Lighting fires, not filling buckets – constructivism in the 21st century

I should never be able to fulfill what is, I understand, the first duty of a lecturer – to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece for ever …. [W]hen a subject is highly controversial … one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker. Virginia Woolf

Constructivism in the 21st century – what is it and am I doing it?

lightning strike at sea

Anyone with an interest in using technology to enhance learning will constantly hear the term “constructivist” bandied about. I thought that I’d attempt to articulate my own understanding of constructivism and reflect on how I (attempt) to apply it in the classroom. In the past year, I have used wikis and blogs with my classes with varying success. I decided to incorporate these tools to help students be co-creators of knowledge and to facilitate team work, critical thinking and multi-modal literacy skills. An interesting aspect I discovered is that it often it is not only teachers who are attached to teacher-centred learning, so are students. Many students would prefer you to be the “sage on the stage”; to stand up the front and tell them “the” answer because this is easier – learning to think for yourself is hard work.

So, what is constructivism?

Constructivism represents a paradigmatic shift from learning based on a teacher-centric, largely passive, instructional approach (known as behaviourism) to student-centred, active, collaborative learning based on “guided and, increasingly, independent investigation of questions and problems for which there is no single answer.”
Constructivism is, in some ways, a reaction to behaviourist epistemology, which is based on the idea that students’ brains are like empty buckets, which teachers fill up with “objective” knowledge (apologies to WB Yeats). According to Elizabeth Murphy, behaviourism is closely tied to objectivism, a belief in the existence of reliable knowledge. As learners, the goal is to gain this knowledge; as educators, to transmit it.

In contrast, a constructivist approach is based on the idea that learners construct their own knowledge on the basis of interaction with their environment. Social constructivists emphasize that knowledge is constructed through collaboration and social interaction. Sometimes called “active” learning, a constructivist approach “provides opportunities for students to talk and listen, read, write, and reflect as they approach course content through problem-solving exercises, informal small groups, simulations, case studies, role playing, and other activities–all of which require students to apply what they are learning.”

What is student-centred learning?

The following contrasts a traditional, teacher-centered, “chalk and talk” approach with a constructivist approach. The constructivist approach shifts much more of the focus and responsibility for learning to the student.


In “Using the Web to Support Inquiry-Based Language Learning”, Bruce and Bishop summarize the key differences between traditional didactic and constructivist approaches; [old on the left, new on the right.]
* Solve problems vs ask, formulate, find new problems
* Remember the textbook vs Investigate using multiple sources/media
* Follow directions vs create, engage actively in learning
* Work alone vs discuss, analyze, and collaborate; evaluate diverse views
* “Cover” the curriculum vs reflect, evaluate, learn how to learn

So, am I doing this?


Download Video: Posted by cinbarnsley at
My Year 10 English class has just completed a “War and Protest” Unit. We explored persuasive language techniques, various purposes of protest texts and analysed the efficacy of verbal and visual techniques. Last year, the assessment for this required students to “Present 3 to 5 minute oral using power point on a protest text of your own choosing. Write a 300 word reflection of one other presentation. Compare it to your own work.”
The thought of sitting through another 25 PowerPoints made me shudder. I also thought that it would be a more authentic task if students had the opportunity to create their own protest text, which addressed: “What is the most pressing problem in the world today? What can we do about it?” Students had the choice of presenting their text as either a podcast or video, which we would view and discuss and then publish on our class blog, hopefully for others to view and comment on.
Their digital protest texts are fantastic and cover a diverse range of topics from poverty, youth suicide, racism, stereotyping, war, nationalism, the use of fossil fuels, the blood diamond trade and genocide.


terrorism-title.jpgMy history class recently created a wiki on the causes of international terrorism. Students worked in small groups and each chose a particular terrorist group to research with the aim of creating our own terrorism “wikipedia”. Students had to develop the parameters of their research by following these guidelines:

In your research Wiki you should:
• develop five to six questions to direct your research
• consult at least five different primary sources of information
• construct report-style notes (with heading, subheadings and paragraphs) in the wiki explaining the key features and issues
• organise your notes and visuals into a logical sequence to answer the questions you have posed, within the word limit allocated (2000 words)
• use visual aids to help illustrate the issues (Visual aids may include: maps, photographs, graphs, video, diagrams, timelines).
• compile a bibliography of the references you have used

Students became the “experts” on their particular group and presented their findings in the wiki as well as to the group in an oral presentation so they could answer questions about their research. We also had an university lecturer, who specialises in terrorism and law come in and discuss the complexitities of categorising terrorist groups. We could have used a textbook with a more neatly defined parameters or I could have delivered lectures on each group and had them recall the information but I wanted students to dive into this vast pool of information, come out with their own interpretation and debate and justify their findings.

The “results” of this approach are difficult to quantify. Students completed reflective tasks following the presentations and their responses, while anecdotal, reveal that their engagement with the material was high. They had a solid understanding of a range of abstract concepts and made insightful connections between the past and present. They believed that using a wiki enhanced their learning and that they could use these skills in different contexts. But will this bear out in exam results? Does this matter? It worried me that some students’ grasp of content – key terms, events and dates – was weaker than I thought it would be. I don’t know how significant this is. Is the process more important than the memorising the content or are they equally important? I’m taking heart from more experienced teachers than I, like David Warlick, who wrote in a recent post that: “I continue to maintain that when we can not clearly predict our children’s future, it becomes much less important what they are learning, and much more important how they are learning it, and what they are doing with it.”

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire. W.B. Yeats

Sources: Constructivist Learning Design

4 thoughts on “Lighting fires, not filling buckets – constructivism in the 21st century

  1. Nice, nice, very nice post, Cindy.

    Wow, we were on the same page with the multimedia project. I assigned a “Yahoo Project” after a satire unit, and threw out the traditional literary analysis for a pbl assessment instead. Strangely enough, I’m in the middle of blogging about that as I pause to visit your blog.

    Your blog is awesome, by the way. You’re quite a writer.

  2. PS. Mind if I ask why you don’t link to the sites hosting these projects? I’d like to browse.

    And there’s a definite opening here for flat classroom work on this contemporary world problems project.

  3., by the way, if you want to compare too.

    Speaking of the weakness in content learning you worry about here, don’t you wish you had clone classes so you could run a control group to determine if the traditional end-of-unit test would have produced any better results along those lines?

    And there’s always post-assessment clarification for things like that. I’m with you on the main point – especially since we all forget 95% of our high school content within a decade, I’d wager. I know I did.

  4. When we teach and learn around the big ideas, such as the roots and causes of poverty,and how this may impact one’s life, we then have the opportunity to get beyond the mundane parts of school learning, so that we will still remember this important ideas a decade later.

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