Constructivist Theory of Knowledge in the Curriculum


17 Apr 2018

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1. The Constructivist Theory of Knowledge

This theory has emerged from psychological theories around human learning and knowledge acquisition. Within this theory, the main preposition is that people construct knowledge and infer meaning to concepts through experience. It is a theory which is principally credited to Jean Piaget, who used scientific data to prove that the theory was of some validity. In relation to education, constructivist theories have had a significant impact on pedagogy, even though constructivism is not a pedagogy in and of itself.

Within constructivism, the idea is that people respond to new knowledge by internalising it and accommodating this knowledge into their existing internal schema, the personal constructs of meaning and understanding that are unique to them. This explains one of the key facets of constructivism as applied to knowledge acquisition, that learners learn individually, and their knowledge is individually constructed and, arguably, unique to them. Therefore, learning is derived from sensory input from which the learner constructs knowledge. This seems rather simplistic, but runs counter to a number of previous theories, particularly the long-standing belief that knowledge is universal, because instead the learner must engage with the world or their social context or environment in some way, in order to learn.

In constructivism, theorists posit that learners learn as they learn, in that while they are learning knew knowledge they are learning on many levels, about more than just the facts they are acquiring[1]. For example, if the student is learning about different materials, such as wood, plastic and metal, they are learning about the nature of these substances, but also they are expanding their vocabulary, learning what these substances look and feel like, and, are also processing examples of how these materials are used, and why. Applying this knowledge to their social world allows them to test their new understandings and to see what elements of their environment are constructed out of these different materials. The construction of meaning is a mental process which is enhanced by physical activities[2], but cognitive engagement with learning is key. In constructivism, learners are central to the learning process, not the knowledge they are required to acquire. Learning is both contextual and social, and so in primary science, for example, collaborative activities and 'experiments' engage learners socially as well as individually. Learners need time to learn, but they also need opportunities to review and revisit the new knowledge, as it becomes internalised and takes its place as a building block for further learning.

Primary science teaching appears to fit very well with this approach to understanding learning, because it builds from initial concepts and exploratory activities into more complex activities. As time progresses, the curriculum is designed to revisit knowledge on several occasions, and to put that knowledge into practice. How far this works for primary science, however, may depend on a number of factors[3]. This does seem to be a very 'constructivist' approach, and while it works well in primary science, this author wonders if there are other subjects which might not so easily suit constructivist explanations of learning. As a 'practical' subject, science at all levels allows students to take more control of their learning experiences[4] and to engage fully with new knowledge[5]. However, this theory also acknowledges that learning requires a degree of motivation, and this may be the biggest challenge to any educator[6].

2. Discuss the issue of progression in a child’s learning in the context of a critique of the 'materials and properties' strand of the national curriculum and the associated QCA schemes of work.

The notion of progression builds upon issues of constructivism by starting what appears to be a cascade of learning through directed activities. The guidance for the 'materials and properties' strand of the curriculum, particularly espoused in the QCA schemes of work, seem to start with an initial encounter with key concepts, such as the nature of materials, through focused activities[7]. For example, children in reception to Year 1 might be asked to identify types of materials, such as glass, wood, metal, and discuss the ways in which these are used, such as, windows are usually made of glass, or doors are usually made of wood. This knowledge is then built on later on in their learning process by learning more in detail about the properties of these different types of materials, through new information, and testing that information to learn about the properties under investigation. For example, learning about 'stretchiness' would allow students to understand both the concept and the kinds of materials which display this property, whilst also acquiring the new knowledge of different terms and their application.

So progression of learning requires the student to understand what a 'property' is, and the kinds of words used to describe and to explore it. The learning process challenges the student to ask questions about different properties, and then, through these answers, to apply these concepts to other materials and their properties. Progression is thus based on the student engaging at all stages, and only once the student has grasped initial concepts can they move on to the testing of those concepts in more and more detail. However, the challenge of basing a curriculum and set schemes of work on this concept of progressive learning, in this case, is that all students do not learn at the same rates, and therefore the progression of the class may be limited to the speed of the 'slowest' student rather than responding to individual learning. However, this approach also allows students to not only revisit knowledge but to simultaneously signpost their learning[8], which may help build confidence, self-esteem and self-efficacy. The continuous programme of study that is the National Curriculum aims to ensure progression from primary to secondary school, in particularly, is less marked and more straightforward, although this is not the case for many educators. However, in principle, within science, the curriculum allows students to acquire the fundamental understandings necessary to advance to more complex science and scientific investigation.

3. How does the recognition of 'concepts of evidence' affect a teachers approach to progression and assessment of pupils understanding in Sc1?

Concepts of evidence is a fundamental scientific principle in relation to the acquisition of any kind of real scientific knowledge and understanding. Every part of the progression from S1 requires that students can recognise and work with ‘evidence’ acquired from practical activities[9], such as information gathering, observation and recording of these observations, and experimentation[10]. Experimental and investigative work in this subject, at this level, requires students to engage in the following kinds of activities: planning investigations; deciding what to change, what to keep the same and what to measure; deciding whether a fair comparison was made; and using results to draw conclusions[11]. These require students to have internalised what constitutes ‘evidence’ in scientific studies. However, in science, cognition and learning, and in particular, reasoning, is characteristically different than in other subjects, because this reasoning is carried out using ‘evidence’. Learning to work scientifically relates to a rage of ‘concepts of evidence’, which might include the purpose of observation, and how to carry out observation for specific reasons, recognising what constitutes a scientific question that can practically be investigated through accepted scientific processes, the need to carry out multiple measurements, and the need to develop through these new skills in carrying out measurement processes, and different ways of recording data and presenting findings. It also involves understanding different kinds of experiments and the kinds of results that can be gained from these. However, these kinds of concepts must be learned from engaging in practical activities, and in relation to progression from Sc1, understanding the principles of scientific activities must be demonstrated through carrying out the activities and working through these to achieve specific goals. This runs somewhat counter to the notion of individual learning, however.

However, it is not enough that students can carry out the activity required, because they need to be able to see beyond establishing ‘facts’ and look for alternative explanations or interpretations to illustrate their ‘evidence’. Not only must they be able to frame their investigations in the right language, and choose the right kinds of questions[12], they also need to be able to learn how to make robust measurements, with support and input. What this demonstrates is that it is not enough for students to learn superficially how to do an experiment, and how to record results. For students to progress, they need to be able to discuss observations and inference, questions and areas of investigation, and the different ways to produce ‘evidence’ to explain relationships or causality. And the literature does show that even young children can develop these kinds of capabilities, if they are properly supported. Therefore, the modern approach to science education where knowledge acquisition appears to be fully constructivist, particularly in relation to testing of ideas and principles, appears well suited to students developing key scientific skills, which at the next stage of their education form the basis for deeper understanding and manipulation of more complex and challenging tests and variables. Yet it could also be argued that to teach almost by rote, by following the schemes of work set out by the QCA and DfES is also to stifle individuality in learning, because not all students will grasp these concepts at the same time, or even in the same ways. Science is about universal laws and the testing of theories[13], but in order to allow students to develop a true understanding of basic principles[14], perhaps it is time for educators themselves to reconsider what are their ‘concepts of evidence’ for readiness to progress to the next level.


Gibson, J. (1998). Any questions any answer? Primary Science Review, 51, 20-21.

Gott, R. and Johnson, P. (1999) Science in schools: times to pause for thought? School Science Review81(295) 21 -28

Gunstone, R.F. and Mitchell, I.J. (2005) Metacognition and Conceptual Change Teaching Science for Understanding 133-163

Hollins, W. & Whitby, V. (1998). Progression in Primary Science. Great Britain: David Fulton Publishers.

Johnson, P. and Gott, R. (1996) Constructivism and Evidence from Children's Ideas. Science Education 80(5); 561-577.

Osborne, J. and Simon, S. (1996) Primary Science: Past and Future Directions Studies in Science Education 26 99-147

Paivi, T. (1999) Towards expert knowledge? A comparison between a constructivist and a traditional learning environment in the university International Journal of Educational Research31 (5) 357-442.

QCA/DfES (2008) Accesed 23-10-08

Reinhartz, J. & Beach, D. M. (1997). Teaching and Learning in the Elementary School: Focus on Curriculum. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Shepardson, D. P. (1997). Butterflies and beetles: first graders' ways of seeing and talking about insect life cycles. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 34(9) 876-889.

So, W. M. W. & Cheng, M. H. M. (2001). To facilitate the development of multiple intelligences among primary students through science projects. Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, 2(1), Article 4. Available at: Accessed 23-10-08.

Watts, M., Barber, B., & Alsop, S. (1997). Children's questions in the classroom, Primary Science Review, 49, 6-8.

White, R. and Gunstone, R. (1992). Probing Understanding. London: Falmer Press.



[1] Paivi, T. (1999)

[2] Shepardson, D. P. (1997).

[3] Gott, R. and Johnson, P. (1999)

[4] Gibson, J. (1998). p 20.

[5] White, R. and Gunstone, R. (1992).

[6] Reinhartz, J. & Beach, D. M. (1997).

[7]QCA/DfES (2008)

[8] Gunstone, R.F. and Mitchell, I.J. (2005)

[9] Hollins, W. & Whitby, V. (1998)

[10] So, W. M. W. & Cheng, M. H. M. (2001).

[11] QCA/DfES (ibid).

[12] Watts, M., Barber, B., & Alsop, S. (1997).

[13] Osborne, J. and Simon, S. (1996)

[14] Johnson, P. and Gott, R. (1996)


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