The Big Three … Constructivism, Constructionism and Connectivism

The Big Three … Constructivism, Constructionism and Connectivism

These three theories have had a profound effect on Education and will continue to do so long into the 21st Century. They are learner focused and provide timeless concepts and understandings about the nature of learning and learners.

Constructivism and Constructionism

This is based on the work of Ackermann who in 2004 set about writing a paper on how the ideas and theories of the three great constructivist theorists, Piaget, Vygotsky and Papert are similar, different and how each one’s views has impacted on the world of education and will continue to do so.

Piaget captured what was common in children’s ways of thinking at different developmental stages and described how this commonality evolved over time. The following are the main ideas gathered from Piaget that are relevant to educators as we move onwards into the 21st Century.

1. A teacher should never direct a child because the child hears and interprets in terms of their individual knowledge and experience and they make it fit their level of understanding. Teachers have no control over this. Whether teachers like it or not learning does not occur as a result of teaching.

2. Knowledge is experience that is deliberately constructed through interactions with the world (people and things). Knowledge is not information—and knowledge construction is not information processing.

3. A good teacher is one who encourages learners to explore, express, exchange and finally expand— their views, from within. Piaget realized children need exceptionally good reasons to abandon their major worldviews, they cannot be moved easily.

Vygotsky  added another dimension to constructivism. He believed people learn, prosper and develop relative to others. Vygotsky’s theory stressed the positive impact nurturing and well-informed adults have on a child’s growing mind. He saw the child’s intellectual development as a constructive process. His socio-constructivist theory aligns with the theories of Piaget and Papert.

Vygotsky’s theory of cultural appropriation is similar to Piaget’s concept that children learn through relating to people and things. The main point of difference between the two theorists is that Vygotsky places emphasis on the way in which the presence of an adult or peer with greater expertise can “speed up” and enhance a child’s self-directed learning.

The zone of proximal development is a key concept developed by Vygotsky and is designed to inform educators/adults as to “how far” they can push the envelope of what is known, when helping others. It is social interaction that facilitates how learners best use the psychological tools available to them.

To Vygotsky, inter-personal relations are the precursors, and provide the necessary conditions for the emergence of individual/intra-mental processes. Learners share their experience with others before they master and understand them for themselves. Their development proceeds from socio-centric to egocentric. (Vygotsky, 1978,57).

More than Piaget and Papert, Vygotsky stresses the role of adults as teachers, and cultural artifacts as teaching tools.

Papert used what Piaget learned about children to form the foundation for his rethinking education for the digital age. Constructionism shares the understandings of the Constructivist and then adds “the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe”              ( Papert, 1991, p.1).

Externalizing thoughts and ideas is as important to Papert as internalizing actions. To express ideas is to give them shape and form. By sharing ideas they are further shaped and sharpened by others. Papert’s focus was on learning through designing and making. Constructionism elucidates how ideas are formed and transformed as they are expressed through different media, actualized in certain contexts and explored by individuals.

Papert may well believe abstract or formal thinking to be a powerful tool but he does not believe it is appropriate in all situations. He believes connectedness is a powerful way of increasing understanding. Being at one with the phenomenon under study is significant to the learning.


George Siemens (2004) coined the term ‘Connectivism’ to describe learning networks. Stephen Downes has worked closely with Siemen on this theory and has recently published a 600 page ebook, Connectivism.

Connectivism(2012) espouses the view that “knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks”. To understand connectivism one needs to understand what constitututes networks.

In Downes (2012) work he identifies three major areas that comprise network theory. They are “knowledge, learning and community”.

1. Knowledge considers the cognitive properties of networks. In humans, this knowledge resides in connections between neurons. Connections between humans and their artifacts are societal knowledge. Network knowledge exists as a result of pattern recognition evolving in a network of connections and interactions.

2. Learning is the search for ways in which networks learn. Learning is the making and elimination of relationships between the connections, or altering the strengths of those connections. A learning theory describes how connections are established or regulated. Downes (2012) believes there are probably infinite combinations of ways to learn and for any given person they are extremely complex.

3. Community considers the properties of effective networks.  The concept of community defines the conditions needed for effective networks. Networks are effective if they can learn, adjust and avoid torpor.

Education is often depicted as ‘making meaning’. What is known and what is learned is developed and distributed across the network. The patterns and regularities in the network – not the descriptions of the patterns, but the patterns themselves, including patterns developed as a result of creation of images, videos and cartoons.

The Industrial Model of education relied upon conformity and knowledge acquisition. In a 21st Century learning community there is no place for conformity. The qualities of creativity and expression are more highly regarded and it is the cooperation of autonomous and diverse individuals within communities that helps them function most effectively, not the collaboration or cohesion required of an Industrial Age community.

Connectivism as a theory explicitly rejects the idea of a body of content that must be acquired or remembered; “to learn in a connectivist course is to grow and develop, to form a network of connections in one’s own self.  Connectivist learning is a process of immersion in an environment, discovery and communication – a process of pattern recognition rather than hypothesis and theory-formation”(Downes, 2012).

The three theories of learning have in common the understanding that the transfer of knowledge from teacher to a learner is no longer relevant. They all see learning as an active process with the product being the learner focusing on being creative, making, developing ideas that are relevant to their world and reflecting upon their activity in an authentic relevant environment.


Ackermann, E . (2004) “Constructing Knowledge and transforming the World” in M. Tokoro and L.Steels  (Eds.). A learning zone of one’s own: Sharing representations and flow in collaborative learning environments,Washington, DC. IOS Press, Part 1. Chapt 2. pp. 15-37.

Downes, S. (2012) Connectivism access ebook at

Siemens, G. (2004) Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. elearnspace (weblog). December 12, 2004.

Papert, S. (1991). New York: Basic books. Mindstorms. Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas.

Piaget, J. (1962) Play, Dreams, and Imitation in Childhood. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Tokoro, M. and Steels, L. (2004) (Eds.). A learning zone of one’s own: Sharing representations and flow in collaborative learning environments Washington, DC. IOS Press.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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