Constructivism is a classic learning theory, along with behaviorism and cognitivism. While behaviorists seek to find connections between stimuli and behavior, and cognitivists try to understand how people understand things, the constructivist approach to learning focuses on how people internalize or reject what they learn. Constructivists believe that when individuals are presented with new information, they will either assimilate or accommodate it.

Carrots aren’t only orange

Here is an example: At a party your host sets out a tray of crudité with a rainbow of bell peppers, tomatoes, and carrot sticks. You see things shaped like carrot sticks, but some are purple and red. You decide to be courageous and try a purple one. It tastes just like an orange carrot. You try a red one. It also tastes like an orange carrot. At this point you can either assimilate or accommodate.

If you assimilate the information, you might decide that vegetables exist that look and taste like carrots, but are red or purple. Your understanding of a carrot is that it is orange, and that understanding doesn’t change. You simply assimilate this new understanding that there are strange vegetables with the same taste and texture of a carrot that are not carrots. You could also assimilate the information by deciding that the host dyed orange carrots red or purple to jazz up the veggie tray. You’ve reimagined reality to fit these red and purple vegetables into your understanding of a carrot. Either way, you’ve taken the new information and pressed it into your ingrained view of the world.

The other way you might handle the new information is to accommodate by expanding your understanding of a carrot. No longer is your definition limited to “orange, crunchy root vegetable,” but it’s revised to “crunchy root vegetable that is commonly orange, but can be red or purple as well.”

The challenge of engaging adult learners

Babies and very young children repeatedly go through the assimilation/accommodation process because they’re constantly faced with new things. Adults, however, are often entrenched in familiar ways of doing things. That’s why a lot of training doesn’t work—it doesn’t encourage the expansion of their understanding to accommodate new information and new ways of doing things.

What is needed is something specifically targeted to individual situations; something immediately actionable, social, and engaging. Enter constructivism.

The constructivist approach to learning

The constructivist approach to learning is built on the premise that knowledge is constructed through experiences and interactions with others. Constructivist-based training uses activities that encourage accommodation, such as social learning and hands-on activities. Both offer opportunities to challenge preconceived notions and ways of doing things.

Scenario-based activities can also challenge preconceived notions if:

  • They are realistic to the learner’s work experience;
  • They show the realistic consequences of correct and incorrect actions;
  • They allow the learner to fail and learn from the failure.

Scenario-based activities enable learners to enter situations and figure out how to solve issues. It’s a safe way to allow them to practice without damaging systems or customer relationships, as they make and learn from mistakes.

The most important feature of any activity in a constructivist-based course is that the experience is learner-driven. The instructor does not provide knowledge. She or he facilitates opportunities for learners to discover and build knowledge themselves. Their definition of a carrot expands!

Think about how this differs from the typical online adult learning experience. In those cases, learners are presented with slide after slide of content they are expected to absorb. The instructor is the narrator or person who assembled the slides. At the conclusion, the learner is tested. They may cling to the belief that carrots are only orange, but learning is assumed if they achieve a passing score.

In constructivism-based courses, learners are exposed to situations they would commonly face on the job. Learners might have opportunities to work with others to find solutions to the issues, or they might practice solutions via scenario-based or hands-on activities. The consequences of their actions provide feedback they can use to determine what changes are necessary, and how they need to shift their original beliefs or methods. The instructor presents the scenario and helps the learner craft it into a relevant situation; answering questions and coaching the learner through failed solutions. Learning is demonstrated because a working solution is found.

Effective eLearning courses feature a good level of interactivity—click-to-reveal interactions, drag-and-drop activities, and scenario-based quiz questions. But even with that level of interactivity, the engagement doesn’t compare to crafting the solution to an issue that is directly relevant to one’s work experience.

Constructivism in action

Gillespie Nimble New Manager JumpStart can help new and seasoned managers improve communication, time management, and meeting-management skills. The program was designed using a constructivist approach. Here are some examples:

  • Communication activity: Participants are asked to evaluate their communication styles; identifying strengths and weaknesses based upon what they have heard from others and experienced themselves. Using one-on-one phone interactions and group web conferences, participants explore solutions to improve areas of weakness. Those who are strong in a particular area (for example, direct communication) provide suggestions and best practices to others.
  • Time-management activity: Each participant spends a week tracking interruptions to determine if there is a common cause. The group works together to develop solutions to eliminate or minimize the majority of each person’s interruptions. The participants apply and revise the solutions over the course of the learning experience, reporting weekly on progress.
  • Meeting-management activity: Participants evaluate their team meetings to identify problematic dynamics. They then apply strategies to make the meetings more effective and efficient. The group evaluates failures and successes to determine next steps.


Modern adult learners have limited time for professional development. The Bersin by Deloitte Research Bulletin Meet the Modern Learner: Engaging the Overwhelmed, Distracted, and Impatient Employee states that modern learners have only about one percent of a typical work week to focus on training and development. If they have to spend that time clicking “next” through a typical online learning experience, it’s going to feel like a waste of time and they will not learn.

Constructivist activities are learner-driven so they’re engaging, immediately actionable, and relevant. The constructivist approach to learning can give your learners and your organization a bigger bang for your buck.