Constructivism as an approach to educational psychology: introduction

© Jimme

Need for a learning theory

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Learning has been an essential part of our lives since the very beginning of human existence. Only through learning new things, whether these were manual skills or theoretical knowledge, people could develop and adapt to the contemporary reality. However, one does not have to know how the learning process proceeds in order to learn and, thus, for a long time there was no reason for people to investigate into this aspect of human mind. Although there is proof which indicates that the process of learning had been taken under consideration since the ancient times (Plato being considered the pioneer), it remained more as a topic to wonder about, and for centuries there had been no serious study on learning conducted and no theory of learning ever established.

This situation began to change at the beginning of the 20th century. Gaining knowledge of how humans learn offered not only an insight into one of the areas of human mind but, as the contemporary scholars hoped, could help to implement procedures that would enhance the process of learning. The first significant group of scientists who conducted study in order to examine this process were behaviourists.

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Behaviourism assumed that learning is a passive act and that teaching means conditioning learners' verbal behaviour (i.e. their verbal response as interlocutors) through reinforcement or associations.Behaviouristic approach, however, began to be criticised and even perceived as diminishing human dignity – not only were the learners “trained” in (relatively) similar way as animals are, but they were treated as if they were impersonal subjects in a scientific study.Therefore, a new trend emerged in 1950s - humanistic approach.

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Humanistic approach assumed that feelings and emotions play significant role in successful language learning – it stressed free will and creativity as factors enhancing the learning process. The advocates of humanistic theory examined learning in terms of human psychology, rather than behaviour and such approach turned out to be a turning point in the development of educational psychology as it is known today. Humanistic theory's concern with free will and creativity directed linguists to an assumption that learning is an active act which requires certain mental processes.

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Cognitivism, which emerged between 1950s and 1970s, is an approach that tried to investigate these processes which enable people to learn. If in case of behaviourism learning was compared to shaping behaviour, then in cognitivism it can be compared to the way in which computer processors process data - human mind is assumed to analyse the environment and perform certain mental, cognitive operations in order to acquire new information.

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The “revolution” which began with humanistic approach and was followed by cognitive theory was brought to a stage that is current nowadays – constructivism. According to constructivists, learners create their own individual representations of the world. As in humanistic approach, the learner is treated as one holistic unit, whose emotions and feelings are important because they shape learners' attitude. Similarly, their creativity allows them to construct the view on the world in their own unique way. The cognitive processes are reflected in analysing and operating on what is of utmost significance in constructivsts' view - the things experienced by the learners through their interaction with the environment (there are, however, two main constructivist theories – cognitive constructivism and social constructivism – which differ in regard to the role that the environment plays in the learners' cognitive development).

Currently, constructivism is the most supported approach to language learning and its main contribution to educational psychology is the learner-centred approach, which emphasizes the autonomy of learners in the process of their education.



- Brown, H. D. (2000). Principles of language learning and teaching. New York: Longman.
- Ellis, R. (2008). The study of second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.