Constructivism in Chemistry

This post summarises what it means to me as a chemistry teacher/lecturer to subscribe to the theory of constructivism in chemistry education, highlighting the teaching and learning stances that are adopted to align with this viewpoint. Some counter arguments to the principle of constructivism in chemistry are given which fall into two general categories: epistemological arguments and pedagogic arguments.

Image of Chemistry Building
What do we mean as chemical educators when we say we subscribe to constructivism?


Constructivism is a theory of learning which describes how learners build on existing or prior knowledge to incorporate new knowledge, based on their learning experiences. The theory is based on the principle that knowledge is not “discovered”, but constructed in the mind of the learner. Bodner was among the first or chemistry educators to consider chemistry education through a constructivist lens, basing his thoughts on the work of Herron, Piaget and von Glaserfield (Bodner, 1986, 2006, Bodner and Klobuchar, 2001). Writing in 1986, he said:

Anyone who has studied chemistry, or tried to teach it to others, knows that active students learn more than passive students. Chemists should therefore have a natural affinity  for a model which replaces a more or less passive recipient of knowledge with an active learner. The problem with constructivism arises when one tries to look at the logical consequences of the assumption that knowledge is constructed in the mind of the learner.

He continued with the analogy of a key and a lock, based on von Glaserfield. A match of the key would open the lock, as it would be an exact replica of the key. This represents the traditional view of knowledge where the knowledge in one learner’s mind is considered to be exactly the same as the knowledge in a second learner’s mind. A fit that would open the lock, but may be a different configuration to the original key is the analogy for a constructivist viewpoint. In this case, the learner has their own understanding of the knowledge, that arrives to the same correct conclusions, but this understanding may differ from another learner. The proviso here of course is that the knowledge must “fit” – as the learner constructs knowledge, it is continually tested to ensure that it applicable to whatever theory or problem is under consideration. In other words, it is not sufficient for independent learners to have their own viewpoint and consider themselves correct regardless of the challenge to this viewpoint.

Implications for Teaching and Learning Chemistry

Many constructivists writing on the topic of implication of a constructivist viewpoint quote Ausubel’s statement: “The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows.” (Bodner, 1986, Sirhan, Gray, Johnstone and Reid, 1999, Reid, 2008, Byers and Eilks, 2009). This statement manifests itself in various forms.

The construction of new knowledge depends on students capacity to integrate their experiences as they occur – determined by their working memory – with their existing knowledge. Therefore, it follows that the better organised their existing knowledge, and the more capable learners are with a topic in terms of language, terminology, etc, the better they will assimilate their new experiences into their existing knowledge (Johnstone, 1997). As experts in chemistry, we can quickly study a new aspect of chemistry and assimilate it much more readily than a new learner, who may find constructing a knowledge about a new subject difficult if no attempt is made to link it to some form of prior knowledge (Byers and Eilks, 2009). Furthermore, we may apply algorithms or short-cuts to solving a problem in our discipline, that to a novice learner would be an insurmountable task because they do not have the requisite knowledge to understand the origin of the short cuts (see the work of Johnstone and Reid). In this case, novices will rely on algorithms, or learning by rote, or following instructions, without understanding why they are doing so.

Students who are constructing new knowledge on poor foundations or incorrect knowledge (misconceptions) will run into difficulties as they try to integrate their new and existing knowledge. There is a large body of literature on misconceptions in chemistry, but fundamentally we can say that as teachers, we need to understand our learners’ misconceptions so that we can challenge them and help the learner reconstruct the knowledge (see the work of D. F. Treagust). Misconceptions can be firmly entrenched, and from a constructivist viewpoint, they cannot be “corrected” simply by telling learners the correct method or principle – learners themselves have to work through scenarios that will demonstrate the flaw in their current conception and therefore construct a new mental model of the topic under consideration.

Subscribing to constructivism will also mean that the traditional lecture environment is considered a very poor learning experience. Byers has suggested that the mechanism of “information transfer” could be considered a two-stage process – a short term memorisation of information followed by a longer term process of reflection and assimilation of information into learners’ knowledge structure (Byers, 2001). Teaching needs to provide a space for that reflection time facilitating meaningful learning and knowledge development. How does this manifest itself in practice? Given that the construction of knowledge involves linking new concepts to prior knowledge and the challenging of these new concepts in the development of a mental model on a new topic, several strategies can be employed. These include (Byers and Eilks, 2009): building on prior knowledge and experiences while challenging misconceptions by provoking cognitive conflicts; facilitating active learning through group and peer work (Cooper, 2005), engaging feedback, scaffolding new experiences; communication between peers of different abilities (Sirhan and Reid, 2001), multiple representations of materials to promote a better conceptualisation of new knowledge and allow for challenge and development of mental models as they are built and a move away from the “product” of learning towards the “process” of learning in the development of independent learners. Bodner quotes Rosalind Driver on the characteristics of a teacher with a constructivist viewpoint (Bodner, 2001):

  • “They question students’ answers, whether they are right or wrong, to make sure that the same words are being used to describe the same phenomena.
  • They insist that students explain the answers they give.
  • They don’t allow students to use words or equations without explaining them.
  • They encourage students to reflect on their answers, which is an essential part of the learning process.”

Coll and Talyor (2001) put it more succinctly when they cite Hand and Vance in their paper on new skills a lecturer should require to teach from a constructivist viewpoint:  “negotiation, group work, and thinking on your feet.” I take it from their paper that this isn’t meant as a compliment to the method.

Counter-Arguments to Constructivism

While the principles of constructivism have gained general acceptance, in practice at least, as a form of science education (Byers and Eilks, 2009), it is not without its critics, who argue that its rise has gone largely unchallenged. Criticism is levelled both an the underlying philosophy that constructivism is an educational theory at all, not least that it is not suitable for a science discipline as well as the problems of implementing constructivist principles in practice.

At the philosophical level, Scerri, an anti-constructivist (Wink, 2006) applauds “chemical constructivists for encouraging teachers to be more conscious of the fact that students come to the study of chemical topics from a great variety of backgrounds” but argues that aligning to constructivism in chemistry (education) is fundamentally anti-scientific (Scerri, 2003) because of its basis in the concept that knowledge is “mind-dependent”. He is editor of the journal Foundations of Chemistry and in 2006 an entire issue was devoted to the topic of constructivism in chemistry. Wink, (2006) writing in this special issue seems to find a pragmatic middle road by arguing that there is a difference between epistemological and pedagogic constructivism, in a nice paper on the intellectual considerations around defining constructivism.

Another criticism of constructivism is that following the work of Vygotsky, it is considered that learning takes place in a social context – but the principle of constructivism at its heart states that learning is an independent activity. Bodner addresses this (Bodner, 2006):

It is tempting to think about radical constructivism and social constructivism as opposite ends of a continuum. At one end, learners construct knowledge in isolation, based on their experiences of the world in which they live. At the other end, learning is embedded in social and cultural factors. Most situations in which learning occurs, however fall somewhere between these two extremes. Learning is a complex process that occurs within a social context, as the social constructivists point out, but it is ultimately the individual who does the learning, as the radical constructivists would argue.

At a practical level, two problems with constructivism have been outlined (Coll and Taylor, 2001): large class sizes and a large curriculum work against an approach that seeks to find and challenge students’ views and the ontological beliefs underpinning constructivism mean that it is impossible for teachers to debunk dubious theory. While I am not informed enough to say, I think Wink’s article addresses this latter concern. The former I do not believe to be an argument against constructivism, more an argument against the current practice in higher education!

I would love to hear from others who have a viewpoint on constructivism as an educational theory.

Bibliography and References

  • G. M. Bodner, J. Chem. Ed.,1986, 63, 873–878.
  • G. M. Bodner, M. Klobuchar and D. Geelen, J. Chem. Ed.,2001, 78, 1107-.
  • G. M. Bodner, in: Theoretical Frameworks for research in chemistry/science education, 2006, pp. 2 – 26, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • B. Byers, 2001, U. Chem. Ed., 5, 24-30.
  • B. Byers, in: Innovative Methods in Teaching and Learning Chemistry in Higher Education, 2009, pp. 5 – 21, I. Eilks and B. Byers (Eds.), London:RSC.
  • R. J. Coll and T. G. N. Taylor, CERAPIE, 2001, 2, 215 – 226.
  • M.M. Cooper. An Introduction to Small Group Learning. In T. Greenbowe, N. Pienta and M.M. Cooper (Eds.), The Chemists’ Guide to Effective Teaching, pp. 117–128. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2005.
  • A.H. Johnstone, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 1991, 7, 75–83.
  • A. H. Johnstone, U. Chem. Ed., 1997, 1 8-13
  • N. Reid, 2008, Chem. Ed. Res. Pract., 9, 51-59.
  • E. R. Scerri, J. Chem. Ed., 2003, 80, 468-474.
  • E. R. Scerri, Foundations of Chemistry, 2006, Special Issue on constructivism in chemistry
  • G. Sirhan, C. Gray, A. H. Johnstone and N. Reid, U. Chem. Ed., 1999, 3, 43
  • G. Sirhan, N. Reid, U. Chem. Ed., 2001, 5, 52.
  • D. J. Wink, Foundations of Chemistry, 2006, 8, 111–151.
  • The Role of Constructivism in Teaching and Learning Chemistry: