How do Students ‘Learn’ through Construction?


In my last post, I raised my concern that the theory of Constructivism is often misrepresented as theory of teaching, instead of a theory of knowing. In this post, I hope to provide further insight into the theory of Constructivism and the implications of this on the way learning is catered for in our classrooms. Michael Devitt labelled Constructivism as, “the most dangerous contemporary intellectual tendency” as, although we are quick to accept that knowledge is constructed, the transformation of educational pedagogies and theories under the banner of Constructivism is often accompanied by confusion around what constitutes a Constructivist approach to teaching (1991, p. ix). In order to apply the theory of Constructivism to our teaching, we must first understand how learning happens.

We know that Constructivism is grounded in the concept that learners construct their own understanding through experiences and interpretations. This construction of knowledge comes initially from the prior knowledge, experiences, attitudes and interests that individuals bring to learning.  Learning then transpires when individuals apply these factors to new experiences and situations and construct their own understanding (Howe & Berv, 2000, p.30). One common misconception in relation to Constructivism is that learning must be social. This comes initially from the ideas of Vygotsky, who believed that knowledge was created through social interaction and immersion in a range of cultures (Lowenthal & Muth, 2009, para.7). This however, is not the only way knowledge is constructed. As mentioned in my previous post, Piaget’s work indicated that knowledge is constructed through an individual’s experience and prior knowledge (Lowenthal & Muth, 2009, para.6). Thus, while collaboration is often paired with Constructivism in educational settings, it is not essential that learning is social for students to construct knowledge. I would assert that balance between the two is beneficial for metacognition. It is imperative therefore, that we do not discard teacher-centred learning under the banner of Constructivist practice, as construction happens through knowledge and learning, regardless of the approach of the teacher.

While educators may use different pedagogical approaches to assist their students in constructing their own knowledge, what is essential, is that teachers adopt the mindset that they themselves are also learners. Brooks and Brooks asserted that students learn best when they work with adults who, “ask questions with which they themselves still grapple, who are willing and able to alter both content and practice in the pursuit of meaning, and who treat students and their endeavours as works in progress, not finished products” (1993, p.9). This assertion does not make the teacher redundant in student learning, it does however, reposition the teacher as a coach or facilitator of student learning who assists their students in developing, “an independent and active attitude of great importance for his or her functioning in a modern dynamic society (Taylor, 1992). Therefore, it is not only the student who is the focus of Constructivist practice; equal importance must be placed on the teacher as a learner. While in a classroom students will construct knowledge regardless of the method of instruction, by embracing Constructivism, educators will provide students with an environment that promotes learning and understanding.

The educator’s role in a Constructivist classroom is to assist learning through creating, synthesising and interpreting information. It is often lamented that applying Constructivist practice in the classroom involves getting rid of learning goals and lesson plans (Dick, 1992, p.92). However, instead of planning that caters for students getting from ‘A’ to ‘B’, Constructivist teachers need to refocus and readjust what they plan for in the learning of their students, instead considering how they will influence the depth to which students construct their own knowledge and understanding. Teacher preparation must centre on contemplating how they will pose problems for their student’s that will influence their thinking and understanding (Brooks & Brooks, 1993, p.44). To assist student’s in learning, educators in a Constructivist classroom must use the knowledge, attitudes and interests of learners as a starting point in their instruction. Educators must then design their instruction to provide learning experiences that interact effectively with the characteristics of their students in assisting them in constructing their own understanding (Howe & Berv, 2000, p.31). In preparing for learning by: integrating disciplines and curriculum, establishing a core knowledge domain, selecting tasks relevant to individual learners and situations, providing students with multiple perspectives and incorporating cognitive flexibility that promotes apprenticeship and real-world experiences, educators will ensure that they are catering effectively for the construction of learning in their classroom (Paparozzi, C, 1998, pp. 67 – 75).

Reflecting on the theory of Constructivism emphasises for me the great influence we as educators have on the way our students think, learn and understand. We must dispel the common adage that teachers teach as they have been taught and adopt practices that encourage and allow for the active construction of knowledge and understanding in our classrooms. Regardless of our instructional methodologies, the construction of knowledge and learning must remain at the forefront of our practices so that we are enabling learning in our students.

Reference List

Brooks, J. G., & Brooks, M. G. (1993). The case for constructivist classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Devitt, M.   (1991). Realism and truth. Oxford: Blackwell.

Dick, W. (1992). An instructional designer’s view of constructivism. In T. Duffy & D. Jonesson (Eds.), Constructivism and the technology of instruction (pp. 91-98). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Kenneth R. Howe and Jason Berv. (2000). “Constructing constructivism, epistemological and pedagogical.” In Constructivism in education, edited by D. C. Phillips, 19-40. Illinois: The National Society for the Study of Education.

Lowenthal, P., & Muth, R. (2009). Constructivism. In E. Provenzo, & A. Provenzo (Eds.),Encyclopedia of the social and cultural foundations of education. (pp. 178-180). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi:

Paparozzi, C. (1998). Implementing constructivism in the middle school classroom. (Order No. 9926671, West Virginia University). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 100-100 p. Retrieved from (304454690).

Taylor, C. (1992). The ethics of authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Image Attribution

PublicDomainPictures. (2012). Connect connection cooperation hand hands holding. Public Domain CCO. Retrieved from


Zeroing in on Constructivism


Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) is by no means a new pedagogical approach and is a term often ‘thrown around’ in educational settings. My school identified IBL as its pedagogical approach long before I started teaching there, and theoretically, teachers across all year levels and all departments use this in their everyday teaching and learning. While my teacher training prepared me to recite the premise behind IBL and Constructivism on demand, it was not until I completed study in this area while enrolled in my Masters of Education, that I began to fully understanding exactly what IBL entailed. Inquiry-Based Learning has become of great interest to me as it is something that if often deemed effective and essential in best-practice teaching and learning, yet there are many educators, such as John Hattie, who remain sceptical about this approach. While Hattie does not claim that IBL doesn’t work, he does suggest that it is an ineffective teaching method, as the skills involved do not transfer easily across disciplines and content takes a back seat to critical thinking and exploration (Visible Learning plus, 2011, para 2.). Futhermore, Jeffrey and Peggy Wilhelm suggest that as a theory of learning, IBL caters for all learners in the classroom however, often, it is the delivery of IBL models that fail in their effectiveness (2010, p.40). Similarly, David Yun Dai, Kathryn Gerbimo and Michael Daley asserted in their study, ‘Inquiry-Based Learning in China: Do Teachers Practice What They Preach, and Why?’, that the effect of IBL is often limited by the understanding of school administrators, teachers and parents of the philosophy as they consider IBL as a teaching technique and not a way of learning (2011, p.154). It is factors such as these that lead me to believe, while Inquiry-Based learning has potential to be effective, it is greatly dependent on the understanding and delivery of this approach by educators. Perhaps one of the determiners of this is reliant on educators’ understanding and interpretation of Constructivism, the theory from which Inquiry-Based learning has evolved.

Constructivism is very much a theory about knowledge and learning although, often, is misinterpreted as a theory of teaching, leading to a vast range of ideas about what constitutes Constructivist practice in the classroom. We often hear Constructivism mentioned with jargon such as ‘student-centred’, ‘problem-based’, ‘real-world’, yet what we forget is, Constructivism does not constitute what we teach, but how we learn. To be truly Constructivist in their teaching, educators must connect theory to practice and sadly, this is often where they fail. Based on the work of Dewey, Paiget, Vygotsky, Bruner, Gardner and many others, Constructivism constitutes the idea that knowledge is constructed through the active participation and development of the learner (Twomey Fosnot, 2005, p.33). A Constructivist classroom environment is one in which students, “search for meaning, appreciate uncertainty, and inquire responsibly” (Brooks & Brooks, 1993, p.v). Through this, we encourage our students to think and rethink, validate and exhibit their understanding as they learn (1993, p.v). Thus, errors, reflection and dialogue are essential in meaning made by the learners as they build on earlier conceptions and ideas (2005, p.34). Consequently, Constructivist teachers must constantly analyse their curriculum and instructional methodologies while continually reflecting on the learning process as they go, rather than planning a unit with pre-conceived expectations of what and how learning will happen (Brooks & Brooks, 1993, p.13).

As educators, it is easy to misjudge learning as the recitation and repetition of facts, ideas and procedures. What is missed, is the fact that memorisation does not necessarily mean knowledge. Piaget emphasised that the construction of knowledge is an adaptive activity that occurs through assimilation and accommodation; once a new equilibrium is achieved in the learner, learning has happened (Von Glaserfeld, 1989, p.128).   Forman and Kuschner use the example of the difference between a student understanding or not understanding the game of baseball. Simply memorising the rules of the sport does not constitute knowledge. It is not until a student understands how to apply the rules of the game, make inferences about tactic and strategy and becomes generative in their use of the rules that learning has occurred (1977, p.84). This has great implications for many educators, who become overwhelmed at the thought of loosening the reigns and putting learning in the hands of each individual in their class. Constructivism is about abandoning what is familiar and comfortable in our perspectives and practices, and experiencing a paradigm shift through the adoption of new ones (Brooks & Brooks, 1993, p.25). John Dewey’s assertion that, “education is not an affair of telling and being told but an active and constructive process,” is a perfect articulation of this concept (as cited in Kuhlthau, Maniotes & Caspari, 2007, p.14).    Essentially, the foci of Constructivism are cognitive development and deep understanding, as learners become nonlinear in their learning processes through the active organisation and reorganisation of structures and conceptions. The challenge for educators who adopt Constructivist practices, is not then to simply hand the responsibility of learning over to students and label their pedagogy as student-centred, but to change their classrooms to environments that encourage students to think and explore.

These ideas are but scratching at the surface of Constructivist thinking, however, they do provide a starting point for educators who are unaware of the theoretical background of pedagogies grounded in Constructivism, such as Inquiry-Based Learning. Whereas Constructivism is often seen as a relaxed practice that allows students to learn about whatever they want, in whatever manner they want, it is in fact a rigorous thinking process that allows for empowerment and genuine understanding in learners. The Constructivist theory of learning challenges educators to consider whether their students are simply memorising and repeating, or actively understanding what is taught in their classrooms. My examination of the foundations of Constructivism leads me to question whether it is the misinterpretations of this theory and its applications to pedagogy that influence educators such as Hattie to question the effects of Inquiry-Based Learning.

Reference List

Brooks, J. G., &Brooks, M. G. (1993). The case for constructivist classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Dai, D. Y., Gerbino, K. A., & Daley, M. J. (2011). Inquiry-based learning in china: Do teachers practice what they preach, and why?Frontiers of Education in China, 6(1), 139-157. doi:

Forman, G., & Kuschner, D. (1977). The child’s construction of knowledge. Belmont, Calif: Wadworth Co

Jeffrey, D.W., & Wilhelm, P.J. (2010). Inquiring minds learn to read, write, and think: Reaching all learners through inquiry. Middle School Journal, 41(5), 39-46. Retrieved from

Kuhlthau, C. C., Maniotes, L. K. & Caspari, A. K.  (2007).  Guided inquiry: learning in the 21st century.  Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Twomey Fosnot, C. (Ed). (2005). Constructivism: theory, perspectives, and practice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press

Visible Learning plus. (2011). Inquiry learning. Retrieved April 9, 2014, from

Von Glaserfeld, E. (1989). Cognition, construction of knowledge, and teaching. Synthese, 80 (1), 121-140. doi: 10.1007/BF00869951

Image Attribution

School Girls Learning From Teacher At Desk.[Photography]. Retrieved from Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest.



I started research on my Doctor of Education at the start of this year and have found that although I am reading so much and forming so many ideas, it’s really hard to actually start writing these down. After much procrastination and ‘note-taking’, I’ve decided that today is the day I start putting pen to paper and documenting what I’ve been ‘thinking’ about. After encouragement from my supervisors, I have decided to take my thinking public, and blog about my research as I go.

When I wrote my research proposal last year, I was hoping to develop a middle school approach to inquiry-based learning, using my current school as a case study. In order for readers to fully understand my ideas on this blog, I have included my proposal below as it outlines my initial ideas.


Research Topic: The design and implementation of an Inquiry-based learning Middle School pedagogical approach

Objectives of program of Research and Investigation:

Inquiry-based learning is essential in the development of a holistic and supportive curriculum that provides learners with the opportunities to direct their own learning in a twenty-first (21) century learning landscape. While inquiry-based learning is not a new concept, it has become the framework for learning in a society of innovation and the unknown. Often educators recognise the, “significant challenges we will face in today’s world, …[require] us to innovate, change, take risks, recognize problems and imagine alternate futures”, however, this is not always catered for across all disciplines (Barell, 2010, p.176). Education Queensland acknowledges that every school should have a research-validated pedagogical framework that is implemented and supported consistently across the school setting, with student-centred learning and evidence-based decision-making key principles in ensuring the success of learners (2013, p.1). The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, recognises Inquiry skills in its curriculum, however, does not mention inquiry-based learning. Essentially, it is up to the school itself to adopt a whole-school inquiry-based approach in order to accommodate for this. Without such an approach, educators may be teaching inquiry skills, without awareness or recognition of their relationship to inquiry-based learning. Thus, in order to successfully implement a curriculum focused on inquiry skills, it is necessary for a school to develop a systematic approach to inquiry-based learning that is transferable across each discipline.

Research methods: Research will be conducted using a case study methodology. Thus, data will be collected through interviews, questionnaires and observations of the staff and students at a secondary order-based Catholic School.

Case Study Site:

The site under investigation currently adopts an inquiry-based learning pedagogy, particularly in the middle school, with students completing a subject entitled Integrated Studies that incorporates the core subjects of English, Social Sciences and Religious Education. Theoretically, Integrated Studies is built around Kath Murdoch’s Phases of Inquiry model, however often, due to the unfamiliarity of teachers with the inquiry process, this is often overlooked and student’s are instead exposed to teaching and learning that focuses heavily on summative assessment and, the inquiry process and development of twenty-first century skills, are marginalised. In addition to this, not all departments are encouraging their staff to adopt inquiry-based learning, as they believe their disciplines are more suited to other approaches or, do not see the merits of inquiry-based learning. With the onset of a year seven (7) cohort entering the college in 2015, the college hopes to develop an atmosphere that actively incorporates an inquiry-based philosophy across all departments within the school. In order to be successful in this, the school needs to consider how current and future trends in learning, such as John Hattie’s Visible Learning, can be incorporated in the inquiry process and additionally, how the inquiry process, and the skills developed in this process, can be transferred across all departments and into the senior school. The staffing, professional development programs and practices of teaching and learning within the school need to be assessed so that all learning within the school models a singular inquiry-based learning approach.

Prior Research:

With the rapid advancements in technology, the transformation of literacy and the constant bombardment of information that twenty-first century learners are faced with, it is evident that a change is need in our teaching styles to effectively cater for today’s learners.  The concept of inquiry-based learning, whereby students become active participants in locating and using a range of information sources to construct their own understanding of a problem or issue, is one appropriate student-centred response that attends to the needs of twenty-first century students (Kuhlthau, Maniotes & Caspari, 2007, p.2).  Often in the twenty-first century, students are presented with tasks that require them to research and draw on a range of information sources to construct their knowledge independently without guidance  (Todd, 2006, p.6).  By incorporating inquiry learning, teachers are able to guide students through the process of locating and selecting appropriate information and assist them in developing the skills needed to transform information into knowledge.

 Inquiry-based learning is modelled on the constructivist theory that allows a student to be an active participant in the construction of deep understanding and learning. Early Constructivists, such as John Dewey, argued that education involved creating new knowledge through an inquiry process. He advocated a Reflecting Thinking process that allowed for reflection in each stage of understanding and learning (1915, p.158). The concept that learners actively reflect on new information in the learning process and then form their own ideas that lead to deep understanding, is the foundation of inquiry-based learning  (Kuhlthau, et al., 2007, p.15). This, coupled with research that suggests the brain runs on emotions that drive thoughts and actions which are increased when a learning environment is challenging, social and engaging, is the focus of guided inquiry: to challenge students to become engaged in their own quest for knowledge and understanding through personal and social construction (Kuhlthau, et al., 2007, p.15). There are numerous pedagogical approaches to inquiry-based learning, however, essential to these approaches is the need to contain a combination of three key elements: a questioning framework, an information seeking process and an action research cycle, in order to contain an authentic student-centred approach (Lupton, 2012, Para. 1). Thus, as Barell suggests, it is integral that we recognise inquiry is a, “natural outcome of encountering situations characterized by doubt, difficulty, complexity, novelty, conflict and mystery” (Barell, 2009, Loc 460).

Inquiry-based learning is an effective active learning pedagogy. Harste suggests that incorporating inquiry-based learning involves changing the way we view instruction, so that curriculum is focused on the personal and collective questions of the learners (2001, p.3). This is supported by Schuster’s discovery that incorporating inquiry learning into her courses allowed her student’s to discover that their knowledge was valued and essential to their own learning (2008, p.176).  By transforming her classroom from a teacher-centred environment with prescribed textbooks that provided students with answers, to a student-centred environment that allowed active learning through research, discussion and analysis, Schuster found that her students were equipped with skills that promoted life-long learning (2008, p.177). Similarly, Fitzgerald found in her case study on inquiry learning in a classroom setting, that students achieved more when their own research and inquiry provided direction and guided the final result  (2007, p.35).    Thus, it is evident that a learning experience that embraces inquiry-based learning, will allow students to construct their own meaning and become active and engaged learners as they share responsibility in the direction and outcome of their learning.

While it obvious that students benefit from the flexibility they have in building and developing their knowledge and understanding, the inquiry process must be supported by a flexible team of educators who assist the students in developing their research and information literacy skills (Kuhlthau & Maniotes, 2010, p.18).   Kuhlthau and Maniotes argue that, as the implementation of inquiry learning is complex and multi-faceted, it is essential to develop a team of experts with a range of expertise who will supervise and assist students in their inquiry (2010, p.19).  Kuhlthau and Maniotes identify five kinds of learning in the inquiry process: curriculum content, information literacy, learning how to learn, literacy competence and social skills (2010, p.19).  By creating a team of educators that will assist students in these areas of learning, a unit will be fully utulising the expertise of the school community. Todd asserts that a team of educators who assist students in carrying out and scaffolding their inquiry, ensures that evidence of student learning can be gathered and, “provide a mechanism for teachers and school librarians to recognise those critical moments when intervention and instruction is essential, and then to tailor interventions to enable students to achieve successful outcomes in their inquiry” (Todd, 2006, p.6).   Therefore, it is essential that inquiry-based learning needs to be planned, negotiated and supervised by an instructional team who are able to guide, support and enable students to become effective researchers, information users and seekers, as well as constructors of their own knowledge.

It is apparent that inquiry-based learning is an effective and logical teaching and learning approach, as it allows for students to be active participants in the construction of their knowledge in an engaging and social process.  By creating an instructional team that caters for the content and skill needs of the learners as they learn, students will be able to achieve outcomes that utilise the information literacy skills needed to be active participants in the twenty-first century technological society.  Inquiry-based learning greatly enhances the learning experience of students and should be considered and catered for in twenty-first (21) century pedagogy.

 If you are someone who is interested in pedagogy that is supported across disciplines in a whole-school approach, particularly inquiry-based learning and movements such as Visible Learning, please follow my blog and join the conversation as my ideas and research grow.


Reference list:

Barell, J. (2008). Why are school buses always yellow?: teaching for inquiry, preK-5 [Kindle edition]. Retrieved from

Barell, J. (2010). Problem-based learning: The foundation for 21st century skills. 21st century skills: Rethinking how students learn, 175-199.

Dewey, J. (2004). Democracy and education. Courier Dover Publications.

Education Queensland, Department of Education, Training and Employment (2013). Pedagogical framework – at a glance. Retrieved from

Fitzgerald, L.  (2007).  Investigating guided inquiry: a beginning.  Scan, 26(2), 30-37.

Fitzgerald, L.  (2011).  The twin purposes of guided inquiry:  guiding student inquiry and evidence based practice.  Scan, 30(1), 26-41.

Gillon, K.  & Stotter, J.  (2011).  Inquiry learning with senior secondary students: yes it can be done!  Access, 25(3), 14-19.

Harste, J. (2001). What inquiry is and isn’t. In S. Boran & B. Comber (Eds.), Critiquing whole language and classroom inquiry (pp. 1-17). Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English.

Kuhlthau, C.C.  & Maniotes.  L. K.  (2010).  Building guided inquiry teams for 21st-century learners.  School Library Monthly, XXVI(5), 18-21.

Kuhlthau, C. C., Maniotes, L. K. & Caspari, A. K.  (2007).  Guided inquiry: learning in the 21st century.  Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Lupton, M. (2012, August 22). What is inquiry learning? [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Murdoch, K. (2010). Phases of inquiry. Retrieved from

Schuster, L.A.  (2008).  Working-class students and historical inquiry:  transforming learning in the classroom.  The History Teacher41(2), 163-178.

Todd, R. J.  (2006).  From learning to read to reading to learn: school libraries, literacy and guided inquiry.  International Association of School Librarianship.  Selected Papers from the… Annual Conference, 1-18. Retrieved from