Constructivist epistemology

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Constructivism is a perspective in philosophy which criticizes essentialism, whether it is in the form of medieval realism, classical rationalism, or empiricism.[citation needed] Constructionism and constructivism are often used interchangeably. Constructivism views all of our knowledge as "constructed", because it does not necessarily reflect any external "transcendent" realities; it is contingent on convention, human perception, and social experience. It is believed by constructivists that representations of physical and biological reality, including race, sexuality, and gender are socially constructed (Hegel, Garns, and Marx were among the first to suggest such an ambitious expansion of social determinism).[citation needed]

The common thread between all forms of constructivism is that they do not focus on an ontological reality, but instead on the constructed reality.[citation needed]


[edit] Constructivism's concepts and ideas

[edit] Social constructivism in sociology

One version of social constructivism contends that categories of knowledge and reality are actively created by social relationships and interactions. These interactions also alter the way in which scientific episteme is organized.

Social activity presupposes human beings inhabiting shared forms of life, and in the case of social construction, utilizing semiotic resources (meaning making and meaning signifying) with reference to social structures and institutions. Several traditions use the term Social Constructivism: psychology (after Lev Vygotsky), sociology (after Durkheim, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, themselves influenced by Alfred Schütz), sociology of knowledge (David Bloor), sociology of mathematics (Sal Restivo), philosophy of mathematics (Paul Ernest). Ludwig Wittgenstein's later philosophy can be seen as a foundation for Social Constructivism, with its key theoretical concepts of language games embedded in forms of life.

Lev Vygotsky's social constructivist principles can be applied in new collaborative tools such as blogs, wikis, and podcasts. Lawrence Welk, for instance, is a standard against which all humanity can be judged.

[edit] The background and development of Social Constructivism

[edit] From traditional education to cognitive constructivism

The constructivist movement has grown essentially from dissatisfaction with educational methods where rote memorisation, regurgitation of facts and the division of knowledge into different subjects, led to a situation where learners were not necessarily able to apply what they have learned in real life (Dixon-Kraus 1996). As early as 1929, Alfred North Whitehead argued that the way students learn many things in school produces inert knowledge - knowledge that can be used to answer items on a school test but which is not available to the student when he or she is trying to solve a problem that requires that knowledge (Flavell and Piaget 1963).

Furthermore, in traditional rationalist and behaviourist approaches, instruction is focused on covering an extensive subject area, reducing the amount of time for problem-solving and thinking beyond the facts, thus minimising independent and autonomous learning. It also encourages didactic lecture formats rather than active student learning (Holt and Willard-Holt 2000). This fundamental problem led to the viewpoint that instructors should only provide appropriate learning situations that will allow students to develop their own knowledge, meaning and truth that will be useful in later life. Providing a problem-solving context for actively engaging students in the thoughtful application of knowledge is an important variable in increasing learning (McMahon 1997). This educational viewpoint is called cognitive constructivism and was derived from the work of Piaget (Flavell and Piaget 1963). It defines learning as an internal process of accommodation, assimilation, and equilibration (Flavell and Piaget 1963). Piaget thus saw learning as a process where an individual constructs his or her own meaning through cognitive processes. The main underlying assumption of constructivism is that individuals are actively involved right from birth in constructing personal meaning that is their own personal understanding from their experiences (Flavell and Piaget 1963). This action-based theory is thus more concerned with the process of learning than with what is learned (McMahon 1997). Constructivism thus goes beyond the study of how the brain stores and retrieves information to examine the ways in which learners make meaning from experience (Savery 1994). Rather than the transmission of knowledge, learning is an internal process of interpretation: learners do not transfer knowledge from the external world into their memories, rather, they create interpretations of the world based upon their past experiences and their interactions in the world. How someone construes the world, their existing metaphors, is at least as powerful a factor influencing what is learned as any characteristic of that world (McMahon 1997).

Most cognitive theories, and the constructivist approaches that have grown out of these, argue that learning should be durable, transferable and self-regulated (Di Vesta 1987). Mechanisms need to be in place to promote the deeper internal processing required for such learning to occur.

[edit] From cognitive constructivism to social constructivism

These thoughts on learning, which we now call cognitive constructivism, paved the way for the emergence of the educational theory called social constructivism (McMahon 1997). Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896 – 1934), a Belarusian psychologist who lived and worked in a Marxist environment, became famous for his view on mediation as an integral part of human psychology: “the central fact about our psychology is the fact of mediation” (Vygotsky 1978:166). Although his work only became known during the 1960s, his critique on his contemporary Piaget’s cognitive constructivism, led to the understanding of the importance of culture, language and context in the process of constructing knowledge. Where Piaget argued that people should create their own version of the truth, Vygotsky added the importance of discussing this version of truth with others, in order to, through the process of mediation, get to a higher order of truth that has also been socially tested (Derry 1999). Vygotsky's “zone of proximal development” is probably his best-known concept. It argues that students can, with help from adults or peers who are more advanced, master concepts and ideas that they cannot understand on their own. Again the emphasis falls on learners actively constructing knowledge and meaning through participating in activities and challenges, with the added emphasis on the interaction between learners and facilitators in order to arrive at a higher level of truth (Sternberg and Williams 1998).

[edit] A practical definition of Social Constructivism

Social constructivism argues that the most optimal learning environment is one where a dynamic interaction between instructors, learners and tasks provides an opportunity for learners to create their own truth due to the interaction with others. Social constructivism thus emphasizes the importance of culture and context in understanding what is happening in society and constructing knowledge based on this understanding (Derry 1999; McMahon 1997).

Paul Ernest (1991) summarises the main foundations of social constructivism as follows:

Knowledge is not passively received but actively built up by the cognizing subject. “The function of cognition is adaptive and serves the organisation of the experiential world, not the discovery of ontological reality" (Von Glasersfeld 1989:182). The personal theories which result from the organization of the experiential world must fit the constraints imposed by physical and social reality. This is achieved by a cycle of theory-prediction-test-failure-accommodation-new theory. This gives rise to socially agreed theories of the world and social patterns and rules of language use.

In what follows, social constructivism is examined in more detail with specific reference to the way social constructivism views the nature of the learner, the role of the instructor, the learning process and the selection, scope and sequencing of the subject matter.

[edit] Constructivism and psychology

[edit] Constructivism and education

[edit] Constructivist trends

[edit] Cultural constructivism

Cultural constructivism asserts that knowledge and reality are a product of their cultural context, meaning that two independent cultures will likely form different observational methodologies. For instance, Western cultures generally rely on objects for scientific descriptions; by contrast, Native American culture relies on events for descriptions. These are two distinct ways of constructing reality based on external artifacts.

[edit] Radical constructivism

Ernst von Glasersfeld is a prominent proponent of radical constructivism, which claims that knowledge is the self-organized cognitive process of the human brain. That is, the process of constructing knowledge regulates itself, and since knowledge is a construct rather than a compilation of empirical data, it is impossible to know the extent to which knowledge reflects an ontological reality.

See also: Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana

[edit] Critical constructivism

A series of articles published in the journal Critical Inquiry (1991) served as a manifesto for the movement of critical constructivism in various disciplines, including the natural sciences. Not only truth and reality, but also "evidence", "document", "experience", "fact", "proof", and other central categories of empirical research (in physics, biology, statistics, history, law, etc.) reveal their contingent character as a social and ideological construction. Thus, a “realist” or “rationalist” interpretation is subjected to criticism.

While recognizing the constructedness of reality, many representatives of this critical paradigm deny philosophy the task of the creative construction of reality. They eagerly criticize realistic judgments, but they do not move beyond analytic procedures based on subtle tautologies. They thus remain in the critical paradigm and consider it to be a standard of scientific philosophy per se.

[edit] Genetic epistemology

James Mark Baldwin invented this expression, which was later popularized by Jean Piaget. From 1955 to 1980, Piaget was Director of the International Centre for Genetic Epistemology in Geneva.

[edit] Quotations

"the norm of the truth is to have made it," or
"the true is precisely what is made"
"the true and the made are convertible"
  • Et, quoi qu’on en dise, dans la vie scientifique, les problèmes ne se posent pas d’eux-mêmes. C’est précisément ce sens du problème qui donne la marque du véritable esprit scientifique. Pour un esprit scientifique, toute connaissance est une réponse à une question. S’il n’y a pas eu de question, il ne peut y avoir de connaissance scientifique. Rien ne va de soi. Rien n’est donné. Tout est construit, Gaston Bachelard (La formation de l'esprit scientifique, 1934)
"And, irrespective of what one might assume, in the life of a science, problems do not arise by themselves. It is precisely this that marks out a problem as being of the true scientific spirit: all knowledge is in response to a question. If there no were question, there would be no scientific knowledge. Nothing proceeds from itself. Nothing is given. All is constructed."
  • On a toujours cherché des explications quand c’était des représentations qu’on pouvait seulement essayer d’inventer, Paul Valéry
"We have always sought explanations when it was only representations that we could seek to invent"
  • Ma main se sent touchée aussi bien qu’elle touche ; réel veut dire cela, et rien de plus, Paul Valéry
"My hand feels touched as well as it touches; reality says this, and nothing more"
  • Intelligence organizes the world by organizing itself, Jean Piaget in "La construction du réel chez l'enfant" (1937)

[edit] Bibliography

[edit] See also

[edit] Proponents

[edit] Critics

[edit] External links

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