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Constructivism in Science Education

Learning Objectives

After studying this chapter, the reader should be able to:

• Develop awareness of the concept of constructivism.
• Describe the implications of constructivism for the learning environment,
the roles of the teacher and the students.
• Explain the role of the science teacher in the constructivist classroom.
• Realize the impact of cultural and social constructivism on classroom

Constructivism is a concept that in recent years has garnered
considerable attention
among science education researchers. Essentially, it is a model or metaphor
of how learning takes place. Constructivism focuses on knowledge
construction. The potential significance of constructivism has already extended
beyond research and into the science classroom.
It has to be pointed out from the outset that the constructivist view
primarily concerns a particular way of conceptualizing knowledge and
knowledge acquisition (that is, learning). It is a view of the nature of knowledge
and its development based on a certain epistemology (i.e., a theory of
Constructivist epistemology hinges on three assertions:
1. Knowledge is a way of making sense of experience
2. Knowledge is always an interpretation and therefore always open
3. All interpretations are based on prior knowledge.
The common constructivist core is a "view of human of personal
cognitive construction, or invention, undertaken by the individual who is
trying, for whatever purpose, to make sense of her social or natural
environment (Taylor, 1993). Knowledge is not viewed as some sort of a true
copy of features the world outside but as construction of the individual.
Knowledge acquisition (i.e. learning) is not the transfer of "nuggets of truth"
(Kelly, 1955) to the individual but a personal construction by the individual.
The learner is not seen as a passive receiver but as an active constructor of
knowledge. During the process of learning, Learners may perceive the world
differently, based on their own unique experiences. The learners may then share
their knowledge with teachers, which make the teacher and the taught active
participants in the learning process.
The constructivist view comes in many variants in science education
literature on students learning (Good Wandersee & julien, 1993). Learning is
determined by the interplay among learners' existing knowledge, the social
context, and the problem that is to be solved.
Paul Ernest (1997) in his description of the many schools of thought of
constructivism suggests the following implications of constructivism which
derive from both the radical and social perspectives:
• sensitivity and attentiveness towards the learner's previous
• diagnostic teaching attempting to remedy learner's errors and
• attention to metacognition and strategic self-regulation by learners;
• use of multiple representations of mathematical concepts;
• awareness of the importance of goals for the learner, and the
between learner and teacher goals;
• awareness of the importance of social contexts, such as the
between folk or street mathematics and school mathematics
Bruner defines constructivism as a learning theory in which learners
construct new ideas or concepts based on their current and past knowledge.
Even though there are numerous interpretations of constructivism, several
central ideas common to all constructivist theories surface. Cunningham
and Duffy identified two major similarities that are the foundation of all
constructivist theories. They are:
• Learning is an active process of constructing rather than acquiring
• Instruction is a process of supporting that construction rather than
communicating knowledge.
Two major streams of constructivism have evolved. These two streams are
‘social constructivism' and 'cognitive constructivism'. These two streams
share the following characteristics:
• All knowledge is constructed through a process of reflective
• A learner's cognitive structures facilitate the learning process.
• An individual's cognitive structures are constantly developing.
• Constructivist learning has to have constructivist learning methods and
pedagogy to back it up.
An important concept for social constructivists is that of scaffolding
which is a process of guiding the learner from what is presently known to what
is to be known. According to Vygotsky (1978), students' problem solving skills
fall into three categories:
1. skills that the student cannot perform
2. skills that the student may be able to perform
3. skills that the student can perform with help
Scaffolding allows students to perform tasks that would normally be
slightly beyond their ability without the assistance and guidance from the
teacher. Appropriate teacher support can allow students to function at the
cutting edge of their individual development. Scaffolding is therefore an
important characteristic of constructivist learning and teaching.
Bringing constructivist principles into the classroom have implications
for the learning environment, the roles of the teacher, and the students.

Learning environment
Honebein (1996) describes seven goals for the design of constructivist
learning environments:
• Provide experience with the knowledge construction process;
• Provide experience in and appreciation for multiple perspectives;
• Embed learning in realistic and relevant contexts;
• Encourage ownership and voice in the learning process;
• Embed learning in social experience;
• Encourage the use of multiple modes of representation;
• Encourage self-awareness in the knowledge construction process.
Jonassen (1994) identified eight characteristics of the constructivist
learning environment. Constructivist learning environments—
• Provide multiple representations of reality.
• Represent that complexity of the real world.
• Emphasize knowledge construction.
• Stress authentic tasks in meaningful context.
• Provide real life settings.
• Encourage reflection on experience.
• Enable context- and content-dependent knowledge construction.
• Support collaboration and social negotiation among learners.
While in traditional education, the role of the teacher is seen as that of a
transmitter of knowledge, in the constructivist classroom a teacher's role
changes significantly. The role of the teacher in the constructivist classroom
is to act as a 'guide on the side' (Brooks, 1993). The teacher's job is to
provide opportunities for learners to expand their knowledge in an active
and engaged format. The teacher cannot assume that all learners have the
same background knowledge or experiences on which to build new
knowledge. Instruction has to be designed to make the missing connections for
learners. The teacher facilitates the constructivist learning process. Wilson and
Cole (1991) provide a description of cognitive teaching models which
'embody' constructivist concepts. From these descriptions emerge these key
concepts of constructivist design, teaching and learning:

1. Embed learning in a rich authentic problem-solving environment;

2. Provide for authentic versus academic contexts for learning;
3. Provide for learner control;
4. Use errors as a mechanism to provide feedback on learners' understanding.

Learners in this environment are active and not passive. They are
encouraged to be independent thinkers and problem solvers. Learners are
engaged in experiences that go beyond factual responses and provide
opportunities to hypothesis, to analyze, to interpret, and predict. Another key
concept is to encourage learners to communicate and collaborate with others,
thus allowing for reinforcement and elaboration of ideas and concepts.
In general, instructional settings are designed such that they allow
students to take responsibility of their learning processes and allow them to
experience that science knowledge which may be meaningful and significant
for them. Project type approaches, more open forms of instruction like open
ended experimentation, and authentic learning environments are some feasible
ones. Also ideas of situated and socially shared cognition are among the
significant supporting conditions of conceptual change that address the aims
of student-centred science instruction. The context is an integral part of what
is learned. What is learned is inseparable from how it is learned.
Taylor and Fraser (^991) have developed a "Constructivist Learning
Environment Survey" to assess supporting classroom climates. The four
scales of their instrument reflect key issues that are also pointed out in
many other constructivist approaches:
The Autonomy scale measures perceptions to the extent to which there
are opportunities for students to exercise meaningful and deliberate control
over their learning activities, and think independently of the teacher and other
students. The Prior Knowledge scale measures perceptions of the extent to
which there are opportunities for students to meaningfully integrate their
prior knowledge and experiences with their newly constructed knowledge.
The Negotiation scale measures perceptions of the extent to which there are
opportunities for students to interact, negotiate meaning and build
consensus. The Student-Centredness scale measures perceptions of the
extent to which there are opportunities for students to experience learning as
a process of creating and resolving personally problematic experiences
(Taylor and Fraser, 1991).

Characteristics of a Constructivist Classroom

The common core of the constructivist view allows to interpret
(and hence; understand) students' learning difficulties as revealed by the many
studies available in a consistent manner and also provides guidelines for
developing more efficient teaching and learning strategies. Learning
whenever it happens (and it happens also, even successfully, in more
traditionally-oriented approaches) is viewed as active construction by the
learner. But the idea inherent in constructivism of taking the students'
beliefs and conceptions seriously has led towards student centred
pedagogy of science instruction. The focus here is on the students, their
interests, their learning skills, and their needs in a broad sense. Science
instruction from that perspective aims at providing students with science
knowledge in such a way that they understand the science concepts and
principles rather than learning definitions and formulas by heart. Besides, they
also understand in which way science knowledge is of significance for
themselves and for the lives of all other human beings. The focus of such a
science instruction is not solely the significance of certain content domains in
the sciences, i.e. students' introduction into the cultural heritage that science
knowledge provides, but also for the individual and society in general.
Constructivism therefore has become part of a broad movement in science
education towards "science for all" so as to make science knowledge more
The aims of constructivist science instruction are fundamentally different
from more traditionally oriented approaches. Understanding science in the
deep way is aimed at in constructivist approaches which go far beyond parrot
like repetition of definitions, formulas and the like. It includes applications of
science knowledge for the mentioned purposes, and also incorporates views
about science and meta-cognitive issue. Further, the aim is to develop a
reflective learner who is aware of the strengths and limitations of her or his
In Table 1.1 some key contrasting aspects of traditional and constructivist
science education are given. This table stems from a holistic constructivist

Table 6.1 Contrasting Traditional and Portfolio Cultures in Science Classrooms

(from Duschl and Gitomer, 1991, 849)
Traditional Science Portfolio Science Culture
View of science
Strict hypothetical-deductive scientific method Partial Scientific method
Logical Positivism Epistemology epistemology Observation/theoretical
distinction untenable.

Role of learner
Low student input/nonactive image High student input/active image
Scientific meanings received Low Scientific meanings negotiated
level of Scientific High level of reflection
realism/semantic conception Uses strategic/principled knowledge
Role of teacher

Disseminator of scientific knowledge Crafter of scientific knowledge

Nonparticipant in construction of scientific Participant in construction of knowledge
knowledge about science.
Strict adherence to prescribed curriculum Modify and adapt prescribed curriculum
Curriculum goals
Scientific knowledge Knowledge about science
What we know How and why we know
Emphasize fully developed final form Emphasize knowledge growth
explanations and explanation development
Breadth of knowledge Depth of knowledge
Basic scientific knowledge Contextualized scientific knowledge
Curriculum units discrete Curriculum units connected

That Duschl and Gitomer (1991) call ‘Portfolio culture’. The term portfolio culture is meant to convey an image of
a classroom learning environment that reflects a comprehensive interplay between teacher, student, and curriculum.

Role of Teacher in a Constructivist Classroom

Constructivists believe that for knowledge construction to occur, a certain type of Learning
environment must be created. Strommen and Lincoln (1992), for the purpose, use the term
"'child-driven learning environment." In a constructivist learning environment, children have
the ability to create their own ideas and collaborate with their peers, transforming the role of a
peer from a competitor to a resource. Teachers' pedagogical content knowledge has proven to be
the key factor in new teaching and learning approaches under a constructivist perspective

The characteristics of a constructivist classroom are:

• Shared knowledge between teachers and students
• Shared responsibility among students and teachers
• Small heterogeneous classrooms
• The teacher as a guide and facilitator in instruction, depending on the knowledge level
of the students.
Teachers wishing to use student's prior knowledge in order to create appropriate lessons
can use prior knowledge interviews. This can be a short qu prior to starting a new unit or just a
class discussion. In a constructivist model, it is very important to know what the students already
know. Students use prior knowledge to help make sense of the new knowledge being
constructed. T helps students think critically and make informed decisions. Rice and Wils
(1999) believe that only a constructivist classroom will foster a learning environment that will elicit
these desired responses.
Jonassen (1991) isolated the following design principles:
1. Create real-world environments that employ the context in which lean is relevant;
2. Focus on realistic approaches to solving real-world problems;
3. The instructor is a coach and analyzer of the strategies used to solve these problems;
4. Stress conceptual interrelatedness, providing multiple representation perspectives on the
5. Instructional goals and objectives should be negotiated and not imposed
6. Evaluation should serve as a self-analysis tool;
7. Provide tools and environments that help learners interpret the mi
perspectives of the world;
8. Learning should be internally controlled and mediated by the lea
Brooks and Brooks (1993) as well as Yager (1991) summarize characteristics of a
constructivist teacher. Thus a constructivist teacher should:
1. Become one of the many resources that the student may learn fro the primary source
of information.
2. Engage students in experiences that challenge previous conceptions of their existing
3. Allow student responses to lead the lessons on and seek elaboration of students'
initial responses.
4. Seek student ideas before presenting teacher ideas or before studying ideas from
textbooks or other sources.
5. Encourage students to challenge each other's conceptualizations and ideas.
6. Allow student some thinking time after posing questions.
7. Encourage the spirit of questioning by asking thoughtful, open-ended questions.
8. Use cognitive terminology such as 'classify,' 'analyze', and 'create' when' framing tasks.
9. Encourage thoughtful discussions among students.
10. Promote student leadership, collaboration, location of information and
taking actions as a result of the learning process.
11. Encourage and accept student autonomy and initiative.
12. Be willing to let go of classroom control.
13. Not separate knowing from the process of finding out.
14. Insist on clear expression from students.
15. Extend learning beyond the class period, classroom and the school.
16. Focus on the impact of science on each individual student.

When students can communicate their understanding, then they have truly learned.