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Practical applications of Constructivism in the online classroom

Last week we discussed the theory behind constructivist teaching, today we will explore how to apply constructivist principles to your online learning environment.

To recap: constructivism is a learning theory positing that prior knowledge is the foundation for building new ideas, as opposed to instructivist theory, which holds that students have a tabula rasa that must be populated with new ideas primarily through instruction. The key phrase in constructivist learning is “active learning” rather than “passive learning”.

Before we begin our exploration, let’s check a few guiding principles with regard to practical constructivist teaching techniques, that can be applied in a traditional classroom setting, and to some extent in a virtual one as well:

  • Focus on real-world scenarios. This not only gives live context to students, but also enables practical application of new ideas to situations they are already familiar with.
  • At every stage enable dialogue. Applying new ideas will come with error and experimentation. Always allow time for students to pause and assess what they are doing; allow also for discussion and peer feedback.
  • Provide questions instead of answers. Pose thought-provoking questions and problem-statements, rather than providing rote answer-statements.
  • In the same vein, discover Socratic Questioning. Resist declaring students “wrong” or “right”, instead probe a student's answer with further questions to elicit deeper thought. Question such as ‘Could you explain further?’ ‘Is this always the case?’, ‘Why do you think that this assumption holds here?’ ‘Why do you say that?’, ‘What is the counter-argument?’, ‘Can/did anyone see this another way?’
  • In terms of class-time consider a time limit. In terms of exploratory activity students should not spend too long on a specific project or problem. A good rule of thumb is an equal ratio of minutes-to-age plus 2 minutes to maximum of 30 minutes, e.g. the average 15 year-old can be expected to focus on absorbing new information for 17 minutes.
Constructivism in the online classroom

Practical applications of Constructivism in the online classroom

So, we know that online learning — far from being an isolated learning activity where students simply engage with screens — is in fact a multi-dimensional platform that gives students a host of tools with which to build on and further explore what they already know and what they are curious about. So, what can we do to facilitate guided discovery in the online or flipped classroom?

The Jigsaw Classroom

The Jigsaw Classroom is a teaching approach that essentially involves students teaching each other, and can also work well in the flipped classroom environment. Typically the teacher divides students into groups (try to group students of different cultures, abilities and genders together). A key component of Jigsaw is the ability to cover a broad topic, in detail, in a shorter amount of time.

Let's look at an example of a teacher who has two sessions to cover Renaissance painting.

A normal flipped approach may be to ask students to research and look at a number of paintings and sculptures, and then research and write a biographical essay on a painter of their choice in class the following day.

The Jigsaw option would involve giving every member of the Jigsaw group a different artist to study. Students return home to research “their” artist, understanding they will need to present to their group the following day. In this way you can cover more Renaissance artists, and create a wider understanding of the era, in the same amount of time.

There are a number of great ideas on designing Jigsaw lessons here.

Mind mapping

There are a number of studies that have shown that using visual and graphic representations of complex learning material helps students to better organize their ideas, and significantly increases the uptake and retention of information.

Mind maps are a recognized example of constructivist teaching methods because they enhance the learning process of pattern-making.

Mind maps help students visualize what they already know, then help them to organize and build that “picture” with new ideas. Learning is further enhanced and enriched when students collaborate on creating mind maps, where each is responsible for investigating and populating a different area of the mind map.

There are a number of great collaborative mind map tools online, find a good introduction to a number of programes here.

Field learning

Experimentation and discovery “in the field” is a further technique of constructivist teaching that again allows for guided and active discovery, enhancing uptake and retention of new facts and ideas. There are a number of ways teachers can enhance field study using online tools.

These will encourage collaboration, assist with data-retrieval and recording and enable better organization of information once the in-field portion of the project is completed. Combining augmented reality with mobile applications can create an immersive, exciting environment for students in a number of educational settings and from across a wide age-range.


Constructivist teaching is different from more traditional teaching methods in the ways that it characterises learning: Knowledge is not “stuff” to be inserted into an empty vessel (the mind) where students simply need to be still and receptive while the knowledge is “inputted”. The brain doesn't really work that way.

Constructivist teaching accepts that learning is the act of building constructs around what we already know, through trial, error and experience.

Many teachers will no doubt discover that they have been practicing constructivist teaching in a number of ways, without necessarily labeling it as such; speaking as much to the sharp intuitions of many teachers, as to the natural fit constructivist theory has in day-to-day teaching.

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