Constructivist Theory

In this paper I will be discussing the constructivist learning theory with particular reference to the works of John Dewey and his impact on the pedagogical theory. For the purposes of this paper I will be using my own experience as a comparative background to rationalise and demonstrate scenarios of Dewey’s theories. As my experience is in a business training environment I will be considering scenarios in relation to Dewey’s beliefs of progressive education particular to adults in the working environment.

In the constructivist theory it is believed that knowledge of the world comes about as a result of an individual's experiences with it and that knowledge is constructed by learners as they attempt to solve problems and make sense of their experiences. This is as an especially relevant perspective in view of adult or college education as our target audience is coming with a much more vast selection of experiences to build upon, some of which may even propose views beyond the educator’s knowledge, allowing for the popular constructivist approach of 2-way learning. What we ourselves is this happening in the day to day working environment as we see students coming with more up to date training from college, bringing fresh ideas into a business or even experienced workers, who have just come from another business, having  an entirely different approach to similar work.

Dewey believed that the outdated strict authoritarian or pre-ordained knowledge methodology of education was overly concerned with delivering pre-defined knowledge and not with understanding the student’s actual experiences. He believed in facilitating the student through overcoming inhibitions and prejudices (Dewey 1934). His belief was that as education is a social environment it should be conducted as a safe unbiased environment allowing for each student to use their own experiences.

In adult education and particularly in a business environment we can find that there can be a de-motivating and even intimidating perspective from the students initially. These can be preconceived notions from prior educational or even personal experiences. This can also be in relation to entering a new environment and not wanting to appear overzealous or critical of the current approaches the business might have. It is important to the educator in the role of facilitator to overcome these inhibitions. This can be achieved by the use of real world issues to make the topics applicable and allow the students to question and learn outside of the classroom. Allowing for a problem based learning scenario, or even giving one to one training where the educator is there in a monitoring or sometimes guidance role can prove more beneficial to the development of the student in these positions. This encourages the development of social and interpersonal skills, creating an open learning environment adaptive to the educational needs of the student.

Dewey did not believe in knowledge as static and the learner as an empty vessel whose job it is to absorb as much as possible of that predefined material. He argued that we need to build curriculum around the impulses or instincts, as he referred to them, of the learner. Dewey referred to the social instinct meaning conversation and communication, the making instinct which refers to our creative impulses, the investigation instinct in so much as experimenting and watching to see what happens and finally the expressive impulse which relates to the necessity of gaining a meaning from experience.

In designing business training we would use a highly similar structure and approach in reaching our training goal with the student. Like Dewey it would begin with a social element starting with conversational training. This may initially be a knowledge transfer, going against Dewey’s anti-authoritarian or pre-ordained knowledge approach, but it is important to give and assure a base level of understanding before progressing in the training. Although the communication element is still of vital importance, the student must be encouraged to ask questions and assert themselves in the training to assure the understanding and participation in the learning experience. Next we would appeal to the making instinct allowing, after a transfer of base knowledge, the student to physically participate giving the chance for hands on experience. This would actually be coupled with the Investigation instinct as the change for hands on experience and experimentation would be seen to go hand in hand. Here we allow the student, under supervision, to now physically apply themselves to scenarios whilst experimenting with other approaches so as to better understand the reasoning behind the taught approach. This would lead to a natural development to the final instinct, the investigation instinct, where the student has been taught and given an opportunity to participate and question leading them to an understanding of what they need to know and the practical reason for why.

On the negative side we must consider a few points of note. To begin with, students need a base of knowledge. We may find that Adults are coming with a pre existing level of knowledge and experiences, but if they have limited or no prior experience in a field or area how are they supposed to construct new knowledge from old knowledge?  Also the constructivist theory seems to work under the assumption that all students have a level of experience or, if sharing experiences, understand to the same level as other students. This as mentioned is a consideration in standard business training as no assumption can be made to the level of knowledge or even understanding an individual may have. So we find ourselves in a scenario where as a educator me must have a knowledge transfer stage to our training even if on occasion it may be that the student already has prior experience of training in this area. This gives a much higher chance that all students will be up to the same level upon leaving the training.

Another consideration is What if the student’s understandings are different to what was intended by the educator?  Standardized tests don't measure understanding. The educator must evaluate differently for each student and how does one evenly and fairly mark such an open area as understanding? If a student is coming from a similar working environment, it is not a guarantee that the approaches will be similar or even compatible. As much as it is important to consider the input from a student a business must conform to their standard operation procedures.

These considerations aside we may also mention the somewhat indirect contribution that Dewey and his work on experiential education (Dewey 1938) had on Project Based Learning (not to be confused with problem based learning), which is broadly used in the working environment. In this process students form their own investigation of a problem in groups, which allows the students to develop invaluable research skills. This encourages the students to work in their groups or by themselves to come up with ideas or solutions. In these projects we see students taking a problem and applying it to a real life situation. Project Based Learning is an ideal example of how to use ones experience to grow one’s own knowledge. In Project Based Learning we can use the knowledge of a group and the individual group members to develop each other. Also Project Based Learning provides an ideal opportunity to overcome one of our aforementioned problems, in how we measure the understanding of the student, as these classroom projects can be used to assess the students skill level in the discussed area.

As an educator we can clearly see the influence and even the application of Dewey’s constructivist theories in our working environment. Although there are some negative aspects for us to overcome we can see that even Dewey himself may have identified these areas that lead to further work and research in the practical application of his theories in constructivism. And although it may give the potential for the student to enjoy learning it has to be considered that in the working environment education is sometimes set with a defined outcome and that memorizing facts and pre defined knowledge is on occasion necessary in this area of education. Students are still encouraged to have a better understanding and to learn to think more efficiently, which in the long term is a skill that is most useful in the adult working environment. But we must consider the combination of approaches to maximise the effectiveness of this constructivist theory and bring it into practical usage.


Dewey, 1934, The need for a philosophy of education, Random House, New York.
Dewey, 1938, Experience and Education, Touchstone, New York.
Dewey, John., 1944,  ‘Democracy and Education’, in ILTweb Publications, accessed 28 October 2009, from
Oregon Technology in Education Council, 2000, ‘Constructivism’, in Learning Theories, accessed 16 October 2009, from