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Constructivism and Games

building blocks

Continuing my series on the relationship between the various learning theories and games, this post explores the idea of constructivism.

From the constructivist perspective, learning is not a stimulus-response phenomenon as described by Behaviourism, rather it requires self-regulation and the building of conceptual structures through reflection and abstraction[1]. In constructivist theory, the learner takes an active role in constructing his own understanding rather than receiving it from someone who knows.  According to constructivists, learners interpret information from the unique personal perspective of their previous experience.  They learn through observation, processing and interpretation: personalising the information into knowledge[2],[3].  As well as the recognising the cognitive aspects of learning, a major emphasis of constructivist theory is situated learning, that is contextual learning where material is placed in a recognised situation and takes account of the learner’s beliefs and conceptions of knowledge (Ernest, 1995).

Boethel and Dimock outline six assumptions of constructivism:

  • Learning is an adaptive activity
  • Learning is situated in the context where it occurs
  • Knowledge is constructed by the learner
  • Experience and prior understanding play a role in learning
  • There is resistance to change
  • Social interaction plays a role in learning[4]

Learning, according to Constructivist theory, takes place through stimulating one’s ideas and helping to reflect on them.  The process encourages learners to consider how new ideas, actions they take and experiences make sense of their own mental models.  The main difference between the behaviourist and constructivist approaches is that in the former, one sees the learner as a relatively passive storer of knowledge and the latter the learner is an active creator of their own knowledge.  In practice, most situations seem to involve a mixture of the two.

Constructivist games provide primary sources of information, simple elements and raw data for players to experiment with and manipulate.  Open-ended God-games (like Black and White or Spore) and simulations (like Age of Empires) typify the theory because every instance of the game is a unique creation by the player.

In an extension to constructivism, Seymour Papert recognised the potential of production as a means of learning in his work on constructionism, that is, “learning by making.”

Papert says “Constructionism—the N word as opposed to the V word— shares contructivism’s view of learning as “building knowledge structures” through progressive internalization of actions… It then adds the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe.[5]

Papert originally had simple computer programming in mind as the tool for production and his ideas have found substance in the non-specialist development environments such as  Kodu for the XBox and others like  Mission Maker and GameStar Mechanic.  The ability to create games offers users the opportunity articulate their understanding in new ways and simultaneously consider how best to communicate key principles – in essence is gives lay game-developers the chance to make games “in their own words.”


[1] von Glasersfeld, E. , (1995), A constructivist approach to teaching, In Constructivism in education, (pp.3-16). (Eds.) Steffe, L. & Gale, J.,  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., New Jersey

[2] Cooper, P. A., (1993), Paradigm shifts in designing instruction: From behaviorism to cognitivism to constructivism., Educational Technology, 33(5), 12-19

[3] Wilson, B. G., (1997), Reflections on constructivism and instructional design., In C. R. Dills & A. J. Romiszowski (Eds.), Instructional development paradigms (pp. 63-80).  Educational Technology Publications, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

[4] Beothel, M & Dimock, K. V. , (2000), Constructing Knowledge with Technology , Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, Austin, TX

[5] Papert, S. & Harel, I., (1991), Constructionsim, Ablex Publishing Corporation, Norwood, New Jersey

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  • Musa

    and what is post-constructionism and de-constructionism ???

  • Chuck B.

    A big question for constructivist educators is “how can we provide opportunities for kids to make real-life discoveries on their own?” Play plays an enormous role in education, which makes it so disheartening (not to mention, utterly confounding) to see recess cut in so many American schools. It’s encouraging to see projects like these, though: http://www.smart-urban-stage.com/blog/future-of-the-city/real-life-discoveries/ We can at least hope that this enlightened Scandinavian approach takes hold in the States.

  • Thanks for your note, Chuck. I completely agree about the risk of cutting children’s opportunities to play but was heartened by the link you posted.

    I’m a big fan of the Montessori approach which tackles the challenge of providing kids the opportunities to make real life discoveries.

    Thanks again!