Dr Keith S Taber, University of Cambridge

Constructivism and pedagogy…

…What is constructivist instruction?

The term constructivism is used in a wide range of ways, so it is important to know what is meant in particular contexts. For example, in the US there has been an active debate between supporters of 'direct instruction' who oppose what they describe as 'constructivist instruction'. They tend to use the term to imply minimally guided learning, or what is sometimes described as discovery learning. However, certainly as most commonly used in science education, constructivism:

a) is basically a learning theory, based upon empirical observations of student learning difficulties, and cognitive science research into the mechanisms and limitations of human cognition;

b) which can inform good teaching by setting out principles of pedagogy. The key ones would relate to how it is important to have a good understanding of learners' current understandings and knowledge to inform how best to move their thinking on; appreciating that learning is largely a constructive process of building new knowledge and understandings, and proceeds in limited steps;

c) and which has led to extensive research into student ideas, thinking, conceptual change and to a more limited extent, classroom teaching and learning.

This is clearly a very brief overview of the theme, but within this tradition, good teaching would not be a teacher spending large parts of essons telling (or dictating) information to pupils in a one way process…
…but nor would it comprise of students being left to find things out for themselves without significant teacher input.
Rather, good constructivist teaching includes substantial teacher input, but within sequences of lesson episodes that include structured tasks to support learning of canonical knowledge by providing plenty of opportunities for learners to reflect upon, share and explore their ideas. This is done not to allow them to rediscover from first principles the cultural discoveries made by past geniuses over centuries (a stereotype of naive discovery learning), but rather to allow them to engage in meaningful learning that builds up new understandings and supports progression towards canonical knowledge set out in the curriculum.
An example of a project that is developing classroom pedagogy in this way is the epiSTEMe initiative: external link:

Constructivism in science education has been considered to be a kind of paradigm or a research programme.

Some relevant writing:

Taber, K. S. (2014). Prior Knowledge. In R. Gunstone (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Science Education. Berlin-Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.

Taber, K. S. (2014). Constructing and communicating knowledge about chemistry and chemistry education. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 15(1), 5-9. doi: 10.1039/c3rp90012f

Taber, K. S. (2012). Vive la différence? Comparing ‘like with like’ in studies of learners’ ideas in diverse educational contexts. Educational Research International, 2012(Article 168741), 1-12. Retrieved from external link: doi:10.1155/2012/168741

Taber, K. S. (2011). Constructivism as educational theory: Contingency in learning, and optimally guided instruction. In J. Hassaskhah (Ed.), Educational Theory. New York: Nova, 39-61. external link: link to free download of this Chapter

Taber, K. S. (2011). Inquiry teaching, constructivist instruction and effective pedagogy. Teacher Development, 15(2), 257-264.

Taber, K. S. (2011). Stella Vosniadou (Ed): International Handbook of Research on Conceptual Change. Science & Education, 20(5-6), 563-576. doi: 10.1007/s11191-010-9283-6

Taber, K. S. (2011). Guiding the practice of constructivist teaching. Teacher Development, 15(1), 117 - 122.

Taber, K. S. (2010). Constructivist pedagogy is superior – it’s a matter of definition. Advanced Distributed Learning Newsletter for Educators and Educational Researchers, (October 2010). from: external link:

Taber, Keith S. (2010 July 6) Constructivism and Direct Instruction as Competing Instructional Paradigms: An Essay Review of Tobias and Duffy's Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure? Education Review, 13(8). from external link:

Taber, K. S. (2010). Straw men and false dichotomies: Overcoming philosophical confusion in chemical education. Journal of Chemical Education, 87(5), 552-558.

Taber, K. S. (2010). Paying lip-service to research?: The adoption of a constructivist perspective to inform science teaching in the English curriculum context. The Curriculum Journal, 21(1), 25 – 45.

Taber, K. S. (2009). Progressing Science Education: Constructing the scientific research programme into the contingent nature of learning science. Dordrecht: Springer.

Taber, Keith S. (2009, September 14). Constructivism and the Crisis in U.S. Science Education: An Essay Review. Education Review, 12(12). Retrieved from external link:

Bektas, O., & Taber, K. S. (2009). Can science pedagogy in English schools inform educational reform in Turkey? Exploring the extent of constructivist teaching in a curriculum context informed by constructivist principles. Journal of Turkish Science Education, 6(3), 66-80.

Taber, K. S. (2009). Progressing the Constructivist Research Programme to Advance Teaching and Learning about the Nature of Science. In I. M. Saleh & M. S. Khine (Eds.), Fostering Scientific Habits of Mind: Pedagogical Knowledge and Best Practices in Science Education. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers, pp.37-57.

Taber, K. S. (2008) Exploring student learning from a constructivist perspective in diverse educational contexts, Journal of Turkish Science Education, 5 (1), 2-21. (Invited contribution).

Taber, K. S. (2006) Beyond Constructivism: the Progressive Research Programme into Learning Science, Studies in Science Education, 42, pp.125-184.

Taber, K. S. (2006) Constructivism's new clothes: the trivial, the contingent, and a progressive research programme into the learning of science. Foundations of Chemistry, 8 (2), pp. 189-219.

Taber, K. S. (2000) Chemistry lessons for universities?: a review of constructivist ideas, University Chemistry Education, 4 (2), pp.26-35.

Taber, K. S. and Watts, M. (1997) Constructivism and concept learning in chemistry - perspectives from a case study, Research in Education, 58, November 1997, pp.10-20.


Dr Keith S Taber


Faculty of Education University of Cambridge
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