The Role of Constructivism in Teaching Science


The conventional way of teaching science has been through lecturing. The motivation behind this method was often the convenience that comes with it. In a lecture an instructor follows his notes or a book while the audience listens. Although questions are often expected, this rarely happens.

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Learning by doing, not listening

This method usually is not very compatible with experimental sessions, where students are asked to prove something through an experiment, because they are not trained to question their learning, but only to follow directions. This detachment between lecturing and the experimental training is, in my opinion, a reason why often there is very little excitement from the students over the sciences.

A consequence of this one-way of transmitting knowledge (from the teacher to the students) induces a high level of dry memorization by the students. The reason behind it consists in the lack of development of quantitative and analytical skills that comes with the traditional lecturing. As side effects, sciences (and in particular the physical sciences) are perceived as cryptic, difficult and requires a student to be "very smart".

Inquiry-Based Learning

To overcome such limitations, the physical science education community over the years has suggested that the "inquiry-based" learning provides a much more effective way of teaching the sciences because more it follows more closely the scientific method. This is indeed the true way of teaching problem-solving skills.

In a typical inquiry-based session, the teacher proposes a set of problems for the students to analyze and discover. Such problems or questions are approached by the students through a continuous and systematic use of questioning by a mentor, usually the teacher.

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Next OLPC scientist generation

The idea behind it is that in science there is nothing written in stone, and the scientific progress is dictated by the curiosity that arise in trying to find answers to questions. In inquiry-based learning the goal is to drift the students from passively listening to actively solve a problem by continuing questioning.

There are several side effects. Questioning a topic stimulates the creative nature of children and helps them to grow an independent personality. In addition, it helps mystifying the typical stereotypes about scientists, since they can easily identify with them. Finally, it helps developing a strong analytical sense in them, which is useful no matter what career they will later purse in life (from the sciences to economics, from engineering to programming).

Inquiry-based learning however is not easy to implement. Teachers have been traditionally not very receptive about this method, since it is more difficult to implement. (Think for example how easier is to prepare a lecture than instead to go and guide a group of students to solve a problem).

In addition, all the material available is usually better suited to the conventional lecturing. PowerPoint presentations are reaching out schools and universities but more often they consists on prepackaged lectures and do not fit in the inquiry based teaching.

There is a substantial amount of literature about inquiry-based learning, of which I suggest: Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards and the work of the pioneer in the field, Prof. Lillian McDermott. Examples of inquired based learning can be found in "Physics by Inquiry" by L. McDermott.

OLPC Constructivism Learning

While inquiry-based learning is a well established and proven but still growing method, one has to wonder if it fits into the constructivistic approach that OLPC originally envisioned for the XO. If I am not mistaken the idea behind this approach is to have the children to explore and "work their way" to enrich their education, by simply giving them a tool and expecting them to master it. It may seem that the constructivistic approach has a structure similar to the inquiry-based learning. However there is an important difference.

While the role of the teacher is assumed not important by the constructivism, it is instead crucial in inquiry-based learning. The teacher is the guide through the learning, through carefully thought questions. This role is the same as the role of parents in very small kids. In addition the guidance provides structure to the learning process, so priorities can be given to some topics according to relevance, chronological development, etc.

The current vision for the XO is to allow their students to develop their skills with the use of the machine not necessarily while at school. This is not, per se, a bad thing. However unguided, undisputed, unchallenged use of it won't make it effective. For example, Etoys is a great activity for a child to create useful content. However in the current implementation it is merely a tool. My question is: how is a child supposed to learn about scientific phenomenon with this tool, without guidance?

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Next OLPC scientist generation

The way I see it, someone (a teacher, or a more carefully thought activity based on Etoys), should provide the students with a challenge followed by further questioning that act as a guidance towards solving that problem.

The activity would be a precious tool towards the realization of this goal, but taken by itself, it would not be sufficient. Instead, an activity designed with continuous guiding through questioning would not need necessarily the presence of a teacher.

In a way, the teacher would be "built-into" the activity itself. However, as I said earlier, I do not see that happening in the XO, which so far as it is is simply a collection of unstructured tools.

I hope that local committees will pick up what OLPC is not. Carefully designed curricula for the XO is now crucial, and it should not left in the cold. Involvement of inquiry-based learning experts should be as important as the development of the platform itself. Their goal does not seem very different with that of the OLPC project. For this reason, this project would greatly benefit from their expertise.

This post was submitted by Nicola Ferralis. Want to share your OLPC-related ideas? Then write a Guest Post for OLPC News too.

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The XO is a tool, indeed. One way to implement the tutor/apprentice interactive learning strategy is by eLearning (I too hate such terms). By this I mean that students can interact with a teacher that is not necessarily present within earshot. You can do a lot with IM, if the child can read.

This has several advantages. A child can interact with a teacher out-side class hours. Teachers can distribute specific problem areas between themselves and children from the same class can work with different teachers on different problems. That way, children are not forced to work all at the same pace on the same problems.

The different tool-programs are great for this as they all allow collaborative work and all children have them available. See, eg, the Thai music video.


I'm very glad the XO will be available to those of us that think constructivist teaching is full of crap. How a teacher can go out and "teach and pray" or have kids rediscover arithmetic and the principles of algebra is beyond me. How about teaching typing? Do kids discover typing quickly and efficiently on their own? Because the basics of math facts seem to be a big no-no for constructivist, will kids and adults ALWAYS have calculators in hand when they determine tips for a restaurant or estimate if they have enough cash on hand to make a purchase?

Don't get me wrong, using experiential learning or the inquiry (questioning/Socratic) method of learning have their place - AFTER basics are learned and when application of skills/concepts are required.

That said, the XO will make a great teacher's tool for reading scripts to students and ebooks for kids. Then later using the XO as a tool for learning when the kids are older (say after 1st or second grade).

"That said, the XO will make a great teacher's tool for reading scripts to students and ebooks for kids. Then later using the XO as a tool for learning when the kids are older (say after 1st or second grade)."

My experience with children behind computers is teenagers sitting in their room at 10 PM helping their peers at the other end of town with their homework. Or a girl visiting her family thousands of miles away chatting with her friends over IM.

The whole point of the above post is to show that just reading aloud a scripted text is NOT good teaching. But that is the only thing you can do if you have 40+ children in a group. For anything else, you need modern communication and group collaboration tools.

The way WE were taught 10/20/30/40 years ago was NOT the one and only right way just because that is all we know.

Use your imagination.


Inquiry based learning has been proven successful in many different forums. When you have the luxury of a low student to teacher ratio, when it becomes a mentoring relationship, it is particularly effective. It is after all how children have always learned from their parents. But when the student to teacher ratio is high, constructionism provides essential relief for both teachers and students. Any learning environment will always be improved by the presence of a teacher. In a constructionism based learning environment, a teacher might only need to be another participant, another person learning side by side with the student.
The goal of the OLPC project is to remove as many barriers to learning as possible; a consrtuctionism based approach to laptop implementation allows both types of learning.
And yes, a well structured activity does enable 4, 5, 6 year olds and older to learn basic arithmetic concepts on their own without resorting to "teachers reading scripts to students", whether those scripts arrive on a laptop or not.
Children are born wanting to learn, we need to help them along, not stand in the way.

"...reading aloud a scripted text is NOT good teaching."

Yes! Reading a script of any kind is NOT teaching!

"But that is the only thing you can do if you have 40+ children in a group."

What you do, with or with out tools, is to break that large group down into smaller groups where learning and maybe teaching can happen. Knowingly or not, the teacher of the 40+ students will allow smaller groups to form and pursue whatever activity interests them. The only question is whether the teacher tries to guide them into productive activities or not. When the activities are well planned, the larger group can come back together later and share with the larger group what they have been doing. Then the students gain a larger picture of how different kinds of knowledge can compliment each other.
These teaching techniques have been in use for some time in the US -- they were developed to be used without any additional tools necessary. I have done this with 50 10 year olds walking through the woods -- no other tools needed.

The OLPC project is trying to accelerate this kind of learning and allow students to take off on their own, and chase whatever ideas come to them.

"The way WE were taught 10/20/30/40 years ago was NOT the one and only right way just because that is all we know."

The way most adults were taught had more to do with using assembly line tools to get as many students into the classroom as possible. It was the "brick and mortar" approach; students must be brought to a place of education and only there can proper learning happen.
We have long since acknowledged that learning should be happening constantly, and knowledge should be brought directly to the student, using as many different methods as possible, by whatever means necessary.

OLPC can revolutionize worldwide education, we must continue to guide the dissemination of this knowledge.

Great blog! Very interesting information

Behaviorist (traditional) Education
The memorization and testing of facts. The teacher tells or writes the facts on the board, the pupil memorizes facts and regurgitates them in tests.

Community of Inquiry
Developed by philosopher Matthew Lipman who found that students at university lacked basic reasoning skills and need to practice them as children. Children are given questions or stories and challenged to discuss and reason about them.

Educational theory championed by Russian Lev Vygotsky that essays that learning is a social phenomenon that occurs only in social contexts.

Learning through the creation and sharing of personally meaningful artifacts. Examples: model building, etoy creation or writing a play that is to be performed. The key is construction and problem solving and the learning that occurs is through this.

The XO is a material incantation of constructionist philosophy. This is something many writers about OLPC struggle to understand and so struggle to believe.

I am a primary school teacher of 8 year olds and a long time follower of OLPC. Since my school does a lot of testing, I am tacitly expected to be a behaviorist teacher much of the time. But when I can I proffer constructionist challenges. As I don’t have XOs the materials are often limited to cardboard, sticky tape and string. The level of engagement of children in these challenges is worlds beyond ordinary lessons. I would love my kids to have XOs so that this level of engagement could transfer across the curriculum, as I imagine it would.

As a parent that was heavily involved in the development and education of my children I learnt the hard way that by giving children a tool to learn with they become adept in use of the tool but not the material they are supposed to be learning.

If you give a child a computer they learn to use the computer. Constructionism only works if they are constructing in reality not in virtual environments. You cant grow a tree with a computer, you dig a hole in the ground, plant it and water it.

You dont provide fresh water to a village by using a computer. You build an aquaduct from a river or dig a well.

What computer use allows people to do is learn about ideas and use those ideas in real life.

The computer is not the end process but a means to an end.

On "You cant grow a tree with a computer," -- check out:

We've got some of our constructivist gardening and plant designing software ported to Python and PyGTK (from Delphi), but we're deciding if we want to move ahead with it (including "sugarizing" it, which remains a stumbling block even if it is not that hard).

Still, you have a good point. And virtual gardening is not the same as real gardening. We're just hoping it can provide an additional perspective on it -- some extra insight into the process as simulations let you try things that would be too expensive or dangerous or take too long in the real world or not be viewable in the same way (like visualizing water percolation through soil layers or graphs of climate data). And one reason we may not go forward with this software for the OLPC is thinking it just might not be realistic enough for people whose lives depend on agriculture (versus the causal gardener).

Anyway, we're waiting to get a XO-1 from the G1G1 program to see how fast the software developed under emulation runs on the real machine. It might also be too slow to be useful.

"You cant grow a tree with a computer,"

Try Critters or Sims.

Children sometimes get some unexpected lesson from these.


This type of discussion is exactly what needs to be at the forefront of this organization. Education for the children is what matters. The XO is one vessel for learning, and all of us need to work together on making the most out of it.

I stay up with blogs all over about OLPC, and not to discredit them, but a lot of the articles have to do with the hardware only. And sure the XO is what initially catches the interest of someone unfamiliar with OLPC. But getting discussions like this one going really moves everyone’s mindset to the real issue at hand; making better and more creative activities to further the child’s education and imagination. Not to say good work isn't being done, there just isn't any press on it. I believe that is what is needed to motivate the public who may not know about OLPC, or if they do know about it, start them thinking about educational activities for the XO.

I have heard many people and even a few schools claim that Constructionism (or often Constructivism since they are not clear on the distinction pointed out by Jason above) means basically shutting the kids in a room with some raw material and some vaguely defined goals and hoping they will emerge a year later having rediscovered all of science, math, geography and history entirely on their own!

Let's think this through - if one of our students happens to be as brilhant as Newton he will at the end of his lifetime only mastered the basics of physics and calculus with this method and most likely not even that. None of the other students would learn much at all.

So it should be obvious that the idea that Constructionism means less teacher participation is a huge strawman.

While it happens to be a goal for the OLPC to make constructionist ideas easier to implement where conditions are favorable (we have been having national debates about this in Brazil since 1983, for example, though sadly not as much since the early 1990s) there is the separate goal of allowing education of any sort to happen in situations which are not favorable. For example, when there are no good teachers around.

Now you can argue that if we can't get a child a good teacher then we should spend our money on that instead of on laptops. My reply is that if we haven't found the teacher in the last three decades, what has changed that we will find one in the next three? Same thing with open sewers and lack of drinking water and so on. OLPC does represent a change and so is something that might actually get done. So you will see the child with the XO sitting without a good teacher by the open sewer. This is not the ideal and is in no way Constructionism, but is some cases will be better than nothing.

Unfortunately these two different aspects of OLPC get mixed together and cause a lot of confusion.

Thank you to Jason (above), for spelling out the differences in the various educational concepts being loosely thrown about here. I am a parent, an engineer, and a teacher, usually in that order. Over the last 15 years I've had the privilege of working with a progressive K-6 elementary school, helping design and teach an inquiry based curriculum that includes computer technology. My understanding of "constructionism" is based on using it in real classroom situations. There is no "strawman" in it's application; you start with an inquiry based activity, then once the students are familiar with the tools at hand, you step back and watch to see what they make of things. Of course the students understand that they are required to create something that demonstrates their understanding of the subject at hand. An hour in a modern classroom goes a long way to understanding newer methods of teaching and communicating with kids.
My children all have mastered the use of personal computers, but have all continued to use them as different tools for different applications. It has always been the application that has driven them to use computers, not the machine itself.
OLPC is simply trying to get an amazing multi-purpose tool into the hands of those who need it most.


good points. Your idea of constructionism is actually closer to the real implementation of inquiry-based learning. You give the students a "kick start" and then if enough discussion is started, you, as a teacher can then step back. That is not, in my understanding, what the constructionistic approach appears to follow. The idea that the XO will completely substitute a teacher is to me a bit of a stretch. It may work for a few students, but that it may not necessarily be effective educationally for the vast majority. Having kids to know how to operate the XO doesn't mean that they will know what to learn, considering the type of material available on the XO.

So the XO is welcome as a great tool, something like a virtual library. But it's only one tool. What is also needed is guidance, curricula, activities specifically designed for the XO. In case of lack of teachers, these activities (and not the XO by itself), would provide the necessary guidance.

I would be really interested to hear in this forum/post about any project aiming at filling this gap (specific curricula, educational activities, applications for science, language learning for the XO). Before somebody complains, etoys or tam tam don't qualify.

"Now you can argue that if we can't get a child a good teacher then we should spend our money on that instead of on laptops. My reply is that if we haven't found the teacher in the last three decades, what has changed that we will find one in the next three?"

Around 900 million children in the world receive inadequate education.

They would need around 30 million teachers, ie, 30 children per group. A shortage of only 30% (ie, 40 children per class) means the world needs 9 million extra teachers. To train 9 million teachers, around 300,000 teacher trainers have to be recruited.

Anyone suggesting this policy should also be asked where to find people, resources, and time to train 9 million teachers. Let alone the reasons why this hasn't been done yet.

I have followed the discussions on OLPCnews for some time now, and almost ever post draws comments along the lines:

"Why don't we stop the OLPC and try again what has failed to deliver for half a century?"

The answer is always, "Why should this succeed now when it has always failed?"

Maybe we can blame this vision on "The little engine that could".

This popular story teaches children to mindlessly repeat failing strategies and puts the blame for failure on them. It is arguably the most damaging fairy tale ever.
(In my opinion, this story is pedagogically bad on many levels and constitutes child cruelty)


Of course I agree completely with NickF.
I am only trying to explain how I have seen the introduction of computers work in the classroom. Practical examples are what teachers need right now as the laptops start to arrive.
It is clear that the next step is to provide extensive support for the teachers using the XO in their classrooms. In my mind this is at least as important as the tech support issue.

When NN says this is really an education project, he must be ready to provide that education at all levels or it will fail.

"I am only trying to explain how I have seen the introduction of computers work in the classroom."

My personal experience is that computers are more useful to education outside the classroom than inside.

Inside the classroom, there should be direct pupil-teacher and pupil-pupil interaction. This is where things are explained and talked through. Reading, exploration, drilling, group and home work assignments don't need a teacher and are better done outside the classroom. That is when a computer is invaluable.

This fixation on the classroom has misdirected too many educational visions.


Some errors here. One guy said Vygotsky is the founder of the idea of constructivism, and cites a wikipedia page:

If you even glance at that page you'll see it mentions Piaget as the originator, not Vygotsky.

Lillian McDermott is not the pioneer of inquiry learning. John Dewey is the inspiration for inquiry learning, and Jerome Bruner introduced the idea of discovery learning.

Lillian McDermott is a well-known researcher in physics education, but there were others who did research in inquiry learning in physics before and after her, such as Andy diSessa, Barbara White, and others.

Lastly, the XO laptop is not "an incantation of constructionist philosophy". It just happens to come out of MIT where most other constructionist products have originated (logo, starlogo).

You can have constructionist activities put on the laptop (like etoys), but unless I am mistaken, I thought etoys/squeak was not installed by default, just python software instead. There is nothing constructionist about the sugar interface.

Thanks for a very useful discussion!

I like the tree growing application. My question on that is: do we know if XO students and teachers want an application like that? What pedagogical goals does it address?

That's my comment on the whole thread. I'm convinced of the value of constructionism and inquiry based learning. I suggest that we add to that a Freirian philosophy

In short, students need to uncover the themes of education which fit their conception of society and are therefore relevant for them. The teacher is more important than ever as a co-investigator in to the right context for education. To paraphrase Friere, we need to change the education paradigm from a banking education where teachers pour information in to the student receptacle to a problem-posing paradigm where teacher-students work together to uncover the right questions to be investigated.

The XO and the network enable students to reach out and find answers for themselves, but it doesn't by itself change the process of learning from banking to problem-posing. It can facilitate that change but the real break through will come when students, teachers and developers work together to build applications and content which address the themes most relevant to students.

What and how XO developers want students to learn is important. However, its most valuable when the students and teachers engage in a dialogue to create the content and tools that motivate them to learn.


Greg Smith

"Lastly, the XO laptop is not "an incantation of constructionist philosophy". It just happens to come out of MIT where most other constructionist products have originated (logo, starlogo)."

When it was first presented, until very recently, the XO was meant to be designed accordingly to the constructionist approach. It was meant to be THE constructionist device of choice.

"You can have constructionist activities put on the laptop (like etoys), but unless I am mistaken, I thought etoys/squeak was not installed by default, just python software instead. There is nothing constructionist about the sugar interface."

etoys is installed by default. The fact that the laptop has a "view source" button that allows kids to change the actual code, is to me a perfect example of constructionism.

Would you please elaborate why you think there is nothing constructionist about the sugar interface? What would make a constructionist user interface? The command line maybe?

Lets preserve and index this gem someplace handy. And the comments are wonderful, both in clarity and in diversity of thought. I long to see it all integrated into a single structured argument as a dialogue map.

When the village needs a well, I think that getting a team of students to make a report of what they saw and learned when they visited a working well digger or cleaner and asked about what was being done and why, would be useful to the students and to those who view their report, including adults. This may not be exactly the theory which inspired the OLPC, but I think it can be a valuable use of it as a tool.

By analogy, it could be interesting to get some teams to take a discussion like this and recompose it into a set of questions, answers, and arguments pro and con to make the essays more explicit and to combine alternative answers under the same question. Even deciding what question is being addressed by each answer is clarifying.

A few nits:

"curiosity that arise" -> curiosities or arises

"it helps mystifying the typical stereotypes" should be demystifying, I presume.

"later purse in life" -> pursue


Read aloud is good teaching

I can not agree to the statement : read aloud is not goog teaching.

You must not rule out that. For small child, read aloud with good text is a way to learn.

Through, there are many ways to learn. I will agree that read aloud is not the only way to learn.

Do not tell lie!