Log in

Constructivism and Cognitive Development | TESL Issues

Published on June 13th, 2017 | Last updated on November 26th, 2019 by | Category: TESOL / TESL Issues through CALL | No Comments on Constructivism and Cognitive Development | TESL Issues | 89 Views | Reading Time: 3 minutes



The main underlying assumption of constructivism is that individuals are actively involved right from birth in constructing personal meaning, that is, their own personal understanding from their experience (Williams & Burden, 1997). In other words, everyone makes their own sense of the world and the experiences that surround them. In this way, the learners is brought into central focus in learning theory.

Constructivist learning theory holds that knowledge is socially constructed, rather than received or discovered. Thus, constructivist learners ‘create meaning’, ‘learn by doing’, and work collaboratively ‘in mixed groups on common projects’. Rather than transmitting knowledge to students, teachers collaborate with them to create knowledge and understanding in their mutual social context. Rather than seeking to ‘cover the curriculum’, learning focuses on the learners’ experience, needs, interests, and aspirations (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, pp. 109-110).

Constructivists hold that grammatical development is a process of gradually assembling knowledge about distributional and semantic distributional relationships between words (N. Ellis, 1996, p. 98).

This view of student learning built up during the 1970s and 1980s, sees students as active constructors of their own world view and which insists that to be useful, new information must be linked to the knowledge structures, or schemata, already held in long-term memory. 

It is on the premise of the Swiss developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget’s theory (see cognitive development). It emphasises the ways in which individuals come to make their own sense of the world.

In constructivist learning theory, students learn best by actively making sense of new knowledge – making meaning from it and mapping it in to their existing knowledge map/schema.

Another foundation upon which constructivism has been established is George Kelly’s Personal Construct Psychology.

There are some tips that should be considered by the language teacher in relation to cognitive development (Williams & Burden, 1997, p. 23):

  • When learners learn a new language, they are actively involved in making their own sense of the language input that surrounds them as well as the tasks presented to them.
  • The development of thinking and its relationship to language and experience become a central focus of learning.
  • Care should be taken to match the requirements of any task to the cognitive level of which the learner is capable. Language tasks set by teachers should be neither too abstract for those who are not yet conceptually capable of functioning at this level, nor too simple in that the conceptual level is below thee level of the learner’s competence.
  • We can see the application of Piaget’s notion of assimilation and accommodation to learning a new language.

Mackay’s (2003) critique of constructivism as anti-realist, anti-determinist and anti-scientific is really famous. Constructivism is not hostile to scientific discourse, and, indeed, converges at important points with Mackay’s own treatment of ‘experiential meaning’ (Raskin & Neimeyer, 2003). Mackay (2003) presents a lengthy and detailed critique of constructivist psychology. In it, he condemns constructivism as anti-realist, anti-deterministic, anti-scientific and downright incoherent.

Leave a Comment