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Learning, Modeling, and Observing: An Introduction to Constructivist v. Behaviorist Models of Teaching

Updated on April 5, 2012
Rodin's, The Thinker
Rodin's, The Thinker

Constructivism: Cognitive Psychology

Constructivism encompasses a variety of concepts where experience, context, and prior knowledge become relevant to the learner. Learners construct new knowledge as they relate to prior knowledge based on their beliefs and understandings of the world, through observation, experience, and context. In addition to prior knowledge, schema, according to Piaget, consists of groups of ideas, words, and thoughts that exist within a particular context, and are activated in response to the environment (224). Schema is at the core of constructivist theory. Learners integrate new knowledge and prior knowledge, building on existing schema. Additionally, learners also elaborate on new knowledge by embellishing it. Elaboration is a part of the process of creating meaning from new knowledge. Constructivism requires responsibility on the part of the learner, to do something with the knowledge.

Within Constructivist Theory, there are both individual construction of knowledge, and social construction of knowledge. Individual construction of knowledge allows the learner to create meaning out of his/her own belief and experiences of the world. Social construction of knowledge allows groups of learners to collaborate and create meaning together, often adding elements of culture, economic, and ethnic diversity. Additionally, collaborative groups may add new knowledge to prior knowledge over a time span of days or even centuries. Thus the knowledge is combined, often building on itself to create a larger faceted understanding of the content.

Within the sphere of Constructivist Theory lies two distinct and yet similar concepts of learning, gaining, and understanding knowledge: Cognitive Psychology focuses on the mental processes behind learning, and Social Cognitive Theory, focuses on how people learn through the observation of others. Apparent among both Cognitive Psychology and Social Cognitive Theory are the assumptions that through experience, context, and prior knowledge, learners are constructing meaning, the former through the mental process by which knowledge is acquired, the latter through making observations and connecting those observations to their environment to make sense of the world and of their behavior.

Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive Psychology is summed up as the storing of, encoding, and retrieving information as outlined in the Model of Human Memory (MHM). Storage is the term that describes the process of storing information into memory. The MHM requires the information to be encoded – manipulated and/or modified, in a way that enables it to move from the sensory register to long-term memory, and then later be retrieved. The MHM begins with information entering the sensory register and then moving to short-term memory. For this process to happen, learners must pay attention to the information. Finally, the information must be moved again from short-term memory to long-term memory where it is stored. This process must happen within seconds or the knowledge will get dumped.

Long-term memory storage consists of three types of knowledge: declarative, procedural, and conditional. Declarative knowledge is what a person knows about the world based on facts, information, and experience. Procedural knowledge is what a person knows about how to do a particular task such as how to drive a vehicle. Conditional knowledge is what a person knows concerning the necessary physical and/or mental response for a particular circumstance.

Information retrieval is possible through a variety of strategies, including making connections with the information in several contexts such as emotionally connecting to the information, called hot cognition, creating distinctions between the information based on its uniqueness or authenticity, and creating meaning from the information through its relevance to the learner.

Model of Human Memory (MHM)
Model of Human Memory (MHM)


In Behaviorism, learning is defined more in terms of behavior and less in terms of knowledge acquisition, although learning information is not entirely absent from Behaviorism. The major concepts that form the foundation for Behaviorism are stimulus, response, and conditioning. Stimulus influences the learner’s behavior and is either added or taken away from the learner. The response is the behavior the learner exhibits. Stimulus increases or decreases behavior, and thus becomes a tool for controlling response. The process of controlling behavior is known as conditioning.

With respect to classroom management and academic performance, Behaviorism is often seen in classrooms as a way to increase motivation for completing academic tasks. Ultimately changing behavior is perceived as a stepping-stone to increasing academic performance. Whether this perception proves true is debatable. In general, both parents and teachers extrinsically reinforce students, meaning reinforcement comes from someone or something external, such as a gold star, extra credit points, or a grade. A student might engage in rote learning (just memorizing facts without making the connections necessary to engage with the content). Therefore, the learning that is happening is generally superficial and has little intrinsic reinforcement attached, meaning the reinforcement is through the pure joy a learner has in completing the task.

Positive and negative reinforcement is one method used to change behavior. Reinforcement increases a behavior. Make no mistake that the distinction between positive and negative is not in the behavior itself, but in the stimulus. That is, in positive reinforcement, the stimulus is presented and desirable, whereas in negative reinforcement, the stimulus is removed and undesirable. In either case, behavior is increased as a result of the learner getting what he/she desires.

Examples of how Behaviorism is often used to manage classroom behavior include body language such as when a teacher makes direct eye-contact with a student who is talking out of turn, moving closer to a students who is off task or passing notes and just standing next to him/her until the behavior stops. These are examples of cueing behavior.

What Behaviorism looks like in Education
What Behaviorism looks like in Education

While Behaviorism is an effective approach to classroom management, especially in the early stages of education, it is not effective in fostering the meaningful learning experiences essential in the Constructivist approach. That is because Behaviorism focusing primarily on learning as a behavioral change. Stimulus and response more frequently feed into extrinsic reinforcement and consequently, extrinsic motivation. Therefore, students are learning not necessarily because they want to learn, but because they will be rewarded.

The following are recommendations and cautions for teachers that will serve to enhance the Constructivist approach to the activities discussed.

  1. During peer reviews, model effective feedback. Not only do students need to know what type of feedback is appropriate, but also they need to know how to articulate it in a way that increases self-efficacy for both student and group.
  2. When working in peer groups, teachers should be cautious about what they are asking students to do. Steer away from activities that encourage students to compare performance or self-efficacy will decline.
  3. When working on long-term, independent projects, allow students to formulate their own goals and create their own timeline for project completion. This increases autonomy among students and teaches self-regulation skills.
  4. During discussion based activities where students are activating prior knowledge and building new knowledge, check for understanding by asking thought provoking questions. Challenge students to share their experiences and explain how they relate to the new information.


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