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Constructivism: A Model of Learning for Preparing Problem Solvers

by Julie Meek

Constructivism: A Model for Learning
Five Principles of Constructivism
How Can I Do This?
Example Lesson Plan Using Constructivism in Geography

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students working in pairs


All the school mission statements that I have read address the goal of creating problem solvers. This is a critical thinking skill that is needed by every student to enable them to become citizens who can participate in and contribute to our society. They need to be able to make valid decisions. When students leave the school environment, they will be reading newspapers, reports, and raw data. They will need to interpret this material, formulate questions, and find answers. Technology is changing so quickly that many of the students will have jobs in the future that do not exist today. Our society expects people to have the ability to interact and work effectively with others. We need to help students gain the ability to stretch and adapt themselves to fit into a changing job market and a challenging democracy.


What does this mean for us in the classroom? How can we help students prepare for this future? How can we make them into better problem solvers? One possibility is using the constructivism theory as a model of learning. According to this theory, the manner in which students acquire and process information is fundamental to their learning. Individuals "construct" meaning from the world around them. Constructivism is not a teaching strategy based on a specific curriculum; it is a flexible classroom environment consistently focusing on engaging students in active learning. The role of the teacher is to create this active environment. The teacher is no longer the "sage on stage" but is now the "guide on the side."

Constructivism is any teaching strategy or activity in which students learn content material by being placed in situations that require them to solve problems, building upon what they already know. The teacher provides stimulation and asks questions. Students are encouraged to come to their own conclusions. In order for this to occur, students need to seek information, form opinions, make decisions about relevant and irrelevant information, and apply concepts to new situations. Each of these tasks requires active involvement on the part of students as well as critical-thinking skills. This is an example of a constructivist environment. Students are empowered to "construct" their own knowledge instead of accepting information passively. Students are not passive learners; they are "actively involved in a process of meaning and knowledge construction" (Gray p. 2).

Studies show that students remember 90% of what they say and do, but only 20% of what teachers say. This illustrates the need for creating classrooms that fit the way students learn, the essence of constructivism. Constructivism focuses on the students as shapers of meaning and knowledge. It is based on improving the students' critical thinking skills, not just focusing on the content to be learned. It trains them "how to learn." Once students understand the ways they learn, they can carry this process with them into the future, as they encounter new and different situations.


In the book In Search of Understanding, The Case for the Constructivist Classroom (1993), the authors, Brooks and Brooks, list five important principles of constructivism. These principles further define for teachers the type of teaching practices that would produce a constructivist classroom.

  1. Students need to be able to transfer learning—applying the learning to new situations—and feel free to change their views when appropriate.
  2. Learning should center around key concepts, and the instructor should continually assess students' understanding of the essential concepts.
  3. Students' viewpoints should be sought and valued.
  4. Teachers may change the instructional practices to fit the cognitive development of the class, instead of rigidly sticking with a preplanned agenda.
  5. Feedback should be nonjudgmental, and assessment should occur within the context.


girl drawing on a sphereOne of the great things about constructivism is that there are many ways to apply it, which allows a teacher enormous flexibility. Constructivism is really a mindset. For example, instead of writing a lecture for class, a teacher asks himself or herself how the students can use the information in order to learn it. When creating lesson plans, the teacher continually evaluates to determine whether the plans follow the above principles.

Brooks and Brooks give the following illustration of the process. Instead of lecturing about the scientific method, a teacher asks each student what their favorite thing is and what they would like to know about it. The students create and conduct experiments based on their own questions. They are excited about learning the scientific process, because they are taking ownership of their learning. This makes learning an empowering experience.

Here are constructivist ideas to think about when making lesson plans:*

  1. How can I create student autonomy and initiative during this lesson?
  2. What raw data or primary materials can I use instead of the textbook?
  3. Am I using critical thinking terminology as I create this lesson?
  4. Can I shift this assignment/lesson to students' interests and thereby motivate students to learn through their interest?
  5. Am I asking for students' understanding before giving my own answers?
  6. Are there opportunities for dialogue about the concept?
  7. Am I asking open-ended questions?
  8. Am I seeking elaboration on the students' initial responses?
  9. Are there opportunities for students to realize whether or not their present conceptions are correct?
  10. Am I allowing sufficient wait time after asking questions?
  11. Am I allowing enough time for students to work with the concept(s)?
  12. Am I providing chances for students to use their natural curiosity?

(*based on the above-mentioned book by Brooks and Brooks)

globe with a magnifying glass in front


Primary Concept: Are the current state borders in the United States still effective?

  1. Rationale:
    This lesson illustrates the accessibility of the constructivist learning model. In this particular lesson, students are given the autonomy to create boundaries for a fictional landmass based on their own criteria. This, I feel, creates an opportunity for students to see themselves as problem solvers. The students use raw data to create boundaries instead of a teacher-designed work sheet. In this lesson, students are encouraged to ask questions and engage in dialogue. Using what they learn when creating the fictional landmass borders, students are given a chance to engender a contradiction to their initial hypothesis about the United States borders being the best possible situation. Problem solvers need to be able to question their own assumptions, making sure that they consider the assumptions to be valid, or discarding these assumptions for other understandings. Within this lesson, the students' points of view are valued, as there are no right or wrong answers, only the students' solutions. If students are not given opportunities to express their opinions without fear of failure, then the possibility exists that they will stop trying.

  2. Groups:
    There are three students per group. If possible, each group consists of one haptic learner, one auditory learner, and one visual learner.

  3. Roles:
    Taskmaster—Auditory learner
    Cartographer—Haptic learner
    Materials Manager—Visual learner

  4. Lesson Plan:
    At the end of the lesson, students will be able to:
    1. identify the major political regions (countries, states, provinces, and territories) in North America.
    2. identify at least two of the political, social, or economic challenges faced in the project.
    3. manipulate and find information to explain the origin and evolution of urban areas.
    4. identify at least three impacts of urban areas on countries.
    5. demonstrate cooperation by taking turns within the group and sharing materials with others.
    6. demonstrate understanding of others' feelings by using positive or nonjudgmental critiques of other groups' work.

    Constructivist ideas to be used in the lesson:
    1. Primary concept
    2. Transfer of learning
    3. Opportunities for students to express ideas and enter into dialogue
    4. Opportunities for students' suppositions to be addressed
    5. Opportunities for students to use raw data and primary sources

    • Blank maps—map of fictional landmass and map of the United States
    • Information on the regions (text and maps from text or an atlas)—population density, resources, ethnic groups, and physical features

    Length: Two and a half class periods of 50 minutes

    • Step 1:
      Groups will be given a fictional landmass for which to create boundaries. The students will be given information about the area, such as population density, resources, ethnic groups, and physical features for analysis and formulation of the borders. Students will create countries from the area using the information provided. Remind students that these are fictional landmasses; they should avoid getting bogged down in the current events of any specific country.

      The taskmaster is responsible for keeping the group on track and writing down the rationale for the group's created borders. The cartographer is responsible for creating the map the group will turn in at the end of the lesson (the countries must be labeled). The materials manager is responsible for keeping all of the materials in order and making sure that the group returns all of the papers to the groups for whom they are giving feedback.

    • Step 2:
      3 students working togetherThe groups will exchange maps with at least two other groups and then give positive feedback or constructive comments to the groups. Have them note inconsistencies or advantages/disadvantages of these boundaries.

    • Step 3:
      Using the problems they encountered while creating these borders, students will suggest what they might need to consider if they were in charge of creating borders between countries or states. Write student responses on the board. Students are reminded about the possibilities of population density, where urban areas started, and urban patterns from their previous study, if they were not already mentioned.

    • Step 4:
      Students will debrief the problems of creating the boundaries. Have students classify the list and then apply this list to the United States. Have them speculate on whether these problems might apply to present-day state boundaries.

    • Step 5:
      The class will create a list of do's and don'ts for creating boundaries. Here are some ideas that you might use to guide them:

      Geographer's rules:
      1. No panhandles
      2. No natural boundaries (examples: rivers, mountains)
      3. No mathematical boundaries (examples: latitude or longitude)
      4. The central point of each state must be one or more large urban areas.
      5. Boundaries are to run only through sparsely populated areas.
      6. Generally, equalize the sizes of the states east of the Mississippi with each other, and equalize the sizes of the states west of the Mississippi with each other. (Hint: The states in the East will need to be smaller than the states in the West.)

      Then present the following prompt to the students:

      Mr. President,
           The state boundaries of the United States are ineffective and must be redrawn to create a smoothly functioning nation.
                   (Signed by student)

    • Step 6:
      The groups will then be given maps (provided below) of the United States, showing information such as population density, resources, ethnic groups, and physical features. The students will create new state boundaries using the class list of how to make boundaries.

      Physical United States (PDF, 70 KB)
      The United States and Canada: Climate Regions (PDF, 677 KB)
      The United States and Canada: Economic Activities and Resources (PDF, 917 KB)
      The United States and Canada: Ecosystems (PDF, 604 KB)
      The United States and Canada: Physical (PDF, 639 KB)
      The United States and Canada: Political (PDF, 625 KB)
      The United States and Canada: Population Density (PDF, 1.1 MB)

    • Step 7:
      The class will discuss why the groups created certain borders on their United States maps. Students will try to predict the reasoning behind the creation of the United States' state borders. They will then review historical reasons for the borders, using information they have studied in their American history classes.

      This lesson plan is done in conjunction with studies of the North American region. Students can understand that borders were developed before urbanization; they can also begin to understand how industrial and population changes in our country have impacted these boundaries.


Constructivism is a mind set, helping teachers to create lesson plans based on student learning to create problem solvers. Instructors must be constantly student centered, focusing on which strategies are best to teach this particular group of students. Constructivism provides one of many methods a teacher can use to vary instruction, and is especially appropriate for visual and tactile learners. Wonderfully, many strategies that teachers already employ fit smoothly into constructivism. In fact, you may already be a constructivist teacher and just not know it!


Where can I go for more information on constructivism?


Brooks, Jacqueline G., and Brooks, Martin G. In Search of Understanding, The Case for the Constructivist Classroom. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1993.

Gray, Audrey. "Constructivist Teaching and Learning." SSTA Research Centre. 1 Oct. 2002. <>

Henriques, Laura. "Constructivist Teaching and Learning." University of Iowa. 30 Sept. 2002.