Educational theories you must know: Constructivism and Socio-constructivism.

Constructivism is a theory that says that we construct our knowledge on the basis of what we already know.

When we encounter something new in the world we construct our understanding of it based on our past experiences and knowledge. In other words we rarely if ever start from nothing. Everything we experience is reconciled with our past knowledge and experience and we interpret the new in relation to the old. Our new knowledge is formed by how the new ideas interact with our past experiences.

In medical education we are constantly in a state of experiencing new information and our approach to knowledge should be to assess it in respect to what has gone before. As learners we meet information that either reinforces or contradicts our past knowledge. Information that reinforces and upholds a prior belief is assimilated into our belief systems whereas information that contradicts has to be accommodated in some form. That may be by reframing beliefs, or commonly by being devalued and/or ignored. #LP It takes more effort to move a firmly held belief.

As medical educators this is important as we need to understand that learners will assimilate new knowledge on the basis of what they already know. We also need to understand that it is harder to shift an established belief as opposed to a relatively shaky one. Think of your learners beliefs as buildings, a belief made of straw is going to require much less effort to shift than one made of concrete.

Constructivism also tells us that learners create their own knowledge. Educators can present the information and experiences to learners, but at a personal level it is the learner who assimilates, accomodates and ultimately constructs their own knowledge and beliefs. #LP Learners construct their own knowledge and it probably won’t be exactly the same as yours.

Social Constructivism has particular relevance to #FOAMed and other social media. Social constructivism argues that we construct our knowledge first in a social context and later by internal construction. We see this in online discussion as well as interactions within the work place and face to face teaching sessions. Learners and educators participate in interactions which compare each others versions of the truth. I see this in online learning but also in more traditional settings although more commonly in those involving higher level trainees. Culturally the social constructivist model requires a flattening of hierachies if all participants are to be equally involved. #LP A teacher in Constructivism facilitates and does not dictate.

The ideas of constructivism shape our roles as teacher. Our roles become less didactic and more aiding the learner in constructing their own new knowledge through discussion, argument and interaction. Although never designed as a teaching strategy, rather as a theory of knowledge, constructivism is highly influential in medical education as we can see it in strategies such as problem based learning.

Why Social Constructivism matters.

Social Constructivism tells us that learners generate their own knowledge. The role of the educator is to help them do that. #LP You can’t make other people think like you, but you can help them construct their own beliefs.

Further reading



Problem Based learning

More in this series

  1. Maslow’s hierachy of learning needs.
  2. Constructivism and socio-constructivism
  3. Lave and Wenger’s communities of practice
  4. Spaced repetition
  5. Miller’s assessment pyramid
  6. Bloom’s taxonomy
  7. Mastery, improvement and deliberate practice
  8. Kolb’s learning cycle
  9. Lewis change model

Before you go please don’t forget to…

Cite this article as: Simon Carley, "Educational theories you must know: Constructivism and Socio-constructivism.," in St.Emlyn's, November 4, 2015,

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