What is Constructivism?
The latest most fashionable word in education is "constructivism," applied both to learning theory and to epistemology---both to how people learn, and to the nature of knowledge. We need to think about our work in relation to theories of learning and knowledge. So, what is constructivism, what does it have to tell us that is new and relevant, and how do we apply it to our work?
As a philosophy of learning, constructivism can be traced at least to the eighteenth century and the work of the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico, who held that humans can only clearly understand what they have themselves constructed. Many others worked with these ideas, but the first major contemporaries to develop a clear idea of constructivism as applied to classrooms and childhood development were Jean Piaget and John Dewey.
For Dewey education depended on action. Knowledge and ideas emerged only from a situation in which learners had to draw them out of experiences that had meaning and importance to them (see Democracy and Education, 1916). These situations had to occur in a social context, such as a classroom, where students joined in manipulating materials and, thus, created a community of learners who built their knowledge together.
Piaget's constructivism is based on his view of the psychological development of children. In a short summation of his educational thoughts (To Understand is to Invent, 1973), Piaget called for teachers to understand the steps in the development of the child's mind. The fundamental basis of learning, he believed, was discovery: "To understand is to discover, or reconstruct by rediscovery, and such conditions must be complied with if in the future individuals are to be formed who are capable of production and creativity and not simply repetition." To reach an understanding of basic phenomena, according to Piaget, children have to go through stages in which they accept ideas they may later see as not truthful. In autonomous activity, children must discover relationships and ideas in classroom situations that involve activities of interest to them. Understanding is built up step by step through active involvement.
The Russian Lev. S Vygotsky is also important to constructivism, although his ideas have not always been clear to the English-reading public both because of political constraints and because of mistranslations. Some commentators believe that Vygotsky is not a constructivist because of his emphasis on the social context in learning, but others see his stress on children creating their own concepts as constructivist to the core. Mind in the Society (English translation, 1978) is a popularization of some of his ideas for an American audience; also available is a collection of shorter works, The Vygotsky Reader (ed. Rene van der Veer and Jaan Valsiner, 1994). Vygotsky believed that children learn scientific concepts out of a "tension" between their everyday notions and adult concepts. Presented with a preformed concept from the adult world, the child will only memorize what the adult says about the idea. To make it her property the child must use the concept and link that use to the idea as a first presented to her. But the relation between everyday notions and scientific concepts was not a straight development to Vygotsky. Instead the prior conceptions and the introduced scientific concepts are interwoven and influence each other as the child works out her own ideas from the generalizations that she had already and that have been introduced to her.
Constructivism is a theory of knowledge with roots in philosophy, psychology and cybernetics. Such is the definition provided by constructivist's leading theorist, E. von Glasersfeld (1989). As von Glasersfeld (1995) comments:
“Constructivism does not claim to have made earth-shaking inventions in the area of education; it merely claims to provide a solid conceptual basis for some of the things that, until now, inspired teachers had to do without theoretical foundation.”
Von Glasersfeld's musings remind us that theory and practice exhibit a curious interplay which is sometimes unpredictable and, sometimes, unexplainable. His comments remind us as well that constructivism is more than a theory of learning. It is a way of looking at the world that is broad enough to allow for multiple interpretations and yet, defined sufficiently to allow for a perspective that can explain complex and abstract phenomenon and which can guide our actions. We tend to take for granted and accept unquestioningly the use of terms such as 'true', 'real', 'worlds'. Consideration of the complexities behind these everyday words seems far removed from the daily practice of the classroom and more like the fodder of philosophers such as Socrates.
Constructivism reminds us that these are not only important philosophical notions. On the contrary, they can significantly affect how we see the world and, more importantly, how we behave in it. Perhaps an important challenge for educational reform is to begin to question and come to a greater understanding of the philosophy, theory and epistemology that presently informs educational practice. Understanding what our behaviors and practices mean can of times be both revealing, and, hopefully, useful.
Von Glasersfeld (1995) indicates in relation to the concept of reality: "It is made up of the network of things and relationships that we rely on in our living, and on which, we believe, others rely on, too" (p.7). The knower interprets and constructs a reality based on his experiences and interactions with his environment. Rather than thinking of truth in terms of a match to reality, von Glasersfeld focuses instead on the notion of viability: "To the constructivist, concepts, models, theories, and so on are viable if they prove adequate in the contexts in which they were created" (p.7).
If we accept constructivist theory (which means we are willing to follow in the path of Dewey, Piaget and Vigotsky among others), then we have to give up Platonic and all subsequent realistic views of epistemology. We have to recognize that there is no such thing as knowledge "out there" independent of the knower, but only knowledge we construct for ourselves as we learn. Learning is not understanding the "true" nature of things, nor is it (as Plato suggested) remembering dimly perceived perfect ideas, but rather a personal and social construction of meaning out of the bewildering array of sensations which have no order or structure besides the explanations which we fabricate for them.
In general, constructivism tends to be more holistic and less mechanistic than traditional information-processing theories (Cunningham, 1991). People make sense out of their world by taking in information from the environment and assimilating it into their pre-existing schemas and understandings (Bransford & Vye, 1989). Learners undergo conceptual change by directly confronting misconceptions (Wilson & Cole, 1991a). Some constructivists have aligned themselves with the situated cognition movement (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989), asserting that because cognition depends on our experience base, cognitive apprenticeships and other authentic teaching methods are preferable (Clancey, 1992). The roots of many constructivist beliefs are traceable to postmodern philosophies which depart from the rationalist, objectivist, and technocratic tendencies of modern society.