Theories Underlying the Constructivist Approach


According to Elliot Eisner: “teaching is an art and the creations of the teacher in producing an engaging stimulating and insightful lesson are the result of using many different skills but these are influenced by qualities and contingencies that are unpredictable’ but all teachers do operate with theory where theory is ‘a general set of ideas through which we make sense of the world”

And according to Peel (1967): “psychology may be defines as the science of behaviour and experience”

In my essay, I will attempt to describe those theories underlying the constructivist approach. As is noted by Driver (1988), pupils can often pass through the education system still holding to false or inaccurate views despite the instruction they receive in the sciences at school. ‘Meaningful learning’ can be said to occur when knowledge is ‘internalised’ by the learner, in other words, when it is adopted into their everyday thinking by relating it to what they already know (Kyriacou, 1997) The degree of this ‘assimilation’ and ‘accommodation’ which is described by Piaget can be judged by assessing the learner’s ability to transfer this learning, i.e. to apply acquired knowledge and skills to new tasks and situations. If the measure of the effectiveness of a teaching approach is taken as being the achievement of meaningful learning (Kyriacou), it seems that the educational strategies employed by science teachers are falling short of attaining the desired outcome

In the context of meaningful learning, recent research would appear to support the conviction that the key factor in the learning process is the motivational impetus of the pupil. Relevance to real life experiences and stimulation of interest are of central importance, with the pupil taking an active role in the learning process. Achievement of this end necessitates adopting an inductive or discovery approach to teaching and learning whereby investigatory and constructivist methods are employed.

In my discourse, I will attempt to describe the framework of constructivism, it being a multifaceted philosophy, with many proponents, based on the tenet that meaning is not something which can be given, but is constructed by us in our own way based on our current understanding (Duckworth, 1997). It is a framework greatly influenced by Piagetian epistemology while also encompassing various contrasting theoretical and practical perspectives on how children learn. Prevalent among these perspectives are the theories of Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner, while Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences also musters an impact.

The Theorists

Piaget: Theory of Genetic Epistemology

Piaget’s theory focuses on the various reconstructions that a childs thinking goes through in the course of cognitive development. In terms of long-term memory he argues (Piaget + Inheld, 1969) that the cognitive structure of the memory is made up of various ‘schema’. According to Kyriacou, each schema is an organisation of information, or a pattern of action used to interpret phenomena. The modification and reorganisation of these schema is an ongoing process, which involves ‘assimilation’ and ‘accommodation’ of new information through the child’s interaction with the environment. Assimilation is described as the process by which the child uses their preconceived notions to interpret experiences. Conversely, accommodation involves adjusting or revising their existing schema to incorporate new experiences and make sense of the environment.

Piaget begins with the relatively simple behaviour of the infant and traces its progression to more and more complex levels of cognition and activity perceiving this development as proceeding in a given sequence of phases. These four phases of cognitive growth are catalogued as

1: sensory-motor (0-2) where intelligence takes the form of physical actions only. The child does not realise that objects can exist apart from them.

2: the preoperational phase (2-7), which is often subdivided into pre-conceptual and intuitive, is signalled by the child\'s beginning to develop concepts, but solely in an egocentric way, being unable to comprehend any viewpoint but their own. Preoperational children have a tendency to make up explanations in order to describe confusing experience.

3: in the concrete operational phase (7-11) logical thinking begins to emerge. Piaget describes operations as actions which can be internalised and reversed. The child begins to use mental operations and think about actions and can classify objects by characteristics, arranging them by quantitative measurement. The most important progressions in this phase are the emergence of ‘conservation’ and reversibility. The chid develops the