Insys 527: Designing Constructivist Learning Environments
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Grounded Design

Constructivism, as the term is used today, implies several instructional approaches:

  • activities that are tailored to the individual learner, as opposed to standardized for the whole group
  • activities that focus on learning for understanding, as opposed to learning for memory
  • activities that promote the active use of rich problem-solving strategies
  • activities that promote the ability not only to solve problems but to reflect on the thought processes used to solve those problems (metacognitive skills)
  • activities that are authentic, that is, which allow learners to do things that professional practitioners would actually do

The use of any of these activities on its own does not, however, mean that a design is constructivist. The unfortunate fact is, constructivism has become a loose banner term, under which fall all kinds of disparate activities, many of which have no theoretical justification whatsoever. This is where the term grounded design comes in.

Grounded design is "the systematic implementation of processes and procedures that are rooted in established theory and research in human learning (Hannafin, Hannafin, Land, & Oliver, 1997, p.102)." Four conditions are basic to grounded design:

  • designs must be rooted in a defensible theoretical framework
  • methods must be consistent with the outcome of research conducted to test, validate, or extend the theories upon which they are based
  • designs must be generalizable to situations beyond the unique conditions in which they are being utilized
  • grounded designs and their frameworks must be validated iteratively through successive implementation

Without a solid grounding in theory, educational activities, whatever their intent, represent "craft-based" approaches to instruction, solutions carved by one person for one specific environment. This is not to say that such activities are ineffective, only that they may be inapplicable to circumstances beyond those in which they are employed.

I believe in grounding the design of learning environments in theory, so that they may be systematically studied and extended to novel situations. The theories articulated in this section of the web site provide the theoretical justifications for the instructional blueprints that can be found in the Designs section of this site.


Hannafin, M.J., Hannafin, K.M., Land, S., & Oliver, K. (1997). Grounded practice in the design of learning systems. Educational Technology Research and Development, 45(3), 101-117.

Land, S.M. & Hannafin, M.J. (2000). Student-Centered Learning Environments. In D. H. Jonassen & S. M. Land (Eds.), Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments (pp. 1- 23). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

spacerHal Medrano | Spring 2005