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What Is Constructivism?

Children construct learning for themselves.
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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 26 July 2014
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Constructivism is an educational theory built around the idea that a person, especially as a child, learns new material by constructing his or her idea of the world, and then adds to or alters this view in order to continue to learn. This is not a specific pedagogy, or teaching method, but has influenced a number of specific pedagogical movements and methods of teaching in classrooms and homes. Critics of constructivism argue that the processes of assimilation and accommodation are only worthwhile if there is already a strong base of knowledge.

The leading figure of constructivism was a Swiss philosopher named Jean Piaget. Piaget established the basic tenet of constructivism, which is that knowledge is not simply acquired but is constructed in the mind of a person during the learning process. This is achieved through two methods, referred to as assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the process by which a person incorporates new information into the existing base of knowledge he or she possesses.

This is done quite simply in situations of learning during which material is new, but not necessarily revolutionary for the person learning it. For example, a person learning about specific species of dogs may be simply assimilating new ideas of types of dogs into the existing framework of his or her dog knowledge. Accommodation, on the other hand, deals with the incorporation of new knowledge that changes the existing knowledge of a person.

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The basic units of knowledge that a person knows are typically referred to as schemata, with a different schema to dictate different things a person understands. If someone encounters dogs all of his or her life, he or she has a subconscious understanding of what a dog is, a schema of “dog.” Constructivism theories state that if that person then encounters a cat for the first time, he or she will either consider the cat to be a new type of dog, assimilating the knowledge into existing schemata, or will create new schema to establish a cat as a separate type of creature, accommodating his or her existing knowledge base with new information.

These ideas have led to a number of different pedagogical approaches to teaching such as “constructionism” and “guided instruction.” In these approaches, the instructor often acts more as facilitator than teacher, working to help guide students toward discoveries and constructing knowledge for themselves. Critics of constructivism argue that this often serves to reduce the importance of an instructor in the classroom, and that students require proper guidance to come to accurate understandings of subjects such as math and science. While this is a concern, many teachers strive to find a balance by which they can present and teach new ideas, while also guiding students to find their own means of understanding and knowledge construction.

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