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Constructivism

"Constructivism" is a philosophical viewpoint on how the mind forms and modifies its understanding of reality. It is the foundation of our outlook on pedagogy and research.

In what way is a constructivist view of science education different from other views? The answer lies in the tenets of constructivist philosophy, which assert that all knowledge is constructed as a result of cognitive processes within the human mind. While this may appear to be a harmless enough statement, many find (so-called) radical constructivism somewhat unpalatable. Radical constructivism challenges the notion of an external reality: No amount of stimuli, experience, or thinking is sufficient to prove the existence of an external agent. Science (of course) presumes such an external reality and seeks to describe its nature and behavior. (Science also presumes that the external reality is well behaved and capable of being explained.)

Despite the previous statements, there is no essential conflict between science and constructivism at the operational level. In fact, scientists readily admit that all we can ever do is construct a model of external reality, assuming it exists. Thus, all that we know is actually a set of stimuli and experiences. This is totally in accord with the scientific view. So, at the level of epistemology (how we know or learn anything), science and constructivism are in complete harmony.

The premises of constructivism as an epistemology are:

  1. Knowledge is constructed, not transmitted.
  2. Prior knowledge impacts the learning process.
  3. Initial understanding is local, not global.
  4. Building useful knowledge structures requires effortful and purposeful activity.

The constructivist perspective is clearly divergent from earlier views of education that presumed we could put or pour information directly into a student's head. Starting from constructivism, real learning can occur only when the learner is actively engaged in operating on, or mentally processing, incoming stimuli. Furthermore, the interpretation of stimuli depends upon previously constructed learning. Nothing here should be taken to imply that the mental processing involved in learning is necessarily conscious. In fact, much, perhaps even most, of the learning we do is subconscious. Thinking or learning about the process of learning, rather than the material being learned, is often called a meta-cognitive process.

Cognitive science has undertaken the study of the mental processes used to acquire, store, process, and use knowledge. Essential to any such study is a theory of learning and cognition. As a theory of epistemology, constructivism plays a central role in cognitive science, a role akin to that of causality for the physical sciences. Like causality, constructivism provides no specific answers, but rather, frames the questions and the acceptable forms of answers.

In addition to being used as a philosophy and an epistemology, constructivism also can be used to indicate a theory of communication. When you send a message by saying something or providing information, if you have no knowledge of the receiver, then you have no idea as to what message was received, and you can not unambiguously interpret the response. Viewed in this way, instruction becomes the establishment and maintenance of a language and a means of communication between the teacher and students, as well as between students. Simply presenting material, giving students problems, and accepting answers back is not a refined enough process of communication for efficient learning.

For pedagogic purposes, the tenets of constructivism can be rephrased as follows:

  1. Students come into our classrooms with an established world-view, formed by years of prior experience and learning.
  2. Even as it evolves, a student's world-view filters all experiences and affects their interpretation of observations.
  3. Students are emotionally attached to their world-views and will not give up their world-views easily.
  4. Challenging, revising, and restructuring one's world-view requires much effort.

If we base instruction on the principles of constructivism, the role of the teacher is raised from someone who simply dispenses information to someone who structures activities that improve communication, that challenge students' pre-conceived notions, and that help students revise their world-views. In spite of the difficulties, cognitive research has been able to identify important patterns in the ways students and experts think about their subjects, suggesting pedagogic practices that enhance learning.

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