Constructionism, a Learning Theory and a Model for Maker Education

In response to a literal call for #HELP on Twitter, I pulled together  three blogs from various resources. This is blog 3 of 3 to help construct my own knowledge on the topics of making in schools and the two learning theories constructivism and constructionism. 

Constructionism, a Learning Theory Centuries in the Making

Standing on a foundation of Pestalozzi, Montessori, Dewey and Piaget, we begin now in the 1960’s in Brazil, where another revolutionary thinker named Paulo Freire was inventing his own theories. Frustrated by the poverty he was seeing throughout the depression, Freire showed through experimentation that literacy was the key to achieving freedom and self-actualization. He coined a new learning model called critical pedagogy, where education was a tool to question any system of oppression, namely that of our current economic and educational systems. Friere was laying the groundwork for what we now call the “maker mindset” before the term existed, a sentiment that would resonate in Piaget’s work as well.

Piaget was not only a learning theorist, he was also an early advocate for the mindsets we now cherish in the current maker movement such as agency and inventiveness. Piaget advocated that learners be allowed to employ a bottom up, or user generated learning model that would challenge traditional schooling, such as passively receiving canonized ideas from adults and teachers. Piaget saw school as a venue for raising innovative thinkers instead of well trained consumers, much in the same way Freire saw education as a tool to enlighten not oppress.

While working at the University of Geneva (1958 to 1963), Piaget would inspire the work of protoget Seymour Papert. Seymour Papert’s seminal work entitled Mindstorms; Children Computers, and Powerful Ideas (1980) states that children should use computers as powerful tools to create their own educational experience. What we now call constructionism, is the term Papert created as a play on the theory of constructivism as well as the words “to construct,” or “making.” Papert’s constructionism assumes constructing one’s own knowledge, just like constructivism, using code as a language to invent or to inquire. By inventing constructionism, Papert successfully predicted the use of technology, as seen in the current maker movement and increased use of programming in science labs to collect and analyze data. Papert’s constructionsim would allow young learners to construct their knowledge of various subjects through personal inquiry and creativity. The tool Scratch and its various outlets for exploration is a fine example of this reality.

A Model for MakerEd

When we expand Papert’s constructionism to include the rest of our human history making and designing with materials such as paper, tape, wood, fabric, etc., we not only invent the “maker movement”, we see a concrete mode for identifying a learner’s personal schema, as well a diverse playground of tangible documentation of a learner’s growth. As a model for how we learn, constructionism has the potential to disrupt the status quo while ushering us into a more optimistic and coopertive future.

When actively creating our own education from first hand experiences through play, testing, and exploring, we learn by doing, or constructivism. When we make models of ideas, tools for inquiry, or invent to learn, this is constructionism. Most proponents of progressive education would deem the effective use, effective defined as having some structure for safety and sustainable growth, of both constructivism and constructionism in school as necessary. Constructionism assumes not only Piaget’s constructivism, but also Friere’s ideas on self-determination and Papert’s prediction about the role of technology to foster a more innovative and truly democratic society.

The last pieces of the puzzle are now in our hands. Learning through the making of things is constructionism in action. This is what happens everyday in a makerspace, therefore makerspaces are learning “ecologies” designed for constructionism. If you are working with learners in a makerspace, you are a facilitator of constructionism. Welcome to the club, now lets learn from critical pedagogy and constructionism to cultivate a society of inventive, empathic, skeptics.

Nullius in Verba!



  1. Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

  2. Holmes, R. (2009). The Age of Wonder: How the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science. Vintage.

  3. Papert, Seymour. (1980). Mindstorms; Children Computers, and Powerful Ideas.

  4. Porter, T. M., Meadows, J., & Morrell, J. (2006). The Victorian Scientist: The Growth of a Profession.

  5. Pulaski, M. A. S. (1971). Understanding Piaget: an introduction to children’s cognitive development. New York: Harper & Row.

  6. Soëtard, M. (1994). Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education, 24(1-2).

  7. Vygotsky, L. (1987). Zone of proximal development. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes, 5291.