Psychology of Education

Compare and contrast the constructivist learning approach and a direct teaching approach, giving specific examples of how these should be considered when teachers design their lessons. Make particular reference to the theorists you have learned during your Psychology module and reflect on the approaches that you would like to use in your class, and why.

As a prospective teacher, it is within my best knowledge to understand the suitability of both the constructivist learning approach and the direct teaching approach. Each method has different characteristics that will add value to my own future teaching.

The level of support provided in a lesson is an important factor for teachers to consider. Within a constructivist classroom, a teacher might consider Vygotsky’s model of a child’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) (McCarthy, 2006). This is an area where the learner is supported until the task no longer requires assistance and it is crucial to consider as a teacher when assigning homework (Jordan, Carlile and Stack, 2008).

I find similarities here between this approach and direct instruction. Engelmann et al. (1988) discuss the need to break down tasks into smaller steps. McMullen and Madelaine (2014) describe Engelmann’s approach as explicit instruction coupled with constant monitoring and feedback throughout the lesson. For instance, combining these two methods in a maths lesson would involve breaking down the problem into incremental pieces of instruction for easier acquirement and ensuring the student has mastered the problem before giving homework. It will be paramount for me to get the right balance of providing challenge and support in order for students to progress.

A visual representation of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, it is within the ZPD where myself as a teacher must provide sufficient stimulus and guidance for the learner to then manage the task without guidance.
(Credit: Siobhán McHugh via powerpoint)

A constructivist approach relies on student-led learning where the students have ownership of their own learning. A lesson with this approach involves the students having agency over their learning through hands-on experiences (Brooks and Brooks, 1993). This method could involve assigning the students with a ‘home redecorating task’, where the students need to calculate the area and perimeter of a room, assess the size of furniture all within a budget as part of a maths lesson.

This lesson sounds very wholesome and enriching to me, but I question its capability in a classroom of thirty pupils of varying abilities. As a future teacher, the idea of relinquishing some control in a lesson is unsettling and this is a worry reported in teachers regarding student-centred classes (Brooks and Brooks, 1993; Jordan, Carlile and Stak, 2008). This fear extends to another question of when is the right time to intervene in the student-led lessons. McMullen and Madelaine (2014) argue against this type of learning and emphasise the need for instant correction and feedback from a teacher. Sajadi and Khan (2011) explain the need for motivation, high retention skills and prior knowledge in the task as important requirements for this type of constructivist approach. They also point out that this could pose difficulty for some students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) who may experience poor learning motivation and have weak short-term memory. This is important to acknowledge when creating future lessons as one approach might sound stimulating and exciting but it may not suit all learners.

We see in this video a constructivist classroom where the students lead their own learning and are asked for elaboration and discussion, however, a student like Bart Simpson struggles here as the emphasis on their prior knowledge and their own opinions are amplified.
In this video, we see an exaggerated version of what could happen when students are left to lead their own learning, one where the student is trusted to discover and construct their own meaning, however without explicit intervention from the teacher a student like Bart Simpson does not experience the benefit of a meaningful learning experience.

Within constructivism exists a caveat called constructionism which is the idea that learning occurs through creating. Constructionism, pioneered by Papert, states that learning happens when students are engaged with creating and making projects (Papert and Harel, 1991). Papert designed the LEGO/Logo project which taught children basic computer code to control a small turtle figure all while constructing mathematical concepts such as geometry and principles of motion (Papert and Harel, 1991). Engelmann et al. (1988) debate against this type of learning where the child constructs meaning through action, stating it is not possible for a child to construct arbitrary concepts without prior explanation.

However, I see value in lessons where the children are learning through their own actions. I found it extremely difficult to apply mathematical concepts and rules I had learned in school to my undergraduate physics lab and I recognise now that I had been robbed of the opportunity to conceptualise those rules. Conversely, through the use of technology-based activities today, such as Minecraft: Education Edition, students are given autonomy to create, build and explore their own world where they are simultaneously understanding mathematical concepts such as volume, perimeter, area, coordinates, multiplication and division (Jensen and Hanghøj, 2019; Minecraft: Education Edition, 2016). This radiates a constructivist style lesson. Through the use of these technology-based activities, concepts are being explored by children in a much more creative and collaborative way, these activities are further reported to be supportive for students with learning difficulties with the speech-to-text functions (Arnold, 2019). I hope to apply these creative and engaging applications in my own lessons in order to provide an opportunity to understand why they are learning about such concepts like geometry and variables.

This video dates over 30 years and highlights how Papert began using technology as a medium for children to construct their own knowledge and learn concepts through activities and projects.
Mitch Resnick, a student of Papert explains the value of children engaging in technology-based projects to understand the purpose and use of mathematical concepts such as variables.

A direct teaching approach can involve scripted and well-structured lessons. McMullen and Madelaine (2014) describe Engelmann’s scripted lesson approach as a means to structure the lesson with a clear focus and outline. I imagine stepping into the classroom as a newly qualified teacher will be daunting and nerve-wracking and this approach certainly casts some qualms aside. For instance, a lesson structured around learning of five times multiplication tables might involve drill and recall; it has a clear routine and goal.

I fear that this rigid and structured approach will lend itself to uninteresting lessons. McCarthy (2006) discusses how these didactic methods are orientated towards creating ‘exam-smart’ students through incessant revising, recalling and drilling. Although I can recall the rules such as ‘carry the 1’ and recite my tables, I found it difficult applying such rules to problems in my own life. Brooks and Brooks (1993) highlight that these well-structured lessons do not necessarily resemble the problems encountered outside of the classroom and I for one agree that too much of these scripted, drill-focused lessons might not provide the same opportunities for stimulating engagement.

Having analysed elements of the two approaches, I now realise that it is not one or the other that will dictate my practice as a teacher, but a combination of the two. Orton (cited in McCarthy, 2006) explains that it is the teacher’s responsibility to employ the most effective method for learning, therefore the onus is on me find the appropriate method be it a constructivist or direct teaching approach. I will not subscribe to one or the other but rather recognise which will be best suited for the particular student and task. Hopefully, these two approaches coupled with experience will help develop my own teaching approach, based on hand-on stimulating engagement with individualised, clear guidance.

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Arnold, S. (2019) ‘Change the game: using minecraft to teach students with autism’, EdSurge, 28 January. [Online] Available at: (Accessed: 25 November 2020).

Brooks, J.G. and Brooks, M.G. (1993) ‘Becoming a constructivist teacher’, in Brooks, J.G. and Brooks, M.G. In search of understanding: the case for constructivist classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

Engelmann, S., Becker, W.C., Carnine, D. and Gersten, R. (1988) ‘The direct instruction follow through model: design and outcomes’, Education and Treatment of Children’, 11(4), pp.303-317.

Jensen, E.O. and Hanghøj, T. (2019) ‘Math in Minecraft: changes in students’ mathematical identities when overcoming in-game challenges’, Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on Game Based Learning, ECGBL 2019. Denmark, 03-04 October 2019. [Online] Available at:’_Mathematical_Identities_When_Overcoming_In-Game_Challenges (Accessed: 26 November 2020).

Jordan, A., Carlile, O. and Stack, A. (2008) Approaches to learning: a guide for teachers. Berksire: Open University Press.

McCarthy, J. (2006) ‘Revisiting constructivism’, LEARN.

McMullen, F. and Madelaine, A. (2014) ‘Why is there so much resistance to direct instruction?’,  Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 19(2), pp.137-151.

Minecraft: Education Edition (2016) Minecraft: Education Edition. [Online] Available at: (Accessed: 26 November 2020).

Papert, S. and Harel, I. (1991) Constructionism. Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Sajadi, S.S. and Khan, T.M. (2011) ‘An evaluation of constructivism for learners with ADHD: development of a constructivist pedagogy for special needs’, European, Mediterranean & Middile Eastern Conference on Information Systems, Athens, 30-31st May. [Online] Available at: (Accessed: 15 November 2020).