Social Education
Volume 62 Number 1
January 1998

From Behaviorist to Constructivist Teaching

Geoffrey Scheurman

Constructivism refers to a set of related theories that deal with the nature of knowledge. The common denominator linking these theories is a belief that knowledge is created by people and influenced by their values and culture. In contrast to this view is the behaviorist belief that knowledge exists outside of people and independently of them, and that the major goal of a good education is to instill in students an accepted body of information and skills previously established by others.
When the constructivist view is applied to teaching and learning in the social studies, the goal of a good education includes the development of (1) deep understanding of social studies problems and procedures, and (2) rigorously defensible beliefs about important disciplinary issues. This developmental process is enhanced when students learn to view problems and issues from different angles and to identify multiple perspectives within and outside the field of study. Ultimately, knowledge is constructed when students form their own interpretations of evidence submitted to them for review.
The constructivist perspective has important implications for teaching and learning in the social studies. Much of social education has been directed toward the simple transmission of information and techniques for processing information. Constructivism has a natural affinity with approaches to teaching that are directed toward open-ended inquiry, and that encourage creative reflection on objects, events and cultural experience.
Constructivism, like other approaches, comes in varying shades. As one author stated, “the particular version of constructivism one adopts . . . has important implications for classroom practices, for the definition of knowledge, for the relative emphasis on individual versus social learning, for the role of the teacher, and for the definition of successful instruction.”1
This introductory article provides a frame of reference for the special section on constructivism that follows, and for the debate about constructivism in social studies that appears imminent.
One way to examine constructivist approaches to social studies teaching is to contrast them to other world views on teaching and learning. I have designed a matrix around four hypothetical teacher roles (Table 1, row one), each derived from a philosophical view about the nature of knowledge (row two). These views reflect a theoretical background derived from psychological research (row three). They also imply a metaphorical view of learners (row four).
The categories in this matrix are neither exclusive (a teacher probably engages students in multiple ways within a lesson or unit), nor judgmental (different roles may facilitate important, albeit different, educational objectives). Nevertheless, it is possible to classify the nature of classroom activity when a teacher adopts a specific epistemology, or view of knowledge (rows five and six).

Teacher as Transmitter
According to the behaviorist view, reality exists independently of learners and knowledge is received exclusively through the senses. Learning functions like a switchboard, occurring when one person transmits the universal characteristics of reality to another. According to B. F. Skinner, knowledge is acquired when the bond between stimulus and response is strengthened by means of a reinforcer. The teacher’s primary function is to break information and skills into small increments, present them part-to-whole in an organized fashion, and then reward student behaviors that mirror the reality presented by teachers and texts.
For the teacher as transmitter, classroom activity might include responding to questions in a chapter, taking notes from a lecture, or responding to cues provided by a computer. For example, students may use information they receive during a lecture on events leading up to the American Revolution to place activities challenging British rule on a continuum called “Degrees of Disagreement,” whose categories range from “dissent” and “civil disobedience” through “insurrection” and “rebellion.” This and other class activities are described in more detail in the next article. The skills of classification that students practice in such an activity are important, but the questions require responses that can be termed right or wrong rather than interpretations that are justified on the basis of critically-examined evidence.

Teacher as Manager
The behaviorist paradigm has undergone a dramatic shift over the past several decades. A major challenge to behaviorism in the field of linguistics was launched by Noam Chomsky, who argued that children possess an innate capacity to acquire language, and that their minds should not be considered passive receptacles into which knowledge about language is transmitted. With the help of computers, cognitive scientists have fueled a “revolution” in the psychology of learning by modeling how learners’ prior knowledge (stored in clusters called schemata) not only filters, but actually modifies, sensory activity as it is experienced.2
Given that pre-existing memory structures influence the learner’s interaction with stimuli, an important function of teaching, in this view, is to help students become aware of their prior knowledge and conceptions, and then to provide them with increasingly expert methods for dealing with an information-rich environment. The teacher as manager might model strategies for “chunking” information, encourage students to build connections using
advance organizers and concept maps, and eventually help students acquire techniques for regulating their own thinking processes.
In a unit on the American Revolution, for example, the teacher could have students practice critical reading using a heuristic for engaging in the evaluation of historical accounts. This heuristic involves remembering what a historian actually says about events (the literal reading of the account), examining what a historian may have implied by his or her narrative (reading between the lines), and evaluating what biases or values may be reflected in a historian’s record of events (generalizing beyond the lines). By managing an environment in which students gain experience at consuming information and asking questions about it, teachers help students develop their own independent abilities to review historical materials.

Teacher as Facilitator or Collaborator
While the teacher as manager may allow students a more active role than the teacher as transmitter, learning is still based on the twin premises that (1) knowledge is a possession of “truths” that reside outside the knower, and (2) learning is the process of acquiring those truths. There is a qualitative shift in epistemology, however, when one abandons the requirement that knowledge “represent an independent world” and accepts the constructivist premise that knowledge “represents ... what we can do in our experiential world.”3
Although constructivist theories are too numerous to delineate here, the field can be categorized into two basic views: cognitive and social (Table 1, columns three and four).4 The most influential figure in cognitive constructivism is Jean Piaget, who believed that people develop universal forms or structures of knowledge (i.e., prelogical, concrete, or formal) that enable them to experience reality. This view holds that while an autonomous “rea#148; world may exist outside the learner, he or she has limited access to it. The emphasis in learning is on how people assimilate new information into existing mental schemes, and how they restructure schemes entirely when information is too discrepant to be assimilated.
The most influential figure in the social constructivist camp is Lev Vygotsky. Accepting Piaget’s view of how individuals build private understandings of reality through problem solving with others, Vygotsky further explained how social or cultural contexts contribute to a public understanding of objects and events. In this view, reality is no longer objective, while knowledge is literally co-constructed by, and distributed among, individuals as they “interact with one another and with cultural artifacts, such as pictures, texts, discourse, and gestures.”5
The conceptual relationship between the two forms of constructivism is so close that I have chosen to discuss them together. If, as Piaget suggested, knowledge is acquired when cognitive stability is directly challenged, then the primary role of the teacher as facilitator is to pose problems that stretch learners to a point of intellectual disequilibrium (perturbation). Once this point is reached, the teacher provides students with opportunities to manipulate objects and work together on solving problems (action), and to think about and discuss new-found properties of “reality” as they experience it (reflective abstraction).
If, as Vygotsky suggested, cognitive development is “the transformation of socially shared activities into internalized [thought] processes,”6 then the primary role of the teacher as collaborator is to monitor classroom learning and participate actively with students in its evolution. Two further recommendations on the nature of teaching derive from social constructivism. First, what teachers have traditionally viewed as errors in student thinking should be understood as misconceptions that both indicate a student’s readiness to learn and offer an entry point for teachers to provide scaffolding (expert support) for that learning. Second, students should have frequent opportunities to interact with peers and more experienced people, including the teacher, who becomes another collaborator in the creation of meaning.
One kind of activity that would enhance a constructivist classroom, with the teacher adopting the role of facilitator or collaborator, would be for students to collectively assemble a variety of historical documents about an event, review the evidence and perspectives that they offer, and construct their own description and interpretation of the event.

Connections and Concerns
In one sense, the teaching roles depicted in the Table 1 matrix are additive from left to right. For example, it is difficult to imagine any learning encounter without a certain amount of transmission on the part of the teacher. Even the most collaborative exercise requires instructions and prerequisite information to help students follow procedures and to reinforce thinking skills. Also, to suggest that a teacher challenge students’ conceptions of reality with novel experiences (the role of facilitator) is not to assume that the teacher does not or should not have clear standards for judging better and worse versions of reality as well as what constitutes a good strategy for approaching the problem (role of manager).
There are many connections between constructivist models of teaching and other theoretical ideas. For example, a growing body of evidence suggests that people construct representations of the world using multiple intelligences—from musical and spatial to linguistic and logical.7 In the constructivist lesson on Lexington Green that follows in the next article, students make use of linguistic skills to interpret language usages in old documents, analytical skills to deduce the relative certainty of an author’s claim, spatial skills to interpret maps, and interpersonal skills to act as lead historians or witnesses to the event.
Emotional intelligence is another construct gaining attention in educational circles.8 Students with highly-tuned levels of emotional intelligence may readily empathize with the feelings expressed in a poignant song about a dying friend—even if the tragedy occurred in 1775. More importantly, the simple act of assuming a first person role in a conflict involving different versions of truth is sure to evoke an affective response from many teenagers. This creates an opportunity for teachers to develop emotional intelligence by exposing students to the ideas that (1) having a vested interest in a situation influences individual perceptions of reality, and (2) emotional responses may figure as largely as reason in interpreting historical evidence.
There are several concerns to consider in adopting constructivist reforms. Some research suggests that American college students are disposed to see problems in dualistic terms and to seek simple answers from authorities such as teachers and texts.9 If, as Newmann
suggests,10 these dispositions are brought about by how students are and have been taught, a move toward constructivist teaching methods in the pre-college years may be essential. Some questions that arise are:

Perhaps the most critical concern in adopting constructivist reforms is the possibility of the wholesale abandonment of traditional instruction and assessment. In the zeal to eradicate the mindset of “one-right-answer reductionism,” teachers may adopt an “anything-goes constructivism.”11 Bandwagon mentality has never served teachers or students well in the long run. As with any educational reform, there must be standards and criteria for what constitutes a reasonable student construction in order to avoid rampant relativism in what counts as acceptable.
Authoritative expertise exists in history and the social sciences, just as it does in math and science. It is important to realize that some constructions—call them realities, truths, arguments, representations, schemes, or simply elements of acquired knowledge—are better than others.12 Richard Prawat refers to a “constructivist dilemma,” which he defines as “striking the right balance between honoring the individual student’s own effort after meaning while steering the group toward some ‘intellectually honest’ (i.e. disciplinarily correct) construction of meaning....”13
In spite of my affinity for many of the claims in the constructivist camps, I am doubtful that a willy-nilly appeal to “personal meaning” will do anything to aid in the powerful learning of social studies. As teachers, our moral obligation to decide what children ought to know does not disappear when we discard one theoretical paradigm in favor of another, even if the new one invites students to participate actively in the construction of disciplinary knowledge.
Recognizing these concerns, there may be a greater danger if we don’t make an effort to adopt constructivist reforms. To many students, the past is seen as a “dry compilation of ‘facts’ and ‘data,’ a closed catechism, or a set of questions already answered” when it really is an ongoing conversation and a “place to invent.”14 Woodrow Wilson once criticized examinations in history as a meaningless ritual of listing “one damn fact after another.” In continuing to encourage this kind of activity, teachers may be contributing to many students’ perception of social studies as the least interesting, most irrelevant subject in the school curriculum.15 Worse, teachers may be losing the joy inherent in the exercise of their own chosen profession. In either case, the evidence is too strong, and the stakes are too high, not to consider constructivist approaches in social studies instruction.

1. P. W. Airasian and M. E. Walsh, “Constructivist Cautions,” Phi Delta Kappan 78, 9 (1997), 445.
2. A review of schema and connectionist theories, among others, can be found in R. E. Reynolds, G. M. Sinatra, and T. J. Jetton, “Views of Knowledge Acquisition and Representation: A Continuum from Experience Centered to Mind Centered,” Educational Psychologist, 31, 2 (1996).
3. E. von Glasersfeld, “A Constructivist Approach to Teaching” in L. P. Steffe and J. Gale, eds., Constructivism in Education (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1995), 6-7.
4. Although constructivism has been categorized in numerous ways (at least twelve by my count), I have chosen to ally myself with others who identify two main perspectives presented here (e.g. see Airasian and Walsh, 1997). The cognitive constructivist perspective is sometimes referred to as “radical constructivism,” of which Jean Piaget and Ernst von Glasersfeld are primary champions, even though the next column in the matrix, “social constructivism,” departs from traditional theories in ways that might be considered even more radical than Piaget or von Glasersfeld. For a valuable discussion on the roots of constructivist thinking and applications to classrooms, free of such fine grained distinctions, see J. G. Brooks and M. Brooks, In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1993).
5. L. S. Vygotsky, Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (Translation edited by M. Cole, et al., Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1978), 90. Some researchers make fine-grained distinctions between social constructivist theories that emphasize the general importance of cultural context and theories that specify the mental operations of learners as they interact with particular conditions in the environment. For a review of “situated cognition” (the latter variety), see the discussion by Reynolds et al. (footnote 2).
6. V. John-Steiner and H. Mahn, “Sociocultural Approaches to Learning and Development: A Vygotskian Framework,” Educational Psychologist 31, 3/4 (1996), 192.
7. I speak of the varied works by Howard Gardner, including Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic, 1983) and Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice (New York: Basic, 1993). During a recent conversation I had with Gardner, he referred to multiple intelligences as the “tools” a person has to represent and ultimately understand the world. He believes that understanding is in turn consistent with a constructivist view of knowledge.
8. Daniel Goldman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, (New York: Bantam, 1995).
9. Patricia M. King and Karen S. Kitchener review over two decades of research on adult intellectual development associated with the Reflective Judgment Model in Developing Reflective Judgment, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994).
10. See Fred M. Newmann, “Higher Order Thinking in the Teaching of Social Studies: Connections between Theory and Practice,” in J.F. Voss, D.N. Perkins and J.W. Segal (eds.), Informal Reasoning and Education (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1991).
11. For an excellent discussion of cautions in the constructivist movement, see Airasian and Walsh, op cit. (footnote 1). These descriptive terms can be found on pp. 448-49.
12. A similar concern is discussed by K. T. Spoehr and L. W. Spoehr, “Learning to Think Historically,” in Educational Psychologist, 1994. For example, they state “not all facts—and not all opinions—are created equal.”
13. R. S. Prawat and R. E. Floden, “Philosophical Perspectives on Constructivist Views of Learning,” Educational Psychologist, 29, 1 (1994), 47.
14. Tom Holt, Thinking Historically: Narrative, Imagination, and Understanding (New York: The College Board, 1990), 13.
15. J. M. Shaughnessy and T. M. Haladyna, “Research on Student Attitudes Toward Social Studies,” Social Education 49 (1985): 692-695.

Geoffrey Scheurman is associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, River Falls, Wisconsin. He taught high school social studies in Wyoming for 11 years before earning his Ph. D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Iowa. The author would like to thank Tom Russo, Mike Yell, several of his students, and especially Michael Simpson and Jennifer Rothwell for the constructive feedback and editorial assistance on the first two articles in this issue.

Table 1
Matrix of Teaching and Learning Approaches

Role of Teacher Transmitter Manager Facilitator Collaborator
Nature of Knowledge

Universal, objective, and fixed (independent of knower)
Universal and “objective” (influenced by knower’s prior knowledge) Individually constructed; “objective” (contingent on knower’s intellectual
Socially constructed;
“subjective” (distributed across knowers)

Grounding Theoretical
Behaviorism Information Processing Cognitive constructivism Social constructivism
Metaphorical View of Learner Switchboard Computer Naive Scientist Apprentice
Nature of Teaching Activity Present reality to students
• disseminate information incrementally
• demonstrate procedures
• reinforce habits during independent practice
Help students process reality
• assemble information-rich environments
• model expert memory and thinking strategies
• foster metacognition
Challenge students’
conceptions of reality
• promote disequilibrium with discrepant objects and events
• guide students through problem solving activities
• monitor reflective thinking after discoveries
Participate with students in constructing reality
• elicit and adapt to student (mis)conceptions
• engage in open-ended inquiries with students
• guide self and students to authentic resources and procedures
Nature of Student Activity Replicate reality transmitted by authorities
• listen
• rehearse
• recite
Manipulate reality perceived through senses
• practice thinking and memorizing activities
• develop schemata and automatize skills
• practice self-regulatory strategies
Experience reality during physical and social activity
• assimilate information
• develop new schemes and operations to deal with novel experiences
• reflect on physical, social, and intellectual discoveries
Create reality during physical and social activity
• manufacture “situated” (cultural) understandings
• actively engage in open-ended inquiries with peers and teachers
• reflect on co-constructed meanings

©1998 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.