Constructivist Science


by Christa Flores -

In response to a literal call for #HELP on Twitter, I pulled together three blogs from various resources. This is blog 2 of 3 to construct my own knowledge on the topics of making in schools and the two learning theories constructivism and constructionism. 

Constructivist Science

The idea that each individual should learn through direct experience rather than direct instruction is one so obvious to real scientists that the Latin phrase Nullius in Verba, which translates to 'take nobody's word for it' was adopted in 1660 as the official motto of The Royal Society of London. According to The Royal Society's website, the motto was adopted as “an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.” A scientist is a constructivist by nature and profession.

In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s an educational reformer was working with children right around the same time that “science” was being revolutionized in Victorian England by such icons as Faraday, the Herschel family, and Darwin. Having read Rousseau's  Émile (1800), a book about education which looked at Christianity critically and was later burned publicly, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) affirmed “that teachers and parents never should teach children anything they could learn or experience naturally.” Handed the care of war orphans on January 14, 1799 to educate, Pestalozzi would often say, "learning by head, hand and heart" which related to his use of hands on learning and manufacturing of real world objects by children, as a form of education and a pathway out of poverty. Pestalozzi was a constructivist and a constructionist.


I went gladly, for I hoped to offer these innocent little ones some compensation for the loss they had sustained, and to find in their wretchedness a basis for their gratitude. In my zeal to put my hands to the task which had been the great dream of my life, I should have been ready to begin even in the highest Alps and without fire and water, so to speak, had I only been allowed.

— Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi


Born in 1870, one of the first scientists to focus studies on how children develop cognitively was Italian physician and curriculum designer, Maria Montessori. As early as 1901 Dr. Montessori was advocating for the use of the scientific method to inform curriculum design. Dr. Montessori began her groundbreaking work in the 1910’s on what is now known as the Montessori method, or one of our first modern models of self-directed learning or constructivism.

As a result of the push for standardization during the industrial era, new ways of thinking about learning and consuming were growing up into areas as wide as the Bauhaus school of art and architecture (1919-1933) to the Arts and Crafts movement, to the works of American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey. Himself influenced by Rousseau and Plato, Dewey would advocate for the role of education in protecting democracy in such works as Democracy and Education (1916). Even though they were describing the idea of constructivism the term would not be coined until Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) would study young children, beginning with his own. Piaget noticed that children construct an understanding of their world via sensorimotor interactions with their environment. Piaget was highly influenced by Dr. Montessori as well as the Montessori method.

Piaget used the terms assimilation and accommodation to explain the twin processes of constructing new knowledge or understanding. Assimilation happens when the input children take in from their environment becomes part of their schema, or tool box of knowledge. As a facilitator of making in science, I witness learners practice Piaget’s accommodation and assimilation in the act of making, fixing, and deconstructing artifacts. When given the time and materials to explore and test without overt adult instruction, the learner is practicing “constructive autonomy.” Even a self-directed learner may get stuck and need a mentor. Thankfully Lev Vygotsky's theory of “social constructivism” as well as “zone of proximal development” offers a new mode for assessing and encouraging constructivism. Vygotsky developed his learning theories around the same time an engineer at MIT was also tinkering with his mentor’s theories.

When using a constructivist approach to learning, students are in a constant state of ‘it reminds me of’ while they make sense of the world. This allows new knowledge to “rest” on a fertile foundation of some kind. Piaget called this fertile ground for new learning a person’s schema. If a new idea is incorporated into a learner's schema, this is called cognitive development, or learning. For anyone to learn complex models and abstract ideas in science, there must first be fertile foundations to latch onto these new models. If fertile ground is absent the new idea may be ignored or rejected outright. Science and technology that can not be assimilated would have the effect of being “magic” to a person not ready to assimilate new ideas. Take for instance how popular science fiction is as a temporary break from our boring old schemas.

Thanks to the innovative work of one of Piaget’s proteges, also the developer of the first computer programming language for children, we would be introduced to a new learning theory which would also apply constructivism in the classroom, and it would be called constructionism. Next, how constructionism gives us the most useful mode for practicing constructivism in school.


  1. Green, John Alfred (1905), The Educational Ideas of Pestalozzi, WB Clive.

  2. Lillard, A. S. (2005). Montessori: The science behind the genius. Oxford University Press, USA.

  3. Pulaski, M. A. S. (1971). Understanding Piaget: an introduction to children's cognitive development. New York: Harper & Row.

  4. Soëtard, M. (1994). Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education, 24(1-2).

  5. Vygotsky, L. (1987). Zone of proximal development. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes, 5291.