The Philosophical Tenents of Constructivism

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					  The Philosophical Basis

         Jane Fowler Morse
Ella Cline Shear School of Education
          Retreat, Fall 2006
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   Two Competing Philosophies
• Ideas are Real              • Things are Real
   – Plato’s forms               – The Greek atomists
   – Aristotle’s logic           – Aristotle’s empiricism
   – Ptolemy’s                   – Kepler’s mathematical
     mathematical system           system of the universe
     of the universe
                                 – John Locke’s
   – The Greek skeptics and
     cynics                        empiricism
   – Descartes’ cogito           – Hume’s skepticism
   – Kant’s categories           – Kant’s perceptions
             A Modern Debate
• The mind of the              • The world determines
  observer determines            what (and how) the
  how the world appears          mind perceives things
   – Dewey’s Pragmatism           – Thorndike’s testing
   – Piaget’s schemata            – Skinner’s conditioning
   – Vygotsky’s zone of           – The current emphasis
     proximal development           on testing
   – Sartre’s existentialism      – Mandated curriculum

• Knowledge is relative        • Knowledge is fixed
Can we have our cake and eat it too?
• Kant unites these two competing philosophies
  – The mind constructs categories by which
    human beings construe how to make sense of
    the appearances in the world (ie ―things‖).
  – The appearances (empirical intuitions) give the
    mind materials to work with in applying these
    categories to create explanations and
    understandings (ie ―ideas)
―Concepts without precepts are empty;
precepts without concepts are blind.‖

Kant’s Categories (Concepts)
                   • Unity                Relation
                   • Plurality
                                        • Inherence and
                   • Totality
  Quality                               subsistence,
                                        accidence and substance
                                        • Causality and dependence
                                        • Community and
                                        Reciprocity, between the
                                        active and the passive

               •Possibility — Impossibility
               •Existence — Nonexistence
               •Necessity — Contingency
            Kant’s Precepts
• Kant’s ―pure‖ intuitions
  – Space
  – Time
• Kant’s empirical intuitions
  – All sense perceptions
      What Does This Matter?
• Human beings have a logical capacity that allows
  them to construct reality
• Human beings have sense perceptions of things in
  the world
• Human beings also have an innate sense of space
  and time that allows them to distinguish between
  individual perceptions
• Human beings can only see things from their own
  perspective, but can communicate using a
  common logic
• Voila: constructivism!
              Later Additions
• Phenomenology: All we can know is how things
  appear to us (Kant’s ―phenomena‖), not how
  things are in themselves (Kant’s ―noumena‖)
  (Knowledge is not absolute, but relative)
• Existentialism:Human beings can make up
  concepts, too
• Piaget: Furthermore, the acquisition of concepts is
• Vygotsky: In addition, the acquisition of concepts
  is social and cultural
      (Plus the 20th century’s
  philosophical focus on action…)
• ―Ideas‖ seemed real to classical
  philosophers. Plato’s ―Forms‖ almost have
  the ontological status of things.
• By Descartes’ time, philosophers talked
  about ideas as representations of things.
• In the 20th century, the focus changed to
  actions: Pragmatism, Existentialism,
  Behaviorism, all focus on what people do.
•Start here                                          **End here
(It is essential    Dewey’s Feedback Loopthat is essential
                                              the student
that the student
feels the difficulty)    How We Think (1910)         grasps the
                        Formulate hypotheses

          Articulate the                      Test hypotheses
                            Warranted           Confirm or
                            Assertibility**     disconfirm
    Felt difficulty*
                                      Repeat as
                      Solution         needed
   (Use solution in solving another problem…)
• Cognitive Constructivism: from Piaget
• Social Constructivism: from Vygotsky
• Situated Learning: from Bruner

• Holistic
• Interactive
• Interdisciplinary
What is Crucial to the Theory and
  Practice of Constructivism?
• Developmentally appropriate practice, zone of
  proximal development
• The organism actively produces adaptive behavior
• Knowledge is actively constructed by the knower
• Interaction between stimuli, cognition, situation
• Materials are available and arranged for this to
• Cultural and social context is taken into account
• Authentic assessment
• Purpose of education — to create conditions under
  which students can become creators of knowledge
       Bruner’s principles of
       constructivist learning
• Readiness: instruction addresses the
  learner’s experiences and context
• Spiral Curriculum: instruction organized so
  the learner can grasp it easily
• Extrapolation: instruction designed to
  facilitate the learner going beyond it
    Ernst von Glasersfeld:
          Definition of Radical
• Radical Constructivism is an
  unconventional approach to the
  problem of knowledge and knowing.
  It starts from the assumption that
  knowledge, no matter how it is
  defined, is in the heads of persons,
  and that the thinking subject has no
  alternative but to construct what he
  or she knows on the basis of his or
• What we make of experience
  constitutes the only world we
  consciously live in. It can be sorted
  into many kinds, such as things, self,
  others, and so on. But all kinds of
  experience are essentially subjective,
  and though I may find reasons to
  believe that my experience may not be
  unlike yours, I have no way of
  knowing that it is the same. The
  experience and interpretation of
  language are no exception.’
  For example: String Theory on
   Science Friday (August 18, 2006)
• (28:00 to 29:20/35:18)
• So what concepts can humans formulate? Kant’s
  categories? The underlying physics of space and
  time? Extra dimensions?
• What is new ones are required by a new theory?
• Well, why not?
• Knowledge is transformative, not merely
  Exemplifying Constructivism in Our
  Teaching: Our ideas from Discussion
• Caution: We need to acknowledge that the
  acquisition of knowledge, skills, and dispositions
  by new teachers is itself developmental, social,
  and situational.
• Nevertheless, teacher educators can give new
  teachers the tools to develop a constructivist
• Ample opportunities for reflection can be offered
  in each course.
             More: Our Ideas
• Even where ―book knowledge‖ is applicable,
  candidates can ―make it their own‖ through
  applications and discussions.
• Open-ended assignments allow candidates to
  respond in constructivist ways, using their own
  critical thinking to solve problems.
• The grading of such assignments must also be
  flexible to acknowledge diversity of responses,
  different ―ways of knowing.‖
            More: Our Ideas
• Assignments, readings, examinations, class
  procedures should facilitate going beyond
  established ways of thinking.
• Asking candidates to think about the differences in
  ways of talking about ―knowledge‖ in the different
  disciplines they encounter in their other
  coursework can be instructive.
• Encourage candidates to think about diversity as
  kinds of knowing; enable them to see that teachers
  should not only value certain kinds.
• Discourage ―able-ism.‖
Paper posted at

  A few good websites:

  •Radical Constructivism
  •Maryland Collaborative for Teacher Preparation:
  •Society for Constructivism in the Human Sciences:

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