How to Create a Constructivist Learning Environment Through Hosting a Dinner Party

Imagine you’re hosting a dinner party.

Some of your guests will know each other but many people won’t.

How would you:

1) plan,
2) prepare, and
3) host the dinner party so everybody enjoys themselves?

I’m sure you would have your guests’ enjoyment front of mind throughout each of these 3 stages.

You’d likely plan out the evening based on food (amazing flavours and dietary requirements) and perhaps some activities to get everybody interacting and enjoying themselves; you’d prepare the space to feel warm, friendly and inviting; and on the night, I suspect you would go about introducing people to each other, building rapport and supporting everybody to feel comfortable and happy.

Hosting a great dinner party is a lot like creating an ideal learning environment.

At your dinner party, you created:

  • a warm and caring environment;
  • a series of great experiences; and
  • a fabulous evening through facilitating and building rapport, being social and helping people feel comfortable and connected with each other.

Good learning design and teaching/facilitation are the sameThe feeling and experience you created for your guests are what you want to create in your learning environment for your students.

What is a Constructivist learning environment?

There is growing evidence from research and observation that suggests students construct their own knowledge and understanding through having experiences and then reflecting on those experiences.

This learning theory, known as Constructivism, and based on works by Piaget, Vygotsky, Dewey and others, requires students to be actively involved in their learning process.

It’s very different from the conventional idea of teaching as a form of knowledge transmission – where the expert teacher transmits knowledge that the student passively receives, and attempts to recall later in tests and exams.

Why do we need to create a Constructivist learning environment?

Students construct knowledge in both conventional and Constructivist learning environments (as all knowledge and learning is constructed by the learner).

The key difference is, deeper learning or construction happens when the student is actively involved in their learning process.

Being “actively involved” could be: having experiences and reflecting on those experiences, discussing ideas, working in groups, asking questions, doing experiments, creating, building, designing, and ultimately, connecting new information with their existing view of the world.

The teacher’s role is to carefully design learning experiences that facilitate students’ constructing their own understanding and facilitate the process of learning and discovery for students.

Discussing ideas

In contrast, the conventional classroom is one where the teacher is the centre of knowledge, who transmits information for students to receive.

The teacher does the majority of speaking and the students’ role is to passively listen or receive.

Students who are extremely motivated can learn through their own sheer will (and coffee, probably); but for the majority of students, being passive in the learning process leads to only surface learning and understanding (which is often enough for exams and tests).

3 tips for creating a Constructivist learning environment online

The great news is, you can create Constructivist learning environments both face-to-face and online (and it’s pretty fun too)!

Here are my 3 tips for creating a Constructivist learning environment online:

1. Start with an experience

Before introducing a concept, give students an experience to reflect on and conceptualise about first. E.g. Imagine you want to teach students how to conduct a scientific experiment.

Instead of starting with the theory of scientific research, give students a problem to solve: is it better to run or to walk in the rain without an umbrella? Which option will keep you dryer?

This will engage students in critical thinking, problem-solving, inquiry, testing out hypotheses and ultimately, coming to the conclusion for themselves of the importance of standardising the scientific process.

They can post online their reflections, experimentation process and their findings.

Listening to or reading information is ok; but to deeply learn something, it’s far better to be actively doing.

2. Get students creating or doing

You might learn road rules by reading the manual and completing the computer quiz, but you learn to drive by actually doing the driving. 

It’s the same in education.

E.g. If you want to teach students about videography, design activities where students can choose to go out and record videos; create vlogs (video blogs), short films or a series of videos that promote a product or service.

Students can share their videos online and discuss their creation process.

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3. Make it relevant to them

Facts and information can be interesting, but learning is often much deeper when a subject is made relevant to a student’s life.

E.g. If you’re teaching students about marketing, get them to share examples of products they have seen advertised in their own life (and if they’ve bought them as a result, even better!.

Students could reflect online about the marketing strategies used, how it impacted their purchasing decisions and compare their marketing experiences with their classmates.

Creating a Constructivist learning environment is key to enabling deep learning for your students.

What’s more, it’s a fun and rewarding learning design and facilitation experience for you as a course creator.

And you might even decide to host a dinner party as a learning environment test run…