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The Design of Constructivist

Learning Environments (CLEs)

How will we know if we are

engaging students in meaningful

following characteristics of meaningful

learning provide guidelines for designing
constructivist learning environments.



environments should emphasize

the qualities illustrated in Figure 1


is, technologies should be used to

keep students active, constructive,
collaborative, intentional, complex,
contextual, conversational, and reflective

Learners are engaged by the learning process
in mindful processing of information where
they are responsible for the result. In natural
learning situations, learners and performers
of all ages, without the intervention of formal
instruction, can acquire sophisticated skills
and advanced knowledge about what they are
learning. For instance, before playing sandlot
baseball, do kids subject themselves to
lectures and multiple choice examinations
about the theory of games, the aerodynamics
of orbs, and vector forces. No!


start swinging the bat and chasing fly

balls, and they negotiate the rules as they
play the game. Through formal and informal
apprenticeships and communities and play
and work, learners develop skills and
knowledge which they then share with other
members of those communities with whom
they learned and practiced those skills. In all
of these situations, learners are actively
manipulating the objects and tools of the
trade and learning by reflecting on what they
have done


integrate new ideas with prior

knowledge in order to make sense or make
meaning or reconcile a discrepancy, curiosity,
or puzzlement. They construct their own
meaning for different phenomena. The
models that they build to explain things are
simple and unsophisticated at first, but with
experience, support, and reflection, they
become increasingly complex

As we explained earlier, we believe that it is

impossible for learners to know what the
teacher knows. They can only know what
they know, so they should be supported in
the process of coming to know.


naturally work in learning and

knowledge building communities, exploiting
each others skills while providing social
support and modeling and observing the
contributions of each member. Humans
naturally seek out others to help them to
solve problems and perform tasks

Why then do we in schools insist that

learners "do their own work" and if they
don't, we accuse them of cheating.
Individualized, reproductive methods of
instruction cheat learners out of more natural
and productive modes of thinking.


human behavior is goal directed (Schank,

1994). That is, everything that we do is
intended to fulfill some goal. That goal may
be simple, like satiating hunger or getting
more comfortable, or it may be more
complex, like developing new career skills.


learners are actively and willfully trying

to achieve a cognitive goal (Scardamalia &
Bereiter, 1993/1994), they think and learn
more. Learning environments need to
support learners in articulating what their
goals are in any learning situation


greatest intellectual sin that we teachers

commit is to oversimplify most ideas in order
to make them more easily transmittable to
learners. In addition to stripping ideas out of
their normal contexts, we distill ideas to their
simplest form so that students will more
readily learn them. But what are they
learning &emdash; that the world is a reliable
and simple place

However, the world is not a reliable and

simple place. Problems are multiple
components and multiple perspectives and
cannot be solved in predictable ways like the
canned problems at the end of textbook
chapters. We need to engage students in
solving complex and ill-structured problems
as well as simple problems (Jonassen, in
press). Unless learners are required to
engage in higher order thinking, they will
develop oversimplified views of the world.


great deal of recent research has shown

that learning tasks that are situated in some
meaningful real world task or simulated in
some case-based or problem based learning
environment are not only better understood,
but also are more consistently transferred to
new situations


than abstracting ideas in rules that

are memorized and then applied to other
canned problems, we need to teach
knowledge and skills in real life, useful
contexts and providing new and different
contexts for learners to practice using those


is inherently a social, dialogical

process (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996). That
is, given a problem or task, people naturally
seek out opinions and ideas form others.
Technologies can support this conversational
process by connecting learners across town
or across the world

When learners become part of knowledge

building communities both in class and
outside of school, they learn that there
are multiple ways of viewing the world
and multiple solutions to most of life's


should be required by technologybased learning to articulation what they

are doing, the decisions they make, the
strategies the use, and the answers that
they found. When they articulate what they
have learned and reflect on the processes
and decisions that were entailed by the
process, they understand more and are
better able to use the knowledge that they
have constructed in new situations


Tools for building a
Constructivist Learning


CLEs present complex, novel, and authentic

tasks, you will need to support learners'
performance of those tasks. To do that, you
must identify the activity structures that are
required to solve the problem. Which of the
required skills are likely to be possessed by
the learners? For those that are not, you
should provide cognitive tools that scaffold
the learners' abilities to perform those tasks.


tools are generalizable computer

tools that are intended to engage and
facilitate specific kinds of cognitive
processing (Kommers, Jonassen, & Mayes,
1992). They are intellectual devices that are
used to visualize (represent), organize,
automate, or supplant thinking skills. Some
cognitive tools replace


while others engage learners in

generative processing of information that
would not occur without the tool.


tools fulfill a number of intellectual

functions in helping learners interact with
CLEs. They may help the learners to better
represent the problem or task they are
performing (e.g. visualization tools).


may help the learners to represent

what they know or what they are learning
(static and dynamic knowledge modeling
tools), or they may offload some of the
cognitive activity by automating low-level
tasks or supplanting some tasks
(performance support).


cognitive tools may help learners to

gather important information needed to solve
the problem. Each kind of cognitive tool
engages or replaces different cognitive
activity, so cognitive tools must be selected
carefully to support the kind of processing
that needs to be performed



T.M. & Jonassen, D.H. (1992).

Constructivism and the technology of instruction:
A conversation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Schank, R.C. & Cleary, C. (1995). Engines for
education. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
WWW version:
Koschman, T. (1996). CSCL: Theory into practice.
Schnase, J.L, & Cunnius, E.L (1995). Proceedings
of CSCL '95: The first interbnational conference
on computer support for collaborative learning.