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Teaching with the Constructivist Learning Theory

What is the best method of teaching to use?

One of the first things a teacher must do when considering how to teach students is to acknowledge that each student does not learn in the same way. This means that if the teacher chooses just one style of teaching (direct instruction, collaborative learning, inquiry learning, etc.), the students will not be maximizing their learning potential. Obviously, a teacher can not reach every student on the same level during one lesson, but implementing a variety of learning styles throughout the course allows all the students will have the chance to learn in at least one way that matches their learning style.

Much of the material used to educate students at grade levels beyond primary school is largely text and lecture based, which have significant limitations. While reading is a very important learning mode, not all students learn effectively from reading. Some students respond better to visual and audio stimuli of lecture but often get lost in the material or lose interest in the presentation. In this type of a learning environment, students have limited opportunity to ask questions or may be uncomfortable asking a question in front of the class. It is well known that many questions go unasked.

How do students learn best?

Before we answer this question, ask yourself, "How do I learn best?" For example, do you learn better when someone tells you exactly how to do something, or do you learn better by doing it yourself? Many people are right in the middle of those two scenarios. This has led many educators to believe that the best way to learn is by having students construct their own knowledge instead of having someone construct it for them. This belief is explained by the Constructivist Learning Theory. This theory states that learning is an active process of creating meaning from different experiences. In other words, students will learn best by by trying to make sense of something on their own with the teacher as a guide to help them along the way.

Since all sensory input is organized by the person receiving the stimuli, it cannot always be directly transferred from the teacher to the student. This means that a teacher cannot "pour" information into a student's brain and always expect them to process it and apply it correctly later. For example, think of a time when you were taught something in a lecture-type class. Then contrast that against a time when you had to prepare to teach someone else something. You will probably agree that you learned the material better when you were preparing to teach the material. This is because you constructed the knowledge for yourself.

Below is a list of different methods of learning. The percentages listed represent the average amount of information that is retained through that particular learning method. Note what method produces the highest retention rate.

  1. Lecture = 5%
  2. Reading = 10%
  3. Audiovisual = 20%
  4. Demonstration = 30%
  5. Discussion Group = 50%
  6. Practice by doing = 75%
  7. Teach others / immediate use of learning = 90%

It should also be recognized that a person's prior knowledge may help or hurt the construction of meaning. People's prior knowledge comes from their past experiences, culture, and their environment. Generally prior knowledge is good, but sometimes misconceptions and wrong information can be a hindrance. Sometimes time must be spent correcting prior knowledge before new learning can occur.

Suggestions for Teaching with the Constructivist Learning Theory
  • Encourage and accept student autonomy and initiative.
  • Try to use raw data and primary sources, in addition to manipulative, interactive, and physical materials.
  • When assigning tasks to the students, use cognitive terminology such as "classify," "analyze," "predict," and "create."
  • Build off and use student responses when making "on-the-spot" decisions about teacher behaviors, instructional strategies, activities, and content to be taught.
  • Search out students' understanding and prior experiences about a concept before teaching it to them.
  • Encourage communication between the teacher and the students and also between the students.
  • Encourage student critical thinking and inquiry by asking them thoughtful, open-ended questions, and encourage them to ask questions to each other.
  • Ask follow up questions and seek elaboration after a student's initial response.
  • Put students in situations that might challenge their previous conceptions and that will create contradictions that will encourage discussion.
  • Make sure to wait long enough after posing a question so that the students have time to think about their answers and be able to respond thoughtfully.
  • Provide enough time for students to construct their own meaning when learning something new.

(Ref: Brooks, J. and Brooks, M. (1993). In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms, ASCD)



Teacher Tips

Appreciating and Valuing Diversity

Are You Really Listening?

Coaching for Success in the Classroom

Goal Setting

Developing an Interest in Science and Math

Developing Communication Skills

Developing Problem-solving Skills

Effective Discipline

Encouraging Cooperative Learning

Encouraging Creativity

Encouraging Students to Explore for Answers

Fostering Independent Thinking

Motivating Students

Overcoming the Fear of Making a Mistake

Practicing Effective Questioning

Self-Evaluation

Self-Evaluation Using Video

Teaching with the Constructivist Learning Theory

Teamwork in the Classroom

There is Not Always Just One Right Answer

Understanding Different Learning Styles

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