by Dr. Donald C. Guthrie, professor and director, educational studies PhD program, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois
Constructivism is a philosophical perspective or epistemology that emphasizes the agency of the person to create or construct meaning. It is a perspective that arose in the early- to mid-twentieth century as a counter to behaviorism’s more deterministic emphasis on external stimuli’s role in human learning.
Adherents of constructivism reject behavioristic assumptions such as locating thinking in the mind, the relative uniformity of thinking processes across persons, and the primacy of formal instructional contexts to advance learning. Rather, constructivists emphasize that learning occurs as persons reflectively make sense of their contextual experiences, often including their interfaces with others.
Constructivists believe truth is a working hypothesis rather than a fixed catalogue of received knowledge. For the constructivist, truth is personally and socially discovered and assembled, not received and accepted from some outside source. Constructivism influences educational training, curriculum, and methodology at all levels.
John Dewey, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky are some of the most prominent early constructivists. Dewey believed that the learner’s interaction with the environment creates the most genuine and meaningful learning experiences. Piaget added that as the learner matures in his or her thinking, the learner is able to make meaning at increasingly more complex levels. Vygotsky emphasized the role of the social and cultural context in how people make meaning from their experiences. The work of these pioneers provided the foundation upon which many subsequent theorists and practitioners would expand constructivism’s influence in all areas of education.
Critics argue constructivism’s philosophical assumptions are too relativistic. That is, the reliance on learners to make meaning out of their experience leaves no room for metanarratives or social commitments to inform critical reflection on the learner’s prior knowledge, conclusions, or applications. Pushed to the extreme, the learner is always right because there is nothing that pushes back on whatever meaning is made.
Additionally, critics contend there is not enough accounting for the power of dominant meaning makers in social learning environments. From this perspective, while theoretically learners are encouraged to make meaning out of their experiences, the dominant learner may hold undue influence over the group in social learning situations.
Other critics claim that even though learners make meaning, it does not automatically result in learning transfer to other contexts. Specifically, too much dependence on cognitive learning approaches ignore or underplay learning transfer. Functionally, iterative trial and error approaches take time no matter how much learning transfer is anticipated. So, while learning transfer is hoped for, there may not be enough time available to pursue strategies that ensure its possible outcomes.
Regarding educational leadership in formal or non-formal contexts, critics suggest that training facilitators is too challenging and that scaling up constructivist approaches is difficult because the facilitator cannot pay attention to each person’s learning process in large groups.
While curriculum is available for discovery learning, especially at K-12 levels, existing curriculum still does not consistently account for the learner-centered approach that constructivism supports. Others maintain constructivist approaches do not include enough curricular structure to enhance learning possibilities, particularly in formal higher education contexts.
Constructivism from a Christian perspective (adapted from Guthrie, 2018; 2019)
A Christian approach to constructivism seeks to honor the human agency of meaning makers while acknowledging that meaning making is possible only because God has breathed meaning into his creation. In Psalm 111, the psalmist opens and closes with words of praise to the people’s magnificent God. In verse 2, the psalmist reminds God’s people of God’s extraordinary work and the invitation the Lord extends to all who recognize him as the maker of all things to investigate what the Lord has made. They are to whole-heartedly investigate and to whole-heartedly practice wisdom in God’s mighty name in light of what they have discovered. In God’s good creation, God’s people encounter countless opportunities to learn with delight, even as the Lord shapes them into his whole-hearted worshippers.
Whole-hearted investigation leads to delighted teaching and may be understood as “collaborative investigation leading to practiced wisdom under the Triune God’s care for the sake of others” (Guthrie, 2018, p. 151). This description could also be understood as Christian constructivism. Such an adaption of constructivism for the Christian assumes God is the preeminent meaning maker who delights in his people’s discoveries as agentic investigators. Consider Jesus Christ, the very image of the invisible God. He lives the perfect whole-hearted life of devotion to the Father for others’ sake (John 17:4, Col. 1:15). Jesus’s complete fidelity to his Father’s good will consistently expresses his remarkable reflection of his Father’s nature (John 14:31). Amazingly, his sinless life, atoning death, glorious resurrection and kingly ascension secure new life for the Christian.
Jesus’ Spirit empowers the Christian to take up a whole-hearted life of delighted investigation into the handiwork of God as Psalm 111 outlines. The blessed discoveries are not meant to remain the meaning-making property of the discoverer; after all, Christians are not the end of their own education. Following after the Savior, Christians steward whatever wisdom is gleaned to the glory of God and their neighbor’s flourishing.
There are many positive implications for Christian educators to embrace in light of constructivism. While not adopting the relativistic assumptions of constructivism, the Christian educator can embrace discovery learning and meaning making as Christ-honoring complements to approaches and content grounded in Scripture. The use of repetition so common to constructivism is a very helpful corrective to overly linear educational approaches which leave some learners grasping for opportunities to review, practice and receive feedback in light of their learning efforts. This scaffolding approach also encourages deeper learning in which learners own what they learn. Such ownership not only blesses the learning accomplished in the moment but also feeds ongoing learning that builds on the present inquiry. Finally, it serves many learners who learn in ways which differ from traditional methods emphasizing listening, remembering and testing.
Collaborative meaning making is another powerful consideration for the Christian educator. This is a more recent development in constructivism and one which calls for enthusiastic affirmation. Humans are individuals who experience life in particular social contexts. Humans also interact with other human beings in environments that invite dialogical meaning making. Christians are members of the body of Christ who have a responsibility to honor, serve, love and care for one another that includes interacting with one another’s learning under the authority of God’s word. In addition, Christians should engage with others with whom they may share deep differences with respect and care as fellow image bearers.
Not every teacher is interested in or has the capacity to learn how to become a facilitator of the structured experiences in context-rich environments which constructivism advocates. However, there are many resources available to those who want to learn how to deepen their ability to employ methods that promote learner empowerment.
Overall, constructivism is a very human epistemology. Some of its adherents do not recognize the one who imbues his creatures with the capacity for reflective meaning making. Christians would do well to carefully consider the affirmable qualities of constructivism as they recognize the meaning maker behind meaning making activities and counteract those assumptive implications that ignore him. Delightfully growing in how to learn over the course of life before the face of God is a valuable perspective to cultivate. Constructivism can be a valuable aid in this worthy pursuit.
Dr. Donald C. Guthrie
Be sure to check out our follow-up article Constructivism: an Entrust perspective.
Guthrie, Donald C. 2018. “Faith and Teaching.” Christian Higher Education: Faith, Teaching, and Learning in the Evangelical Tradition, edited by David S. Dockery and Christopher W. Morgan. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
Guthrie, Donald C. 2019. “Integral Engagement: Christian Constructivism and the Social Sciences.” Christian Education Journal 16 (3): 445-457.
Merriam, Sharan B., and Laura L. Bierema. 2013. Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Schunk, Dale H. 2019. Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective. 8th ed. Hoboken, NJ: Pearson, Inc.