Constructivism Today: How Should Students Learn?

nürnberger-trichterOur schools: Same old, same old

The most commonly voiced out critique against traditional rote learning is that it doesn’t deliver what it promises, this is that acquired knowledge fades fast and students start to forget mental content shortly after their exams. In this model, learning serves to achieve a good grade by internalising syllabus material as fast as possible, forgetting it as fast as possible and to move on to the next short-term goal. But even if students would fully remember the knowledge that they were presented in class, they could do very little with it – perhaps with the exception of impressing their peers in TV game shows and quizzes that test for the recall of isolated facts. Knowledge acquired by rote learning is internalised passively. It is neither actively acquired by the learner, which would entail intrinsic motivation, nor applied within a real-world (and not merely academic-hypothetical) context.

Above: Traditional German illustration of the ‘Nürnberger Trichter’ (‘The Funnel of Nürnberg’). The writing says ‘First dumb and stupid, now clever as Goethe, all of which has been achieved by the funnel’s power’.

How about intelligence?

According to Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence (Sternberg, 1985), the mere recall and modulation of fixed content circumvents various forms of intelligence, which are analytic intelligence (the ability to apply new knowledge to solve real-world problems), creative intelligence (the ability to create innovative and novel ways to solve problems and to design systems) and practical intelligence (the ability to make internal changes to adapt to new environmental conditions). As a result, students in traditional schools learn hard but remain incompetent. What is measured in most schools and colleges are not aspects of intelligence, but the individual ability to endure stress and anxiety, the level of supportive upbringing provided by parents and the ability to regurgitate and parrot the mental content set out by the school’s curricula. Within such settings, students are assessed as solitary actors in a rather mechanical manner, illustrated fittingly by the ‘Nürnberger Trichter’.

new jobs

Above: Courses advertised at Udacity. The digital economy requires proactive, self-directed and intrinsically motivated learners. From the perspective of emerging technologies, Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence celebrates a comeback.

It is not about how long we remember what we have learned

The primary goals of knowledge acquisition, however, are neither the long-term recall of mental content nor to become a tough solitary learner. Actual cognitive and metacognitive performance is demonstrated by students being able to create concepts and tools to solve problems, to design systems that help people improve their lives, to develop positive social relations with others and to strengthen their autonomy. These educational outcomes are rarely assessed in most institutions of Higher Learning but they are more commonly found in elite education. Elite learners know how to contextualise newly created concepts (such as e.g., in information technology, social sciences or engineering) and they are aware of underlying historical and cultural conditions that scaffold local social development.


Above: Managing comprehensive project administration and supervision based on modern research and sustainable local development (picture: biodiversity project in Haiti by Helvetas, 2017)

As for most movements, constructivism has been developed by many contributors, notably by their founders Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Piaget’s approach can be described as socio-interactional constructivism with emphasis on the individual learner, whereby Vygotsky’s approach can be described as a cultural-historical and activity-based constructivism with emphasis on the social scaffolding of learning via a ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (Vianna & Stetsenko, 2006). Both approaches share the assumption that knowledge and the meaning of knowledge are actively constructed in the learner’s mind, that learning evolves contextually and is facilitated by social interaction. The mind is not perceived as a passive container to accommodate fixed sets information and limited cognitive processing within the boundaries of these sets. Piaget was grounded in the biological imperative, set out by Darwin, of a child’s adaptation to the environment. Vygotsky, following Marxist philosophy, focussed on the collaborative and transformative nature of learning. His approach remains highly relevant in today’s digital economy and media society which is characterised by the omnipresence of collaborating teams, complex multi-layered project development, intelligent knowledge management and highly integrated network groups. Curiously enough, it is these cooperative competencies of 21st-century working environments that are barely taught, if at all, at schools.

As for most movements, constructivism has been developed by many contributors, notably by their founders Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Piaget’s approach can be described as socio-interactional constructivism with emphasis on the individual learner, whereby Vygotsky’s approach can be described as a cultural-historical and activity-based constructivism with emphasis on the social scaffolding of learning via a ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (Vianna & Stetsenko, 2006). Both approaches share the assumption that knowledge and the meaning of knowledge are actively constructed in the learner’s mind, that learning evolves contextually and is facilitated by social interaction. The mind is not perceived as a passive container to accommodate fixed sets information and limited cognitive processing within the boundaries of these sets. Piaget was grounded in the biological imperative, set out by Darwin, of a child’s adaptation to the environment. Vygotsky, following Marxist philosophy, focussed on the collaborative and transformative nature of learning. His approach remains highly relevant in today’s digital economy and media society which is characterised by the omnipresence of collaborating teams, complex multi-layered project development, intelligent knowledge management and highly integrated network groups. Curiously enough, it is these cooperative competencies of 21st-century working environments that are barely taught, if at all, at schools.

How Design Thinking extends Constructivism

Although it is correct that context, learners’ self-regulation and social scaffolding play a central role in active learning, the success of achieving learning outcomes depends largely on achieving mastery in the construction, application and evaluation of cultural tools. In design education, tools are commonly known in association with software- and hardware tools (from silk-screens to 3D printers and visualisation software), but also as concept maps and design theories, such as ergonomics, human-centered design and social design.

Broadly defined, cultural tools are instruments of mind that encompass concepts, strategies, information collection and processing methodologies, culturally-mediated reflective and communicative practices as well as methods to relate inductive-empirical and deductive-theoretical inferences. Cultural tools are the means by which our lifeworld is designed and mediated. Cultural tools empower students to connect ideas with facts, to minimise the margin of error of empirical tools and to maximise the validity and relevance of theoretical concepts. Without the mastery of effective tools, teamwork and context awareness do not yield productive outcomes by themselves.

Design thinking is closely related to Problem-based Learning (PBL) as it consists of a series of logical steps to design products and services. These shared steps are (1) group setting, setting up a team, (2) problem definition and cooperative reframing of the problem if necessary, (3) the review of prior knowledge and hypothesis generation (for explaining phenomena) or setting goals and expectations (for creating designs and implementing interventions), (4) the identification of learning issues and gaps of knowledge (5) going through reiterative cycles of research and research review (inclusive of experimentation and creative exploration), (6) concluding solutions development, (7) final outcome presentation and (8) post-project assessment by the entire team. PBL, as well as Design Thinking, are grounded in procedural inquiry and follow best practices of empirical research. Solutions are developed in logical stages by a team and they are not arbitrarily assumed by a solipsistic learner following an elusive ‘model answer’ or ‘model solution’.


Above: Modern production facilities like here at Tesla are a good example for the need of skilled and competent workers that can solve complex problems, such as to program and manage robots or track and diagnose anomalies within automated production processes.

On the point of mastering cultural tools, Howard Barrows noted that PBL has one root in the apprenticeship method whose roots go back to the dawn of history (Wee Keng Neo & Kek Yin Chyn, 2002) where learning by doing emerged within an intergenerational culture of mastery. Today, mastery is rooted in science, also referred to as learning science (Bransford, 2000) shifting the educational focus on the mastery of scientific methods in support of new and innovative ideas.

Another argument for a procedural approach to future education is that without explicit awareness of the in situ implementation of knowledge, corresponding responsibilities cannot be assigned in a meaningful manner. As we live in a highly complex and interconnected world where responsibilities dilute across chains of institutions and businesses, a central theme in Badura’s recent work on moral disengagement (Bandura, 2016), the need to design systems of responsibility and accountability reinforces the call for fundamental educational reforms. If students are not taught on how to build a better world at an early age, how can anyone expect sensible societal progress?


Bandura, A. (2016). Moral disengagement: How people do harm and live with themselves. New York: Worth Publishers, Macmillan Learning.

Bransford, J. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (1985). Beyond IQ: A Triarchic Theory of Intelligence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vivanna, E. & Stetsenko, A. (2006). Embracing History through Transforming It: Contrasting Pigetean versus Vygotskian (Activity) Theories of Learning and Development to Expand Constructivism within a Dialectical View of History. Theory of Psychology, Sage Publications.

Wee Keng Neo, L. & Kek Yin Chyn, M. (2002). Authentic problem-based learning: Rewriting business education. Singapore: Pearson Malaysia.

The Ethics of Grading (About Grades, Part 2)

multiple-choice graphic

Grading is a method to measure students’ performance while the type of grading system employed is a representation of its underlying educational ethics. The more simple the grading system, the more simple the assertions of graders about the graded. The more multi-faceted the grading system, the more factors an assessment entails. In the latter case, justifications for stipulating assessment criteria need to be provided. Typically, no or little justifications are given in the case of simple grading methods, such as multiple-choice, true-false, matching, or simply accumulating errors and points that are commonly used in primary and secondary education.

But what are the ethics behind grading systems? Do some grading systems violate ethics and if they do, how should students be assessed instead? Let us have a closer look at the relation of ethics and academic assessment.

Low-level Grading and its Underpinnings in Social Darwinism, Liberalism and Behaviourism

Simple low-level grading is underpinned by a set of assumptions. These are that students should be graded individually regardless of social context and prior conditions, that given grades are a truthful account of a student’s performance and aptitude and that final grades are fair. One could argue that such grading is rooted in both liberalism and social Darwinism since only the fittest survive (at least from the perspective of teachers) and that teachers bear no responsibility whatsoever for their students’ learning – analogously to the view that governments should not interfere in markets. In such a more Darwinian outlook, some students are simply more gifted than others. It is nature above nurture, genetics above pedagogy. According to the philosophy of natural selection, traditional grading simply ‘separates the wheat from the chaff’. Worse, grading kills intrinsic motivation when comparing non-graded groups with graded groups on task autonomy (Pulfrey et al.,  2013).

As a tool of behavioural control, grades are commonly set out as rewards (‘An A, well done!) while bad grades serve as punishment. In principle, there is little difference between pupils getting grades and a rat inside a Skinner Box receiving either food or electric shocks as positive or negative reinforcements. The main task for students inside the learning box is store content temporarily in the short-term memory in order to pass exams and to forget the acquired knowledge shortly after; a cycle that the German philosopher Richard David Precht described as ‘bulimic learning’ (BulimieLernen). As a side effect of bulimic learning, students learn that knowledge is dispensable and not meant to be part of an all-encompassing lifelong learning process. Another side-effect is that graded students perceive themselves in a socially competitive situation and tend to prefer supporting evidence over questioning evidence, this is that grading compromises critical thinking (Hayek et al., 2014).

As grades are applied universally all over the world and across institutions, the systemic conditioning towards the belief in grades is strengthened along learners’ educational trajectories.

Mid-level Grading and its Meritocratic-liberal Stance

More complex grading based on criteria requires a justification of these criteria and is, subsequently, open to debate. Some institutions of Higher Learning assess higher-order learning outcomes such as, e.g., the use of specified evidence, the quality of the evidence cited, the ability to understand and differentiate concepts, to relate facts to ideas, to frame a general problem within a local context, the ability to argue cases and integrate multiple perspectives, to choose adequate methods of analysis, to be able to employ critical thinking as well as to demonstrate overall consistency. Such comprehensive, mid-level assessment takes time and requires educators to design adequate scoring rubrics.

The advantage of mid-level assessment is that students do not only know why they have received a specific grade (which could still be equivalent to providing or not providing a ‘model answer’) but indicates which areas to put more effort in. Scoring rubrics have the advantage that they can serve as a formative feedback to learners. A disadvantage is that they are typically limited to assess only cognitive skills.

From an ethical perspective, we could label mid-level scoring as a meritocratic approach: Although assessed on an individual account, all students are provided with a fair chance to improve their identified weaknesses and to build on their strengths in order to gain merit via continuous improvement. This concept is also liberal in a sense that individuals are provided with an opportunity (or right) for improvement, at least at face value, while it ignores an individual’s ability (or inability) to capitalise on a given opportunity. Meritocratic-liberal assessment is still based on the assumption that learning happens primarily individually and independent of social context, contrary to evidence provided by psychological research.

The different social starting points of learners and their contextual limitations (e.g., some students might have highly supportive parents while others have not, some have the financial means to pay for tutors or to participate in international exchange programs while others have not) are not subject to potential interventions. To this extent, mid-level grading is not directly engaged in providing equal opportunity since no support is offered to weaker students for improving their performance, even if it is pointed out to them which areas of studies they should focus more. It is like telling a thirsty person in the middle of a desert not to worry about water since the next oasis is only a couple of hundred miles away. This is why meritocratic-liberal assessment is more suitable for homogeneous classes where students are approximately on the same level rather than heterogeneous, socially diverse student populations. But how about exceptionally gifted students?

High-end Social-discursive Evaluation Beyond Grades

Jane Robbins wrote about elite students in InsideHigherEd that ‘They want the more complex, nuanced, individual (or small group), creative work. And while they can do a great deal in interaction with each other, they need and want, the guidance of experts with depth and breadth in the field at hand. They want and need feedback because they don’t yet have experience in solving those kinds of problems. Neither are they satisfied just to get their A- for many top students, A’s are easy, but the A in and of itself does nothing to motivate them, or do other than present a false sense of complete mastery; you can get an A and still need to advance to the next level of thinking. So for elite students, the teacher is a mentor, coach, prodder, supervisor who provides his or her guidance through feedback.’

On the highest level of learning, students are evaluated for a plethora of abilities. Among them is the ability to empathise, social cooperation and teamwork skills, to take on different social roles and responsibilities within a team, to conduct research in meaningful projects on authentic problems (or phenomena) and to foster originality and creativity. Elite learning is (a) socially scaffolded and discursive. It embraces (b) critical discussions and the development of mastery in learning, while (c) underlying motivation is entirely intrinsic and not extrinsic.

Why a Hierarchy of Evaluation Systems is Counterproductive

In many elite universities, grading has become redundant. Equal opportunity is mediated by including all students in research projects. The adequate description by Robbins begs the question why only elite students should be worthy of mentors and coaches. Isn’t achieving mastery in learning even more relevant for weaker students, especially at an early age?

It seems awkward and illogical that few lucky students are rewarded by high-level social-discursive evaluation systems (once they have made it through the maze of socio-Darwinist and meritocratic-liberal systems), but such privilege is kept away from ordinary students in the beginning of their development when they need such scaffolding the most.

By looking at learning environments that foster highly successful students, our journey into grading systems turns full cycle. Simple methods of evaluation are subject to social bias and confirmation bias can only yield distorted and inadequate conclusions about the true complexity of students’ learning and potential. Especially at a younger age, pupils deserve to develop the full range of social, emotional and cognitive capabilities to support more differentiated cognitive and metacognitive schemata some years later. Tell me your assessment system and I tell you how qualified as a teacher you are.


Hayek, A.-S., Toma, C., Oberlé, D., & Butera, F. (2014). The effect of grades on the preference effect: Grading reduces consideration of disconfirming evidence. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 36(6), 544-552.

Pulfrey, C., Darnon, C., & Butera, F. (2013). Autonomy and task performance: Explaining the impact of grades on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(1), 39-57.

How can we tell that students have learned? Why traditional exams and grades do more harm than good (About Grades, Part 1)

Picture: College students taking an exam, Credit: Chris Ryan via Getty Images

The PDF version of this Blog entry: How can we tell that students have learned – Kompa 2017

The ideas behind traditional exams and grading

In traditional teaching, a teacher presents a learning unit by introducing new knowledge to the class via a series of lectures and presentations. Typically, brief question and answer sessions allow students to probe, at least to some extent, what they have not fully understood. In addition, pupils are given homework to apply the new knowledge in given exercises. At the end of the learning unit, an exam or test verifies the learner’s competence to replicate and apply the new knowledge. The resulting individual grade is regarded as a reliable and truthful standardised assessment of a learner’s competence of achieving the stipulated learning outcomes.

This is, in essence, the brief idea behind grading which was developed since the 16th century and gained its momentum in the 19th century with the introduction of compulsory education. The nagging question that is debated among educators is if standardised grading is actually measuring students’ learning and if it is not, what else it is measuring. Another question is how useful or even harmful standardised assessment plays out in real life.

What is assessed and how?

Constructivist learning pedagogy promotes active learning and assesses not only cognitive abilities (such as the application of mental operations to a set of varied problems), but includes furthermore the measure of students’ study skills, their individual ways of learning, verbal and nonverbal communication skills, social competencies, intrinsic motivation and metacognitive reasoning (the ability to reflect critically on mental content, methodology, knowledge creation and its meaning for the learner). By comparison, traditional exams only assess the minuscule part of cognitive abilities, like the ability to temporarily store subject knowledge in short-term memory, while ignoring all other relevant competencies.

In order to conduct sensible educational measurement, lecturers need to establish baselines of such competencies in order to understand students’ varying prior conditions. A series of semi-structured interviews combined with preliminary tests or exercises can reliably provide information on students’ prior conditions. As sociological research has demonstrated, students from academic families fare generally better as compared to students from working class families or students brought up by a single-parent. Socio-economic settings as well as age- and family-related factors set students at distinctively different starting levels for their studies. The responsibility of a fair education is to mediate and diminish such differences.

Let’s assume we have two struggling students with similar aptitude trying to pass the next exam. Student A comes back home from school to a household with two younger hyperactive siblings that deprive her of any opportunity to study and focus, whereby student B is luckier and has parents that can afford to send her to tutoring classes. In the final exam, student A fails while student B has achieved a decent grade. But what was measured by the exam was not a superior cognitive ability of student B, but a given social advantage. Or we may imagine a student with brilliant ideas, but incapable of time management to organise them, or a younger student who has exactly the same mental potential as everyone else, but is distracted by joining his friends on the football field while neglecting his studies. Or we can imagine a highly intelligent student who simply fails by not being able to handle exam anxiety, and so on and so forth. In most cases, we evaluate the influence of confounding factors on learning, but not learning itself.

Grades are not only unsuitable as an impartial evaluation tool, they also interfere with the very motivation to learn. Many students, sadly enough, learn in order to achieve good grades, not because they enjoy learning something new, exciting, personally enriching or useful. The main learning outcome is often not the acquisition of competencies, personal growth or new knowledge and skills, but a good grade. This is the point where the traditional learning system has turned ad absurdum: when the reward for learning is represented by the affirmation of prior social status via grades, true learning has lost its relevance as a driver for the development of young people. In many schools, colleges and universities, grades have become the symbolic trophies for representing achievement. What was originally intended only as a tool to evaluate learning outcomes by a simple scale has turned into a central outcome by itself with counterproductive side-effects. If education was strict science, grades would be removed as a confounding variable from the setup in an instant.

We could compare grades to political polls. Originally designed to objectively measure political trends within a population, polls have become a strategic tool for political parties to influence their voters. By employing polls, perceived instrumental threats and opportunities start to govern decision-making rather than good policies, arguments and well thought-out concepts. The same is true for students who calculate their minimum attendance requirements and bare pass investment in studies.

Alternatives to traditional assessment: Multi-perspective evaluation and scoring rubrics

This leaves progressive educators with at least two proven options for a more learning-centered evaluation. One is to assess projects in a PBL-like manner, which includes self-evaluation as well as the evaluation of others: How have I and others performed as team members, as problem-solvers and as researchers? How do we assess the shared learning process and outcome of a project? Here is also the opportunity for reflective journals that worked well with my students at Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore. The PBL assessment emphasises students’ social roles in interaction with cognitive and metacognitive reasoning. This is why this approach is well suited to postsecondary education in situations where discussions with students and their facilitators/ coaches play a central role.

The other option is to work with scoring rubrics that many educators are familiar with. The advantage of rubrics is that students know in greater detail how and why they are being assessed. Expectations are made clear from the beginning which makes this is a more structured approach. Students also learn that explaining phenomena, relating facts to ideas and integrating knowledge is of greater value than to cut, paste and simply summarise information, a common habit among digital natives. In many institutions, rubrics are still translated into grades, but they are still a far cry from simple point and error accumulations followed by a final grade and perhaps a brief commentary by the teacher. Both a PBL-like approach as well as scoring rubrics assist students’ learning to learn, which is why they are preferable to traditional grading. The desired procedural learning outcome is that students achieve mastery in learning, which is likely one of the reasons why some of my best students became teachers themselves.

Tracking progress: What sound assessment entails

Institutions that blindly grade students based on standardised tests measure de facto a plethora of prior conditions, rather than learning. Measuring actual learning progress would require the implementation of two more conditions. Firstly, that students need to be provided (a) adequate formative feedback for self-improvement on above-mentioned competencies and (b) follow-up investigations by teachers to verify if and how formative feedback was successfully internalised. As weekly assignments and projects continue, actual learning progress can be measured and facilitated efficiently in this manner.

Students are coached continuously and they understand how they have been assessed on multiple levels. A formative and reflected approach is obviously more helpful to fine tune ongoing learning than receiving a single summative grade at the very end. New technologies such as online feedback can speed up and further specify ongoing improvement.

Another harmful effect of grades is that they condition motivation.  A weaker student may find in low grades the confirmation to be a ‘born loser’ or a ‘failure’, while good students can find reassurance to belong to a class of eternal winners. Grades are often perceived as a judgment of the Global Self, especially among adolescents,  which explains how low grades tend to diminish self-esteem. In this light, grades represent a cruel tool to retroactively punish weaker students for their compromised position in life. On the brighter side, many teachers find that they do not need traditional tests. When conducting, e.g., more complex interdisciplinary projects, tests become redundant. It would be fairly ridiculous, for example, to conduct a traditional test at the end of a group’s research project, which would not only trade an information-rich assessment for an information-poor one but would be superfluous as learning outcomes and assessment have already been achieved and documented.

The Bell Curve paradigm

A more progressive assessment deviates from the assumption of a static Gaussian standard distribution also known as the ‘Bell Curve’. It represents the idea that typically some students are naturally at the top, some at the bottom and most positioned in the middle of the spectrum of abilities. At the beginning of a course, student levels might indeed be represented by a standard distribution. However, if performance levels remain unchanged for an entire term then a Bell Curve signals that learning among students has not taken place. Students that were good at the beginning are still good at the end of the semester while students who failed in the beginning still fail towards the end. A static Bell Curve is a reliable indicator of the fact that the education system or the teacher has failed. We can only tell how students have learned once we can demonstrate how constructive and motivating feedback has fostered their autonomy, contributed to their personal and social development and has built their competencies. Without such provisions in place, blindly conducting tests and grading papers tells us nothing about how students have learned. In the traditional assessment, the learning process remains unexamined simply because the dependent variable of learning progress is not related to the independent variables of the learning environment and other controlled factors facilitating learning.

What makes us human? What makes us a whole person?

As an empirically-validated domain, education should not fall into the traps of confirmation bias by repeatedly verifying prior conditions or conditioned responses. Education should elevate weaker students while providing new opportunities to stronger students. Every student is deserving of empowerment to develop into a strong, self-directed and lifelong learner.

But how about students that appear obviously lazy, who display negative attitudes towards their teachers or the institution and simply act out anti-socially in every perceivable way? One of the advantages of a multi-level assessment is that it includes personal factors. Difficult students can be counselled, which is better than failing them and pushing them over the edges of society. This entails of course that institutions of Higher Learning employ professional counsellors and that personal development is taken seriously as a hallmark of quality education – to connect to the ideal of a holistic humanistic education as first envisioned by Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), or the idea of developing one’s personality as outlined by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). From a future-oriented constructivist perspective as well as from the perspective of humanistic philosophy, conventional exams and grades are a poor excuse for not understanding students’ learning and not contributing to their development as personalities and democratic citizens.