Using critical thinking skills and problem solving in the classroom.
Using critical thinking skills and problem solving in the classroom.


Constructivism Defined

by Tracy Harrington-Atkinson

Constructivism is the learning process where “knowledge is unique to the individual who constructs it” (Lever-Duffy & McDonald, 2008, p 456) through acquisition and manipulation into existing schemas within the learner’s mind. Individual knowledge is a result of a learning process requiring an active participation by the learner as information is assimilated with the “goal to promote critical literacy” (Cummins, Brown, & Sayers, 2007, p 45). There are two central themes to constructivism. First, the learner will construct their own knowledge. Second, all social interactions are important to the construction process (Woolfolk, 2010).

Psychological and Social Constructivism

Constructivism has two forms. Psychological constructivism details how individuals use information to build and improve their schemas through problem solving skills. Social constructivism persists when individuals use their abilities to participate with others in activities that are important and uplifting to society and culture. Additionally, all constructivists define knowledge as a pool of information that has been formulated over time through the contribution of society and culture. Learning is the ability to participate in a variety of social contexts using skills learned or knowledge (Woolfolk, 2010).

Constructivism and Student-Centered Learning

Teachers who base their instruction on the foundation of the constructivist learning theory continually apply student-centered learning. Students are encouraged to use their knowledge in a variety of contexts that will especially direct them toward higher cognitiveprocesses. Five conditions of learning used by constructivist are:

  1. First, all learning is integrated into complex, relevant and realistic environments.
  2. Second, learning provides social negotiation and shared responsibility within the community.
  3. Third, content will be demonstrated and taught through multiple means and representations.
  4. Fourth, instructors will nurture self-awareness within the student.
  5. Fifth, instructors will encourage learners to accept responsibility and ownership in regards to their learning (Driscoll, 2005).

Within the constructivist theory (or constructivism), a popular method of application used by instructors is problem-based learning. Although there is little distinction between different active participation models of learning and most of these models share similar attributes, problem based learning is unique through the introduction of a complex, real world problem with the purpose to develop useful knowledge in a learner versus inert knowledge which is memorized and seldom used. Whereas the scientific method originated from science, this method grew from medicinal research. It includes six steps including the challenge which is the introduction of the question or query, brainstorming or ideas, research and gathering of information, getting feedback from peers and other authorities, and finishing with the presentation of conclusions (White, 1996).


The application of this method has a wide variety of options. One classroom teacher applied this method to the Alaskan oil spill in her third grade classroom. She first introduced the problem during a current affairs instructional period by reading newspaper articles about the oil spill and its results on nature. Her students gathered more information through maps, encyclopedias and library books to learn about the Alaskan ecosystem and the effect of the oil on it. Students brainstormed how the spill may have been prevented. One student offered an additional thought that they could participate in the clean up efforts. Students collected donations of towels and finances to contribute to the clean up effort. Throughout this process, the teacher also integrated reading, writing, spelling, social studies and science. Students learned how to reduce pollution in local waterways. The end result fostered students’ resolution of a real world problem (Woolfolk, 2010).

During this process, students would utilize a variety of means to collect their data and perform research. Professionals within specialized fields could be invited in to demonstrate and share their knowledge or even volunteer parents who are willing to share their professional expertise. Computers facilitate not just the research process and storing of information but also the final conclusion through Powerpoint presentations, graphs, visuals, projection means, etc.

Students can easily apply critical thinking skills as they evaluate their progress throughout the session. Their work could be added to a portfolio which would track their progress through the course of the school year. Students would be encouraged to actively participate in building it as well as evaluating their progress throughout the term. These portfolios could even be digitally stored throughout the term.

Disabled students’ needs can be efficiently met through the application of technology as the teacher is well-informed to the students’ specific needs. Each disability needs to be individually addressed. For instance, a visually impaired student could access the computer through a magnifying glass placed in front of the screen or through the enlargement of the font. Text could be accessed through a variety of means. Some textbooks are now available in MP3 format which could be downloaded onto iPods or other MP3 devices.

Constructivism encourages students to take charge of their learning and helps to mold them into capable adults who can efficiently solve the dilemmas within the world as well as strongly supporting literacy skills. “It emphasizes critical thinking skills, understanding, learning how to learn, and working cooperatively with others” (White, 1996). This theory, born from cognitivism, enhances intrinsic motivation and skills through self-directed lifelong learning.


Cummins, J., Brown, K., & Sayers, D.  (2007).  Literacy, technology, and diversity: Teaching for success in changing times. San Francisco: Allyn & Bacon.

Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of learning for instruction. (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Lever-Duffy, J. & McDonald, J. (2008).  Teaching and learning with technology (3rd ed.).  San Francisco:  Allyn & Bacon.

White, H. B. (2013). Dan tries problem based learning, a case study. [Online]. Retrieved from

Woolfolk, A. (2010). Educational Psychology (11th Edition). Needham Heights, Massachusetts. Allyn & Bacon.

By Tracy Harrington-Atkinson

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the Midwest with her husband. She is a teacher, having taught elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education, a master’s in higher education and continued on to a PhD in curriculum design. She has published several titles, including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Rachel’s 8 and Securing Your Tent. She is currently working on a non-fiction text exploring the attributes of self-directed learners: The Five Characteristics of Self-directed Learners.

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the mid-west with her husband. She loved storytelling and sharing her stories with her children. As they grew, she started writing her stories down for them. She is a teacher, having taught from elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education, masters in higher education and continued on to a PhD in curriculum design. Her husband, Kerry and Tracy breed miniature dachshunds and love to spend time with their growing family. She has published several books including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Rachel's 8 and Securing Your Tent.

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