Musings on Constructivism

I’ve been working on an article for a special issue of BJET on Constructivism and Educational Technology, which started out as a kind of retrospective or reflection on my 2001 article. As I progressed further and further into the thinking and writing, it became clear to me that exploring and reflecting upon the theoretical and empirical developments that have occurred over recent years and reconciling these with the original works that underpin a constructivist position will be a major undertaking and not one I can complete in time for the special issue.

As a starting point for taking on this more substantial body of work, which I’m keen to do, I thought I’d share here some of the challenges I think need to be tackled as part of this as an invitation to others who may want to join me on this journey.

  1. How to position the ideas of the cognitive load theorists and others who have provided empirical evidence against pure discovery learning (e.g. Mayer, Kirschner, Sweller, Clark, Alferi etc) which on the one hand are explicitly anti-constructivist but on the other hand provide arguments in support of scaffolded or guided discovery learning (ala Bruner and Vygotsky).
  2. How to position self regulation, meta-cognition and theories of motivation (e.g. the work of Pintrich, Zimmerman, Winne, Schunk etc), which have their genesis in cognitive theories of learning but which arguably can provide key underpinnings to strategies within a Piagetian process of construction and reconstruction of one’s personal knowledge representation.
  3. Whether to position Connectivism (Siemens and Downes) as a branch of a social constructivist theory of learning, as a unique theory of learning (as they have positioned it) or (as I have done in the past) to argue that it is not a theory of learning at all.
  4. How to position the notion of Epistemic Fluency (e.g. Goodyear, Markauskaite) within a broader social constructivist pedagogy particularly in higher education and education for the professions.
  5. How to reconcile what we now know from contemporary neuroscience and psychology about the interplay between the conscious and unconscious parts of our brain (as articulated well by Gladwell and by Kahneman who refers to Fast System 1 and Slow System 2 thinking) with fundamental constructivist ideas. For example the notion that we may have two separate knowledge representations: a) one we have consciously constructed and reconstructed as we scrutinise our personal hypotheses against the responses of our environment to our actions, used when we make slow deliberate decisions, and b) a separate one that consists of abstract patterns constructed out of the millions of images, sounds and sensations we take in all the time intertwined with complex emotional attributions, which we use to make fast automated decisions every minute of our lives.
  6. How to weave in what we now know from studies of the role of sleep (as summarised very well by Walker) that through REM sleep during a number of nights following a learning experience we gradually lay down new interconnections between experiences and prior learning, and so the question of whether we need to refine Piaget’s notions of assimilation and accommodation as being delayed rather than instant processes.

I’d love to see thoughts and comments on any of these ideas and/or to hear from others who have an interest in aspects of this and would like to be part of a loose virtual community to discuss and evolve constructivist learning theories in light of these and other recent developments.


Alferi, L., Brooks, P. J.,  Aldrich, N. J.,  & Tenenbaum, H. R. (2011). Does discovery-based instruction enhance learning? Journal of Educational Psychology, 103(1), 1-18.

Bruner, J. S. (1961). The act of discovery. Harvard Educational Review, 31, 21-32.

Bruner, J. S. (1962). On knowing: Essays for the left hand. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Downes, S. (2008). Places to go: Connectivism & connective knowledge. Innovate: Journal of Online Education5(1), 6.

Gladwell, M. (2006). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. Back Bay Books.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clarke, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.

Markauskaite, L., & Goodyear, P. (2017). Epistemic fluency and professional education. Dordrecht: Springer.

Mayer, R. E. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? American Psychologist, 59(1), 14-19.

Phillips, D. C. (1995). The good, the bad, and the ugly: The many faces of constructivism. Educational Researcher, 24(7)5-12.

Piaget, J. (1977). Science of education and the psychology of the child (D. Coltman, Trans.). In H.E. Gruber & J.J. Voneche (Eds.). The essential Piaget (pp. 695-725). New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Piaget, J. (1973). To understand is to invent: The future of education. New York: Grossman.

Pintrich, P. R. (1999). The role of motivation in promoting and sustaining self-regulated learning. International journal of educational research31(6), 459-470.

Schunk, D. H., & Zimmerman, B. J. (Eds.). (1998). Self-regulated learning: From teaching to self-reflective practice. Guilford Press.

Siemens, G. (2007). Connectivism: Creating a learning ecology in distributed environments. Didactics of microlearning. Concepts, discourses and examples, 53-68.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Walker, M. (2017). Why we sleep: The new science of sleep and dreams. Penguin UK.

Winne, P. H., & Hadwin, A. F. (2012). The weave of motivation and self-regulated learning. In Motivation and self-regulated learning (pp. 309-326). Routledge.


Evaluation of the CSU Online Learning Model

The evaluation report from our Phase 1 implementation of the Charles Sturt University Online Learning Model (OLM) is now available. The report, authored by Sarah Hyde, along with myself and Lindy Croft-Piggin includes some really interesting findings about what online students value and how we can improve their learning experiences.

Some of the key findings were as follows:

  • Online students crave interaction with the lecturer, with teacher presence aligning strongly with student satisfaction;
  • Online students are strategic in their engagement with content and are most likely to interact with other students when there is a clear purpose;
  • There is a very strong demand for high quality recorded online lectures with authentic assessment tasks and interactive quizzes also highly desired;
  • Implementation of the elements within the OLM align with measures of student engagement;
  • Academic staff and educational designers desire longer lead times and increased overall time allocation to the design and development of online subjects; and
  • Academic staff need to be consulted early and regularly with regard to any pedagogical strategy to improve student learning and need reassurance that the recommended strategies are based on evidence, will be supported, and will have a positive impact on student learning.

The evaluation focussed on the processes used to implement the model, student learning experiences, and student and staff perceptions about the elements of the model. The scope of the evaluation encompassed implementation of the model in 116 online subjects within the Bachelor of Accounting, Bachelor of Business (HRM), Bachelor of Social Science (Psychology), Bachelor of Social Science (Social Welfare), Bachelor of Social Work, Master of Social Work, Bachelor of Nursing, and Bachelor of Medical Science courses. All students and staff in the 116 subjects were invited to participate in the evaluation, and 1270 students, 34 academic staff and 12 education support staff responded to a survey and 19 students were interviewed.

The evaluation is likely to be of interest to anybody involved in improving the quality of their online subject design and teaching and can be downloaded from 

New book on Technology Enabled Learning Design by Matt Bower

Matt Bower’s new book, Design of Technology-Enabled Learning: Integrating Research and Practice, published by Emerald, is an excellent introductory text on educational technology theory, research, and scholarly practice. The book provides an excellent grounding in theory, drawing on foundational learning theories, ideas from cognitive psychology, seminal taxonomies and key concepts such as technology affordances. However, the stance on theory is inherently practical, with explicit connection to the practice of educational design and teaching in a technology rich context.

The publication of the book is timely, as it includes a comprehensive and critical coverage of many of the ideas that have occupied the attention of researchers and experienced practitioners in recent years, including the TPACK framework, the ‘digital natives’ debate, and the idea of connectivism as a new learning theory. Many of the applications of new technologies given attention within the book are those predicted by futurists to be important in coming years, including mobile, social media and virtual world technologies.

The book contains citations to key relevant literature throughout, including seminal theoretical publications and key research publications providing the evidence base for the design ideas presented. The reference list alone would make the book a vital source for any new research students in educational technology.

In addition to providing an excellent summary of the key educational technology research and implications for practice, the book also contains numerous original categorisations, taxonomies, visual representations and abstractions of ideas which will provide an excellent scaffold for learning designers trying to digest the material for use within their practice. Most importantly, the later chapters also provide explicit advice drawn from key learning design theorists to help teachers and designers to navigate a pathway from educational objectives to contemporary technology-enabled learning designs.

I would recommend this book as a foundational text for anybody commencing educational technology research, scholarly reflection on technology-enabled teaching, or learning design practice.

Can we achieve automated subject specific study advice for students at scale?

Many universities now have systems for monitoring students’ overall online engagement but such systems are blunt instruments because they don’t take into account the intended online behaviour for specific subjects. On the other hand, systems such as the SRES allow individual teachers to create tailored dashboards and notifications for students, but these systems require substantial commitment by teaching staff to undertake the customisation required.

At Charles Sturt University we are developing a system that simplifies the customisation process with the goal of scaling up implementation across entire programs and eventually across all online programs offered by the university. The system will allow the subject designer to easily tag individual online learning resources such as videos, animations and readings, and individual learning activities such as forum discussions, quizzes and simulations, as important to the completion of specific assessment tasks, and will then automatically provide students with study advice during the teaching session based on their individual online behaviour.

I’ll be talking about our plans in this space at the 2nd Annual Learning Analytics Summit in Melbourne in June. The session will illustrate:

  • The benefits of subject specific as distinct from generic analytic driven study advice for students;
  • Examples of different learning designs with different intended student online engagement patterns;
  • Existing solutions to providing automated study advice to students customised to specific learning designs; and
  • The alternative approach being taken within the system under development at CSU which simplifies the customisation process to allow at scale implementation.