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Constructionism and Cognitivism

Many teachers and instructional designers do not devote much time thinking about learning theories, but here’s why they should.

Two Powerful Theories Combine for Effectiveness

Many teachers and instructional designers do not devote much time thinking about learning theories, but here’s why they should.Combining these two theories of learning will make instruction more effective. Whether you are designing a social studies unit for a grade 3 classroom or a company-wide training on a new procedure, focusing on the learner pays off. But what are the best theories?

In my view, there are two to focus upon. From the world of constructionism or constructivism we get a focus on the learner and how they are prepared for learning. From cognitivism and brain research we focus on how to effectively guide the learner to apply new knowledge or simply retain it.

Constructionism is alive and well in online learning. It is a core tenant for the open-source world including the global LMS Moodle. It means that:

Constructionist learning is when learners create mental models to understand the world around them. Constructionism advocates student-centered, discovery learning where students use information they already know to acquire more knowledge.” (source: wikipedia.org)

To use this idea in building learning experiences, the first job is to know your learner. Find out what each learner already knows. Ask yourself what might be a reason they would want to engage with your content. What’s in it for them? Next, take the outcomes you are looking for and anticipate what connections might already exist in the students’ prior experiences. What will make learning relevant? If you don’t make it meaningful or relevant, you can’t blame them for being uninterested!

Cognitivism is more linked to what is actually going on inside the brain. Neuroscience is making huge gains in understanding the physiology of learning. The practical applications of this theory can include:

– activate the learner’s prior knowledge

-allow learners to practice of new skills in an appropriately spaced way in the learning experience

– appeal to visual, auditory and physical pathways to the brain

By moving away from presenting information as the primary mode for instruction, we can find more success with a greater number of diverse learners. By considering the fact that EVERYONE comes to a training or course with knowledge and experience, we can do better. We can open up the possibility of personalisation and real, permanent learning. If learning is not permanent, why would we bother to design the learning experience?

Don Brown
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Don Brown

Education Technologist, Researcher, and Trainer.

One thought on “Constructionism and Cognitivism

  • I agree that very often teachers don’t think about the learning theories when they create online courses.
    Maybe part of this is because they already have their knowledge about learning to fall back on.
    But maybe they don’t have time to think, and translate these to the online context sometimes?
    Or perhaps they are unfamiliar with the ‘new tools’ – a long way from whiteboards, flipcharts, and sitting around a table.


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