Constructivist Approach for early education

This study is intended to provide a comparative analysis of the constructivist approach versus the traditional ‘didactic’ approach in teaching. It will be with specific reference to elementary students in Grades 1 and 2. The reason this study is being undertaken is to learn more about the constructivist approach and its ability to assist students in achieving at a higher level academically and the ability to work more independently in the classroom. While there have been numerous studies on the constructivist approach, there continues to be some skepticism in the American educational community as to its efficacy.  

Elementary education in the United States has been under a microscope in recent years due to the legislation enacted known as ‘No Child Left Behind’. This legislation imposes very specific standards for elementary and high school education. The ability of students to reach these standards is the broader issue in which this research takes place. The question for this research project is whether or not the constructivist approach can assist students in attaining these all-important standards. In addition, it will investigate the ability of constructivism to aid students in working more independently in the classroom. Both of these issues are of primary importance in elementary education.  


Three articles were reviewed in preparation for the development of this research proposal. Each one of the articles compares the Constructivist method to the Traditionalist or didactic approach to teaching.  

The first article was written by Insook Chung (2002) and represents a comparative assessment of the Constructivist and Traditional approach with respect to learning math. Specifically, this article addresses the issue that the country is developing new standards in mathematical education. These standards and reforms are in response to the ongoing concerns that there is a need to develop and promote instructional techniques that will “facilitate what is generally called meaningful learning” (p. 271).   Chung noted that advocates for improved standards in mathematical education believe that students need to enhance their problem solving abilities. In respect of this goal, there is some concern that traditional instructional teaching does not really apply to ‘real experiences’. Even so, traditional mathematical lessons and instruction continue to exist.  

The purpose of this study was to investigate third graders and their studies in math and in particular learning the facts of multiplication. Chung wanted to investigate whether or not a traditional or a constructivist approach would enhance the students’ ability to understand symbolic concepts and translate them into concrete connection.  

The research sample was comprised of 71 third grade students in Missouri. One class was taught by an expert in the Constructivist approach and the other class used a Traditionalist approach. The researcher worked in cooperation with the teachers to write the lessons and observed them first-hand. He used a quantitative analysis in order to determine which approach would prove more beneficial.  

The interesting conclusion to this paper was that the students in the Constructivist group “gained statistically improved mean scores on all three of the tests” (p. 276). He believes that the Constructivist approach enables teachers and students to have “a better of understanding” of mathematics. He acknowledges that the Constructivist approach “was also supported in earlier findings by other researchers” (p. 274).  

Chung also concludes that additional research into the Constructivist approach is absolutely warranted. He believes that the approach has much to offer elementary students, especially in mathematics. Some of the additional research which Chung proposes includes a qualitative study on the transfer of knowledge from pictorial form into symbolic form; designing research studies with a larger sample size and developing programs to provide teachers with instruction and support in using the Constructivist method.  

The second article by Richard C. Overbaugh and Shin Yi Lin (2005) delves into an important and as yet unexplored area of research. They investigate the notion that Constructivism versus Traditionalist teaching are not really opposites on the teaching scale as many would propose. Their hypothesis is that there is in fact a continuum on which all instructional strategies exist. They state that there is a tendency in education today to try and create a sense of choice between Constructivism and Traditionalism. This notion of the need to make a choice tends to place Traditionalism on one end of the scale and Constructivism on the other. This pedagogical theory tends to believe that Traditionalism is “imposes severe limitations on transferable thinking skills” (p. 1).   On the other end of the scale is Constructivism which is highly inventive but has little place in formal education.

Overbaugh and Lin theorize that neither Constructivism nor Traditionalist teaching is the best approach. They propose a third style which they call ‘the middle ground’ and define it as problem-based learning. The authors believe that this tendency to try and polarize education into either Constructivism or Traditionalism is damaging education. It is causing people to join one side or the other and they believe this is detrimental to education in the end.  

Their study is about taking the best of both approaches and creating problem-based learning. They define the problem-based learning approach as being a five-step process which encompasses exploring ideas, learning how to conjecture, sharing one’s ideas or hypotheses with others, learning to revise one’s original ideas and presenting one’s ideas to others.   They see this approach as really being both Constructivist and Traditionalist in nature. On the one hand there is definitely the acquisition of knowledge and skills but they are based in real life scenarios.  

One of the themes that continues to appear throughout this article is the authors’ assertion that a child’s “sense of community” (p. 3) is the most important goal to strive for. They describe a positive sense of community as being a place that is cooperative, friendly, a place where teachers and students can learn together. This last point is extremely important in their study. The authors continuously assert that the reason for the development of a middle ground approach is because teachers and students must learn together. They state that if the teacher is not learning at the same time as the students, then no true learning is taking place. They believe that it is the creation of this ‘sense of community’ that will ultimately empower both teacher and students to excel. In the final analysis therefore, they do not believe it is the instructional method per se that is the issue in elementary education. It is the environment in which the learning takes place that is the most important issue.  

This assertion by these authors represents a new development in the educational literature. There has been so much focus on instructional strategies, curriculum, tests, assessments, evaluations and state/national standards that the notion of the classroom itself has gotten lost. At least, this is what these authors believe. They state that the environment is ultimately the most important issue because it enables students to make “the transition from the outside world to the world within the classroom” (p. 5).  

The researchers used a quantitative approach. Their sample size consisted of 116 fourth graders in five different classes.   They used the Paragon Learning Style Inventory   and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to report on learning styles. In addition they used The Sense of Classroom Community Inventory to “assess the degree to which students feel part of their learning” (p. 8). In the final analysis, the Constructivist-oriented approach “to teaching and learning may be more efficient” (p.9). In the end however, the authors stated that they results offer very “limited findings” and that there is a necessity to design and conduct additional studies in order to maximize student learning.   Therefore, the results of this study most definitely indicate the need for further investigation into the Constructivist method and ways to understand its efficacy and benefits in the classroom.  

The final article is one by Deborah Stipek and Patricia Byler (2004). Their research was also focused on elementary education. They begin their article by noting that there is increased pressure on teachers and students to adhere to the standards set out by No Child Left Behind. This legislation, according to the authors, is causing a concern about student scores especially in reading and math.  

As with the other authors, they also agree that there is a schism in educational pedagogy. Many are trying to prove that one approach over another is highly beneficial. On the other hand there are those who prefer to see a blending of the style to try and create an effective instructional style. These researchers were not content however to look at style. They believe in fact that there is a significant gap in the research in that most research in this area is about what teachers are teaching. They are less interested in teaching content than teaching style, even though they admit the two are highly interconnected.  

They used the Early Childhood Classroom Observation Measure (ECCOM) which they developed for the study. In their study, they acknowledge that other classroom observation methods have been used including, The Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale, The Assessment of Practices in Early Elementary Classrooms, the Assessment Profile for Early Childhood Programs, The Early Language and Literacy Classroom Observation Measure and the Classroom Practices Inventory.  

Their own tool, the ECCOM, is based on Constructivist theory and they worked with the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky in particular. In their theoretical model, teaching is less of a leadership role than a partnership. The classroom becomes a place where children are active learners and they construct their knowledge as opposed to being passive learners. There are also opportunities for “children to direct their own explorations” (p. 379). The most important aspect of the tool they developed is that it provides an independent assessment of which approach is being used, constructivist or didactic.  

This quantitative study involved a sample of 127 kindergarten and first grade students from 99 schools across three different states. The schools varied in terms of their demographics and there was a broad mix of students various cultural backgrounds — Latino, Spanish-speaking, African American and Caucasian. The classrooms were observed by someone trained to observe the classroom and they observed both math and literary instruction. In addition to direct observation, teachers completed two types of questionnaires. One was about their students and the other was about themselves and their teaching methods.  

The teachers had to rate their students in numerous areas of practical components/learning skills. These included writing letters, recognizing letters, tracing over writing, copying from the board, recalling from a story, reading stories, connecting ideas and using inventive spelling. In another group of components they had to score them in practical skills such as work habits, factual knowledge, basic skills, motor skills, independence, creativity, social skills and cooperation.  

In this study, the results are meant to provide an analysis of the style of teaching the teacher was able to demonstrate. When the teacher used a more constructivist-type approach, they received grades higher up on the scale. Higher ratings were also given to teachers who created a positive climate with strong components of social interaction and encouraging students to collaborate. Those who scored high on the constructivist scale   “stressed higher-order thinking as a goal relatively more and basic skills less” (p. 389). The teachers who scored high on the didactic teaching scale “reported using strategies that focused more on basic literacy and math skills” (p. 389).  

The primary goal of the research was achieved in that they were assessing the observation measure itself and not deciding if one practice was better over another. However, their findings did indicate that students tended to have stronger and more positive relationships with their teacher in the constructivist-oriented classroom. They were far more child-centered as opposed to the didactic classes which were far more teacher-centered.  



The project will study four groups of students. They will be divided as follows:  

One group of Grade 1 students who receive instruction via the traditional, didactic method

One group of Grade 1 students who receive instruction via the constructivist approach

One group of Grade 2 students who receive instruction via the traditional, didactic method

One group of Grade 2 students who receive instruction via the constructivist approach

The students will be from two schools and every attempt will be made to choose schools which provide students from a wide range of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.  



As the research literature demonstrates there is definitely a gap in educational theory and development of instruction techniques.   This gap is whether or not a constructivist method actually represents a beneficial technique for students to achieve higher grades academically and become more independent learners. This research project will investigate four classes of Grades 1 and 2. One group will be taught by the constructivist approach and the other will be taught using the didactic/instructivist approach. There will be an attempt to determine whether or not it can be states that one approach or the other represents a more beneficial instructional strategy. Theoretically, constructivist learning has been shown to be highly beneficial but not necessarily more advantageous than another approach. Therefore, this research project will also benefit pedagogical research in this area.  

There are “4” hypotheses in operation in this study. They are:  

The constructivist approach benefits Grade 1 students in attaining higher academic standards than students in the same grade who receive didactic instruction

The constructivist approach benefits Grade 1 students in working on a more independent basis than students in the same grade who receive didactic instruction

The constructivist approach benefits Grade 2 students in attaining higher academic standards than students in the same grade who receive didactic instruction

The constructivist approach benefits Grade 2 students in working on a more independent basis than students in the same grade who receive didactic instruction


Direct (Didactic) Instruction vs. Constructivist Instruction


Academic Success

Ability to be an Independent Learner

Academic success will be defined by the State measure/standard as set by No Child Left Behind. Independent learning will be defined as: works well on an independent basis, demonstrates an ability to understand and repeat the teacher’s instructions and assignments, ability to problem-solve with little or no assistance, displays a capibility for critical thinking, and seeks challenges. The students will be rated on each of these independent learning components on a Likert Scale of 1-3 with three being the highest score. Each student will receive a weekly score, then a monthly average and finally an annual average.


The researcher will procure permission to work with classes in two elementary schools in South Dakota. In each school, there will be a Grade 1 class and a Grade 2 class that participates in the study. One school will agree to use the didactic method and the other will agree to use the constructivist approach. Each school will be followed for the period of one academic year.  

In order to track the progress of the students in both schools with respect to academic success and academic independence, the researcher will visit the schools on a weekly basis. The researcher will work with the teachers to choose two subjects (chosen by researcher and teacher) in both Grades 1 and 2. The researcher will use the data collected by the teachers and chart these facts on a weekly basis. This will provide the data required in order to do a comparative analysis at the end of the academic year.   In addition to data collected by the teachers, the researcher will observe each class at least once a month. This direct observation will enable the researcher to observe first-hand the ways in which the approaches are used and how the students respond to them.  

At the end of the year, the chart will look similar to the one below:  

Class 1 — Grade 1: Constructivst Teaching — Grades — Ability to Work Independently

Class 2 — Grade 1: Didactic Teaching — Grades — Ability to Work Independently

Class 1 — Grade 2: Constructivist Teaching — Grades — Ability to Work Independently

Class 2 — Grade 2: Didactic Teaching — Grades — Ability to Work Independently

The data gleaned from the teacher’s own information will provide the researcher with a foundation to comparatively analyze the two approaches. The academic success chart will show a letter or numerical value; the ability to be an independent learner will be scored on a 3- point scale with the following definitions: “does not apply; applies sometimes and certainly applies”. Each week the teacher will tally the students’ total on these Then each month the four totals will be added together and the mean total will be the score for the month.




September — A September September – 2 September – 3
October — B October October October
November November November November
December December December December
January   January January January
February   February   February   February  
March March March March
April   April April April
May May May May
June June June June


Each student in the four classes will have a chart that documents their progress, or lack thereof. At the end of the year, there will be a comparative analysis in two areas. The first is whether or not either approach demonstrated an ability to help students attain a higher academic score. The second is whether or not either approach demonstrated an ability to help students attain a greater ability to be an independent learner as determined by their teacher and the researcher. The mean averages of each class will be taken and will determine the outcome of the analysis.  


There is a continuing need for ongoing research in education to investigate various approaches to teaching. As our communities and classrooms become highly diversified cultural environments, there are students from many different backgrounds and they embody a wide range of belief systems. While it is important for students to attain the academic standards as set out by national legislation, there is also a need for children to be ‘inspired’ and ‘enjoy’ their learning experiences. These children grow up to become the next generation of leaders and their educational experience is of primary importance.  

It is certainly viable to continue teaching students to understand basic concepts such as phonetics, mathematics, reading, studying skills, and the facts of history; they need more. They need to learn how to be self-reflective, how to work independently and also be part of a team effort. Children have a desire to explore. They are curious. These needs must also be met in the classroom experience. There is no clear-cut ‘answer’ from the literature that was reviewed. But, the literature did indicate a very strong need to conduct additional research on the Constructivist method of teaching.  

Yet there is also something important that emanates from these articles and that is while the style of teaching is important as is the content, the environment of the classroom is also important. This last point seems under-researched and under-acknowledged. It is most likely because there is such a strong argument between the two pedagogical styles that the notion of the classroom itself is being somewhat ignored.  

This suggests that further research is warranted on the subject of the classroom environment. Perhaps it is not so important which style creates the most inviting or positive classroom environment but rather that this is achieved. Children spend an inordinate amount of time in school. The experience should be as positive as possible. While this research is devoted to understanding the Constructivist model for second and third graders, it is suggested that further research be devoted to understanding the importance of classroom environment.  

The conclusion from reading these articles is that research is definitely warranted into the Constructivist approach and understanding its benefits and drawbacks.  








Chung, I. (2002). A comparative assessment of constructivist and traditionalist approaches to establishing mathematical connections in learning multiplication. Education, 125(2), 271-280.  


Overbaugh, R. & Lin, S.Y. (2005). Problem-based learning and fourth grade:   who really benefits?   The Constructivist, 16(1), 1-21.


Stipek, D. & Byler, P. (2004). The early childhood classroom observation measure. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 19, 375-397.

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