Constructivism in Instructional Design


            Jerome Bruner’s framework for constructivism highlights how learners better understand what they are learning when they are active participants.  Learners should be guided through hands on, real-world exploration to build new concepts.   By using spiral review and background knowledge, learners draw conclusions on their own.  Instructors are simply guiding students to keep them on track and offer support along the way.  Jerome Bruner developed the Discovery Learning Model to help designers develop curriculum to support his theory.  It is a way for lessons to be planned to ensure students are leaders of their own knowledge acquisition.

            When planning lessons to promote constructivism, it is important to focus on metacognition and individualized learning.  Students should be taught the importance of thinking of their thinking as well as given opportunities to practice it.  Constructivism requires students to use their background knowledge and new information to work through problems on their own.  This requires the lesson to be tailored to their individual needs.  By having students use metacognition to understand what they already know and want to know, teachers can use that information to create learning groups and guides for students.  This will allow students to work with peers who have the same original understanding and give them someone to bounce ideas off.   When students are provided with material designed for them, they will be able to comfortably move through the learning process without becoming overwhelmed.  

Jerome Bruner

The life and work of Jerome Bruner:

            Jerome Bruner is the theorist of the framework of constructivism.  He was born in New York City in 1915.  Jerome attended college at Duke University and Harvard where he earned his PhD.   Afterwards he worked as a professor of psychology and was a co-founder of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard.   His focus studies were on the ways mental sets influenced a person’s perception and how it relates to education.   

            In 1960, he studied a theory of cognitive growth.  He felt a person’s intellectual ability was developed through phases and changes of how understanding is applied.  That same year he wrote “The Process of Education.”  This was considered a revolutionary text and he was surprised since it was not in line with the dominate view.  It explored the “view of children as active problem-solvers who are ready to explore ‘difficult’ subjects” (Smith, 2002).  The book developed four important themes: structure, readiness, thinking, and motives.  

            As time progressed, Bruner began to focus on the cognitive revolution.   This led him to write another important book Metacognition is the idea of thinking about your thinking.  It helps to show why varying ages of students handle tasks in a variety of ways.  This concept highlights the importance of understanding why we think what we think.   It gives an awareness of the learning process.  The older a student is the more they can explain what they are thinking and why.   This gives students an awareness of how they learn, so they can be active participants during the process.  

            Jerome Bruner passed away in 2016.  He was an integral part of the cognitive revolution.  He wrote many books and articles that helped shape the way we look at education.  Howard Garner regarded him as “not merely one of the foremost education thinkers of the era; he is also an inspired leaner and teacher” (Smith, 2002).  His studies shed light on the belief that knowledge can be acquired at any age anywhere.  

Application to 21st Century learning and teaching

Using Constructivism with Individualized learning and Metacognition

            When using metacognition in the 21st century with elementary students, teachers must provide time for students to have discussions.  To promote students thinking about their thinking, discussions must be embedded throughout learning.  Before beginning the lesson, students must communicate their background knowledge and desired learning outcome.  This can be done by having students answer three questions:  What do I already know? What do I want to know? At the end, they should revisit by answering what did I learn?  

            The second activity teachers can provide to allow time to use metacognition is to have students explain why they learned what they did to peers.  They can also explain what they might do differently if they were to do it all over again.  This kind of conversation forces students to think deeply and listen to other ways students answered the same problem.  Both activities can be done using virtual chat rooms or video conferencing.   

            Individualized learning states that learning experiences should be designed to suit the needs of the learner.  This is important to maintain the theory of constructivism because learning happens when students use their prior knowledge to search for an answer using new information.   Without individualized learning this would be impossible.  In order to reach 21st century learners, this can be used as a learning strategy.  First, take the information shared from the metacognition discussion questions.   This would allow the instructor to assign student groups to fit their specific needs.   Then, create a guide specific to their needs.  The question would be the same for all students, but the starting points and resources may look different. Instructors should provide more scaffolding to students who need it, or extra motivation.  

My Personal Philosophy

Leanne Budwick 

            I subscribe to they theory of eclectic design. According to Honebein and Sink, “Eclectic instructional design is the process whereby a designer blends ideas from multiple learning theories to construct a learning experience that works better than a course designed from only one theoretical influence” (Honebein & Sink, 2012).   

            Just as all students are different, all lessons are different.  Having a strong understanding of many learning theories allows designers to tailor pick the theory or theories that best suit the lesson and learners.  

            I find myself drawn to the constructivist theory.  I would consider this my primary influence.  Students learn better when they struggle and arrive at their own conclusion.  However, this is not always the best method.  To enhance the learning experience and outcomes, I would include a blend of theories with a base of constructivism.

Central Premise 

            Jerome Bruner believed “that learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge” (Constructivist theory, 2020).  The theory is a general guide for instructors to push learners and help them build new concepts founded on their prior knowledge.  His theory has ties to child development.  The idea is to build on prior knowledge in a spiral to propel students forward.  The instructor is merely a guide there to ensure students are prepared for the task, sequence the lesson, and encourage students during the learning process.   

            “A major theme observed through Jerome Bruner’s studies is that, as cognitive growth occurs, students move through three stages of learning: inactive, iconic, and symbolic” (Clabaugh, 2010). During these stages, learners move from playing with materials to using abstract concepts to create their own understanding.  Teachers must provide scaffolding to help students as they work through the learning process.  With this support, they can ultimately learn independently.  

            Background knowledge is what helps students form their understanding of the world.  Teachers should recognize misconceptions and provide experiences to counter these and reflect upon them.  Building upon prior knowledge gives the learner opportunities to learn beyond information given to them.  Bruner understood learning as an active process and learners must use their previous understandings to build new ideas.  It is important for children to participate in their learning and understand that mistakes are part of the process.  Anyone can learn when they apply what they know to help complete a new task in order to understand new material.  

            For students to truly learn, they must be active participants during the learning process.  Students should be provided with problems that can be solved different ways.  They should also be allowed to struggle.  To gain students’ participation, instructors should provide relevance for the lesson.  Real world problems are important to allow students to gain a deeper understanding and transfer their knowledge into other areas.  Learning happens in and out of the classroom.

            Another important part of the learning process is students defending their answers.  When they can reasonably defend their choices, they are able to show their understanding.  Listening to other students gives them an alternate view deepening the understanding that there is more than one solution.  


            To truly see if students are learning, they must be assessed.  By using formative and summative assessment you can modify instruction as needed to keep students progressing forward.  They may also be formal or informal depending on what is being assessed.

            Formative assessments should be given often. These can be short or observational such as a discussion post, short activity, or survey. Consider a discussion post, students can be provided discussion prompts periodically throughout a learning unit. This nor only helps them dig deeper and discuss their learning with their peers, but also allows the educator to see how they are progressing.  

            Summative assessments are given at the end of a lesson or unit.  Consider assessments that allow students to demonstrate their understanding of real-world knowledge such as a final project, or report. The assessment should match the desired outcome.  It should also align with student needs. This is important to provide accurate data  of what students can and can not do.  A rubric is especially helpful as it can be used to grade different aspects of student learning.  



            Jerome Brunner developed a framework of constructivism as well as the Discovery Learning Model.  When used together, designers can plan student guided learning activities. Teachers guide students through using their background knowledge to answer questions leading them to acquire new knowledge.  He felt when students find information on their own, the rate of retention is higher.  Real-world activities and Individualized Learning enhance student motivation.   Providing discussions for students to use metacognition better helps them understand why they think the way they do.   It also gives them the chance to understand their peers thinking and why it is still current while being different from theirs.  Learning is facilitated through well designed inquiry-based lessons.  This type of learning in the classroom helps students better understand the learning done outside of the classroom.

            A one size fits all approach does not work. Learning happens when we tailor fit instruction to meet the needs of individual learners.  As Mergel stated, “Depending on the learners and situation, different learning theories may apply” (Mergel, 1998).  With a foundation in constructivism, addition of learning strategies can be added in as needed to move learning forward.   Instructional design is important to me because all learners deserve a good lesson. Learning should be enjoyable.  It should be an experience that helps move them forward in the real-world.   Instructors should be excited to implement a new lesson and they should learn from it as well.   I believe with a design created with the learner in mind, lessons can be created that are fun and engaging.  Success is obtained when learners are eager to learn more.  When instructors and teachers have grown from the lesson.  When everyone involved is happy and has shown growth, then I will know I have found true success.

Theoretical Concepts

Individualized Learning:

            Individualized learning is a concept in which learners work at a pace that is best suited for their specific needs.  This is most seen in Individual Education Plans.  A team comes together to design student learning goals based on their unique disabilities.  This concept is also used in online settings.  This allows students to progress through a lesson at their own pace.   Students will ultimately have the same learning experience but at their own pace.  


            Metacognition is the idea of thinking about your thinking.  It helps to show why varying ages of students handle tasks in a variety of ways.  This concept highlights the importance of understanding why we think what we think.   It gives an awareness of the learning process.  The older a student is the more they can explain what they are thinking and why.   This gives students an awareness of how they learn, so they can be active participants during the process.  

Discovery Learning Model


            Jerome Bruner developed the Discovery Learning Model in 1961.  It provides a way to provide inquiry-based instruction.  The model has five principles: Problem solving, learner management, integrating and connecting, information analysis and interpretation, failure and feedback (Pappas, 2014). Lessons must be designed well, provide hands on opportunities, and provide experiences for students.  The overall goal is to help students reach the learning goal on their own.  When students struggle, make mistakes, and persevere through, they are more likely to retain new knowledge.  The learning experience should provide structure and “serve as an extension of the constructivism theory, which focuses on leaner centric experiences” (Pappas, 2014).

            The five principles should be followed when using Discovery Learning to ensure it is successful.  Teachers must guide and encourage learners to search for answers using what they already know and new information.  Students should either work alone or in a group.  They must be able to work at rate that is best for them to relieve any stress and help them feel in control of the process.  Teachers help students use their prior and new knowledge to make connections to the real world.  This learning model is process based and learners interpret information.  It also places an emphasis on failures being an important part of the learning process.  Teachers provide feedback along the way to progress students in the correct direction and help them think about their thinking.  

            When designing with Discovery Learning, instructors should focus on five tips as indicated in figure 1.  To plan for an effective course, designers should provide small amount of information over time.  A strong framework is necessary to keep students from going off track. Instructors should be available to support students as needed.  Content should not have strict time limits.  It takes time for students to explore and discover answers on their own.  Discussion is important to help inspire meaning.  Once the lesson is complete, students should discuss the results with peers.   This time for metacognition allows them to recognize their process and behaviors.  


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