Constructivism in Workplace Learning and Development

In my previous article in this series on workplace learning, I began discussing the benefits of a Constructivist approach to worker development, and I will pick up on the topic of constructivism in the workplace today.

Now read on…

In my view, Constructivist-based workplace learning and development addresses the demands of the real world. It’s well-established that effective workplace teamwork depends on team members aligning to shared mental model (Edmondson, 2003; Senge, 1990). Research has shown that people mentally construct and “run” mental models to perform a wide range of tasks, from basic activities including reading (Kintsch, 1986) right through to designing software (Soloway, 1986), and troubleshooting complex systems (Rasmussen, 1986). With these applications in mind, I think that it would be useful to now take a look at the theory behind this approach to workplace learning and development, beginning with Jerome Bruner.

Educational psychologist Jerome Bruner was an advocate of the so-called ‘Cognitive Revolution,’ an intellectual movement in the 1950s that began what are known collectively as the cognitive sciences:

an interdisciplinary study of the cognitive processes underlying the acquisition and use of knowledge.

(Cognitive Science, 2007)

Building upon the work of Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget, Bruner developed a number of cognitive and constructivist psychological approaches “not to ‘reform’ behaviorism, but to replace it” (1990, p.3). Bruner demonstrated that a learner’s actions are less constrained by immediate environmental stimuli, and that cognitive processes mediate the relationship between stimulus and response.

He asserted that learning could occur without an observable manifest behavior, and that it was possible to undertake a task or acquire knowledge ‘mentally’ rather than through a purely Positivist or Behaviorist methodological phenomenology. By emphasizing the importance of teaching as a means of enhancing cognitive development, Bruner saw the role of the instructor as one who mediates the information to be learned, delivering it in a format appropriate to the learner’s current state of understanding. The instructor was responsible for encouraging learners to discover principles by themselves, and both learners and instructors should engage in an active dialogue:

[that is,] practice in discovering for oneself teaches one to acquire information in a way that makes that information more readily viable in problem solving

(Bruner, 1961, p.26)

To enhance this process Bruner maintained that learning and instructional curricula should be organized in a learning spiral, where content is structured and distributed in a format that is appropriate for the learner’s current level of knowledge. The content must also be sequenced in such a fashion that the learner is appropriately challenged and stimulated by the content so that the information being mediated by the instructor continually builds upon what the learner has already assimilated (see Figure 1). The model is the basis for what we call Constructivism.

Bruner's Learning Spiral

Figure 1. Bruner’s Learning Spiral

M. David Merrill and David H. Jonassen further developed the theory in the 1990’s to postulate that our reality is perceived through a process of social negotiation. A Constructivist approach led to a shift from objectively- to subjectively-focused learning, and the development of more open-ended tasks where the results of learning are not so easily measured, and are not the same for each learner. According to Merrill and Jonassen, the main characteristics of Constructivism are:

  • Use of realia (real-world objects)
  • Authentic tasks – task-based learning
  • Reflective practice – learning to learn
  • Use of hypertext and hypermedia – branched learning rather than a linear learning path




Bruner, J. S. (1961). The act of discovery. Harvard Educational Review 31(1): 21–32

Bruner, J. S. (1990). Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press

Cognitive Science. (2007). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia. [Internet] Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_Science [Accessed 1st September 2017]

Edmondson, A.C. (2002). Managing the risk of learning: Psychological safety in work teams. [Internet] Available from: http://www.hbs.edu/research/facpubs/workingpapers/papers2/0102/02-062.pdf [Accessed January 15, 2017]

Kintsch, W. (1986). Learning from text. Cognition and Instruction, 3, 87-108.

Klein, J. Eseryel, D. (2005). The Corporate Learning Environment. [Internet] Available from: http://www.igi-pub.com/downloads/excerpts/159140505XCh1.pdf [Accessed February 18th 2017]

Jonassen, D. H. (1991). Objectivism versus constructivism: do we need a new philosophical paradigm? Educational Technology Research and Development, 39 (3), 5-14.

Merrill, M. D. (1991). Constructivism and instructional design. Educational Technology, May, 45-53.

Rasmussen, J. (1986). Information processing and human-machine interaction. New York: North Holland.

Senge, P.M. (1990). The fifth discipline. New York: Doubleday/Currency.

Soloway, E. (1986). Learning to program = learning to construct mechanisms and explanations. Communications of the ACM, 29(9), 850-858.


  1. Michael — Wonderful distillation of Constructivism in this post. I looked for but couldn’t find your earlier posts on this same topic and wonder if you have compiled them in such a way as to link to the full series?

    I’m working on a project related to my blog and would like to provide a link to something that provides the essentials of Constructivism to those who are not primarily learning professionals but who would benefit from understanding the fundamentals.

    Do you have or could you recommend such a post or Web page?

    Thanks so much!

    • Hi Ellen,
      Thanks for your kind remarks. I originally authored a series of post on Constructivism way back in late 2007 / early 2008; I think you’ve hit on something regarding providing a permanent link to the series, and I’ll do something around this very soon. In the meantime, here’s the link to the first post in the series http://michaelhanley.ie/elearningcurve/constructivism-pt1-2/2007/12/20/.
      Other approaches would be to use the excellent Lijit Search feature and the Blog Archive features in the right-hand nav panel (just below Recent Posts) to find the content by topic and date respectively.
      Best of luck with your project, and may I say “keep up the good work” on the alearing blog!
      Best regards,

  2. Michael,
    This is great. Constructivism has so much to offer, as we aim to translate it from the theoretical to the practical, and you’ve really contributed to making this approach accessible.

    As you point out, constructivism involves “more open-ended tasks where the results of learning are not so easily measured.” How do we integrate this with designing digital learning experiences/objects/material? How do we make them sufficiently open-ended that the student does construct her/his own learning but tie it also to something digitally assessible? I’ve been working on branching paths as one approach. Other thoughts?

  3. Hi Michael,

    I think your post is very thorough and well written.

    As a student of Instructional Design, I had recently read about constructivism. Your posting has most definitely helped expand my knowledge on the matter. However, in reading your post, I couldn’t help but wonder about a few things:

    1) In Bruner’s spiral shown in your post, do you feel that all five points must be met for learning to take place? Both professionally and academically, I have had times where there was minimal or no feedback whatsoever. This can also apply to those that are teaching themselves outside of a formal environment.

    To give an example: I can pick up a book on photography, buy a camera, and do as the book instructs me to do. Yet there is no feedback on my learning, so there would be no indication that I have truly learned anything.

    2) According to Merill and Johansen, if learning cannot be measured and is not the same for all, then how can an individual (or a group of them) designing education determine if their means of education is not flawed or ineffective? As an instructional designer, I would like to ensure that I providing the best means possible for education. By Merill and Johansen’s statement, there is no way to actually determine that.


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