Constructivism in Philosophy and Teaching

The Philosophy of Constructivism

The philosophy of constructivism can be reduced to one sentence: "everything that is said is said by an observer" (Maturana 25). As trivial as this sentence might sound at first – the longer you think about it the more profound it turns out to be. Constructivists deal with how conceptions of reality come into being. Maturana and other constructivists hold the view that an external reality exists but negate that this external world can be perceived the way it really is. (Pörksen 12)
Ernst von Glasersfeld, one of the founders of constructivism, replaces the concept of truth by the concept of viability. Consequently, a theory should be useful (Pörksen 46). Von Glasersfeld partly bases his concept on the results of Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist who in his book Construction of Reality in the Child explains that children actively acquire knowledge. They learn when their own actions do not correspond to their expectations, meaning they are not viable (Pörksen 66). When applied to teaching methodology, this assumption has far-reaching consequences. In the following, two schools of constructivism are introduced.

Radical Constructivism and Social Constructivism

Radical constructivists and social constructivists assume that people cannot directly perceive the objective reality but that they rather construct their view of the world based on knowledge they already possess.
Radical constructivists claim that people develop their individual view of the world. Social constructivists, however, state that people only attain knowledge of their surroundings by dealing with others, that is, in social discourse. For both schools of constructivism, the criterion of viability plays the decisive role, which means that it is not 'truth as such' that matters, but usefulness (Douillet 15).

Constructivism in Teaching

Learners do not have direct access to reality because the brain only processes electronic signals. Reality is constructed on the basis of these signals.
Constructivists have abandoned the concept that knowledge is a kind of substance which can be transferred from the head of the teacher to the head of the learner. Learning is regarded as a creative, inventive act performed by the individual. If every learner has his/her own way of processing learning material, there have to exist 'as many individual and unpredictable ways of learning as there are learners' (Thissen 8).
Ernst von Glasersfeld demands that each learner should be treated as an intelligent, independently thinking individual (Pörksen 65).

Description of a Constructivistic Classroom Situation

In a class, which is run according to constructivistic guidelines, the teacher does not act as a pure knowledge transmitter who only accepts ONE true answer to his/her problem but as a coach or facilitator offering thought provoking suggestions for solving the tasks given. Students are expected  to use their own experiences to solve a problem as a group using different ways and methods.
In constructivism, there is not a 'one and only true way' to solve a task. The solution of a problem rather depends upon individual experiences and thoughts. As already mentioned above, most of the time students work together in groups, exchange their suggestions and thoughts in discussions to reach one or more solutions. The teacher judges and evaluates the skills and deficiencies of each individual student, for example, in the course of a discussion. Teachers are more flexible because they cannot expect only one correct answer to their questions.




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Designed by Karen Hoehnke, Veronika Koch und Ulrike Lutz.

Translated by Nina Burr, Irina Haas, Andrea Kühn, Oliver Müller, Thea Roll, Sabine Ruflair and Mareike Zeller.
Last updated January 30, 2003