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Do constructivist-based theories reflect effective knowledge acquisition propositions?

Do constructivist-based theories reflect effective knowledge acquisition propositions?


It is important to understand that constructivist-based theories do not disprove cognitive or behaviorist theories. Instead, previous theories are used in conjunction with the foundation that learners should be the center of the process, organizing their own knowledge, based on their own reality. Constructivism is viewed both as a theory and as a teaching strategy. Both of these views can be construed as truths because the theory supports how we create knowledge and the aligned teaching strategies promote this endeavor and are hence applicable and vital to learning settings (Brooks & Brooks, 1999). Mascolo and Fischer (1995) have further suggested that “constructivism is the philosophical and scientific position that knowledge arises through a process of active construction” (p. 49), which is promoted by constructivist educational leaders.

The excerpts in this section are from Applefield, Huber, and Moallem (2000). The authors discuss three types of constructivism and consider how learners construct knowledge. They also summarize some of the constructivist-based theories that will be elaborated upon in later sections of the chapter. As you read, note that these authors emphasize constructivism in the context of classroom interactions; however, such strategies are also relevant in a multitude of other learning contexts. The constructivist framework offers trainers, educators, counselors, and other mentors practical strategies for encouraging effective learning.

Excerpts from “Constructivism in Theory and Practice: Toward a Better Understanding”

By J. M. Applefield, R. Huber, and M. Moallem

Three Types of Constructivism

[. . .] Within constructivism there are different notions of the nature of knowledge and the knowledge construction process. Moshman (1982) has identified three types of constructivism: exogenous constructivism, endogenous constructivism, and dialectical constructivism.

In exogenous constructivism or radical constructivism there is an external reality that is reconstructed as knowledge is formed. Thus one’s mental structures develop to reflect the organization of the world. The information processing conceptualizations of cognitive psychology emphasize the representation view of constructivism, calling attention to how we construct and elaborate schemata and networks of information based on the external realities of the environments we experience.

A teacher leading a discussion with a group of students in the classroom.


When a teacher allows students to discuss, argue, and understand a topic, it is an example of dialectical or social constructivism. The students are interacting with each other, learning different points of view, and finding meaning in a particular topic.

Endogenous constructivism or cognitive constructivism (Cobb, 1994; Moshman, 1982) focuses on internal, individual constructions of knowledge. This perspective, which is derived from Piagetian theory (Piaget, 1970, 1977), emphasizes individual knowledge construction stimulated by internal cognitive conflict as learners strive to resolve mental disequilibrium (see Chapter 4). Essentially, children as well as older learners must negotiate the meaning of experiences and phenomena that are discrepant from their existing schema. Students may be said to author their own knowledge, advancing their cognitive structures by revising and creating new understandings out of existing ones. This is accomplished through individual or socially mediated discovery-oriented learning activities (such as the use of graphic organizers, labs, or group work).

Dialectical constructivism or social constructivism (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Rogoff, 1990) views the origin of knowledge construction as being the social intersection of people, interactions that involve sharing, comparing, and debating among learners and mentors. Through a highly interactive process, the social milieu of learning is accorded center stage and learners both refine their own meanings and help others find meaning. In this way knowledge is mutually built. This view is a direct reflection of Vygotsky’s (1978b) sociocultural theory (SCT) (discussed further in section 5.4), which accentuates the supportive guidance of mentors as they enable the apprentice learner to achieve successively more complex skill, understanding, and ultimately independent competence.

The fundamental nature of social constructivism is collaborative social interaction in contrast to individual investigation of cognitive constructivism. Through the cognitive give and take of social interactions, one constructs personal knowledge. In addition, the context in which learning occurs is inseparable from emergent thought. This latter view, known as contextualism in psychology, becomes a central tenet of constructivism when expressed as situated cognition, which is discussed in section 5.3. Social constructivism captures the most general present perspective on constructivism with its emphasis on the importance of social exchanges for cognitive growth and the impact of culture and historical context on learning. [. . .]

Constructing Knowledge

[. . .] There is an important similarity among most constructivists with regard to four central characteristics believed to influence all learning (and can be identified in other theoretical frameworks):

1. Learners construct their own learning

2. The dependence of new learning on students’ existing understanding

3. The critical role of social interaction

4. The necessity of activities that allow learners to discover meaningful knowledge through exploration of real-world problems, or authentic learning tasks (Bruning, Royce, & Dennison, 1995; Pressley, Harris, & Marks, 1992)

For learners to construct meaning, they must actively strive to make sense of new experiences and in so doing must relate it to what is already known or believed about a topic. Students develop knowledge through an active construction process, not through the passive reception of information (Brophy, 1992). In other words, learners must build their own understanding. How information is presented and how learners are supported in the process of constructing knowledge are of major significance. The preexisting knowledge that learners bring to each learning task is emphasized too. Students’ current understandings provide the immediate context for interpreting any new learning. Regardless of the nature or sophistication of a learner’s existing schema, each person’s existing knowledge structure will have a powerful influence on what is learned and whether and how conceptual change occurs.

Dialogue is the catalyst for knowledge acquisition. Understanding is facilitated by exchanges that occur through social interaction, through questioning and explaining, challenging and offering timely support and feedback. The concept of learning communities has been offered as the ideal learning culture for group instruction (Brown, 1994; Brown & Campione, 1994). These communities focus on helping group members learn, by supporting one another through respectful listening and encouragement. The goal is to engender a spirit and culture of openness, exploration, and a shared commitment to learning.

Situated cognition or learning (discussed further in section 5.3) is a concept advocated in social constructivist approaches and is a natural extension of the importance attached to the context, social and cultural, in which learning is believed to be born. Knowledge is conceived as being embedded in and connected to the situation where the learning occurs. As a consequence, thinking and knowledge that is constructed are inextricably tied to the immediate social and physical context of the learning experience. And what is learned tends to be context-bound or tied to the situation in which it is learned (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Evidence for the situational nature of learning can be seen in numerous cases where students’ school learning fails to transfer readily to relevant tasks outside of school. Brown et al. (1989) chronicle how people can acquire rather sophisticated mathematical operations in one setting and yet be quite unable to apply those same operations in another setting.

Just how teachers and peers support and contribute to learning is clarified by the concepts of scaffolding, cognitive apprenticeship, tutoring, and cooperative learning and learning communities (Brown, 1994; Rogoff, 1998). Cognition is viewed as a collaborative process, and modern constructivist thought provides the theoretical basis for cooperative learning, project or problem-based learning, and other discovery-oriented instructional approaches, all of which appeal to the powerful social nature of learning. As students are exposed to their peers’ thinking processes, appropriation of others’ ideas and ways of thinking is possible. Therefore, constructivists make extensive use of cooperative learning, a strategy that encourages small groups of learners to work together on tasks, as well as peer tutoring, believing that students will learn more readily from having dialog with each other about significant problems.

A second key concept derives from Vygotsky’s concept of zone of proximal development (ZPD) (discussed further in section 5.4) (Kozulin, 1986). When children work on tasks that cannot be accomplished alone but can be successfully completed with the assistance of a person competent in the task, they are said to be working within their zone of proximal development. (See Figure 5.1.) Children working in cooperative groups will generally encounter a peer who possesses a slightly higher cognitive level, one within the child’s zone of proximal development.

Figure 5.1: Zone of proximal development (ZPD)

ZPD indicates an area of development that should be supported by a more experienced expert to maximize knowledge acquisition.

A series of three embedded circles that illustrate the relationship among three zones of development. The inner circle, which is smallest, represents a learner’s existing level of knowledge or skills. The middle, slightly larger circle represents the learner’s zone of proximal development. The outer circle, which is the largest, represents the knowledge or skills that are out of the learner’s reach.

Adapted from “Piaget’s Theory of Child Language and Thought,” by L. S. Vygotsky, in L. S. Vygotsky (Ed.), E. Hanfmann & G. Vakar (Trans.), Thought and Language (pp. 9–24), 1962, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Copyright 1962 by L. S. Vygotsky. Adapted with permission.

The concept of cognitive apprenticeship is analogous to that of apprenticeships in many occupations where one learns on the job by closely working with a master. The master models behavior and gives feedback and gradually allows the novice increasing opportunity to independently exercise the skills of the profession. A substantial aspect of the learning is the socialization into the norms and behavior of the profession. The experience of teachers and physician interns demonstrates the shadowing and modeling that occurs during this critical period in the development and induction into these professions. More generally, one can say that a cognitive apprenticeship relationship exists between teachers and students to the extent that teachers provide scaffolding for students, through the use of step-by-step guiding of the new knowledge from less complicated to more (Schweisfurth, 2013). At the same time that students are given complex, authentic tasks such as projects, simulations, and problems involving community issues, they are also given sufficient assistance to achieve the desired outcomes.

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