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Dr. G. & Friends  |  

Learning through Constructivism

The increase in the use of instructional technologies in seminaries over the past decade, especially online learning, has lived up to the term “disruptive technologies.”

As faculty become more adept at using instructional technology they have become more aware of the importance of informed and rigorously applied pedagogies.

One educational approach, in particular, is notable in its increasing influence in the process of teaching and learning in the field of theological education.


What is Constructivism? 

Constructivism finds its origin in the works of educational philosopher John Dewey and others, and in the study of cognition.

Today’s most recognized proponent of Constructivism is Jerome Bruner.

A major theme in the theoretical framework of Constructivism is that learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current and past knowledge.

Through the experience of learning, the learner selects and transforms information, constructs hypotheses, and makes decisions, relying on a cognitive structure to do so.

Cognitive structures (conceptual schemas, mental models, etc.) help create meaning and organization to experiences and allows the learner to go beyond the information given by the teacher.

That, in contrast to forms of “transmissive” teaching where the focus is more on teaching than learning, and in which passing on knowledge is the primary mode, if not goal, of teaching.


When it comes to teaching, then, the instructor should try and encourage students to uncover concepts and discover principles themselves.

The instructor and student should engage in an active dialog (e.g., Socratic learning). The task of the instructor is to translate information to be learned into a format appropriate to the learner’s current state of understanding.

A common practice in curriculum design therefore, is its organization in a spiral manner.

In this way the students continually builds upon what they have already learned.


Bruner (1966) stated that a theory of instruction should address four major aspects: (1) predisposition towards learning, (2) the ways in which a body of knowledge can be structured so that it can be most readily grasped by the learner, (3) the most effective sequences in which to present material, and (4) the nature and pacing of reinforcements. Good methods for structuring knowledge should result in simplifying; generating new propositions and knowledge, and increasing the ability to manipulate (apply) information and knowledge.


Bruner’s works (1986, 1990, 1996) have increased relevance to Christian education, and theological education, in that he has expanded the theoretical framework of the constructivist approach to encompass the social and cultural aspects of learning.


Three Basic Principles
Three basic principles in Constructivism are:

*Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that make the student willing and able to learn (readiness, no “pretend learning,”  application in context, the creation of social products)

*Instruction must be structured so that it can be easily grasped by the student (spiral organization, manageable chunks, integration, etc.).

*Instruction should be designed to facilitate extrapolation and or fill in the gaps (going beyond the information given; using intuition, hunches, imagination, etc.).


The application of constructivism is not limited to online learning, though it is well suited to that environment. The approach is well-suited to any focus of learning and is applied in the classroom environments, from pre-school to graduate school.

Basic References: 
Bruner, J. (1960). The Process of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bruner, J. (1966). Toward a Theory of Instruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bruner, J. (1973). Going Beyond the Information Given. New York: Norton.
Bruner, J. (1983). Child’s Talk: Learning to Use Language. New York: Norton.
Bruner, J. (1986). Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bruner, J. (1996). The Culture of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bruner, J., Goodnow, J., & Austin, A. (1956). A Study of Thinking. New York: Wiley.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.

His books on education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).

Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans and to its teaching and learning blogs.

Dr. G. & Friends