The iPad in a Constructivist EFL Classroom

A Practical Illustration

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

28 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Constructivism - Theoretical Background
2.1 Schema Theory as a Groundwork for Constructivism
2.1.1 Piaget's Genetic Epistemology
2.1.2 Bartlett's Schema Theory
2.1.3 Piaget, Bartlett, and Today's Understanding of Constructivism

3. Constructivism in the EFL Classroom
3.1 The Main Principles
3.2 Teachersasfacilitators
3.3 Constructivism in the Hessian Core Curriculum

4. ReadingintheEFLClassroom
4.1 Schema Theory - A bridge to constructivist learning

5. The iPad in a constructivist classroom to support the reading process
5.1 The Apple iPad - Hardware
5.2 The Apple iPad - Connectivity
5.3 The Apple iPad - Software
5.4 Advantages and Disadvantages of the iPad for the Constructivist Classroom
5.4.1 Advantages
5.4.2 Disadvantages
5.4.3 Interim Conclusion
5.5 Pre-reading activities on the iPad for Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street
5.5.1 Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street
5.5.2 Pre-reading Activities with the iPad

6. Conclusion

7. References


Die vorliegende Hauarbeit beschäftigt sich mit dem Einsatz des Apple iPad im konstruktivistischen EFL Unterricht zur Förderung der Kompetenz Lesen. Hierzu werden zunächst die theoretischen Hintergründe des Konzepts Konstruktivismus beleuchtet und die Grundprinzipien von konstruktivistischem Unterricht erarbeitet. In einem weiteren Schritt wird festgestellt, inwieweit diese in den curricularen Vorgaben für das Fach Englisch an der gymnasialen Sekundarstufe I des Landes Hessen berücksichtigt werden. Da es, wie eingangs angedeutet, in dieser Arbeit insbesondere um die Förderung der Lesekompetenz gehen soll, werden nun die Erkenntnisse aus den theoretischen Hintergründen zum Konstruktivismus auf den Leseprozess angewendet. Basierend auf diesen Erkenntnissen wird sich der praktische Teil dieser Arbeit der Frage widmen, inwieweit das iPad für pre-reading Aktivitäten genutzt werden kann. Die literarische Grundlage hierzu bildet The House on Mango Street von Sandra Cisneros.

This term paper is to suggest possible pre-reading scenarios with the iPad in a constructivist EFL classroom. For this purpose, this paper is first going to shed some light on the main principles of constructivism itself and its origins. Furthermore, the Hessian core curriculum for modern languages is going to be analyzed regarding the implementation of these constructivist principles. Then, the theoretical findings are applied to the process of reading. The practical part of this work is, based on the theoretical results of the first chapters, going to answer the question how the Apple iPad can facilitate pre-reading strategies in a constructivist EFL classroom. Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street is going to constitute the literary framework.

“Truth is the invention of a liar”[1]

Heinz von Foerster

This famous citation stems from the radical constructivist Heinz von Foerster. The physicist and philosopher dedicated his working life to find answers to questions concerning the perception of the world and the concept of reality. In his opinion, and in the opinion of other radical constructivists such as Ernst von Glasersfeld, knowledge can never equal truth because every individual perceives the world around him differently and constructs his own reality. Because there is not only one reality, knowledge is not transferable and consequently can only be generated through own experience it (cf. Von Glasersfeld 2000, p. 31 f).

In scientific discourse the current of radical constructivism has been largely criticized. Social scientists like Rainer Schnell et. al. (2011, p. 110) argue that the reasoning, underlying radical constructivism, is circular. They state that radical constructivism relies on scientific findings that cannot be valid under the presumption that there is no common access to reality. In other words: Basing a concept on findings, that are considered being invalid, generates a vicious circle.

However, even if the concept of radical constructivism seems to be a little far-fetched, it points in an interesting direction. Over the previous two decades it has become widely accepted that understanding and learning do not take place through imitation and habit formation as originally postulated by supporters of the behaviorist school. Based on the work of cognitive psychologists such as for example Jean Piaget, it became clear that knowledge is indeed constructed rather than just received from an objective surrounding. From an educational point of view that means that in a constructivist setting, the focus has to be on the learner who is considered to be an active participant in the process of acquiring that knowledge, and not on the knowledge itself.

This paper is to shed some light on the academic construct constructivism, its emergence, its influence on the Hessian core curriculum and how it can be implemented in a modern EFL classroom with focus on reading. Also, the current trend of the Apple iPad in German schools will be acknowledged and it will be determined if this device can be fruitfully used in a constructivist classroom. Here, Sandra Cisneros’ famous reading The House on Mango Street will serve as a literary framework.

2.1 Schema Theory as a Groundwork for Constructivism

In education, the development of the concept constructivism goes back a number of decades, but it cannot be traced back to a clear beginning. However, literature seems to generally agree that one of the most important scholars, who laid the seeds for contemporary understandings of constructivism, is Jean Piaget (cf. e.g. Lowenthal & Muth 2008, p. 2). Therefore, the purpose of the first part of this chapter is to understand Piaget’s ideas on how knowledge acquisition takes place. The second part of this chapter is to elaborate on the concept of constructivism itself and its implications for the classroom.

2.1.1 Piaget's Genetic Epistemology

As stated earlier, the work of Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget significantly influenced present-day understanding of how knowledge is acquired. He adverted to the possibility that our knowledge might not simply be a product developed from objective stimuli we receive from our surroundings. He considered the human mind to be “a dynamic set of cognitive structures that help us make sense of what we perceive” (Brooks & Brooks, 1999, p. 26). In his work Piaget shows that these cognitive structures, or schemata, are cognitional instruments that are already used by children right from the beginning (cf. Hasselhorn & Gold 2006, p. 62).

Over the course of the so-called maturation-process, children learn to use schemata to solve new situations. Here, new information is changed to match existing schemata. Piaget named this process assimilation: "[...] assimilieren heißt, das Objekt je nach der eigenen Handlung und dem eigenen Gesichtspunkt, also in Funktion eines Schemas zu modifizieren" (Piaget 1975, p. 81).

A toddler for instance, who is supposed to eat apple slices for the first time, can apply an already acquired schema from eating for example sliced peaches or bananas: 1. bring the slice to the mouth, 2. Open Mouth, 3. Bite off a piece. According to Trautner (1991, p. 165), Piaget ascribes the following three attributes to assimilation: reproduction, generalization and recognition. Assimilation schemata are reproductive because the individual makes repeatedly use of them in order to make sense of the world around him. The term assimilation also implies a tendency of generalization because they might influence environments they have not been learned in (cf. Trautner 1991, p. 165). In the context of the apple example from above, this means that generalization of a schema can lead to an expanded scope of application; namely being able to eat apple slices on the basis of already acquired abilities to eat sliced fruits such as peaches or bananas. Finally, Piaget mentions the attribute of recognition. By that, he means that one item is being recognized to fit in a certain schema (cf. Trautner 1991, p. 165). Applied to the illustration from above, recognition stands for the moment when the infant notices that the apple fits in his fruit-eating schema.

However, while growing up, children have to face many situations, where already established schemata do not fit. As a consequence, these existing cognitive structures have to be expanded or adapted to the new information to reach a cognitive equilibrium between sensory impressions and the mental representation of the world. This process is called accommodation (cf. Hasselhorn & Gold 2006, p. 62).

It can be noted that, according to Piaget, learning is not just stimulus-response. In his opinion, cognitive development rather is an active process that takes place through the interplay between assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation means that new information is adapted to fit existing cognition schemata. In the process of accommodation, it is the schema or cognitive concept that is changed because the individual is unable to make sense of new information by fitting it into existing schemata.

2.1.2 Bartlett’s Schema Theory

Even though literature often mentions Piaget’s findings regarding cognitive schemata as innovative foundation for the constructivist school, there was one scholar who had introduced the term schema five years before him. According to Hasselhorn & Gold (2006, p. 61), the British psychologist Frederic Bartlett was the one who introduced the theory in the first place in 1932; Piaget only followed in 1937 without referring to Bartlett. As a matter of fact, Bartlett had already worked on the schema construct in the 1920s, but at that time his ideas fell on deaf ears because the behaviorist approach was dominant in the scientific discourse (cf. Ajideh 2003, p. 3). Also, Bartlett did not develop his own theory of knowledge acquisition in which he could have included his ideas regarding cognitive schemata. Nevertheless, according to Hasselhorn & Gold (2006, p. 61), Barlett’s work on schemata clearly leads in a constructivist direction.

For Bartlett, the term schema refers to: an active organization of past reactions, or of past experiences, which must always be supposed to be operating in any well-adapted organic response. That is, whenever there is any order or regularity to other similar responses which have been serially organized, yet which operate, not simply as individual members coming one after another, but as a unitary mass. Determination by schemata is the most fundamental of all the ways in which we can be influenced by reactions and experiences which occurred some time in the past. All incoming impulses of a certain kind, or mode, go together to build up an active, organized setting: visual, auditory, various types of cutaneous impulses [...] (Bartlett 1932, p. 201).

In this extract, Bartlett indicates that generic concepts and ideas are hierarchically organized and stored in our minds. He calls this organization schema. He states that if we perceive something repeatedly, we start to infer rules which, in the end, lead our mind to create such a schema. Thus, a schema can also be considered as a plan or a schedule to master certain situations. If we take a bus ride for example, we know that it always takes place after a certain pattern: 1. Enter the bus. 2. Buy a ticket 3. Validate the ticket 4. Sit down and so forth. When we are confronted with a similar situation again, we just have to activate the schema to master it. According to Ajdeh (2003, p. 4), another aspect of schematic mental structuring of information becomes beneficial when telling a story. If, for example, we want to share our bus-riding experiences with someone else, we do not have to elaborate on every detail of the ride because we can assume that our dialog partner already has a bus-ride-schema stored in his memory.

Bartlett based his theories on findings he achieved from a reading experiment with college students. The subjects had to read a complex and confusing Indian folk tale[2]. After that, they were questioned on several details of the text. The responses of the students differed greatly from the original text: some details were notably changed and some were left out completely. (cf. Bower1993, p. 184). According to Hasselhorn & Gold 2006, p. 61, the students were therefore able to add sense to the unknown content of the tale. They concluded that remembering of complex textual information is rather affected by reconstruction than by reproduction (ibd.). That means that the interpretation of our surroundings is strongly influenced by existing cognitive schemata and that we can only perceive and digest new information through glasses that are tainted with our prior knowledge.

2.1.3 Piaget, Bartlett, and Today’s Understanding of Constructivism

The previous chapter has shown that the scientific findings of John Piaget and Frederic Bartlett have significantly paved the way for a major paradigm shift in education toward constructivism. Both psychologists were convinced that more emphasis has to be placed on the learner’s prior knowledge, because his entire perception of his surroundings does depend on it. This prior knowledge, developed through recurring patterns of exposure to certain bits of information, is subsumed under the term schema.

The question now is, how Piaget’s and Bartlett’s findings connect to constructivism. We have seen that, according to both psychologists, the focus in knowledge acquisition is not just on remembering information but rather on understanding them. This directs more emphasis towards the role of the learner and away from information input. The learner is being understood as a target-oriented individual who is actively looking for information that he can only interpret against the background of his prior knowledge. That means that knowledge cannot be simply absorbed; it has to be constructed (cf. Lowenthal & Muth 2008, p. 1).

In this context, Hasselhorn & Gold (2006, p. 64) highlight that this construction is an individual and active process that leads to a new necessarily subjective representation of information. This representation is always subjective because new information is always evaluated on the basis of existing bits of information.

3. Constructivism in the EFL Classroom

As mentioned before, the rise of the constructivism was responsible for a major paradigm shift in education during the early 1990s. Initiated by authors such as Fosnot (1989) and Atwell (1987), the educators’ focus changed from delivering knowledge to passive recipients to allowing active construction of knowledge by the students (cf. Lowenthal & Muth 2008, p. 3). However, along with this shift, many problems and challenges evolved that in many cases still keep teachers from implementing constructivism in their classrooms.

First of all, teachers are often still accustomed to traditional classroom settings in which they permanently are the center of attention. Usually, they provide certain bits of information they expect the students to internalize (Brooks & Brooks, 1999, p. 6). According to Educational Broadcasting Foundation (2004, para. 2), many educators still have problems “giving up [that] ‘expert’ role to become more of a facilitator”.

Another obstacle for the implementation of constructivism is the ongoing heavy reliance on textbooks. According to Brooks & Brooks (1999, p. 6), many teachers still base a better part of their lessons on textbooks. The problem connected to this approach is obvious: students are only confronted with one view of the teaching material which is often hard for them to understand because in many cases it does not relate to the pupils’ environment or prior knowledge.

In addition to this, teachers often adhere to restrictive curricula they are accustomed to. This leads to problems because the specifications often conflicted with the students’ way of learning. According to Brooks & Brooks (1999, p. 7), “many students struggle to understand concepts in isolation, to learn parts without seeing wholes, to make connections where they only see disparity, and to accept as reality what their perceptions question”.

However, according to the educators’ forum ‘thirteen ed online’, many teachers are willing to apply constructivism in class but they often do not know how. The following chapter is to elaborate on the main principles of a constructivist EFL classroom with special focus on the teacher’s role.

3.1 The Main Principles

Knowledge is not passively received, but is actively built up by the cognizing subject. [...].

That is, as much as we would like to, we cannot put ideas in students’ heads, they will and must construct their own meanings (Wheatley, 1991, p. 10 cited in Wai Meng, p. 2).

This citation succinctly shows what was already mentioned earlier: Knowledge acquisition can only take place through active interaction with the environment. Applied to the EFL classroom, that means that it is of fundamental importance that the students are given the chance to construct their own understanding of educational contents, instead of just being exposed to teachers’ monologues because educators cannot just simply transfer their knowledge to the students’ minds. For many teachers that implies a tremendous adjustment of their teaching methods, and also the students’ roles change. Brooks & Brooks (1999, p. 17) state that in a constructivist classroom, the focus has to be entirely on the individual student and not just on the content. In an open classroom setting the pupils must be given the opportunity to independently develop and revisit new and existing ideas and to link new information to previously acquired knowledge. Brooks & Brooks (1999, p. 17) also stress that, in a constructivist classroom, group work is preferred over students working by themselves.

3.2 Teachers as facilitators

Brooks & Brooks (1999, p. ix) identified five principles of constructivist teaching. These are:

First, the teacher has to act in an interactive manner by initiating dialogues. This way, he can find out about the prior knowledge of the students and is able to adjust his material accordingly. A good constructivist teacher is also interested in the students’ attitudes and uses them to bring forward the lesson.

Second, Brooks & Brooks (ibid.) assume that every student is equipped with a different set of prior knowledge about his surroundings. A constructivist teacher should enable the students to activate this prior knowledge and to either confirm it or to adjust it according to the new information.

Third, constructivist teachers create an environment that appeals to students’ interests and thus appears relevant. Brooks & Brooks (ibid.) point out that often students do not automatically add relevance to new information. It is the educator’s task, to activate the learner by sparking his interest so that he assigns relevance to the new topic.


[1] Cited in Von Foerster 2003, p. 12.

[2] For further information visit:

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The iPad in a Constructivist EFL Classroom
A Practical Illustration
University of Kassel  (Anglistik)
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ISBN (eBook)
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constructivist, classroom, practical, illustration
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Marco Stöcker (Author), 2013, The iPad in a Constructivist EFL Classroom , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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