While not a new theory, constructivism has many faces and applications in today’s classroom. Considered to be on the more radical end of the behaviorism-cognitivism-constructivism continuum, its heart is student-centered connection between a learner and that learner’s real-life experiences. Hence, there is little pure knowledge, as all learners shape such knowledge by their own life experiences. As “learning is presumed to become more meaningful and motivational when students construct designs or projects” (Jonassen & Land, 2012, p. 20), constructivists believe that learners create meaning rather than acquire it (Ertmer & Newby, 1993). Constructivism also holds that learners “build personal interpretations of the world based on individual experiences and interactions” and that learning should occur in realistic settings with tasks that are relevant to the learner’s lived experience (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 63). Social constructivism, the subject of this brief synthesis paper, goes a step further to acknowledge the social nature of knowledge and its creation in the minds of its learners (Anderson & Dron, 2011), and it includes historical, political, and cultural trends, face-to-face interactions, and reflecting groups (Au, 1998).
Social constructivism is founded on the epistemological theories of John Dewey and Lev Vygotsky. An educational reformer ahead of his time, Dewey believed that education in its broadest sense is “social continuity of life” and that a person who is connected with others can’t perform his own learning and activities without taking into account the activities of others (Dewey, 1916, para. 5). Russian psychologist Vygotsky notes that “students may gain insights into their own lives through the application of academic knowledge” and that learning involves historical, cultural, and individual conditions (Au, 1998, p. 301).
Anderson and Dron (1998) list some common themes of social constructivist theories: 1) new knowledge builds upon the foundation of previous learning; 2) context shapes learners’ knowledge development; 3) learning is an active process; 4) language and other social tools help construct knowledge; 5) learners must assess their own learning; 6) learning environment is learner-centered and encourages multiple perspectives; and 7) knowledge needs real world context and application. Peer interaction and collaboration is also essential. Authentic tasks must be anchored in meaningful contexts and engage the learner in the actual use of tools in real-world situations (Ertmer & Newby, 1993).
Project Based Learning (PBL), if used wisely and well, can be an excellent means to a social constructivist end. The Buck Institute for Education (2009) lists compelling research that shows how PBL has increased achievement test scores, improved long-term retention and student integration of concepts, and instilled 21st Century skills in students. Teachers can build into each PBL unit Web 2.0 tools such as ePals, Google apps, mobile computing, or social networking sites such as Edmodo to help students connect and collaborate. Students can use technology capabilities to collaboratively construct, share, and represent what they have learned (Jonassen & Land, 2012, p. 20). The result is smarter, better prepared students, who have integrated their learning inside the classroom with their real-life experiences everywhere else.
Anderson,T.,& Dron, J. (2011). Three generations of distance education pedagogy. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning,12(3). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/890/1663
Au, K. H. (1998). Social constructivism and the school literacy learning of students of diverse backgrounds. Journal of Literacy Research, 30(2), 297–319. doi: 10.1080/10862969809548000
Dewey, J. (1916). Education as a necessity of life. In Democracy and education (1). Retrieved from http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/publications/Projects/digitexts/dewey/d_e/ chapter01.html
Ertmer, P.A., & Newby, T.J. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4), 50-72.
Jonassen, D., & Land, S. (Eds.). (2012). Theoretical foundations of learning environments (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.