Psychology of Education

Q. Compare and contrast the constructivist learning approach and a direct teaching approach, giving specific examples of how these should be considered when teachers design their lessons. Make particular reference to the theorists you have learned about during your Psychology module and reflect on the approaches that you would like to use in your class, and why.


The constructivist and direct teaching approaches are both adopted by teachers around the world. I had come across both approaches during previous study, and would have aligned myself with the values and ideology of a constructivist teaching style, however after the in-depth exploration covered in Foundations, I have a new appreciation for the application and importance of both in the classroom.

Discussion of approaches

Constructivist psychology is based on the idea that individuals construct their own learning from building on prior knowledge and by interacting with their environment (Bartlett and Burton, 2010). A constructivist approach applies concepts developed by Piaget and Vygotsky to the classroom. Piaget’s theory emphasised the need for children to interact with the environment to actively engage with their learning. Vygotsky also believed learning was enhanced when learners were active in learning, however he emphasised the importance of teachers and peers in learning. Vygotsky believed that children developed by engaging in discussion with adults and peers within the classroom (Long et al., 2010). His work on the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), explained the significance a facilitating teacher can make to a child’s development. The ZPD was the area of possible learning between the child’s actual level of development and their potential development (Eun, 2018). He emphasised the importance of ‘scaffolding’  learners, wherein the teacher provides enough information to bridge the gap in knowledge but allows the child to make the connection themselves (Long et al., 2010).

This visual shows the ZPD and the learners ability at each point. Source:

Direct Instruction (DI) can be described as, “the systematic, explicit teaching of academic strategies” (Gersten, Woodward and Darch, 1986, p.17). Engelmann popularised the approach with his DI model for early years. He emphasised, “frequent teacher-student interactions guided by carefully sequenced, daily lessons in reading, arithmetic, and language” (Engelmann et al., 1988, p.303). Engelmann set out two main rules to be followed when implementing a DI model, to teach more in less time and to control the detail of what happens (i.e. specific curriculums, lessons) (Engelmann et al., 1988). In general, the DI approach is implemented by first introducing a new concept and explicitly teaching that concept, then moving onto guided practice where a teacher helps students implement the concept and then finally allowing students to work independently on the concept (Kinder and Carnine, 1991).


It is important for teachers to understand an approach before trying to implement it in a classroom. In terms of the role of the teacher, from a constructivist standpoint the teacher is the facilitator of all learning. As Vygotsky explained a teacher should guide the learning and scaffold the learner where necessary (Long et al., 2010). With DI, the teacher is the ‘sage on the stage,’ the knowledgeable adult who transmits information to the students (King, 1993). The teacher in DI, holds a more authoritarian role to the constructivist teacher. When examining the role of the student, again we see the contrast between them. Within a constructivist approach the learning is child centred. Both Piaget and Vygotsky highlighted how children learned through interaction with their environment, a way to provide this as a teacher is to include active and hands on lessons in lessons (Bartlett and Burton, 2010). In DI, the role of the learner is more passive, instead of exploring their own ideas and curiosity, they are taught skills by explicit teaching from the teacher. When it comes to lesson planning, in particular writing objectives, deciding on methodologies and organising body of lessons, it is important to consider what the student will be doing and what the teacher will be doing. Another difference in the theories is student motivation. In a constructivist class, it is thought that students are motivated intrinsically, by their want/love of learning and by their curiosity to explore the world (Palmer, 2005). DI, on the other hand, relies on more behaviourist approaches to motivation, where the motivation of students is based on reinforcement of receiving rewards, tokens, praise (Kinder and Carnine, 1991). While on the surface these two approaches to teaching and learning seem as though they are worlds apart there are some similarities. An example would be with the process of implementing DI, explicit teacher-led instruction, leads to guided practice, leads to independent work. This idea is similar to Vygotsky’s theory, which states that to understand more complex knowledge you must first have the basic skills.


While the two theories seem opposing, I believe that there is a place for both in teaching. Before exploring DI in depth, I would have aligned with the constructivist school of thought, however I now see that there is a time and a place for both within the classroom and I would aim to use elements of both as an educator in future. Direct teaching is necessary when teaching skills and knowledge that require explicit teaching like in maths, presenting and modelling how to work out problems using specific rules and in teaching the languages, grammar rules and use of verbs etc. Direct teaching is most appropriate when teaching things which have to be learned in a certain way. I will be able to model the correct procedures and give my students the skills needed to then adapt what they’ve learned for deeper learning. I currently work in a special school and we use modelling, repetition and reinforcement for a lot of what we teach. From this experience, I can see the effectiveness of direct teaching. Students learn the exact way to do something and issues are quickly spotted from teacher observation. I believe then there is room for more constructivist approaches to come in. Piaget and Vygotsky both emphasised the importance of hands on, active learning. I would where possible integrate these types of methodologies into my lessons, including opportunities for project work and for general exploration of their own ideas (this can be done with class debates, having an open class which encourages class questions etc.). Vygotsky also noted the importance of peer learning and this is definitely something I would bring into my classroom. Exercises such as pair and table work, class discussions, ‘fishbowling’, all lend themselves to collaborative learning. I think Arts lessons in particular should include this type of learning as there is always a need for engaging in group discussion, reflection on peers’ work and getting involved in team exercises.

I drew this picture because I wanted to show how I will use both the Direct instruction and Constructivist learning approach in my classroom in future.


Direct Instruction and the constructivist approach are not mutually exclusive in nature. I believe there is a need for both within the classroom, to first present and teach new concepts accurately and then to allow students work more independently as their learning develops.



Bartlett, S. and Burton, D. (2010) Introduction to education studies. 3rd edn. London: SAGE.

Engelmann, S., Becker, W.C., Carnine, D. and Gersten, R. (1988) ‘The Direct Instruction and follow through model: Design and outcomes’, Education and Treatment of Children, 11(4), pp. 303-317

Eun, B. (2019) ‘The zone of proximal development as an overarching concept: A framework for synthesizing Vygotsky’s theories’, Educational Philosophy & Theory, 51(1), pp. 18-30.

Gersten, R., Woodward, J. and Darch, C. (1986) ‘Direct Instruction: A research-based approach to curriculum design and teaching’, Exceptional Children, 53(1), pp. 17-31.

Kinder, D. and Carnine, D. (1991) ‘Direct instruction: What it is and what it is becoming’, Journal of Behavioural Education, 1(2), pp. 193-213.

King, A. (1993) ‘From sage on the stage to guide on the side’, College Teaching, 41(1), pp.30-35.

Long, M., Wood, C., Littleton, K., Passenger, T. and Sheehy, K. (2010) The Psychology of education: The evidence base for teaching and learning. (2nd edn.). London: Routledge.

Palmer, D. (2005) ‘A motivational view of constructivist-informed teaching’, International Journal of Science Education, 27(15), pp. 1853-1881.

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