Constructivism for Adults

From ETEC 510
Jump to: navigation, search

In the era of computer and web technology, most adult learners are interested in learning for vocational purposes, while others pursue lifelong learning through continuing education. This new technology makes social efficacy and technical proficiency critical goals, and the Internet an optimal learning environment. (Thompson, n.d.)

Of the three dominant learning theories, since the 1800s, behaviorism [1], cognitivism, and constructivism [2], it is the latter that best suits the modern adult learner. (Doolittle, 1999) The objectivist methods of behaviorism and cognitivism continue to be the foundation of vocational and technical education, oriented towards a competency-based curriculum with predetermined tasks and outcomes that are framed around the requirements of industry, not necessarily the individual student. Specific skills need to be taught and behaviorism is still an effective way to do that but creative thinking and managerial skills are achieved best through the constructivist model.

Constructivism does not perceive learning as a passive process but an experiential one in which interactive and adaptive skills are prioritized for more meaningful acquisition of knowledge. Learning environments are often established online where authenticity can be simulated or achieved, and learners are required to navigate through the challenges with limited guidance. The educator is only a facilitator, only assisting when necessary.

Why Constructivism for Adults?

Learning for Life

Along the spectrum of learning theories, constructivism for adults takes the constructivist experiential learning model, that promotes problem solving through discovery, inquiry, experimentation, and reflection in an authentic setting, and refines it for more epistemologically complex learners. In combination with adult learning and transformative learning theories, which advocate learner involvement and contextualized environments, constructivism contests the restrictive use of behaviorist and cognitivist models as impersonal, decontextualized, and inefficient. The main impetus of constructivism for adults is to have learners engage in dynamic learning rather than the more passive objectivist method, changing the role of the teacher to that of a facilitator, encouraging peer discussion, and engaging in formative assessment, as an optimal setting for deeper learning. (Groves, 2008)

Another factor that favors constructivism is how suitable it is to a computerized learning environment, for data manipulation and presentation but also for networking and communication via the Internet. (Wilson and Lowry, 2000) Advances in technologies have created a need for higher skilled workers as non-technical jobs of the past have increasingly required knowledge of technology as a way to speed up and improve the quality of production. (Thompson, n.d.) Parallels between constructivism and the needs of adult learners illustrate a way for workers to acquire critical thinking skills, whereby knowledge is not a product to be presented or transmitted, but a dynamic state to be altered and adopted.

Constructivism theorists do not entirely reject learning theories like behaviorism and cognitivism, but advocate their use in a complimentary manner (Jonassen) cautioning constructivists to not deny the effective basics in learning. Educators claim, adult learners are best served by building on old concepts and adopting some of the new, thereby combining pedagogies in a more idiosyncratic way. (Lax et al, 2004) The unique function of the adult brain supports the use of different learning models.

Brain Function and Adult Learning

The brain acts as a monitoring device that maintains the internal and external equilibrium of the body and mind. It monitors the senses, controls hormones, modulates heart rate, and operates basic drives mainly through the limbic system. The neocortex and frontal lobes, which have developed in humans through evolution, are connected to the mind, or consciousness, and can exert some control on the limbic system through reasoning and awareness. (Taylor, 2006)

The human brain assigns learning functions to specific areas

Learning is dependent on memory, which can be achieved through behavioral training as well as experiential and reflective learning. Recent theories show deeper learning requires more than simple memorization and, with some exceptions like mnemonics and rote learning, it lasts longer. Knowledge is more meaningful and retention is better when learners deal with the how of learning, as well as the what through self-reflection. (Taylor, 2006) Also when a learner can make more neural connections through experience, more information flows to the brain from the body and the mind’s consciousness. Since adults have more advanced neural networks because of their prior experience and knowledge, making a contextual connection with new knowledge can take the learner past mere memorization to a deeper understanding, and prime the synapses to make the necessary associations.

Different parts of the brain are used for verdical learning, that requires only one correct answer, and non-verdical learning, that involves more complex solutions. (Taylor, 2006) Finding the exact answers to problems, in verdical thinking, uses the front cortex where most memory functions and language activity reside. Whereas, problems with multiple answers require decisions based on research, interpretation, and comparison, are found in the back cortex, where thinking takes longer and depends on reflective functions.

Transformational Learning

Transformational learning occurs in the frontal lobes, or executive brain, where learners challenge existing concepts, both their own and those of others, reframing schemes and achieving a higher, more complex form of epistemological understanding. (Taylor, 2006) This type of learning is considered transformative because of qualitative changes to understanding and because it can be emotional. Reconstructing existing beliefs can be difficult and often requires a supportive learning environment, since emotions can enhance memory recall or, in extreme cases, block it. (Taylor, 2006)

The Merging of Pedagogies

In the progression of learning theories, behaviorism and cognitivism can be considered old methods and constructivism new only in terms of recent usage and popularity, since the roots of both can be found in ancient times. Just as Aristotle was the first to be credited with a behaviorist approach to learning by observing how cognitive associations are made between events like thunder and lightning (Mergel, 1998), Socrates encouraged inquiry and discussion but let learners discover solutions through the use of their own logic, and is considered the forefather of constructivism. (Thompson, n.d.)


Since the late 1800s, subjective and objective knowledge have been at the center of the learning debate. Behaviorists developed a theory that thought processes could be measured and studied empirically as a more scientific alternative to the introspection method. (Mergel, 1998) They ignored inner states of consciousness and personal experiences in favor of a stimulus-response-based study to demonstrate that learning was a result of conditioning.

While behaviorism was continually questioned because of its disregard of consciousness, it was effectively challenged by Noam Chomsky, who purported that language was an internal, cognitive function. (Hauser, 2002) It was this incongruity that opened the way for cognitivism.


Since memory is the central function of learning, the cognitivist information-processing model divides the processing, storage, and recall of information into three parts. The sensory register retains information only for a brief period; however, more relevant information will be interpreted and passed on to the short term memory region, until it is eventually processed then discarded or retained in the long-term memory banks, a more permanent repository. Learning devices such as mnemonics, metaphors, and information chunking aid memory retention. (Mergel, 1998)

Cognitivists discovered that information is retained more readily when it is rehearsed, appears in a particular order, has some correlation to existing knowledge, is categorized, mnemonics are used, or some combination thereof. People reorganize acquired information into cognitive structures of meaningful information called schema, which tend to become more complex with maturity and experience.(Mergel, 1998)

Information processing also compares the similarities between computers and people in the acquisition, processing, and retention of information. Each can receive only a limited amount of information at any given time, each transforms information, each produces new information, and each returns information to a given situation. In this case, schema can be compared to web-based links and networks that grow more complex with longevity and use. (Mergel, 1998)

While cognitive theories replaced purely response-driven conditioning in learning in the late 1950s, they became more relevant to instructional designs in the 1970s. (Mergel, 1998) Behaviorist and cognitivist instruction models are analogous in their transfer of information from educators to the learners through similar educational techniques, therefore, the theory shift was not as pervasive in regards to design. The same is not true of constructivism, which has had a much more remarkable effect on instructional design and adult learning. (Ruey, 2010)

Adults are not happy to be passive learners, and tend to demand self-monitoring and autonomy in their education, making constructivism a better fit. Much of personal and professional skill acquisition has also changed from repetitive, manual tasks to technologically based, problem solving, and collaborative tasks. (Smith, 2002) Therefore, students cannot be mechanical or robotic in their knowledge and must adapt to change, interact socially, and reason critically.


Knowles supported adult lifelong learning

Malcolm Knowles popularized the adult education movement in the second half of the twentieth century and developed the adult education theory andragogy [3]. (Smith, 2002) Knowles advances the belief that adults are interested in lifelong learning, even if of an informal nature, and that academia should consider those already in power rather than put all its emphasis on the younger generation of scholars.

Distinctions of adult learners, according to Knowles, lie in their:

  • self-concept and independence
  • experience
  • readiness to learn
  • orientation to learning
  • incentive and motivation to learn

Learner involvement through relevant content and self-direction is at the heart of the andragogy theory. Knowles calls the concept of managing one’s own education contract learning (Ruey, 2010), and advocates for a design like constructivism that puts an emphasis on motivation and reflection, and allows learners to set their own goals and pace.


Jean Piaget’s contribution to constructivism is his developmental stage theory consisting of four stages of intelligence. As a child advances through these stages, mental changes occur according to age as schema or conceptualizations are developed and manipulated differently, often using representational objects like letters and numbers. The last stage, formal operational stage, involves learners over the age of eleven, and continues into adulthood. (Laveault, 1986) This is a stage of consolidated operations where old cognitive structures are turned into new ones through problem solving and maintaining a cognitive equilibrium.

Adult strategies are different because learners are not building cognitive structures but adapting existing ones, making more abstract, more hypothetical-deductive problem solving techniques necessary. Solutions are often clouded with emotions, controversy, moral considerations, and identity issues. And since some problems have more than one solution or no solution at all, anomalies in reasoning create disequilibrium, and more adaptive and sophisticated thinking is required. (Laveault, 1986)

Russian scientist Lev Vygotsky’s theory that one’s sociocultural environment impacts learning was adopted by constructivist theorists as it merged well with the work of others like John Dewey, who also advocated for learning in a sociocultural environment, interaction with others, and a real world learning context. (Groves,2008) These concepts apply well to the constructivist model for adults, in which learners are defined in the educational design by their past knowledge and future endeavors.

Some essential factors for adult constructive learning require the design to: (Doolittle, 1999)

  • take place in a real world environment
  • involve social negotiation and mediation
  • be relevant to the learner
  • be understood within the learner’s existing knowledge structures
  • engage in formative assessment
  • allow for student autonomy
  • include facilitators instead of instructors
  • encourage multiple perspectives

Constructivism Online

Designing a constructivist curriculum for adults can be challenging because of their more developed and diverse needs. Most adult learners have been employed and have participated in some sort of civil duty or endeavor. Many have families, economic experience and a sense of responsibility. (Huang, 2002) For this reason, an online learning environment is considered the most convenient but also the most plausible when attempting to design an authentic educational setting because of its enormous networking affordances.

Graphic representation of a minute fraction of the WWW, demonstrating hyperlinks

Frequently called the “information highway” and the “global village” (Wilson and Lowry, 2000), the Internet, through Web 2.0, provides resources for inquiry, information gathering options, data rating and affinity sites, communication, and mobility. This kind of access means more information is readily available to more people, it brings a more diverse community together, and communication options allow more time for reflection. The interactive component provides the learner with an opportunity for a new social efficacy in an online community where ranking and folksonomies are maintaining a democratic environment. (Lankshear et al, 2008)

The Internet is not without its problems. Complaints are often heard that it is slow, the content is sometimes questionable, and broken links frustrate learners. There are also potential negatives about online constructivism in that the technology is new to many adults, slowing them down and making self-direction difficult. Also, designers find it difficult to predict if a task’s authenticity will transfer to actual workplaces. (Ruey,2010)

Despite the challenges, constructivist educators look to the Web, with its myriad of interrelated links, to provide more autonomy for learners. In this environment, dynamic knowledge can be continually monitored and updated and learners are challenged to use critical reasoning skills to judge the credibility and quality of sources, and to distinguish academia from commerce. (Ruey, 2010)

Stop Motion

View this short stop motion video to illustrate the constructivist method to adult learning. Created by Kathleen A. Lenert (2015)

Other Links


Anderson, T.  (2008). Towards and Theory of Online Learning.  In Anderson, T. & Elloumi, F. Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Athabasca University.

Doolittle, Peter E. & Camp, William G. (1999). Constructivism: The Career and Technical Education Perspective. Journal of Vocational and Technical Education, Vol 16, No 1, p 1-15. Retrieved on June 10 2011, from:

Groves, Maria. (2008) The Constructivist Approach in Adult Education. California State university, Monterey Bay.

Hauser, Larry. (2002) Behaviorism. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved on June 15 2011, from:

Huang, Hsui-Mei. (2002) Toward Constructivism for Adult Learners in Online Learning Environments. British Journal of Educational Technology, Vol 33 No 1, 27-37. Retrieved on June 10 2011, from:

Jonassen, D. (1999). Designing constructivist learning environments. In C. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional design theories and models: Volume II. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2008). The “twoness” of learn 2.0: Challenges and prospects of a would-be new learning paradigm. Closing keynote presented at the Learning 2.0: From Preschool to Beyond, Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ.

Laveault, Dany. (1986) The Evaluation of Adult Intelligence: A New Constructivism. American Educational Research Association. San Francisco.

Lax, L., Taylor, I., Wilson-Pauwels, L., & Scardamalia, M. (2004). Dynamic curriculum design in Biomedical Communications: Integrating a knowledge building approach and a Knowledge Forum learning environment in a medical legal visualization course. The Journal of Biocommunication, 30(1), 1-10.

Mergel, Brenda. (1998) Instructional Design and Learning Theory. University of Saskatchewan. Retrieved on June 15 2011, from: Basics of Cognitivism

Ruey, Shieh. (2010) A Case Study of Constructivist Instructional Strategies for Adult Online Learning. British Journal of EducationaI Technology. Vol 41 No 5, 706-720.

Scheurman, Geoffrey. (1995) Constructivism, Personal Epistemology, and Teacher Education: Toward a Social0Developmental Model of Adult Reasoning. American Educational Research Association, San Francisco.

Smith, M.K. (2002) Malcolm Knowles, informal adult education, self-direction and andragogy, The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. Retrieved on June 10, 2011, from:

Taylor, Kathleen. (2006) Brain Function and Adult Learning: Implications for Practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 110. Retrieved on June 15 2011, from:

Thompson, Kelvin (n.d.). Constructivism Curricular Design for Professional Development: A Review of Literature. University of Central Florida, p 1-14. Retrieved on June 10 2011, from:

Wilson, Brent & Lowery, May. (2000) Constructivists Learning On the Web. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 88.