Overview of Constructivism(s)
 Author: Bob King
"If a man is hungry you can give him a fish, but it is better to give him a line and teach him how to fish himself."
               -- African proverb

Constructivism as a teaching practice
It's reasonable to suggest that we're in the midst of great change in education. Whether it's because students are no longer the same, or because the world is no longer the same, or both, the fact is that many teachers are realizing that their tried and true teaching methods are no longer working, or not working as well as they used to.

The missing ingredient seems to be student involvement. Rather than "giving students a fish" in the form of pre-packaged lessons or canned classes, many teachers are trying to think of ways to "teach students to fish" by helping them make and master the tools with which to make their own meaning. Some meaning-making tools are individual (i.e., problem formation and resolution tools, research tools, reasoning tools). Other meaning-making tools are social (i.e., communication tools, negotiation tools, conflict resolution tools, collaboration tools). In general, as the name 'constructivism' implies, the task of the teacher it to assist students in developing and using tools (including tools for finding information) rather than "giving them information."

In teaching practice, constructivist methodology: 1) emphasizes the learner's role in the education process -- the more active the role, the better. 2) focuses student attention on pursuing questions or problems that occur to them rather than on answers supplied by a teacher or expert text. 3) focuses teacher attention on the creation of learning environments rich in "construction materials" rather than in creating good information delivery systems. 4) emphasizes activity-based or project-based learning.

None of the above means that there is no need for teachers or expert knowledge. Nor does it mean that constructivism is brand new in teaching practice. What it does mean is that the role of the teacher in a constructivist framework is to stoke rather than control or douse the fires of student centered learning, and the role of expert knowledge is to fuel those same fires rather than to snuff them out in floods of textual authority. Some would also claim -- accurately I think -- that constructivism as an educational practice has a long history. They would insist that many good teachers have been constructivists all along without calling themselves that.

Roots of constructivism in the field of education
As for formal historical/theoretical roots of constructivism in education, many cite John Dewey and Jean Piaget (and more recently Lev Vygotsky), but others would cite additional sources since what we are talking about here is a fairly general category of thinking. Dewey insisted that education was based in experience and that educational institutions should therefore honor and build on students' experience. Piaget insisted that children -- even quite young children -- are quite sophisticated and active thinkers and theorists. Vygotsky insisted that all learning, knowledge, and experience had a social basis. Together these three emphasize the active role of learners either individually (Dewey and Piaget) or collectively (Vygotsky).


Roots of constructivism in philosophy

As for philosophical and/or historical correlates, constructivism is usually thought of as beginning with Giambattista Vico in the 16th century, although it's possible to see constructivism as a philosophical outlook that is embedded much deeper in human history, ontology, and common sense than that.

Take my mom for example. Not a philosopher in most senses, she has nonetheless many times, in common sense, said, "you make your bed and then you sleep in it." This is pretty much what Vico and other constructivists would say as well; we in some ways construct our own worlds through our actions, beliefs, and thoughts and then we live in the worlds we've constructed.

As with all things, there are flavors. "Radical constructivists" go pretty far towards holding a view that humans create their own world. They are sort of like "it's all in the mind, y'know" types. Less radical constructivists hold the idea that it's the interaction of human reality and objective reality that gives us Reality effects. This flavor could be called "interactionism."

The counter or opposing term to constructivism in a philsophical sense is 'objectivism.' Objectivists basically hold that reality is freestandingly "out there." An objectivist would insist that reality and truth are to be discovered, not constructed.

To some extent constructivism can be compared with objectivism as follows:


Reality as given

Prescribed/predetermined order
i.e., Static syllabus 

i.e., lectures, solitary writing 


i.e., television

Transmission and reception 


Reality as negotiated 

Emergent/interactive order
i.e., Dynamic syllabus

i.e., conversational writing


Pointcasted or Multicasted
i.e., computers


Roots of constructivism in science

Another root, source, or correlate of constructivism is science itself. Science is something of a wildcard in this sense (as it is in our culture in general). It seems like it ought to be under the category of "objectivist" enterprises, but it's not, or rather it is and it isn't. It's kind of paradoxical. Science in some sense went out to discover the objective world and instead discovered that the world is not objective at all. Beginning with folks like Werner Heisenberg, scientists talk about the reality of uncertainty -- and the sense in which in trying to observe the world objectively we in fact change the world we are observing through the act of observation itself.

An intuitive example of this for a teacher would be recalling an instance when they have been "observed" teaching. Few teachers could say they are the same teacher when they are being observed. Heisenberg made this same sort of point about scientists observing the behavior of molecules and that sort of thing as well. So, science is a major source of constructivism, both in the above sense and also in the sense that it forthrightly acknowledges that it is simply about constructing models or theories which are always provisional, always ready to be replaced or modified by new theory.


A word about science and technology

As a metaphor, constructivism connotes construction sites and "taking up of tools." Simultaneous with the advent of the constructivist era in science and in society is the advent of the computer/tool era. This may be much more than coincidence or simple simultaneity. What it may speak to is the industrialization of mental labor -- the convergence in the late 20th century of constructivism as an ideology or organizing episteme and the computer as the constructivist tool without peer in its ability to facilitate both individual and social construction of meaning. If you begin to think about technology as the "argument" of science, then it also gets interesting to think about computers as object lessons or embodiments of science's already inherent constructivism. In this way, it is possible to see the dispersion of computers in education as in fact the dispersion of the constructivist ideal embedded and embodied in science.