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Jocelyn Clark

Agreement Description

From the agreement “Importance of a Worldview,” we move along the mission Thread to “The Importance of Theory and Deep Concepts” to “Learning Theories” and then to “Constructivism.” Exploring constructivism as a learning theory as relevant to the mission of librarians leads us to the development of constructivism as a theory of knowledge creation. Constructivism postulates that knowledge is created within a person, not communicated from the outside (i.e., knowledge is internally constructed based on interpretation of our experiences). Cooperstein and Kocevar-Weidinger (2004) give a great summary article on the application as a learning theory. Thanasoulas (n.d.) also gives an excellent overview of the topic.

Psychology, philosophy, educational theory, sociology, and other schools of thought have contributed to the development of constructivism as a learning theory. The credit for the development of educational constructivism is generally credited to Jean Piaget and his work on childhood learning. Other names that are associated with this field are Ernst Von Glaserfeld, John Dewey, Jerome Bruner, and Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky developed the theory of “social constructivism,” which affirms that social interaction plays an essential role in cognitive development. Three particular reference Web sites are listed below with extensive bibliographies of these theoretical works (Ryder and Marsh, Barrie, & McFadden, Jean Piaget Society).

Constructivism is generally agreed to be the process where individual knowledge is created internally through a person’s interaction with an external world. “Learners construct their own knowledge by looking for meaning and order; they interpret what they hear, read, and see based on their previous learning and habits” (Thanasoulas). This contrasts with the objectivist philosophy that learning is transmitted from teacher to student directly. Social constructivism acknowledges the roles that social interaction and culture have on that knowledge creation.

There are critics of constructivism. They argue that it denies the existence of a true reality—that philosophically there are issues with creating a worldview of complete relativism. They take issue with statements like that of Tobin, “A constructivist perception acknowledges the existence of an external reality, but realizes that cognizing beings can never know what that reality is actually like.” Critics of constructivism as a learning theory suggest that constructivists want to teach that there are no objective facts to be learned; that constructivists want people to reinvent the wheel repeatedly. In addition, there exists an ongoing debate between encouraging self-discovery of science and mathematical relationships through constructivism versus teaching the principles objectively (Chakerian). Despite the ongoing philosophical debates, many constructivist principles are employed routinely and successfully but perhaps are not representative of pure constructivism. In the context of new librarianship, we do not necessarily have to enter into the philosophical debate about constructivism because we are looking more narrowly at its concrete applications as a learning theory and at its application within the cosmos of librarianship.

In the classroom, constructivist theories are applied through a learning model that includes opportunities for active questioning, interpreting, and problem solving (Marlowe). The work of Jean Piaget is used extensively in developing programs that support active learning. Solomon provides some concrete principles to guide the use of constructivist principles in the classroom. Cooperstein and Kocevar-Weidinger also discuss constructivism in library education. Many other resources are available that discuss the implementation of constructivist principles in a classroom environment. Some are listed below. However, a classroom is not the same thing as a library, and a librarian is not the same as a classroom teacher.

In a library, the concept of facilitating knowledge creation is closely tied to the principles associated with developing an independent- learning, inquiry-based, project-based classroom. However, the question relative to the mission of librarians isn’t about classroom studies so much as it is about use of the theory of constructivism to build a model of librarianship that enables people to create their own knowledge. How do we create an information environment that facilitates personal knowledge creation? In most of the classroom applications, we still have a situation with a teacher designing a lesson and then administering it using constructivist principles. The teacher has an agenda for the students, and although students are experiencing some freedom to explore, in the end, the teacher has defined learning objectives. That type of instruction may work in school library media centers but is not a model we can use for auto-didactic activities, as those in a public library, or anywhere outside a formal learning environment. In librarianship, we are often less an instructor than a guide. In physical libraries, we are often inherently creating an environment for personal knowledge creation without defined learning objectives.

One example is the creation of learning commons in academic libraries. Another might be the integration of a discover layer tool onto a traditional library catalog. In addition, many of the social library and Web 2.0 library tools are based on interactive knowledge construction and align with the theories of Vygotsky. One interesting question about the application of constructivism in the library goes back to Ranganathan’s principle of saving the time of the reader. Sometimes we are involved in accessing multiple sources, creating theories, exploring topics, and creating knowledge. Sometimes we just want to know a quick answer to help us on our way; we don’t want to be involved in an additional protracted journey of self-discovery. It reminds me of a conversation I had with my mother in about the eighth grade:

Me: Mom, what does “didactic” mean?

Mom (giving the appropriate mom response): Well, why don’t you look it up in the dictionary?

Me: Mom, I know how to use a dictionary, can you just tell me what the word means?

Sometimes having your mother tell you the answer is all you really need if the objective is an external fact so you can carry on with your other activities. At the reference desk, we might send a student on a quest with just some guidance, or we might just hand a user the answer. Which one really depends on the situation, the library, and the question. In the process of constructing knowledge for themselves, people might need anything from a quick fact, to a formal lesson on identifying credible sources, to an uncensored Internet connection, to a room to work on a group project. Identifying those tools is the challenge of applying constructivism in libraries.

To go in the opposite direction, if we have a librarian with an Internet connection (and no library) standing between an information- seeker and the knowledge, can we really be implementing constructivism? Perhaps we need to get out of the chair and let them use the computer to facilitate their exploration. The question changes to: How do we create tools to facilitate knowledge creation in the virtual world? Constructivism as a learning theory encourages us to look at all the ways people create knowledge and understanding for themselves and then challenges us to explore those tools in our redefinition of librarianship.

Related Artifacts


Bruner, J. S. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Chakerian, G. D., & Kreith, K. (n.d.). The Pythagorean Theorem. Retrieved from

Cooperstein, S. E., & Kocevar-Weidinger, E. (2004). Beyond active learning: A constructivist approach to learning. Reference Services Review, 32(2), 141–148.

Glaserfeld, E. V. (2002). Radical constructivism in mathematics education (Mathematics education library). In Mathematics education library, v.7. New York: Kluwer Academic.

Glasersfeld, E. V., Larochelle, M., Ackermann, E., & Tobin, K. G. (2007). Key works in radical constructivism (Bold visions in educational research). Rotterdam: Sense.

Marlowe, B. A., & Page, M. L. (1998). Creating and sustaining the constructivist classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. Retrieved from

Solomon, P. G. (2009). The curriculum bridge: From standards to actual classroom practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Talja, S., Tuominen, K., & Savolainen, R. (2005). “Isms” in information science: Constructivism, collectivism and constructionism. Journal of Documentation, 61(1), 79–101.

Thanasoulas, D. (n.d.). Constructivist learning. Retrieved from and

Tobin, K. G. (1993). The practice of constructivism in science education. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Resource Material


Jean Piaget Society.

Resources for Students. (n.d.). Jean Piaget Society. Retrieved from

Classroom Examples

Here are some Web sites and videos that give concrete examples and discussion of constructivism in a classroom:

Constructivism as a paradigm for teaching and learning. (n.d.). Concept to classroom. Retrieved from

tbed63. (2008, October 11). Constructivist math correcting method. Video posted to

tbed63. (2008, October 5). Constructivist social studies lesson. Video posted to

Constructivism. (n.d.). In Information Age Inquiry. Retrieved from

Other Videos

changelearning. (2008, January 31). Building knowledge: Constructivism in learning. Video posted to

Kliegman, K. (2007, November 5). Constructivism in the library. Message posted to

Koltzenburg, T. (2006, April 1). Rock on! Celebrating the library and learning. ALA TechSource. Retrieved from

Possible Constructivist Tools

Discovery Layer Interfaces. (n.d.). In Library Technology Guides. Retrieved from

Digital Learning Commons (n.d.). Washington State. Retrieved from

Five Weeks to a Social Library. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Library Wikis. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Wikis. (n.d.). In Library success: A best practices wiki. Retrieved from

Reference Websites: These Web sites contain a multitude of writings on constructivism. The Emtech site contains writings in opposition to constructivism in addition to other writings.

Marsh, G., Barrie, J. P., & McFadden, A. C. (n.d.). Constructivism, instructivism, and related sites. Emerging technologies. Retrieved from

Jean Piaget Society. (2008). Internet resources. Retrieved from

Ryder, M. (2009). Constructivism. University of Colorado School of Education. Retrieved from