What Is a Constructivist Classroom?

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

Constructivist education is when learners actively construct meaning by building on background knowledge, experience and reflecting on those experiences.

Said in another way, constructivist learning is when “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

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  1. I appreciate how you said that a constructivist education involves students actively constructing meaning that builds on background knowledge and experience. I think this would be extremely beneficial because it will allow students to more easily develop schemes and store information in their long-term memory, because they’ve experienced and explored the concepts themselves. My sister is looking to get a job, and so she’s trying to decide which preschool would be best for her 4-year-old daughter. I’m sure she’d benefit from finding a preschool that uses exploratory, sensory, guided activities that will help children construct their own learning that will aid them as they progress in school. Thank you!