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Learning through real-world experiences with others allows students to grow and understand things more easily. In this lesson, we’ll examine constructivism in depth, including social learning, the zone of proximal development, and project-based learning.


Susan doesn’t understand physics. It just seems so difficult to her, with all the variables and calculations.

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The more her teacher goes on and on about how to calculate this or figure out that, the less Susan understands, and the more frustrated she gets.Constructivism is a philosophy of education that says that people construct knowledge through their experiences and interactions with the world. Essentially, it says that people learn through experience, not through hearing someone give a lecture. For example, Susan doesn’t really understand physics when her teacher tries to explain it. But if she was faced with a physics problem in her everyday life (say, trying to figure out how hard to push on the gas pedal to get her car to accelerate up a steep hill), she might understand it better.Because constructivism points out that experiential learning is more powerful than lectures and worksheets, a related view is that by directing their own learning process, students will understand concepts better than if they were just handed the right way to do things. In other words, her teacher can give Susan formulas all she wants; Susan will never understand them as completely as she would if she were given the problem and had to come up with the formula herself.

Let’s look at how constructivism relates to social learning and how it can be used in the classroom through project-based learning.

Social Learning

Remember that constructivism says that people learn through their experiences and interactions with the world around them. And the world around us is filled with other people, so you probably won’t be very surprised to find out that constructivism is closely linked to learning through interactions with other people, or social learning.Take Susan, for example. She can read a textbook on her own, but it doesn’t really sink in.

But when she’s with others, she can ask questions, brainstorm ideas, and flesh out her thoughts until she really understands something.Psychologist Lev Vygotsky pointed out that the most effective form of social learning doesn’t come from teacher interactions with students, but from students’ interactions with other students. Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development says that people learn best from other people who are just a little ahead of them.Anyone who’s ever seen two kids together understands the zone of proximal development. Kids learn from each other all the time: One sibling comes home having learned about how seeds grow and shows that to his younger brother.

The younger brother, meanwhile, might have learned how to turn a cartwheel and demonstrates this for his older brother.What does this mean for Susan and physics? Even though her teacher knows the answer to a complex physics problem, instead of giving Susan and her classmates the solution, the teacher can give them the physics problem and have them work together to figure it out. The teacher is there to support the students, but instead of giving answers, the teacher might ask questions of the students and encourage them to use each other to try to solve the problem.

Project-Based Learning

Having students work in groups to figure out a problem is the basis of project-based learning, or PBL, which focuses on giving an open-ended question and complex problem to a group of students and having them figure out the best solution to the problem. PBL is a constructivist process, so the problems are real-world problems, and students are encouraged to figure out a solution based on their own understanding of the world and the topic.

For example, remember how Susan needs to get her car up a steep hill and needs to know how much pressure to apply to her gas pedal? Instead of telling Susan how to calculate the answer, Susan’s teacher can put Susan in a group with other students and have them figure it out as part of PBL.There are several steps Susan and her classmates will follow in a PBL environment:

1. Learners are presented with a problem.

The first step is, of course, for the group to receive the problem. In this case, Susan’s group is presented with the problem of how much pressure to apply to the gas pedal to get up the hill.

2. Groups develop theories to explain the problem.

As a group, Susan and her classmates begin to explore the problem more in-depth. Perhaps they figure out that they need to know how steep the hill is, or perhaps they begin to think about what elements are involved in getting a car up a hill.

In the end, as a group, they have several theories about what information is needed to solve the problem.

3. Learners work independently to come up with solutions.

Once the group has a theory or theories about the problem and what’s involved, they go off on their own and try to solve the problem. Susan and each of her teammates may try many different solutions, looking for the best one. Depending on the problem, they might even come up with more than one solution that works.

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