The following article provides a summary of the theory of learning known as constructivism. Constructivism has received a great deal of recent attention in the educational literature, and as a result, has been defined in multiple ways. So many different definitions currently exist some scholars believe constructivism has been emptied of meaning altogether. The following will attempt to bring some clarity back to the theory by focusing on two different strands of constructivism; cognitive constructivism, as outlined in the work of Jean Piaget, and social constructivism, as outlined in the work of Lev Vygotsky. Implications for teaching are introduced, as well as an example of a constructivist classroom activity. The summary also introduces the larger epistemological debate surrounding constructivism.
Keywords Accommodation; Adaptation; Assimilation; Cognitive Constructivism; Disequilibrium; Objectivity; Piaget, Jean; Social Constructivism; Vygotsky, Lev; Zone of Proximal Development
Educational Theory: Constructivism
In recent years, constructivism has become one of the most often cited theories of learning in the educational literature (Null, 2004). Its popularity has achieved such heights that it has been referred to by various scholars as fashionable, faddish, and even by some, as a religion (Prouix, 2006). The frequent discussion of constructivism isn't a problem per se, but it has created some confusion regarding its exact meaning. As Harlow, Cummings, and Aberasturi (2006) acknowledge, "constructivism has taken on as many different definitions as the number of people attempting to define it" (p. 41). As a result, they argue, it has also been "emptied of meaning." Others concur, suggesting that "the educational literature…is littered with [such] a range of definitions" that constructivism has become "almost…indefinable" (Null, 2004, p. 180).
Perhaps more solid ground can be established by first recognizing the philosophical foundations of constructivism. Although a relatively recent development in education, the issues addressed are ones that have been debated for thousands of years. At the core, constructivism is about epistemology, a branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge - what it is that we know, and how we know what we know. Although oversimplified, philosophers have generally fallen into two camps; those who believe knowledge is an approximation of an independent reality - a reality separate from the knower and representative of the ultimate Truth - and those who believe that knowledge is created by human minds. Constructivists fall in the second camp, arguing that knowledge is constructed by individuals through their experience, and is not necessarily representative of 'the real world.'
The notion of knowledge as a construction helps bring some clarity to this elusive concept, as does the recognition of one of its main pioneers. Although constructivism has roots in ancient philosophy, and its ideas have been extended by many modern day learning theorists, Piaget is most often credited with its development. As Prouix (2006) states, "Even if many other authors have contributed to numerous aspects of the theory in a tacit or indirect way (e.g., Dewey, Kant, Rousseau, Vico, etc.) the main pioneer of constructivism is without question Jean Piaget" (p. 2). The following summary, therefore, will focus largely on the work of Piaget. In addition, the theoretical work of Vygotsky will be introduced. Vygotsky's social constructivism is often contrasted with Piaget's cognitive constructivism, but the following will focus on the way in which these two strands are complementary.
In order to understand the significance of Piaget's contribution, we must first place it within the context of the epistemological debate referenced in the introduction. For the past several centuries, those who believe that knowledge is an approximation of an independent reality representative of the ultimate Truth have held sway in the philosophical courts. For equally as long, however, skeptics have argued that we cannot know the truth of our knowledge, because "we would need access to the world that does not involve our experiencing it" (von Glasersfeld, 1990, as cited in Prouix, 1996, p. 5). Despite what von Glasersfeld calls "logically irrefutable arguments" on the part of the skeptics, they were always summarily dismissed by pointing to the achievements of human knowledge - in ancient times, the prediction of eclipses, for example, and in more recent times, the accomplishments of modern technology. "In the face of such successes," von Glasersfeld (2006) argues, "it would, indeed, be ridiculous to question the validity of knowledge" (p. 3).
What Piaget's theory does, however, is "make it possible to accept the skeptics' logical conclusion without diminishing the obvious value of knowledge" (von Glasersfeld, 1996, p. 4). More specifically, Piaget introduced the concept of adaptation to epistemology. Having trained first as a biologist, Piaget studied the relationship between mollusks and their environment; the ability to adapt, he concluded, was simply the ability to survive in a given environment. Knowledge, then, is not important to the extent that it represents an external reality, but is important to the extent that it is viable. "Simply put, the notion of viability means that an action, operation, conceptual structure, or even a theory, is considered 'viable' as long as it is useful in accomplishing the task or in achieving a goal that one has set for oneself" (von Glasersfeld, 1998, as cited in Prouix, 2006, p. 5). In other words, "truth" is what works.
The question of what knowledge is, from a constructivist perspective, has now been answered to some extent - it's not a representation of external reality or objective truth, but rather is 'truthful' to the extent it is viable and adaptive - but the exact mechanisms by which knowledge is constructed have not yet been explained. As Harlow, Cummings, and Aberasturi (2006) argue, those who overuse the term in the literature often ignore the 'how' of constructivism. In other words, educators often pay lip service to the idea that people make meaning, but fail to understand the processes by which this occurs. Even teachers with the best intentions sometimes forget that cognitive conflict, for example, is essential for new knowledge construction. We'll turn to Piaget's concepts of assimilation, accommodation, and disequilibrium for a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms.
According to Piaget, all learning is motivated by a desire to maintain a state of equilibrium (Prouix, 2006). When an individual is confronted by information or an experience that contradicts his or her prior knowledge, the learner is motivated to modify or adapt prior knowledge in order to return to equilibrium. Therefore, those things that cause disequilibrium - sometimes referred to a perturbations or cognitive conflicts - play a critical role in the learning process. "It is often through struggling to resolve the disequilibration caused by perturbations that one comes to a resolution that deepens and revises one's world-view" (Prouix, 2006, p. 5). As Fosnot (1996) argues, in order to fully understand the concept of equilibration, one should understand its dynamic nature - "it is a dynamic 'dance'…of growth and change' (p. 14). The dance occurs between two polar tendencies - our tendency to assimilate information and our tendency to accommodate information.
Assimilation occurs when new experiences or information 'fit' into our existing mental structures. Stated differently, "constructivism asserts that our previous experiences serve as the lenses through which we read the world" (Prouix, 2006, p. 5). Therefore, assimilation is largely an unconscious process, one in which we make new experiences fit into what we already know. Accommodation, on the other hand, takes place in the face of perturbations. When new knowledge or experiences contradict what was previously known, the learner must modify her existing cognitive structures, the new knowledge/experience, or both. According to Prouix (2006) "the learner tries to deliberately adapt - or accommodate - what is already known (previous knowledge) to a new experience that interrupts or contradicts established interpretations…" (p. 5). In general, the mind tends to assimilate; only when we have to accommodate does learning occur.
Although the basic structure of Piaget's theory of knowing has been put forth, it's worth noting a few other points of emphasis. First and foremost, for Piaget and other constructivists in general, learning is always an active process. Importantly however, 'active' implies both physical and mental activity; that is, active in the sense of creating new mental structures and not just active in the sense of physically moving one's body. As Prouix (2006) explains, "The word 'active' should then not be read in the literal sense because it has a broader meaning in constructivism. The idea that the learners have to be active does not imply that they have to construct a model physically with their hands, but instead that they develop their structures of knowledge - by reflecting, analyzing, questioning themselves, working on problems, and so on" (p. 5)
Secondly, Piaget's theory highlights the significant role of prior knowledge in the learning process, and the implications this has for teaching as well (Prouix, 2006). Students are not blank slates, and everything they experience in a...
(The entire section is 4201 words.)