The Learning Cycle - Relative to Constructivist Learning Theories

Overview of Instruction Realted to Learning Theories

Directed, traditional, or conventional instructional teaching is simply a training process that involves telling, confirming and practicing. This includes all direct instructional models and theories. Its limitations are obvious. From a generative learning point of view, it omits the vital activities that involve student creation, interpretation, elaboration, and expansion required for learning.

A constructivist learning theory would be one that combines Piaget and Vygotsky's learning theory to attain generative learning.

Central to a constructivist theory is a need to focus on students' current ideas and mental organizations which will not be rejected until there is something adequate and reliable to replace it.

To achieve this students must experience conflict that result when their expectations are not realized - disequilibration. However, these experiences alone do not cause students to reject or reconstruct their current misconceptions or alternative points of view and reorganize their understanding into ideas that are more accurate when compared with current scientific understanding.

Robert Karplus argued - science learning is a process of self–regulation in which the learner forms new reasoning patterns. This can only occur when students reflect on their ideas and compare their past experiences with information they are currently exploring. It will most likely result after a period of observation where the student has control over the manipulation of variables that determine the results and opportunities to compare their understandings with the ideas of others - students, teachers, and scientists.

Necessary Conditions to Create, Interpret, Elaborate, and Expand Scientific Understanding

  1. Evidence or data is provided to support all knowledge claims so students have opportunities to learn to see and value explanations as personally constructed in their minds for their purposeful clarification of a situation or idea. Therefore, all knowledge can and must be invented by them.
  2. Many times students are left with an incomplete construction or none at all. Therefore, the new ideas must be seen as a series of inventions.
  3. Students often are not able to apply information. Therefore, to demonstrate the value and power of expanding and connecting ideas, a range of activities must be available to build concepts into generalizations and generalizations into more powerful ideas - generative knowledge. Failure to do so causes students to memorize new ideas at best and not to pay attention at worst.

Rationale for Meeting the Conditions

Karplus was among the first to propose a three–phase learning cycle for teachers to use simultaneously as a learning model and an instructional model. The learning cycle being based on Piaget's learning theory in which - learning involves cognitive accommodation (see note below for accommodation) - something different than an initially held misconception or alternative conception.

In the initial phase it is necessary for students to discover their individual conceptions about the science topics for the purpose of possible modification towards a more current scientific view. To achieve cognitive accommodation, student's present understanding or their misconceptions must be acknowledged. Ausubel noted - "preconceptions are amazingly tenacious and resistant to extinction" (Ausubel, 1968). This being true, they often reappear and interfere with the teacher's planned learning outcomes.

Therefore, to achieve accommodation every student must be aware of his/her own current understandings. This can be achieved with a question, task, or problem which requires an explanation of existing ideas in a way to interprete their understanding as a cause and effect relationship, logical explanation, or model. To achieve this students are encouraged to describe their own views written, verbally, and pictorially, and to state their ideas clearly. This information is useful for them to recognize what they can and cannot explain and what is or is not accurate according to their subsequent observations. Different explanations might be suggested by other students or the teacher which will help them clarify their current understandings, how they represent what they understand, and what evidence and reasons they used for explanation.

Whether students are dissatisfied with their existing ideas or not is not important at this time. At this point it is most important for them to clarify their present understanding. Later, as a results of their participation in more activities, opportunities might lead to dissatisfaction of their current understanding so that conceptual conflict becomes sufficient for them to recognize limitations to their current less accurate explanations. This recognition can begin a process to seek a more beneficial and hopefully more accurate and complete scientific explanation - accommodation. It is through this recognition students come to value the new or additional explanation more than their less accurate explanation. Over time numerous such occurrences will lead them to science for understanding their world.

Note for Accommodation - Learning

Accommodation comes from the search for a solution to the conflict of ideas. Therefore, conceptualization (concept learning) is achieved by exposing misconceptions by creating conceptual conflict, and encouraging cognitive accommodation with more reasonable explanations based on additional evidence. This evidence must be observational, new ways of reasoning, or through a view from a different reference point for accommodation to happen - learning.

A note on observational. Observational doesn't mean that they are currently observing what is need to change or accommodate - learn. The observational information can come from prior experiences. However, it needs to be sufficiently strong to provide confidence in using it to move their conceptualization forward. If it is not, then observational - hands on experiences - must be provided. This is where students with a wealth of experience excell in their learning over students with less related experiences.

Description of the Learning Cycle Steps

1) The first step might include a learner controlled experience to allow the learners to become familiar with as wide a range of ideas related from any intuitive ideas or beliefs to current scientific ideas for the topic (concept, outcome, goal) to be investigated. Experiences need to provide opportunities that include sufficient depth to allow students to clarify their ideas in a risk free environment where they can feel confident to begin to make predictions and continue to make predictions after some of their initial predictions fail. Predictions based on both their intuitive ideas and scientific ideas.

2) The second step might include discrepant events, problems, or questions, tasks or experiences for the purpose to have unexpected outcomes when the students' misconceptions or alternative views are put to the test. Cognitive dissonance or a bit of uncertainty is introduced to spark curiosity and a desire to restructure his or her views to achieve more accurate predictions. This is where facilitation from a more experienced person can be most crucial.

To assist in the construction or restructure of the students' ideas a bridging activity is usually required. Something to be used to help the learners relate observations to some kind of mental manipulation, organization, or understanding to accommodate - learn about the unexpected outcomes. A bridge can provide a way to organize and interpret the data and ideas or to discover patterns and explanations.

Examples that might be used as bridges are patterns, organizations, classification, pictures, charts, Venn diagrams, graphs, analogies, equations, if-then statements, animations, and more. Communication and intervention by more experienced learners is helpful to model how to explore the consequences of a variety of explanations and application of bridges to refine students' explanations so they are able to construct conceptual understanding and to incorporate any limitations or exceptions for its application as motification to their conceptualization - understanding.

3) The third step is one that has been modified or expanded upon in several ways by different theorists over the years. Some of their ideas have been included in the steps explained above. A major difference of opinion for the final step has been, how should the cycle conclude? With accommodation or continue to structuring and organization of what is learned.

Conventional or traditional lessons often conclude with a summary of what was done or learned. This appears insufficient. If the purpose of learning is for the student to use the information, then that goal suggests learning should attain at least a level of application (which has been one of the labels used as a final step in some learning cycle). However, a stronger term is required to describe how the conceptual understanding is to be used in a generative manner as a final goal for the instructional cycle. An activity where students demonstrate their ability to generate new conceptualizations beyond what has been presented or explored previously with the topic. It must go beyond a direct application of the concept as it was used in the previous activities. Making the final step one of authentic generative assessmen for learning to include thinking about how what was learned can be structured and organized into mental strategies for understanding the world - where else might this apply and what are its limit?

Operationalization of a Learning Cycle Instructionally

While the purpose of this article is to focus on the learning theory aspect of the learning cycle a brief overview of its relationship to insruction follows. An additional more comprehensive discussion of the instructional aspects can be accessed with the links at the end of this article.

Instructional Procedure

Start with a focus activity. The teacher or students, present an activity that creates an opportunity to diagnose the preliminary understanding (misconceptions and alternative views) of the students. When the attention of the class is fully focused on the topic and their present understandings, the focus moves to exploration, more discussion and experimentation that results in student's cognitive dissonance with their present understandings and a desire to - get to the bottom of this, and understand it better.

This leads to the invention stage where the teacher re–focuses attention, plans and organizes with the students - investigations, and how to conduct and report back to the class. Investigations are conducted and the groups present their findings to one another. As students present their information and struggle for words to describe their ideas the teacher can introduce vocabulary, while teachers can give students new vocabulary words, ultimately the student must actively invent or generate the concept.

These experiences lead to further discussion and continued investigations in which the students use their newly refined conceptual understandings in familiar contexts to discover any limitations and provide opportunities to explore the usefulness and application of the developing concept in different situations. The teacher uses formative assessment throughout this stage to decide how the investigations will continue. The teacher can use the assessment information to decide when it might be appropriate for a summative assessment activity and or generative assessment activity. When the teacher determines studens have the ability to generalize the information successfully, then the final stage - generative assessment can begin. When students are successful with generative assessment, then it is appropriate to move to a new topic and a new cycle for that topic.

Confrontation between Student's Idea and Scientific Ideas

  • Through questioning, the teacher establishes the ideas that children bring to the activity, problem, discussion or other situation. Conscious awareness of the ideas is of value to both the teacher and the children.
  • Students ideas are accepted by the teacher as possible solutions.
  • Students are asked to retain their ideas, and the teacher states that he or she or other students are going to suggest other possibilities to consider.
  • New ideas are bridged to known facts and repeatable observations that are already basic ideas students hold or newly collected information that students have just recently observed in class and are growing confidence in their accuracy. These observations are organized with bridges for explanations or cause and effect.
  • Once the new idea is available to students then the old ideas are recalled for comparison, with each other and with reality. Rowell and Dawson believe that students are less threatened by this approach than some others, since both the old and new ideas are the students' own, in the sense that all are pooled knowledge. Assuming old theories are rarely given up by contrary evidence but only by better theories, they argue that the children with several ideas available to them are in the best possible situation to accept the scientist's one when it is tested against the others.

Outcomes to Assess Understood of Concepts and Skills

  • Students have an increased awareness of their own reasoning.
  • They recognize shortcomings of their conceptions as a result of newly observationed evidence from investigation.
  • They transfer and apply procedures successful in other areas.
  • They search more effectively for new patterns, and
  • They transfer and apply what they learn more often in new settings.


Learners need to take a prominent part in the formulation of their own knowledge. To reduce the teacher's perceived control over knowledge, students should work primarily in small groups.

Selection of instructional strategies to use within a learning cycle

The learning cycle involves students in a sequence of activities beginning with exploration of an idea or skill, leading to a more guided explanation or invention of the idea or skill, and culminating in expansion of the idea or skill through additional practice and trials in new settings.

This represents a single sequence on one concept lasting one to several instructional periods. Because of what occurs in each phase, the three parts of the learning cycle might be called: exploration (experience), invention (interpretation), and expansion (elaboration). See chart for learning cycle variations

A teacher has a large number of choices in deciding how to provide instruction for students. The selection of instructional strategies to use in teaching (e.g. oral presentation, read from a text, visual presentation, demonstration, inquiry, manipulatives, film, groups, questioning strategies, wait time, pair share, etc.) should be determined by the:

1) Type of idea(s) or skill(s) to be taught,
2) Developmental level and specific learning needs of the student,
3) Part of the learning cycle the teacher is involved with,
4) Form and content of student’s prior knowledge and the number and kind of instructional activities needed to create conceptual restructuring, and
5) type of knowledge representation required for the idea to be understood.

More comprehensive discussion of learning cycle stages, planning, implementation, and assessment

Dr. Robert Sweetland's Notes ©