A Constructivist Approach to Social Studies
Integrating Technology

Barbara A. Boyer Penelope Semrau

What is Constructivism?
Traditionally, teachers have been taught to think and teach about single subjects in a departmentalized manner and to view knowledge as something that is simply given to students. However, recent studies on learning have promoted an interdisciplinary constructivist approach where students develop their knowledge through team collaboration, discuss different interpretations of a problem, and negotiate and synthesize ideas drawing from various disciplines (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1989; National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1989; Science Curriculum Framework & Criteria Committee,1990). According to
constructivist theory, knowledge develops holistically, rather than through the memorization of discrete facts, as one often does in studying for a test (Honebein, Duffy, & Fishman, 1994).

Constructed knowledge is embedded in one’s own authentic personal experience. It is directly related to the individua#146;s life and is of significant interest to them. For example, students can be presented with the problem of “conflict resolution” within the context of their own classroom, rather than studying it as a removed, abstract societal issue. Computers and multimedia can enhance authentic experiences and problem solving through interactive simulations and environments. When technology is integrated into a social studies lesson utilizing a constructivist framework, students may:
• Perform hands-on testing of hypotheses using the computer to assist in data collection, surveys, and “what-if” testing.
• Work collaboratively in teams using the computer to retrieve data from global databases and libraries accessible on the Internet, in CD-ROMs, and videodiscs.
• Conduct research by comparing and contrasting information and inventing alternative solutions to problems which are supported with background data retrieved electronically.
• Produce class presentations and reports using the computer for word processing, graphics, desktop publishing, and electronic slide shows.

In a constructivist lesson, students apply their understanding of a problem, reflect on it, and defend their positions (Ibid., p. 9). Thus, constructivism empowers students and enables them to take ownership for their own learning. As Jonassen (1991) states, “Rather than attempting to map the structure of an external reality onto learners, constructivists recommend that we help them [learners] to construct meaningful and conceptually functional representations of the external world” (p. 29). To summarize, a constructivist lesson would:

• Incorporate an authentic learning activity that demonstrates knowledge is transferable to the real world and can be integrated into the student’s real life experiences. Such lessons would have students working in teams on projects which provide a holistic view of the problem by having them undertake smaller tasks necessary in accomplishing the larger, global task.
• Emphasize the student’s responsibility for asking questions, not just memorizing answers. Students set their own goals, invent their own problem-solving strategies, and develop their own solutions.
• Include opportunities for students to do critical thinking and the testing of experience by comparing alternative points of view. Students build their knowledge base through research, synthesis, and argumentation. Learning to learn, to question, to research, to evaluate, to critically dialog, and to apply ideas is emphasized. Understanding relationships among ideas is more important than identifying and memorizing facts. These processes entail all levels of thinking (Jonassen, 1991, p.30).
• Motivate students to examine and become conscious of other cultures through which they become aware of how their culture and view of the world is actually a construction.
• Encourage students to re- examine their knowledge base and become self-reflective. Through this process, students are empowered with the understanding that they have choices in ordinary daily interactions.

Examples of authentic firsthand learning transferable to actual world issues and problems are described later in the pull-out feature of this issue, Social Studies Lessons Integrating Technology.

Objectivist Versus Constructivist Approaches

Constructivism is a dramatic move away from the objectivist tradition which is more prevalent in learning theories and instruction in United States schools (Duffy & Jonassen, 1992). In objectivist theories, experience plays a less significant role in explaining the structure of the world which is perceived to be made up of entities, properties, and relations. Meaning exists outside of one’s personal experiences. Knowledge is not viewed as evolving from one’s personal experiences with the world, but rather as an objective set of information which is taken-for-granted as fact. Thus, knowledge is memorized information which doesn’t need to be critically questioned, experienced, or interpreted because it is accepted as truth universally.

Teachers working within an objectivist learning context identify the relations and entities that learners “must know” and have students “practice” using the information that was given to them. Tests are given accessing what “knowledge was acquired” with the assumption that information was acquired and can now be made available for students to use in their lives.

Behaviorism and information processing-based cognitive psychology are derived from objectivist theories. Knowledge is perceived to exist independently of individual experience, and the process of learning involves acquiring information. Constructivism, in contrast, notes that there are many ways to structure meaning and that meaning is rooted in individual experience.

In a constructivist lesson, the teacher’s role changes from the traditional giver of knowledge to a facilitator or coach who provides authentic activities (e.g., simulations, apprenticeships, and other experiences in actual, real-world contexts) and to one who shares with students in the process of evaluating and critically reflecting on what learning is taking place.

As students achieve greater skill in determining real-world relevance and envision the use of information from secondary sources such as, databases and online library research, then less emphasis needs to be placed on using only firsthand learning activities.

Teachers should be aware that individual experience is embedded in the shared values, attitudes, and beliefs of a particular group culture (Boyer, 1987). For example, people belong to ethnic groups, religious groups, specific working groups, or combinations of these which influence their responses to life experiences (e.g., actions, beliefs, and feelings). The group culture creates a pervasive taken-for-granted world view for individuals within the group. Because schools have been immersed in objectivism, there has been a lack of transfer of learning to the world outside of the classroom and a de-contextualizing of learning. In constructivism, learning outcomes focus on students learning the process of knowledge construction and becoming metacognitively aware of that process. Their learning is embedded in a context that is relevant to their everyday lives, a context which they are personally involved in constructing and reflecting upon.


This article emphasizes that educational technology seems ideally suited for reinforcing constructivist theories in learning. Constructivist approaches used in the classroom with these newer technologies, allow students to actively create through a diversity of media (e.g., video, graphics, and audio) to achieve constructivist goals. Sample lessons in the pull-out feature of this issue illustrate the use of interactive video, CD-ROMs, and online services. Individual experience is embedded in particular shared cultural values, attitudes, beliefs. Therefore, it is significant that students examine and reflect upon their own group culture and how their culture influences their experiences and the construction of knowledge.

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Boyer, B. A. (1987). Cultural literacy in art: Developing conscious aesthetic choices in art education. In D. Blandy, & K. G. Congdon (Eds.), Art in a democracy (pp.91-105). New York: Teachers College Press.
Duffy, T. M., & Jonassen, D. H. (Eds.). (1992). Constructivism and the technology of instruction. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.
Honebein, P. C., Duffy, T. M., & Fishman, B. J. (1994). Constructivism and the design of learning environments: Context and authentic activities for learning. Paper presented at the 1994 Annual Conference for the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), Nashville, TN. To appear in Duffy, T. M., Lowyck, J., & Jonassen, D. (Eds.), Designing environments for constructive learning. Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 1993.
Jonassen, D. H. (1991). Evaluating constructivistic learning. Educational Technology 31(9), 28-33.
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). (1989). Curriculum and evaluation standards for school mathematics. Reston, VA.
Science Curriculum Framework
& Criteria Committee. (1990). Science framework. Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education.
Semrau, P., & Boyer, B. A. (1994). Using interactive video in education. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
About the Authors
Dr. Penelope Semrau is Professor and Coordinator of the Instructional Technology program, School of Education, California State University, Los Angeles. Prior to teaching at Cal State LA, Dr. Semrau worked in industry in software development and taught in the
public schools. Dr. Semrau and
Dr. Boyer co-authored Using Interactive Video in Education (1994) published by Allyn & Bacon.

Dr. Barbara A. Boyer is Chair of the Art Department and Professor of Art Education at California State University, Los Angeles. Prior to teaching at the university level, Dr. Boyer was an assistant principal at the high school level and a county curriculum consultant for elementary and middle schools.