Constructivist Approach To Teaching

by | Nov 4, 2021

Picture by Divya Sharma, a 2019 fellow

Instance 1

5 year old Anush weeping: Maa I am not going to school anymore
Mother: But why my love?
(The mother had an impression that Anush will easily adjust to school based on the first day observations when he was playing in the field and talking to other children)

The mother decides to meet the principal.

Mother: Sir, my son refused to come to school today.
Principal: Have you come to make a complaint with me?
Mother: No, but...
Principal: Listen to me ma'am. Your son is mischievous, I always find him moving in the class. He neither likes to write nor repeats the English alphabet with the whole class.
Mother: Can you please allow him to spend some time in the ground for a few days?
Principal: (After a pause) ...and break the discipline of the whole class?
Mother: How about taking the whole class to the ground?
Principal: (Annoyed) ...and break the discipline of the entire school? Madam rules are imperative and you don’t worry, your son will catch up soon.

Here, one can see the difference in perspective of the parent and the Principal. The mother could understand her son’s interests and its impact on his performance. She believes that Anush can learn in the open ground better, with the guidance of teachers. On the other hand, the Principal is influenced by management centric approach which gives high importance to outcome based pedagogy.

Instance 2

Parent: It’s been almost 2 months and my daughter cannot write a single letter yet.
Principal: Sometimes children find writing cumbersome in the beginning. We are concentrating on verbal skills first. You must have noticed that your daughter can fluently recite many rhymes. She has learnt them fast.
Parents: Hindi poetry, that’s all.
Principal: We give same weightage to both Hindi and English. Also, we would like to let you know that your child is taking great interest in the activities of Eco-club.
Parents: But the children have to compete with the students from other schools as well. This way, they will never learn as much and as good English as them.

Slight deviations in the established structure of education here led to the parent’s objection, reflecting their belief in rigid management centric approach which focuses on quantitative measurement and external motivation. The classrooms are unfortunately considered a work place and following instructions as a traditional practice has had a profound effect on the education system in the last 100 years.

Instance 3

5yr old Sangvi came running: Papa, in the garden, I saw something that was changing its colour. It was on a tree and looked dirty! Then it went on to the leaves and became green.
Father: Ohh! So you saw a Chameleon.
Sangvi: (Surprised) You have also seen it Papa! Really?
In excitement, she started saying 'Chameleon' out loud.

Sangvi: C for cat. C for Coat and C for Chameleon.
Her father took this opportunity to tell her the spelling of Chameleon, which Sangvi learnt quickly. Her mother added, “C for Camel also”.

Sangvi: But I have never seen a camel, Maa!
Mother: This weekend we will go to the zoo to see a Camel.

In this case, the assimilation of new ideas in the child’s existing mental structure is explicit. Sangvi’s experiences and actions can be explained in connection with intellectual development that focuses on cognitive constructions in growing children.


Coming to Constructivism, it is a study or a philosophy that explains the nature and acquisition of knowledge in human beings. It says that the knowledge is constructed by the learner as they attempt to make sense of their experiences.

Here’s how the constructivist approach is different from the traditional approach

Traditional approachConstructivist approach
– Dominated by direct and unilateral instructions
– Assumption that there is a fixed body of knowledge and students are expected to blindly accept the given information
– Passive transfer of knowledge from teacher to students
– Teacher centric method of teaching
– Bilateral approach
– Students are able to develop their own understanding of the subject matter based on their knowledge and experiences, and to correct any misconceptions they may have  
– Students play an active role in reaching their own conclusions. Teachers assist the students in developing insights.
– Student centric method of teaching
Image only for representation purpose

Paulo Freire insists that knowledge is not a gift or a possession that some individuals have and others don’t. On the contrary, knowledge is attained when people come together to exchange ideas, articulate their problems from their own perspectives, and construct meanings that make sense to them. Another strand of constructivist idea, believes that culture and social interactions are essential features in shaping knowledge. Interaction with caregivers, peers, teachers and material world are the basis of intellectual development.

Constructivism is also many a times misconstrued. Textbooks tell us that constructivism is student-centric and is opposite to the subject-centric or teacher-centric approach. In contrast, a constructivist classroom is one in which there is a balance between the teacher and student directed learning. It requires teachers to take an active role in the learning process, with participation from students.

Another widespread misconception regarding constructivist teaching is the opinion that there is no body of knowledge associated with it and therefore, teachers do not need to be experts in a particular area. They are only supposed to set up the learning environment, guide student investigations and then get out of the way. We need to be careful not to confuse constructivism with student-centric teaching or to assume that teachers who use this approach have no content expertise.

Moreover, teachers who rely on constructivist pedagogical practices need to be mindful to avoid some of the pitfalls like reduced learning for entertainment or expecting students to teach themselves. Constructivist teaching can produce tremendous results when used correctly but it can also lead to ineffective learning when misconstrued.


Suggested Reading:

  1. Piaget’s Theory of Intellectual Development
  2. John Driscoll’s “What?” Cycle of Reflection

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