Moving from Teacher-Centered to Student-Centered Learning Through Constructivist Lesson Design

An often-cited issue in education is that, despite heavy institutional investment in instructional technology in both hardware and software, teachers have not embraced a vision of technology integration into their classroom that is student-centered, hands-on, and personalized.  Many teachers, as Herold (2015) relates, “are far more likely to use technology to make their own jobs easier and to supplement traditional instructional strategies than to put students in control of their own learning.”  While there are many reasons for this discrepancy between the goals and practices of educational technology integration, an underlying factor is likely the degree to which Behaviorist learning is embedded in our approach to teaching and learning.  Behaviorism is “a learning theory that focuses on objectively observable behaviors and discounts mental activities”; Behaviorists identify conditioning, whether classical or operant as the primary process by which learning takes place (Keesee, 2005).   The Behaviorist approach to teaching and learning became enormously popular in the United States in the middle of the 20th century, and has remained the driving model, despite being soundly refuted as a scientific theory by noted linguist Noam Chomsky in 1959.  This persistence is likely due to Behaviorism’s utility to instructional management, along with persuasive arguments that Behaviorist techniques were/are the key the social reform (Holzman, 2016).

Take, for example, this lesson in the Behaviorist model, in which students explore vocabulary and the theme of sibling rivalry in Judy Bloom’s “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing”.  In the lesson, it is easy to recognize many common pedagogical practices: (1) the teacher leads the class to complete a KWL chart over vocabulary words; (2) students participate in a teacher-led class discussion; (3) students engage in a teacher-managed ‘think-pair-share’ with a classmate next to them to discuss sibling relationships; (4) the teacher draws a Venn diagram on the board and leads the class in comparing student sibling relationships with those modeled in the text; (5) students independently complete their own Venn diagram and write sentences using vocabulary words; (6) the whole class reviews and recites vocabulary words, led by the teacher; and (7) the students complete a vocabulary quiz. While think/pair/share activities, KWL charts, and Venn diagrams can be effective tools for learning, the problem with this lesson is that it is almost entirely teacher driven, relying on external motivating factors of classroom management and grades to influence learning.  In the Behaviorist model, fear of failure and/or reprimand drives student engagement; while this approach may result it successful student performance in the short-term, such as on a vocabulary quiz, it is unlikely to result in deep and/or long-term learning.

In contrast, this lesson explores the same subject, but in the Constructivist model of teaching and learning.  Constructivism is a learning theory that emphasizes community inquiry, self-directed and collaborative learning, and reflective practice.  As defined by Savery and Duffy (2001), Constructivism is characterized by three primary propositions: (1) understanding is in our interactions with the environment, (2) cognitive conflict or puzzlement is the stimulus for learning and determines the organization and nature of what is learned, and (3) knowledge evolves through social negotiation and through the evaluation of the viability of individual understandings.  So, while learners in this lesson also are tasked with learning vocabulary and exploring the theme of sibling rivalry, they do so by engaging in activities that follow the Constructivist approach: (1) learners personalize content by engaging in discussions of a sibling and/or a friend, and talk about how that person may have frustrated them; (2) the students role play a scene from the book; (3) the students work in small groups to develop ways to apply vocabulary words in a letter of advice to a main character; (4) the students create vocabulary books with illustrations; (5) the students take turns sharing appreciations and exploring the opposite of sibling rivalry; and (6) the students are encouraged to utilize vocabulary and report back on how they did so.

What is immediately apparent is that nearly all of these activities in the Constructivist model lesson are student driven.  In this approach, the instructor provides coaching, help, and feedback that encourages self-directed learning; students engage with and help one another to master objectives and solve problems rather than depending on a sole expert (I.e., the instructor) to find and deliver answers to their inquiries.  McCarthy (2015) concurs: “Teachers must become comfortable with changing their leadership style from directive to consultative — from ‘Do as I say’ to ‘Based on your needs, let’s co-develop and implement a plan of action’”.  Additionally, by developing and relying on intrinsic motivation to drive student-learning, the Constructivist approach to lesson design engages learners, likely leading to deeper levels of learning and understanding.


Herold, B. (2015). Why ed tech is not transforming how teachers teach. Education Week. Retrieved from

Holzman, L. (2016).  Schools for growth: Radical alternatives to current education models.  New York: Routledge.

Keesee, Gayla S. (2005).  Learning Theories. Retrieved from

McCarthy, J. (2015, Sep 9).  Student-centered learning: It starts with the teacher.  Retrieved from

Savery, J. R., & Duffy, T. M. (2001, June). Problem-based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. CRLT Technical Report No. 16-01, pp. 1-17. Bloomington, IN: Center for Research on Learning Technology.


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