, it is not a methode.
    We have 12 years of research in diferent methodologies in education with children since 2 to 12 years old, included the constructivist art and science of education, as an epistemologie..

  10. says

    Just discovered this following links from your Most Popular Blog Post of the Year 2011 and found this very interesting. I trained to teach in a challenging school where although the results (the UK standard for assessing the value of a school unfourtunately) were poor the value added was great as we worked in all the areas of Constructivism – I then moved to an high achieving independent school and I was slated for teaching against the grain – not using worksheets, not spoon feeding the children the syllabus and allowing freedom of learning in my lessons. I have now left that school and although the behaviour was less challenging it is something that I never want to retun to. I now have children of my own and would never want them to go to a school where the norm is “Old School” and as next year we will be looking at schools I will be aiming to go and visit when lessons are in progress.

  11. says

    I’m checking out your Most Popular Blog Posts of the Year 2011. This is a great post. You are doing good work by putting this info out there for teachers to see and parents to expect. There are many changes that need to happen in public schools. This is one change we all need to push for. Thanks for sharing this info.

  12. says

    I understand the need for brevity, but I’m wondering why you didn’t mentioned or reference the works of John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, or Paulo Freire here. While Piaget’s is well known, Dewey’s work on experience and education is equally important as are the others listed. While I agree and glad to see your mention of Lev Vygotsky without links to his work I think it is insufficient. I’d also add the Reggio Emilia Approach in the links to more information.

    Though what I really want to share and I’d be remiss if I did not, is about one of the greatest educational thinkers of our time, Dr. Seymour Papert. Dr. Papert introduced to the world the powerful idea of constructionism (the “n” word, not the “v” word). Constructionism ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constructionism_(learning_theory) ) is built upon the constructivist theory and in other words means learning by creating things (i.e. – constructing). It is quite possibly the best way of learning for anyone, especially young children. I like to think of it as the grounds for “learning by doing”. Here’s a wonderful paper on the differences by the brilliant Edith Ackerman http://learning.media.mit.edu/content/publications/EA.Piaget%20_%20Papert.pdf.

    Here’s another, a speech to educators in Japan on Constructionism vs. Instructionism ( http://papert.org/articles/const_inst/const_inst1.html ) you might find helpful.

    Papert’s work is also incredibly important, because he began working and playing with children and computers in the 1960’s. His insightful work and powerful ideas about computing for learning has yet to be realized in mainstream education today when computers and technology are ubiquitous.

    I highly recommend to you and your readers to read the work of Dr. Papert (http://www.papert.org/works.html), read both of his important and influential books Mindstorms (the Lego Mindstorms were named after this book) and The Connected Family and follow the Daily Papert (http://www.dailypapert.org).

    • says

      This blog post is meant to be an introduction for parents who haven’t heard of this philosophy of instruction and learning. Adding more research and theory would turn it into an academic paper for an audience of educators which was not my purpose.

      Thanks for sharing your resources though!

      • says

        I understand your audience, however, I hardly think your posts will become academic papers. I know your audience can relate to the work that Papert has written. I speak to parents all the time about his and the others work. In fact Dr. Papert wrote a book called “The Connected Family.”

        I’ll be honest in saying the example you give for a constructivist lesson is superficial at best in terms of student-centered, constructivist learning. Constructivist (or constructionist) learning cannot be narrowed down to a single lesson. Why not share the ideas of project-based, challenge-based inquiry-based, or service-based learning with some strong learning experience examples for parents?

        I applaud you in sharing the theory and am simply trying to provide constructive criticism through my comments and sharing of research on the subject. There is no need to get academic, but there is need to be thorough, especially given the topic incredibly important as the education of our children.

  13. says

    Hi Brian,
    What a great list of resources you have added and I am sure for those who would like to dig deeper into the study of constructionism – they will find your links quite resourceful. But I hope you don’t mind my saying that I am surprised that you would come to a blog and expect to find an academically peered reviewed type being shared.

    Perhaps it is because you are not a regular blog reader and lose sight of the average reader a blog engages.

    A blog like this (as the writer explains) is really written for the purpose of exposing primarily young parents to concepts about education in simple language that may not otherwise be understood. Therefore, it will generally be written to gently guide and lead folks towards greater understanding of the more complex topics.

    Your comment surprises me and seems to have missed the fact that the target audience is not college level students or professionals in the field of education. However, I find the article to be very well written and because it is a blog meant for those with very little experience in education, it seems to provide all the information necessary to create interest in learning more. Too much information or an over the top explanation will often times not reach a blog reader at all.

    I think Melissa has done an outstanding job and clearly knows her readers well!

  14. says

    Melissa, thank you very much for this post. I’m a mid-20s parent of a daughter (2.5 years old) with no background in child development or education. I find posts like this immensely helpful because I love to read blogs like yours (I learn so much from them – philosophies, ideas, activities, the works!)…but I don’t always understand the lingo. I’ve read these terms on your blog before and not really known what you were referencing, but someone pointed me to this post today and…it really helps. Wish I’d found it earlier! I appreciate that you took the time to clarify.

    I also have to agree with commenter Deborah above who said that children need everyone to know how their brain development works so that they can help them. What an incredible world this would be if everyone had a stronger understanding of children and how they learn and develop; I expect our society would fund better education systems and more respect for children, parents, and teachers if this were the case.

  15. Payal says

    Hi Melissa,

    I have been working as a ‘constructivist’ educator for more than a decade in South East Asia, South Asia and North America. It can be overwhelming for parents/educators to work patiently with full faith in the philosophy as they grapple with multiple pressures making quick fix solutions/options/pedagogical learnings more appealing. The fact that most of us (educators/parents) completed our schooling in the 20th century within a very ‘traditional’ paradigm makes it all the more difficult for us to fathom concepts like student-led inquiry, diagnostic non-evaluating assessment, differentiation, PBL, concept-based curriculum and constructivism. But when one is dealing something as intense and layered as constructivism (and some of the other similar concepts), one easily runs the risk of oversimplification (for some) and theoretical overload (for others) esp if the aim is to introduce the concept to an audience not aware of it. In that regard, your current writing makes the theoretical concept of ‘constructivism’ simple and easy to understand for most ab-initio parents/educators. I applaud your clarity of purpose and target audience.

    As for insufficient/incomplete references, a longer reading list does not necessarily add depth of perspective and understanding, unless we are talking about work of a research grad. Constructivism is a science as it is based on logical principles of how brain learns, but as a science it is pretty academic. It becomes an art when a willing, enthusiastic teacher implements it in his/her classroom and I would rather learn from a person who knows/has read some fundamental bits about constructivism, “constructed’ an understanding of the concept and tried in classroom to scaffold his/her understanding in continuous/cyclic iterations than someone who has read all that there is to read about the topic but never implemented it in his/her life!!

    Though largely associated with educational psychologists and philosophers mentioned in comments and your list, none of them hold IP rights over constructivism. It has been practiced/refined across time, space and cultures. In that regard, names/scholars mentioned by Mr Brian C. Smith seem to be some such references, their significance, however, cannot be a matter of academic allegiance but alignment with objectives. For those looking to know beyond your well-written/compiled introduction to constructivism, specifics will drive the choice of scholar/writing not vice versa. For instance, if I am looking for an understanding of nature of dialogue/verbal interaction between the student and teacher in a constructivist classroom, then Papert may be less relevant than Aurobindo Ghosh.


    • says

      Hi Melissa, Payal, Brian etc,
      A friend shared this post on his facebook page and I was eager to dig into this community as part of my research on a project I’m doing to complete my studies at the California Institute for Integral Studies. Let me situate myself in the conversation:
      I went to Montessori school through 5th year, public school 6-8th grade, private boarding school at Choate Rosemary Hall through high school and several arts conservatories for theater before finding myself at CIIS. My cohort at CIIS is actively engaged in the exploration of different epistemologies. One might argue that the very nature of that exploration is constructivist but I’d request we go deeper.
      Regarding Brian’s comments below as well as Payal’s above, I am concerned with the idea that parents may easily come away from this article with a “construcivist learning is the best” assessment. I am not convinced there is any “best” but more than that, to say so simply by making the side by side comparisons you offer is, perhaps, a precariously reductionist approach between what Freire calls the “banking system of education” and what you are calling constructivism.
      I believe everyone has a different way of learning. The subtleties of privilege, of gender roles, of family dynamics, of media all may contribute to different ways different people succeed in building knowledge. This might be a critical theoretical approach to evaluating the article, but I do not think it is overly academic to offer the idea that there are many ways to approach ontologies, epistemologies, and methodologies. Daunting, perhaps, but if we’re going to work from the big picture inwards, we need to take a big picture approach.
      I suggest a dip into the works of Egon Guba and Yvonna Lincoln who write on Competing Paradigms in Qualitative Research of the four primary alternative inquiry paradigms, “Positivism, Postpositivism, Critical Theory et al, and Constructivism.” (Guba and Lincoln, 2004, Handbook of Qualitative Theories and Issues)
      It would be a lot to go into here, as the chapter I refer to is, yes, extremely thick. My point is this: let’s be careful with our language. We fall easily into this is good, that is bad. This is the best, that is the worst. Learning isn’t a binary conversation unless we’re going to stay in the right/wrong model. Though many of the visionaries we’re noting may claim their approach is the best, it would be impossible for them all to be right. I may feel emphatically that making up a song about math is the best way for me to learn how to add. You may think that’s ridiculous and prefer to count beads. Which one of us has the best approach for students? What if students were offered conversations and experiences in many modes of inquiry and stimulated their minds in a variety of ways that not only encouraged construction of knowledge but also a broadened understanding of their peers?
      I know I have grown significantly, even as a 30 year old man, by engaging in conversations with my co-learners not only about what we’re learning but how we’re doing it. This conversation is not just for parents. It’s for everyone.

  16. says

    I love this post because it breaks things down into layman’s terms for non-trained educators. I am very interested in learning about many different learning approaches- Our daughter attends Montessori during the day but I think we adopt a more Reggio Emilia approach in the home. I like taking pieces of philosophies and merging them- Your articles are always so informative- And they help keep me on track toward developing the “chimera” thinker.

  17. Jen Raines says

    Is there empirical evidence that shows constructivism works? I see students come to college unprepared. They can’t think, or analyze, or even spell. This happens every semester, over thousands of students. When doing group work, there is a lot of freeloading and not much that represents substantive thinking. Given that constructivist classrooms are so widespread, it seems to me constructivism fails. I would like to see evidence from empirical, longitudinal studies. I haven’t found any such evidence so far.

  18. MeganD says

    In almost every single piece of research, results conclude that teacher-centered classrooms using direct instruction produce better results than student-centered (constructivist) classrooms. Though the “touch-feely” constructivist approach sounds good, It’s hard to argue with results.


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