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Psychology of Education

Compare and contrast the constructivist learning approach and a direct teaching approach, giving specific examples of how these should be considered when teachers design their lessons. Make particular reference to the theorists you have learned about during your Psychology module and reflect on the approaches that you would like to use in your class, and why.

‘The current state of knowledge is a moment in history, changing just as rapidly as the state of knowledge in the past has ever changed and, in many instances, more rapidly.’ (Piaget, cited in Brooks J. & Brooks G., 1999, p.25)

What has struck me during this rich introduction to psychology, is the manner in which significant theory, even when undermined or called into question, paved the way for new learning, discovery or hypothesis. From the theories of William James, through the advances of Dewey, Watson and Skinner, Binet, Piaget and Vygotsky; each ‘moment in history’ whether endorsed or negated, to some extent fashioned the next.

The rapid shifting of the psychological terrain is one that has been echoed within the domain of education. The psychological rationale behind the primary learning space of today is a far cry from the intimidating hierarchy of the old-school classroom. Some fundamental changes that have shaped the contemporary primary classroom since the implementation of the 1971 curriculum, may arguably be explained by one word, constructivism. My discussion will focus first on the approach from which constructivism took a radical departure, namely direct instruction. This brief analysis will then be followed by an examination of constructivism as evident in the work of Piaget and Vygotsky. I will offer my own reflection on the approaches I would like to shape my future practice, and conclude with an observation on their significance within the field of educational psychology.

For the purpose of this analysis, Direct Instruction is the teaching model to which I will be specifically referring as sample of a direct teaching approach.[1] As outlined by Engelmann et al. (1988, p.303), the two key principles of this approach stipulate that the teacher should (a) ‘teach more in less time’ and (b) ‘control the details of what happens’. Such carefully scripted participation is required on the teacher’s part that Engelmann himself (1980, p.4) compared teacher to performer. Teacher control is facilitated through not only lesson scripts but also biweekly continuous assessment tests, the presence of supervisors and teaching aides and the use of procedural manuals for staff and parents alike. (Engelmann et al., 1988). What distinguishes Direct Instruction from other models is arguably the lack of student choice and expression. However, the effectiveness of the DI model has been widely researched, especially within the context of educational disadvantage and special needs (McMullen & Madeleine, 2014, pp.140-141), and despite resistance to this approach, studies have shown that its explicit guidance, the breaking down of each task, and the path to mastery and higher order skills via repetition of lower order exercises, have led to considerable success for students across a broad spectrum of social and intellectual backgrounds (Ibid., pp.144-145.)

The factors lacking in the DI model are, conversely, the primary principles that shape the framework of constructivist teaching. Based on the constructivist premise that ‘knowledge is constructed from within and that we are constantly involved in the construction of meaning for ourselves’ (McCarthy, 2006, p.26), constructivism promotes a classroom environment that is not only student-centred but also student-led. Here, the aim of the teacher is not to perform, but to empower students to formulate their own questions, seek their own answers and ‘understand the world’s complexities.’ (Brooks & Brooks, 1999). The constructivist teacher validates and challenges children’s ideas, constructing lessons around ‘big ideas’ and embedding assessment within daily teaching (Ibid., p.x). Two key influences on the development of constructivism as learning approach were the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky. Piaget’s cognitive development model was founded on the premise that children actively build their own knowledge through direct interaction with the environment, constructing and reconstructing their thought structures into progressively more complex schemas (Gavin, 2020). His stage theory outlined the qualitative changes in ability and intelligence that are due to biological maturation, activity, interaction, and equilibration via ‘assimilation’ of new information and the ‘accommodation’ of existing cognitive structures (Long, 2010, pp.33-35). One useful adaptation of Piaget’s theory may be seen in the model of the inquiry-based learning method, where students are presented with a problem and must hypothesise, research, conclude, evaluate and reflect on their own approach. The teacher acts as facilitator and ensures that everyone in the class is engaged and challenged (Bacon & Matthews, 2014).

Stage Theory and Piagetian Cognitive Development Tasks: Study aids and stimuli. Image Credit: Amy Devlin-Fox (See also: OU: Noirin Hayes on Early Childhood Development).

Vygotsky shared Piaget’s view of ability as dependent on direct experience and action. However, Vygotsky proposed that children construct knowledge and meaning by internalising lived experience (Long, 2010). Language and oral exchange were also key for Vygotsky, but most pertinent to the constructivist focus at hand is the Vygotskian zone of proximal development. Constructivist teaching fosters learning within this zone, which can be defined as the space between a child’s actual development level (what can be accomplished independently) and their potential development level (what can be achieved with the aid of support from a more able individual.) (O’Byrne, 2020). Scaffolding aids children as they learn within this zone, and entails the initial provision of support which is then gradually withdrawn in accordance with the increasing competence of the child. Peers within the same ZPD can also aid learning, and the process of ‘reciprocal teaching’, allows for problem solving in small groups where the teacher’s role is once again that of facilitator (Long, 2010, p.41).

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development: Theory in action. Video Credit: You Tube.

Such constructivist approaches are optimised within a classroom space where tables are grouped together to allow for group work, and where the teacher’s desk does not dominate but is positioned in such a way as to reflect a more student-centred practice.

While the research which I have encountered thus far leads me to strive to establish a classroom that maximises constructivist learning opportunities, certain strands of the Direct Instruction model should not be overlooked. Aside from certain subject strands in maths and language learning which require a degree of rote learning to facilitate later acquisition of higher order skills, Gavin (2020) draws on McCombs and Pope’s studies of motivation and metacognition, noting the role of direct instruction in thinking skills, cooperative learning and problem solving. DI serves as a platform from which certain pedagogical tools such as structured thinking activities can be developed (Branigan & Donaldson, 2019). What I hope to best shape my future practice is an appropriate balance between DI and constructivism, a balance reflected in this use of the former to foster more independent control over cognition and learning strategies. As learning objectives scale the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, constructivist approaches can be increasingly drawn on. It thus seems clear that the foundations of learning may rely more on DI, but the self-regulated learning attached to constructivism allows for independent and collaborative mastery of more complex skills and competencies.    


Bacon, K. & Matthews, P. (2014) ‘Inquiry-based learning with young learners: a Peirce-based model employed to critique a unit of inquiry on maps and mapping.’ Irish Educational Studies, 33(4), pp.351-365.

Branigan, H. & Donaldson, D. (2019) ‘Learning from Learning Logs: A case study of metacognition in the primary school classroom.’ British Educational Research Journal, 45(4), pp.791-820.  

Brooks, J.G. & Brooks, M.G. (1999). ‘Becoming a Constructivist Teacher.’ In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms, Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

Engelmann, S. (1980), ‘Direct Instruction, The Instructional Design Library, 22, New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications, Inc.

Gavin, A. (2020) ‘The Teacher as Motivator (1)’, Psychology of Education for Professional Masters in Education. [Online] Available at: (Accessed: 30 November 2020).  

James, W. (2008) Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals, New York: Cosimo, Inc.

Long, M., Wood, C., Littleton, K., Passenger, T. & Sheehy, K. (2010) The Psychology of Education: The Evidence Base for Teaching and Learning, London: Routledge.

McCarthy, J. (2006), ‘Revisiting Constructivism’, LEARN 2006.

McMullen, F. & Madelaine, A. (2014), ‘Why is there so much resistance to Direct Instruction?’, Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 19(2), pp.137-151.

[1] Note: This approach differs from others such as the ‘Direct Method’ used for second language acquisition. See See also McMullane & Madelaine (2014, p.139): ‘DI is explicit and direct, but not all explicit instruction or direct instruction is DI.’

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