Vygotskian Viewpoint:
Technology and Constructivism

Dr. Mary Ann Coe Dr. Bambi Bailey
Dr. Martha Burger Dr. Stan Hartzler
Dr. Michael Land Dr. Robert Redmon


Views about constructivism in the classroom are varied and at times misleading, Ideas about integrating technology into the curriculum are also varied and at times misleading. The authors present a clearer vision of the use of constructivism in the English, Math, Science, and Social Studies classroom by meshing Vygotsky's ideas about constructivism with the use of technology as a tool for learning.

The ideas presented here reflect the use of technology to "infomate" not "automate" (A. November, 1998) the learning process, such as: concept mapping, problem-based learning (including webquests), asynchronous communication (including email, discussion boards, and collaborative writing), selected database and spreadsheet activities, desktop publishing opportunities, and the use of the internet. Ideas for integration of constructivist technological environments in the English, Math, Science and Social Studies classroom will constitute the remainder of this webpage.


The English Language Arts Constructivist Classroom  

Vocabulary development is a central objective in every language arts classroom, K-12. Traditionally, students read and listen to words and definitions selected and provided by their teachers.

In a social-constructivist classroom where the teacher has infused technology into the teaching and learning environment, students collectively identify words they consider important and relevant from within their own life experience. These words may emerge from a number of sources, such as live conversation, television (video), movies, video games, web sites, e-mail, and a variety of print media. Then students construct an understanding of each word’s meaning and appropriate use beginning by discussing what they already know about the words and the context within which they have encountered the words before. Students then mediate their personal understanding of these words by investigating ways the words are used and defined by others. This often begins by comparing published definitions from a variety of sources, including electronic databases. Students then seek a broader understanding about how the words might be used. One approach to understanding how words are used outside the students’ daily discourse is the “find” function found in most text readers and editors. Students participate in an ongoing collaborative negotiation of meaning, sharing and challenging each other’s understanding of the words as they emerge and evolve.  Students then demonstrate an understanding of the words in authentic contexts, both spoken and written. This demonstration may be facilitated by technology in the form of electronic presentation, word processing, communication, and publishing. Students learn not only vocabulary in this process. They concurrently negotiate the value and use of various information and communication technologies. Technology is made available as a resource (much like dictionaries, textbooks, and the chalk board) to be used by the students as they solve problems, seek information and understanding, and find ways to apply what they have learned in ways that are both personally and socially meaningful.  Teachers in such a classroom act as coaches and guides — mediating disputes, giving approval, and establishing the social framework within which the learning occurs.


The Mathematics Constructivist Classroom

Opportunities exist in mathematics for young children to discover important mathematics ideas using technology, in the context of shared experiences and development of terminology. LOGO, the programming language for creating designs using geometric transformations, can be the medium by which elementary children discover these transformations and use them to create tessellations. Children can also explore combining two or more transformations of one variety that accomplish the work of one transformation of another variety. Such activity can be used later as a model for composition of functions. Students can be encouraged to name the different transformations and to attempt to identify and name the types of tessellations that can be created.

Opportunities exist for secondary mathematics students to discover how "parent" functions are affected by systematic modifications in values of x before substitution, and modifications in values of the function after substitution. Using a graphing calculator, students can discover systematic effects of these modifications, and can learn to describe and classify them using terminology not normally associated with mathematics. The process can be reversed, with each student posing a graph for other students in a small group, and other students attempting to describe the equation of the given graph, by first describing parent-function modifications with the agreed-on terminology.


The Science Constructivist Classroom  

The most obvious way in which technology enhances constructivist practice in science education is by providing a means that students can conduct multiple iterations of observations, experiments or tests in a shorter amount of time than is usual without technology.  Although multiple replications of observations, experiments and tests is described as central to authentic scientific practice in textbooks, rarely is there time for students to model that behavior in class.  One really can’t analyze a single data point. So in order for students to build true understandings of scientific method, technology is central. In addition, in the past science teachers often were limited to science activities that were isolated in the laboratory due to bulky equipment, dangerous chemicals and text-based instruction.  By incorporating technology students can answer scientific questions about local problems like air and water qualities, indigenous species, soil composition and erosion due to development. By applying scientific principles to their own environment, students construct scientific knowledge in authentic, community contexts.  By publishing results of their work in the field (using digital imaging, publish and presentation software), students become active scientists in their community.

Another aspect of the use of technology in science education is the way that very young students can make scientific observations of situations that may either be unsafe for the student or disturbing to the system being observed.  For examples, using multiple timed images of life cycles of various animals and plants, teachers can provide observational data for students as young as four years old to begin to describe and analyze.  For example, after looking at digital images of nesting finches, kindergarten students were amazed to find that the “daddy finch” sat on the nest as much as the “mommy finch.”  They developed this information from watching the finch habitat at a distance comfortable for the finches coupled with telephoto shots of the nest.  Handheld technology coupled with touch sensitive screens and audio would improve student observation, experimentation and testing even more.



The Social Studies Constructivist Classroom  

A marriage of socio-cultural view of constructivism with technology opens up myriad opportunities for students to develop ideas and construct meaning through social interaction facilitated by technology. In the absence of such a theory of learning, teachers often rely solely on textbooks to provide information, which has been processed, for students. Students are not constructing the knowledge for themselves.

 Technology-mediated learning, however, offers opportunities far beyond the classroom walls for communication, collaboration, research, and publishing. With the textbook and curriculum guide as resources, a teacher can facilitate the learning process, which might begin with exploration of a topic and end with creation of a product, perhaps a web site or Power Point presentation. In the process, students guide their own learning, working their way through various internet sites that afford opportunities for interaction with actual social scientists (i.e. Africaquest, Greecequest, etc.), on-line discussion, problem-solving situations, virtual tours of places throughout the world, access to on-line libraries and data-bases, and even competitions and quizzes. With imagination and desire, a teacher can whet the learning appetite of students who have previously been fed only dry textbook food.

Constructivist Classroom

Lev Vygotsky forwarded the notion that higher mental functions (the way we understand things – all things) are mediated (modified, limited, or enabled) by language. Thus it behooves students to work to construct their learning in a socio-cultural environment. The authors believe that this environment needs to be infused with the use of technology as a tool to help construct that learning.



Related Links


Midwestern State University
West College of Education
Updated: April 2004