A PMI of constructivism

The following documents some reflection on output of a learning task associated with a course on ICTs for Learning Design I’m currently taking.

The task is to create a PMI of a reading around constructivism.

A PMI “is a scaffolding thinking routine that supports analysis of a reading” and also an acronym

  1. P – stands for Plus and is where we’re meant to list the benefits of the ideas within the reading.
  2. M – stands for Minues and not surprisingly is for the dangers/problems.
  3. I – is for Interestings.

Or at least I was going to start this before I discovered that the network connection and/or servers at the host university are unavailable.

Ahh, it’s back now. The reading is a workshop on Constructivism as a paradigm for teaching and learning. The following starts with the PMI analysis and is followed by a summary/reflection of the reading.


Draw on some great ideas for the PMI from this presentation on slideshare. It draws heavily on Gordon (2009), however the presentation does appear to mis-reference some of the quotes, i.e. it’s not Gordon saying it, but Gordon citing others.


  • A step towards reality/usefulness.
    i.e. I think constructivism offers an abstraction that is closer to reality than some prior approaches, in terms of how learning works. As a result it is more useful for teachers.


Many of the minuses I identify are more related to the poor implementation or understanding of the constructivist paradigm, more so than inherent to the paradigm itself.

  • Is based on the assumption of knowledge as being grounded in language and logic.
    If you adopt a connectivism/connectionist perspective, this is not what knowledge is.
  • There are too many versions, which do you implement in class?
    Gordon (2009, p 40) cites Phillips (1995)

    because there are so many versions of constructivism, with important overlaps but also with major differences, it is difficult to see the forest for the trees

    Gordon suggests “there is an enormous body of work in education on constructivism that tends to be fragmented and uncritical”.

  • Most constructivist theories are not educational theories.
    Gordon (2009, p 41) quotes Davis and Sumara (2002)

    Theories developed in
    psychology, sociology, cultural studies or elsewhere cannot be unproblematically
    transplanted into the field of education. As with subject-centered constructivisms,
    social constructivist discourses speak to, but are not necessarily fitted or aligned
    with, the concerns and projects of education

  • It can be inefficient and/or inappropriate for some sets of learners.
    Mark Guzdial, a professor in Computer Science from the US, touches on this in this blog post. One of his points is raised in the following

    I attended talks at education conferences lately where the speaker announces that “Lectures don’t work” and proceeds to engage the audience in some form of active learning, like small group discussion. I hate that. I am a good learner. I take careful notes, I review them and look up interesting ideas and referenced papers later, and if the lecture really captured my attention, I will blog on the lecture later to summarize it. I take a multi-hour trip to attend a conference and hear this speaker, and now I have to talk to whatever dude happens to be sitting next to me? If you recognize that the complete sentence is “Lectures don’t work…for inexperienced or lazy learners,” then you realize that using “active learning” with professionals at a formal conference is insulting to your audience. You are assuming that they can’t learn on their own, without your scaffolding.

    Kroesbergen et al (2004) found that constructivist approaches to mathematics instruction may not be effective for low-achieving students.

  • Use of concepts that can be misunderstood.
    For example, when some folk see actively construct meaning it suggests that the student is moving around, building something, engaged in some visible activity. This often leads to the situation where a student is listening to an explanation is not seen as actively constructing meaning. This is a minus because just sometimes, listening is a good way to learn.
  • The understanding that “collaboration” means group work where members are inter-dependent on each other.
    Stephen Downes makes the distinction between
    groups and networks
    . My impression of most constructivism is that it assumes collaboration must be in groups and not networks. Not to mention the fact that a lot of group work can be a waste of time.

  • There is no objective knowledge.
    This is a more abstract minus, but can still be a minus nonetheless…….epistemology…concrete example. An example of this is perhaps some of the activities around the Literacy and Numeracy course (some of the other courses are demonstrate some similar tendencies) in the residential school. We were asked various questions about our understanding of literacy and numeracy, some examples from our experience. But without first identifying a common definition of literacy and numeracy, even a fairly rough and ready definition. I felt that this apparent attempt to allow us to construct a definition to be less efficient. I think a quick definition, widely acknowledged as a work in progress, would have helped improve the learning.
  • The challenge to students conceptions of learning and teaching.
    Constructivism is based on the transformation of the teacher’s role from pourer of knowledge into students into encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning. This transformation requires a significant challenge for some students who have become comfortable and familiar with the traditional approaches to learning. “Your the teacher, tell us what to do”, might a familiar refrain. Initially, constructivism can be a significant challenge to students. A challenge to overcome, but a minus still the same. Depending on the prior learning experiences of the students, the bigger the minus.
  • The dissonance between the characteristics of constructivism and some of the fundamental assumptions of the education system.
    According to the reading, constructivism assumes that “Pursuit of student questions and interests” is valued more than “strict adherence to fixed curriculum”. And yet through essential learnings (at the moment) and the national curriculum (in the near future) the school curriculum is fixed and adherence is expected. Somewhat similarly, a constructivist perspective suggests that tests aren’t great tools for assessment, and yet with NAPLAN tests are becoming more important to teachers, not less.

    This is not to suggest that there isn’t room for constructivism within the education system, but it is to suggest that there is a dissonance between the fundamental assumptions of the education system as the constructivist paradigm. This dissonance is going to cause problems for teachers and students trying to use a constructivist paradigm within the existing education system.


The interesting points I took from this reading include

  • How to view technology.

    I think we need to ask a different question. I think the question is, how can students use technology to answer the questions that they are posing for themselves

  • The irony of a document explaining constructivism using a very non-constructivist design.
    The very nature of the medium – a web site that folk come to at odd times – means that a constructivist approach probably wouldn’t have worked all that well. But I wonder if other factors were involved. I’m also wondering how you might re-design this resource using a constructivist or connectivist approach.

Summary of the reading

What is constructivism?

Basically a theory about how people learn. A theory that people actively construct their own knowledge by reconciling it with what they currently know. For this to occur, questions must be asked, explored and what we know assessed.

Can point to teaching practices

  • more active techniques (e.g. experiments, real-world problem solving).
  • understanding students’ pre-existing conceptions and guiding activity to address and build on them.
  • continuously encourage students to assess the activity in terms of it helping them to gain understanding, helping students to become expert learners

There is still a need for an active role for a teacher and expert knowledge. But it becomes a role focused on – to use the old slogan – being a guide on the side, rather than a sage on the stage.

The aim is not for the student to reinvent the wheel, but to trigger their curiosity about how things work.

At this stage, the reading says the best way to understand constructivism is to see it in action. I find it somewhat ironic that this reading is not designed (at least so far) based on a constructivist approach.

How does it differ

Teacher role transforms from “sage on stage” (pourer of knowledge into students) into “guide on the side” (encouraging students to be actively involved in their learning).

And so comes a table summarising differences

Traditional classroom Constructivist classroom
Curriculum begins with the parts of the whole. Emphasizes basic skills. Curriculum emphasizes big concepts, beginning with the whole and expanding to include the parts.
Strict adherence to fixed curriculum is highly valued. Pursuit of student questions and interests is valued.
Materials are primarily textbooks and workbooks. Materials include primary sources of material and manipulative materials.
Learning is based on repetition. Learning is interactive, building on what the student already knows.
Teachers disseminate information to students; students are recipients of knowledge. Teachers have a dialogue with students, helping students construct their own knowledge.
Teacher’s role is directive, rooted in authority. Teacher’s role is interactive, rooted in negotiation.
Assessment is through testing, correct answers. Assessment includes student works, observations, and points of view, as well as tests. Process is as important as product.
Knowledge is seen as inert. Knowledge is seen as dynamic, ever changing with our experiences.
Students work primarily alone. Students work primarily in groups.

Interesting to see that some of the assumptions of the traditional classroom are becoming entrenched in the education sector. e.g. testing, adherence to a fixed curriculum.

What does it have to do with my classroom?

Suggests that in a constructivist classroom, learning is

  • Constructed.
    I don’t find the description and example given for “constructed” to be all that compelling. The description is that learners are not blank slates, they come with knowledge that is the raw material for the new knowledge they will create. I assume the suggestion is that they construct the new knowledge from their old knowledge.

    This seems to miss the role of experiences and new insights.

  • Active.
    Learning requires the students’ full participation. Students help set their own goals and means of assessment. Students are asked to question.
  • Collaborative.
    i.e. with others, the reading is not real strong on the benefits of this, but it appears mostly to do with diversity of perspectives. But I’m assuming that the need to explain and justify one’s perspective with others would also be a strong benefit arising from collaboration. It’s easy to fool yourself you understand something, only to struggle to explain it to someone else.
  • Inquiry-based.
    i.e. problem solving, asking questions.
  • Evolving.
    The student will come across insight that doesn’t match existing knowledge, her knowledge will change as time goes by.

Expert interview

The resource moves onto an interview with an expert. Nice that it has both video and the transcripts. But the implementation as lots of pop-ups is annoying.

Starts with the idea that constructivism is a philosophy/epistemology, not a set of techniques. Not getting much out of the other answers, some are not that great.

However, there’s a pointer to some Dutch work around constructivism in mathematics, that might be interesting. Of course doing a quick Google search takes me to Kroesbergen et al (2004) which reports on an in-depth comparison of smallgroup constructivist and explicit mathematics instruction, the findings

Results showed that the math performance of students in the explicit instruction condition improved significantly more than that of students in the constructivist condition, and the performance of students in both experimental conditions improved significantly more than that of students in the control condition. Only a few effects on motivation were found. We therefore concluded that recent reforms in mathematics instruction requiring students to construct their own knowledge may not be effective for low-achieving students.

Ahh, this quote about the difference between constructivism and the traditional classroom raises some dissonance with what we’re being taught

In a traditional setting, the teacher takes charge of a lot of the intellectual work in that classroom. The teacher plans the scope and sequence, pre-synthesizes and prepackages a lot of the learning. In the constuctivist classroom, the student is in charge of that packaging.

I find this response interesting, in answering the question “what other things ought to happen to bring the promise of technology to constructivism” the answer given is

I think we need to ask a different question. I think the question is, how can students use technology to answer the questions that they are posing for themselves

What strikes me as interesting is how the assumptions/principles of the theoretical paradigm becomes the driver. If connectivism were the paradigm of choice then the question becomes how does technology help the learner build and traverse networks.

And on standardised tests etc.

The focus on test scores has done more to narrow curriculum, and limit students’ opportunities for growth and development than have those test scores been an indicator of success.

History of constructivism and its evolution

A link is established to Socratic dialogue, Piaget and Dewey.

Has a brief background to Piaget which describes his conclusions about how knowledge grows as

Piaget concluded that humans learn through the construction of progressively complex logical structures, from infancy through to adulthood.

This is where connectivism diverges from constructivism, as Downes argues

Where connectivism differs from those theories, I would argue, is that connectivism denies that knowledge is propositional. That is to say, these other theories are ‘cognitivist’, in the sense that they depict knowledge and learning as being grounded in language and logic.

Vygotsky, Bruner and Ausbel get a mention. Ahh, interesting Papert’s name crops up, as does Bransford and Schank (who is particularly strong on the notion that current educational systems are not constructivist in nature). The little popup on Schank also reveals that he is opposed to the notion of a national curriculum.

Critical perspectives

Three are given

  1. It only works for learners with outstanding teachers, committed parents, etc – not for the disadvantaged.
  2. Social constructivism leads to “group think”. The tyranny of the majority, which links to my concerns around the over-use of groups, rather than networks, when thinking about collaboration.
  3. Little hard evidence that it works and indeed there are some where constructivist classrooms lag behind others in basic skills.

Of course, the response the last point is that the existing system values things which constructivism doesn’t. i.e. rote learning etc.

Benefits of constructivism

The list

  • Children learn more when active, rather than passive.
  • Education is best when focused on thinking and understanding, not rote memorisation. Constructivism is about thinking and understanding.
  • Constructivist learning is transferable.
  • students own the learning, it engages with them, they are more likely to retain and transfer what they learn.
  • Engages students through real-world problems.
  • Promotes social and communication skills.

Rather grand claims, that appear to be somewhat unsupported.


Gordon, M. 2009. Toward a pragmatic discourse of constructivism: Reflections on lessons from practice. Educational Studies 45, no. 1: 39-58.

Kroesbergen, E.H., J.E.H. Van Luit, and C.J.M. Maas. 2004. Effectiveness of Explicit and Constructivist Mathematics Instruction for Low-Achieving Students in the Netherlands. The Elementary School Journal 104, no. 3: 233-251. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3202951.

5 thoughts on “A PMI of constructivism

  1. “Is based on the assumption of knowledge as being grounded in language and logic.
    If you adopt a connectivism/connectionist perspective, this is not what knowledge is.”

    If you take an ACT-R perspective, procedural knowledge would perhaps map to a connectionist perspective, while declarative knowledge might map to language and logic. Why assume that there is only one type of knowledge?

    “Constructivism is based on the transformation of the teacher’s role from pourer of knowledge into students into encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning.”

    This is certainly the perspective presented by many, maybe most, constructivists, but there’s no particular reason to associate a particular value or pedagogical approach to constructivism. I can’t remember the citation, but von Glasersfeld stated that a radical constructivist approach did not dictate the pedagogy. Constructivism refers to, as you put it, “how people learn,” not to how people teach–although most constructivists seem to forget (or not understand) this point. This perspective would concur with Mark Guzdial’s comment, and it would also nullify much of what is in the table contrasting the traditional classroom with the constructivist classroom.

    The notion that there is no objective knowledge is a plus for me because I’m reminded that students’ presentation of their understanding is logical according to their own experience. Instead of wondering why they don’t get it, as a teacher, I need to consider how to arrange conditions that facilitate experiences that lead to a different understanding.

    “Depending on the prior learning experiences of the students, the bigger the minus.”

    Considering what most think constructivism is, I agree. But from a radical constructivist perspective, I must consider “the prior learning experiences of the students” in order to provide conditions conducive for their learning, which may not be for them to take control of their learning at a particular point in time.

  2. Interesting reading, David. Don’t you think that the problem you find between the two classroom concepts is related to the age group of the students? My intuition goes to that: autonomous adult readers will thrive with constructivist-type approaches, but regular school age students will not. That includes students beginning college. What do you think?

    1. I recognise that this might be a possibility, but I’m wary of leaping to conclusions or broad generalisations. In many cases you are a probably right, but I’d personally be reluctant to make that assumption. I don’t necessarily think that age would be an automatic divider. Some school age kids wouldn’t fit. I think it also depends on the learning outcome you want. There are some outcomes where direct instruction would be better.

  3. Pingback: Reflection on the learning theories wiki « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

  4. Pingback: Learning brief – Reflections and conclusions – version 2.0 « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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