Cognitive theory and constructivism

A girl is holding a brightly colored Rubik's pyramid puzzle in her hands.

This week’s readings dealt with two different concepts of learning that arrived on the scene some time after behaviorism. These are cognitive theory and constructivism. Both aim to get closer to an understanding of how we learn, but they do so in different ways.

Cognitive theory, as discussed in Designing Instructional Strategies: A Cognitive Approach by Kenneth Silber and Wellesley Foshay, derives from how our mind is thought to work. Namely, it works with perception and sensory stores, short-term memory, and long-term memory. The authors delve a bit into these and write a bit about knowledge before presenting the Cognitive Instructional Design Model. The model presents five tasks the learners must do in order to learn, and each of the tasks is broken down into a number of elements to help them accomplish the tasks.

After presenting the model, the authors have several sections, such as “Using the Model to Teach Facts,” “Using the Model to Teach Concepts,” “Using the Model to Teach Procedures or Well-Structured Problem Solving,” and so on. I have to admit this chapter didn’t really capture my attention, probably because it reminded me a lot of the teaching I sat through in grade school. It seems very lecture oriented, though it tries to them more palatable to the learners by presenting the lectures in different ways.

My feeling about that chapter may have also been colored by the fact that I read it following a chapter titled Constructivism for Active, Authentic Learning, by Brent Wilson. This chapter really captured my attentions, since it’s a very hands-on approach to learning. In defining constructivism, the author write, “…constructivism sees learning as a process of constructing or making something. Constructivism says that people learn by making sense out of the world; they make meaning out of what they encounter” [emphasis in original]. I’m very much a hands-on, learn-by-doing person. As I’ve gotten older, I am better able to handle lectures, but I still feel I learn better when my hands have something to do.

In constructivism, the instructor is less of a lecturer and more of a guide. the learners work together to make most of of the decisions and determine the activities. However, the instructors have to be careful or the class might devolve into some sort of “inmates have taken over the asylum” situation. The instructor has to keep the learners on track and heading towards their goal. Just because the learners are active doesn’t mean they are learning, so it is up to the instructor to keep track of where the learners are and nudge them in the right direction if they are getting sidetracked.

The author also presents different areas of learning that are connected to constructivism, and frankly, some of them seem brilliant. In the flipped classroom, the teachers record their lectures and the students can watch them at home (I have this thought of student watching lecture videos while eating popcorn, like they would in a theater), and the time in the classroom is spent working on problems. It’s called the flipped classroom because the student are basically doing their homework at school and sitting through the lectures (schoolwork) at home. I imagine this is easier on parents, especially if they are unable to provide much support for helping their kids with homework.

Something else the author mentions is related to constructivism is the maker movement. The maker movement is a culture of hobbyists who work with 3D printing, robotics, crafts, making physical objects and computer coding. Schools have recognized the value of these activities and incorporated some of them into their classes. This type of learning-by-making-things has been called constructionism, which is separate from constructivism, but related to it.

Constructivism seems like a great way to teach, but the author warns it’s time consuming to develop, and may not be accepted by all teachers. It also isn’t great if the subject matter is highly technical, or if the subject has to be learned quickly.


  1. Hi Mike,
    I’m glad that the flipped classroom caught your eye – it caught mine too! It seems like such a novel yet simple idea, to have the passive consumption of lectures happen at home and the active construction of knowledge happen in the classroom. I like how you describe the process, it makes it very clear.
    It seems like you were more grabbed by the constructivist approaches over the cognitivist ones, would you say that’s true? You do a good job here tying your own personal learning styles and experiences to these different approaches. It certainly sounds like you would enjoy a constructivist learning environment much more than a behaviorist one!

  2. Hi Michael,
    I just learned the term “makerspace” last semester from one of my other classmates. She had a lab with the whole nine and taught classes. Our project centered around a device called “Circuit Playground” which was all very new to me. I was not able to read this piece that connected constructivism and constructionism so I learned something here, thanks! I think there is real value in the constructivism, but also feel there are limitations when it comes to younger learners. I think you know by now that there is no “one size fits all” learning approach or strategy. They need to be selected based on a number of factors including learner context.


  3. Hi Michael,
    I enjoyed reading your personal feelings towards each of the different readings! I resonate with your last paragraph a lot! Although the teacher seems to be a “facilitator” of a constructivist classroom and s/he talks less than in a traditional classroom, the teacher actually does MORE, especially for the preparation and development of a lesson.

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