Everyone seems to be a constructivist these days, but what do people mean by ‘constructivism’ and what are the implications for education?

References to ‘constructivism’ are frequently made in writing and discussions about education, even if it is not a word you hear every day in the classroom. Texts and courses in education often mention constructivist approaches to learning, and the implications of this for teaching. For example, an American website aimed at teachers offers the explanation: Constructivism is basically a theory – based on observation and scientific study – about how people learn. It says that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences…

This seems straightforward enough, but there is potential for confusion, since the term constructivist can be applied to a vast number of areas and has slightly different connotations in each, for example, constructivist art and architecture (http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Constructivism). Some of these are clearly quite distant from the ideas implicit in constructivist education, but some are closer. Then it becomes more awkward to decide which overlaps in meaning are intended and which might suggest implications most educators would want to avoid. To resolve such difficulties, we need to look at the basis of the constructivist tendency in education.

Use of the term in education The use of constructivism grew from its use in psychology. Martin Ryder at the University of Colorado argues that the constructivistic approach to teaching and learning is based on a combination of a subset of research within cognitive psychology and a subset of research within social psychology (http://carbon. cudenver.edu/~mryder/itc_data/constructivism.html). Within psychology, the term has become increasingly popular, which might help to explain its frequency of appearance in education. Click here for a graph showing the rise of the use of this word in psychology. 

However, psychology is not without its baggage from philosophy, and when terms from philosophy slip into psychology there can be problems. Constructivism has a more rigorous and precise meaning as a philosophical stance. Also, some enthusiasts for constructivist understanding embrace this philosophical stance, including the claims that we can neither confirm nor reject an external absolute reality… Representation is not the mapping of external entities on to cognitive structures but is system-relative. (Riegler, A, 2003, The Key to Radical Constructivism. www.univie.ac.at /constructivism/key.html). Ernst von Glasersfeld, among others, has developed such ideas in education.

Within education there is a view that constructivism does indeed entail this more precise, and radical, view of knowledge and that educators using the term constructivist about learning have indeed signed up to this philosophical position. This leads some constructivist thinkers, such as Paul Cobb, the mathematics educator, to complain that educationalists’ conceptions of constructivism are essentially vague, and held without being examined. The implication is that teachers should examine their underlying assumptions, recognise the constructivist base and help to advance the radical constructivist cause.

Yet the problem here is that teachers are involved with teaching a body of knowledge. While an emphasis on the learner’s building of understanding seems self-evident, there also seem to be, when teaching, some key concepts that need to be communicated and understood by the learner in a fairly conservative manner. We don’t think of these ideas as system-relative, but pretty much as absolutes, with the learner building a wholly inadequate web of understanding if they are not properly included.

Does this mean, then, that educators should not be working on a broadly constructivist understanding of learning after all?

Implications for educators

Fortunately, I think there is a way out of this maze. Firstly, we should acknowledge the broadness of the basis, its emphasis on learning and accept that we are not in the realms of precise philosophy when we describe the foundation of our teaching practice as constructivist. It is not unusual for practitioners in an area to find that they take up a different perspective to practise their art from the one that they would carefully defend in a philosophical debate. Mathematicians Phillip Davis and Reuben Hersh pointed out some time ago that practising mathematicians do their work as though they were Platonic realists, discovering a world of perfect mathematical forms, but very few would argue that there really is such a world, preferring to talk in more constructivist terms (The Mathematical Experience, Boston: Birkhäuser, 1981).

So educators should be able to approach learners with appropriate ideas about how they need to construct their knowledge and build understanding, without implying acceptance of a radical constructivist philosophical stance. Yet if we take this approach it is important that we are clear about these distinctions, or there is the risk of getting very tangled. As an irate blogger recently complained: I often hear discussions of constructivism jump between cognitive theory to a theory of knowledge then educational theory or sociological theory, even philosophical theory. It’s a messy concoction, often at the level of pub-philosophy. (http://donaldclarkplanb. blogspot.com/2007/03/constructivism-beware-of-big-words.html)

For further information see: Cobb, P, Yackel, E, and Wood, T, (1992), ‘A Constructivist Alternative to the Representational View of Mind in Mathematics Education’, Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 23(1), 2-33