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Constructivism: Students as Knowledge

Constructivism is a learning theory that states learners build their own knowledge
through new experiences and challenges and integrate this new learning into their
prior knowledge base. Inquiry teaching models are a way to foster
constructivism in learners. Inquiry learning is problem based and involves students
formulating their own questions and being active participants in the learning

Constructivism vs. Traditional Methods

How learning
takes place


Role of the

Constructivist Classroom
Knowledge is constructed
individually by students,
through interaction with
materials, peers and the
teacher. New learning is
integrated with prior
Students bring valuable
knowledge and experiences to
the classroom.
Learning needs to be
personally meaningful to
guide on the side- teacher
challenges students to solve
Asks questions
Interactivity between students
and teacher
Focus on formative
assessment and skill

Traditional Classroom
Knowledge is transmitted from
teacher to student through direct

Students are blank slates that

only teachers can fill
Students will be motivated to
learn to perform well on
Authoritarian, teacher directs all
learning (what, how, how fast).
Supplies knowledge
Often uses one way
Often more focused on
summative assessment and fact

Role of the

Active learner
Many different ways to
approach problems
Skill development, increase
student autonomy, foster
creativity and critical thinking,
can foster socialization
depending on how a teacher
incorporates group work.

Passive receiver of knowledge
Uses prescribed approaches to
solve problems
Fact acquisition and retention,
emphasis on procedural

an introduction activity is interesting to students, related to the content

The 5E Learning
way to
goals you are
to achieve,
students will activate prior




Examples: interesting video clip, critical challenge, critical question,
current event, strange experience

Students get to interact with materials using their own approaches, in

open inquiry no instruction is given, in guided inquiry teacher might pose
a specified problem.
Examples: students handling materials, observing phenomenon,
classifying objects, sorting objects, evaluating materials, designing,
building an artifact

Students think about their experiences in the previous stages and reflect
on how this fits into the larger body of knowledge. In this stage specific
terminology, diagrams, concepts and models are used to discuss the
phenomenon. Students may explain their findings to their peers and
eventually come back as a large group where the teacher organizes their
experiences , explains misconceptions , emphasizes key ideas and
introduces factual knowledge.
Examples: think-pair-share, group concept map construction, direct


This stage refers to some form of summative assessment, but it is

important to note that formative assessment is ongoing throughtout the
entire process (students are taught metacognitive skills to reflect on their
own learning, trial and error learning can be taking place, the teacher is
gathering information by observation etc.).
Examples: rubric for project, testing of a design, quiz, test, open response
questions, performance based assessment


This stage challenges the students to apply their knowledge to a new

situation or go one step further in their investigation.
Examples: novel case study, analyze a current or historical event, create a
design with increased parameters, have students use their knowledge to
create a product etc.

Inquiry Q & A:
Q. How are constructivism and inquiry learning related?
A. Constructivism is a theory of how students learn new information and inquiry
teaching is a technique
that encourages students to construct knowledge.
Q. Is a constructivist classroom chaotic?
A. Yes and No; a constructivist classroom has more activity, where each student is
ACTIVELY engaging in something, rather than a traditional classroom where
students are often passive recipients of knowledge. Learning by doing can equal
increased noise, peer interactions, the number of materials out and about, but
during this time there is usually a greater number of students on task and engaged
in learning.
Q. Do constructivist lessons take more time to complete? How will I teach
the entire curriculum?
A. Going through learning cycles like the 5E learning cycle do take longer than a
traditional lecture, but inquiry learning increases student retention of knowledge
and more importantly, develops new skills and ways of thinking so that students can
attack novel problems. In a very traditional classroom, the onus is on the teacher to
get the students to remember packets of information (the curriculum). In an inquiry
classroom, the teacher helps fosters skills in students that enable them to be
independent learners and apply their thinking skills to successfully navigate new
information. If there is so much curriculum to get through, it may be time to set
some priorities, emphasizing skills and large concepts over the memorization of
Q. Is a teacher obsolete in a constructivist classroom?
A. A constructivist/ inquiry teacher is not obsolete, but their job description is
definitely different than a teacher that primarily relies on lecture to deliver
information. A traditional teacher is the sole source of knowledge for students and
their responsibility is to transmit this knowledge to the students; they are the most
active person in the classroom and communication is usually one-way. An inquiry
teacher creates stimulating learning situations that encourage student activity and
prior knowledge activation, uses effective questioning to increase student reflection
and metacognition, manage the learning environment so that social interactions
between students are productive, demonstrate knowledge building by eliciting
observations from students and then summarizing and explaining it in a cohesive
Q. If I am short on time, can I just skip to the EXPLAIN phase of the 5E
learning cycle?
A. No. Going straight to the explain phase of the learning cycle mimics highly
procedural recipe labs and does not allow students to get interested in the material,
pose their own questions or activate prior knowledge.
Q. How do you address the fact that students have different levels of prior

A. The major difference between a traditional lab experience and an inquiry lab
experience is that with inquiry learning students get some freedom in how they
interact with materials. With this model every students starts at their individual
starting point during the ENGAGE and EXPLORE stages. Struggling students often
perform better with inquiry labs because more time is given to them to activate
their prior knowledge; this slower pace allows struggling students to try things on
their own without fear of failure or looking incompetent (because there is no one
right way to explore), observe the actions of more competent students and dialogue
with their peers to identify misconceptions.