Constructivism as a teaching strategy

To optimise active learning, engage your audience by giving them the microphone as often as possible.

Alexandre Plennevaux
3 min readMay 29, 2023

As a graduate instructor at Columbia, we were trained to teach in a specific way. Rather than lecturing students about writing principles, we asked them constant questions. About all we did was ask questions. When a student responded, we tried to get other students to respond to the student’s response, directing the conversation from student to student rather than from teacher to student.

If no one answered a question right away, we waited (sometimes a minute or more) until someone offered a response. The idea was that asking questions in a Socratic method could increase critical thinking and reasoning more than explaining and lecturing.

In other words, the teacher is the facilitator to a learning environment, but the teacher doesn’t transfer the knowledge. The student constructs the knowledge through experiences, associations, connections, perspectives, and other insights that he or she formulates while in the learning environment.

Source: Organizing Content for Constructivist Learning

This technique is referred to as Inquiry-based learning, the Socratic method or Maieutics

When to use IBL?

At minima, I like to use it as an intro, before exposing learners to “official bodies of knowledge” — top-down transmission, etc… So that they can better understand it by projecting their own experience to it.

And/Or to debrief what was learned, make the learners “connect the dots” between what they already knew and the new material.

How to prepare an inquiry-based learning situation?

This is how I usually do it :

  1. Clarify your objectives for yourself. What result would you like to reach at the end of the constructivist situation?
  2. Then, think of your sequence as if you were writing an “adventure in which YOU Are The Hero” book: what would be the very first question you could ask them so that you start with something they already know.
  3. Consider the possible answers. For each answer, what would be your follow-up question?
  4. For every question, find a way to bounce back by re-using the learners’ answers to formulate the next question.
  5. Continue to build up this “tree of questions” until you reach the final question, which probably, directly refers to your objective.
A tree of questions

In this manner, question per question your learners will start constructing their own knowledge, a knowledge that they will actually be able to remember and put into action.

A final note about you in an IBL setup: it is important that you position yourself not as the expert, but as the facilitator, enabler. Your official attitude is “there are no wrong answers”. If the audience is way off, adjust your next questions to find the basic solid ground in which their answers are correct, and thus, on which you can build.

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Alexandre Plennevaux

Belgian UX designer / web developer / teacher. Favorite word: ideation