Constructivist Learning Environments


  n Constructivist learning environments: Case studies in instructional design, Wilson (1996) defines a constructivist learning environment as: "a place where learners may work together and support each other as they use a variety of tools and information resources in their guided pursuit of learning goals and problem-solving activities" (p.5). He emphasizes learning environments as opposed to 'instructional' environments in order to promote "a more flexible idea of learning", one which emphasizes "meaningful, authentic activities that help the learner to construct understandings and develop skills relevant to problem solving" (p.3).

  Riesbeck (1996) argues that "Constructivism is not a particular model of learning, however. It does not describe a process or set of mecanisms by which this construction occurs" (p.49). Nonetheless, Honebein (1996) in his description of two learning environments, Socrates and Lab Design Project, illustrates how constructivist principles can provide a guide or framework to build constructivist learning environments. Drawing on the work of authors Cunningham, Duffy, & Knuth (1993), Honebein explains how LDP and Socrates were designed with pedagogical goals which provided the theory on which the design of the environments was based. These principles or goals can be summarized briefly as follows:


  Like Honebein, Savery & Duffy (1996) attempt to link the theory of constructivism with the practice of instruction. They have derived a number of instructional principles from constructivism:

  Many of the learning environments described in Wilson's book are based on similar principles. Wilson has organized these learning environments into three categories: computer microworlds, classroom-based learning environments and open, virtual environments. In the category of computer microworlds is the simulated work environment for specialized, avionics, electronics, maintenance training called Sherlock. The training system is an intelligent tutoring system designed to "accelerate the development of complex, technical problem skills" (p.37). It provides extensive practice with coaching through a series of authentic problems which are an extension of students' actual working environment and which operate at "the highest levels of real world difficulty". An essential part of Sherlock are "the tools for post-performance reflection" or the opportunities the environment provides for the student to review a record of her problem-solving activity.

  In the category of classroom-based learning environments, is a collaborative problem-solving project using the "Jasper" videodisc series as designed by the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt. The project was completed in the context of a research study by Young, Nastasi and Braunhardt who served each as teacher and researcher for the study. During a period of three months, a group of fifth grade students were involved in a "complex, realistic problem-solving situation" using interactive videodisc technology and telecommuniations. Although the specific focus of the problem solving was in the area of mathematics, the content of the problems also involved other areas such as science, reading, writing, physical education and geography. During the course of the project, the students solved three problems which required planning, information finding and cooperative group problem solving.

  The project was described as an experiment in "situated learning" or "situated cognition". By "situated" is meant "co-determined by the attributes of the context along with the attributes of the people involved" (p.121). For this reason, considerable attention was paid to social interactions as well as academic behaviours. An important role of the teachers was to manage and guide the interactions among the groups of students.

  While collaboration is an important aspect of the situated learning project, it becomes the primary focus in the CoVis Project which Wilson has included in the category of open, virtual learning environments. CoVis or Learning Through Collaborative Visualization Project is described as "an integrated software environment that incorporates visualization tools for open-ended scientific investigations and communication tools for both synchronous and asynchronous collaboration" (p.161). Participating high school students are involved in authentic scientific practice using modified versions of scientists' tools in a social context including students, teachers and scientists. Communication and collaboration are the central components of the philosophy behind the project. Learning is enhanced by communication with student interactions and conversations resulting in new knowledge, reorganized knowledge or additional understanding. As well, learners are provided with the opportunity to communicate and develop relationships with practicing scientists.

  Classrooms are equipped with computer workstations supporting high-speed video and a data network over ISDN, digital phone lines. E-mail, Usenet groups, Gopher, desktop video-conferencing, remote screen sharing and a collaborative notebook are some of the tools students can access as part of the project. The primary component of the project is three scientific visualization environments covering three aspects of atmospheric science. Students can access and manipulate data, generate questions, develop plans for identifying and exploring data as well as create artifacts to demonstrate their findings. Throughout the entire process, students can collaborate and communicate with each other and with scientists to share concepts and viewpoints and to pose questions.


  In spite of the fact that constructivism is not a model of learning, it can provide a strong and coherent theory or set of principles which can serve as a guide in the design of learning environments. The many projects described in Wilson's book and the three projects summarized in this paper serve as specific examples of successful attempts at developing and implementing constructivist learning environments. Many of the environments exhibited common traits such as the authentic context for learning, collaborative work and an emphasis on problem-solving. The environments all relied on technology to facilitate the approach indicating that computers and related technology have an essential role to play in the realization of constructivist learning.

  While it is encouraging to remark the large number of projects supporting constructivist principles of learning, the optimism must be tempered by the realization that these projects represent, not the norm in teaching and learning, but a departure from the norm. In this sense, the attempts to create constructivist learning environments are not yet part of the regular teaching practices of even a minority of teachers. On the contrary, these projects represent work carried out in the context of research projects which indicates that attempts at promoting constructivist learning are still at the research, experimental stage.

  Wilson's book is important in that it moves the discussion of constructivism away from the philosophical and epistemological level to a more practical level of implementation. No doubt, there need to be more such attempts as this. Constructivism will remain an elusive ideal, and no more than theoretical fodder for philosophers and educational researchers unless there are concrete attempts at using the theory to create new approaches to teaching and learning. Increased access by schools to state-of-the-art technology should facilitate attempts to promote more authentic and collaborative learning environments in particular and constructivist learning environments in general. Constructivism, as a philosophy and theory of learning covers a set of principles that are broad enough to allow for great flexibility in implementation. This flexibility makes it accessible not only by designers but, as well, by classroom teachers interested in experimenting with a new approach to teaching and learning.




  1. Cunningham, D., Duffy, T.M., & Knuth, R. (1993). Textbook of the future. In C. McKnight (Ed.), Hypertext: A psychological perspective. London: Ellis Horwood Publishing.
  2. Honebein, P. (1996). Seven goals for the design of constructivist learning environments. In B. Wilson (Ed.), Constructivist learning environments: Case studies in instructional design (pp.11-24). New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.
  3. Riesbeck, C. (1996). Case-based teaching and constructivism: Carpenters and tools. In B. Wilson (Ed.), Constructivist learning environments: Case studies in instructional design (pp.49-61). New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.
  4. Savery, J. & Duffy, T. (1996). Problem-based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. In B. Wilson (Ed.), Constructivist learning environments: Case studies in instructional design (pp.135-148). New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.
  5. Wilson, B. (Ed.) (1996). Constructivist learning environments: Case studies in instructional design. New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.
  6. Young, M., Nastasi, B., Braunhardt, L. (1996). Implementing Jasper Immersion: A Case of Conceptual Change. In B. Wilson (Ed.), Constructivist learning environments: Case studies in instructional design (pp.121-133). New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.

This page was produced by Elizabeth Murphy in the context of courses TEN-61937 & TEN-61938, Université Laval, Québec City, Québec, Canada, Summer, 1997 with Gilles Larin.


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