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Constructivism: A pedagogical conundrum?

30 September 2014 No Comment

Rohit Dhankar

“Fighting all epistemic battles with political weapons will leave us collectively and individually more stupid than we already are.”

We often express our strong disapproval of the fact that too many children in our schools learn by rote. They just memorize what is written in the textbook and may understand too little of it. This is a legitimate worry. And we try to develop innovative methods and activities to correct this situation; to help children learn with understanding.

But we hardly notice that there can be ‘rote teaching’ as there is ‘rote learning’. ‘Rote teaching’ would mean using methods and activities in classrooms that are learnt simply as activities; without any regard to understanding the rationale or theory behind those activities. ‘Rote teaching’ without understanding the reasons behind the methods is almost certain to produce ‘rote learning’. If the teachers want to go beyond ‘rote learning’ they have to get rid of ‘rote teaching’. This article tries to unravel some selected theoretical positions behind one of the most often talked pedagogy: constructivism.

Constructivism is the current holy cow of Indian education. We as a nation are avowed cow worshippers at heart, metaphorically speaking. Anything uttered against the object of worship is seen as blasphemy by the worshipper. A blasphemer is considered as a fit object for attack; I am up for a fair bit of attack, as I am going to blaspheme in this little piece.

This article is not meant for the scholars working at the cutting edge of the constructivist controversy; the modest aim of this effort is only to attempt to bring a little more precision to common constructivism conversations among teachers and other people working in elementary education.

Let us note, then, that constructivists as a group are not quite certain what constructivism is or they have different brands of it to propagate. There are many shades of it and the term is used with several adjectives to mark those different shades: constructivism – plain and simple, radical constructivism, social constructivism, radical social constructivism. These are some of the varieties of constructivism on each of which I will say a few sentences. There might be more varieties and my information about the development on the issue might be a little dated; but I doubt that there have been any substantial changes in the basic assumptions in spite of the great delight current day scholarship takes in coining new terms without much change in the substance.

holy-constructivism Illustrations: Boopathy Srinivasan

Before we get into the hotly contested area let us look at a particular characterization of constructivist pedagogy. As pedagogy, constructivism refuses to accept that ‘knowledge can be transferred from one mind to another’. In the constructivist parlance knowledge has to be created by the personal efforts of each learner and teachers can only create opportunities for that construction1. Clarence Joldersma2 summarises Ernst von Glasersfeld’s position on constructivist pedagogy as follows:

  1. Teaching involves creating opportunities for students to trigger their own thinking.
  2. Teachers not only need to be familiar with the curricular content, but they also must have available a repertoire of didactic situations in which such conceptual content can be naturally built up in a way that sparks the students’ natural interests.
  3. Teachers need to realize that students’ mistakes are not wrong as such, but are predictable solutions on the way to more adequate conceptualization.
  4. Teachers need to understand that specialized words in academic disciplines do not have the same meaning for a student as they do for the expert, and teachers must have an idea of the students’ present concepts, ideas, and theories.
  5. Teachers must realize that the formation of concepts requires reflection, something accomplished by conversations among students and with the teacher.

As you can see it is a very sane and tame description with which no objectivist is likely to disagree. Also notice that all the points made are psychological in nature. This kind of characterization is likely to have the full support of every serious teacher, whatever her philosophical position, and has a wide range of solid support from philosophers right from Socrates to modern day lesser known philosophers of education. Their approach to teaching and acquisition of knowledge requires efforts from the learner and accepts with full support the students’ right to cognitive freedom to accept or reject any conceptualization. And let’s note that this characterization of constructivist pedagogy comes from Ernst von Glasersfeld, who is considered the grandfather of radical constructivism.

But constructivist talk in India (actually anywhere) does not stop at this modest and primarily psychological characterization. National Curriculum Framework for School Education 2000 (NCFSE, 2000), confidently proclaims that, “As opposed to the epistemic model of the children which does not provide a great scope for their social experiences, the constructivist movement has re-emphasised the active role children play in acquiring knowledge. …. In the constructivist setting, the learners have autonomy for their own learning, opportunities for peer collaboration and support, occasions for learner generated problems that drive the curriculum, time for self-observation and evaluation and outlets for reflection. …. This perspective recognizes the teacher as primarily a facilitator of learning. Rather than dictating what should be done, the facilitative teacher tends to act as a guide, providing resources for learners and enabling them to decide how to learn and why to learn. The constructivist teacher follows no rigid prescriptions for successful teaching, acts as a facilitator of meaning-making rather than leader of all learning. (p. 26) This knowledge acquisition is a constructive or generative process and each student’s knowledge is personal and unique.” (p. 42)

The two claims that seem to be immediately problematic here are the child’s decision on ‘why to learn’ and his/her knowledge being ‘personal and unique’. Of course, if one is interpreting it as an immediate psychological fact then there is nothing to argue about. But if this is supposed to be a claim of larger importance then ‘why to learn’ and ‘what to learn’ are complex curricular decisions involving aims of education, desirable society, and national aspirations. And the claims made here clearly do not make sense.

The more problematic is the knowledge being ‘personal and unique’; I wonder if the curricular framers involved in NCF 2000 realized that the claim forecloses all possibility of communicability and rejects any possible criteria for judging what would count as knowledge and what would be deemed misconception or false belief.

National Curriculum Framework, 2005 (NCF 2005) takes a relatively more balanced view and does talk about authenticity and validation of knowledge. It has two contesting views of knowledge. The more emphasized view in the document leaves the question of validation uncomfortably open: “how does, then, one differentiate authentic knowledge from unauthentic? Are all beliefs formed of equal worth? Are they equally ‘true’? And what would truth mean in this scheme of things? Can we legitimately assume that since the child’s knowledge is socially constructed, it shall automatically answer the questions of validity?” These questions are not answered in the more detailed view of learning in NCF 2005, “and that raises doubts about its use in curriculum development. This primarily is an involved description of pedagogy and is negligent of the need for public criteria for knowledge. Here, learning is the goal. It is very doubtful whether even learning defined in this manner can be of much educational use.”3

Now this new characterization becomes problematic as it involves epistemic claims that may be difficult to sustain. To better define the problem let’s note that any rationally defensible pedagogy will necessarily involve a Theory of Learning (TL) and a Theory of Knowledge (TK). TL will answer questions regarding “What is learning”, “How it comes about”, “How concepts are formed”, “What role experience plays in learning” and so on. TK will deal with questions like “What is knowledge?”, “How does one justify and validate it?”, “How is it communicated?”, “What are its limits?” and so on. Thus, constructivist pedagogy involves a ‘Constructivist Theory of Learning’ (CTL) as well as a ‘Constructivist Theory of Knowledge’ (CTK).

The constructivist pedagogy
There are not many problems in the CTL. Concept formation is generally recognized as based on the learner’s personal experience and contains elements of uniqueness for each learner given her personal history and state of mind at the time of learning. It is also recognized in cognitive psychology that concepts and knowledge can neither be transferred nor emerge automatically in a primarily inactive tabula rasa. Thus, the learner has to be actively engaged and often consciously. All this happens in a social setting and is profoundly influenced by it; this fact is also unproblematic and generally accepted. And all this is compatible with even the most extreme kind of objectivist, foundationalist and universalistic epistemology.

And still, even psychological constructivism may get into problems when taken to the extreme. For example, in some extreme versions of discovery learning, all concepts have to be formed by children through self-discovery. And there happen to be concepts of practical and theoretical varieties4 that cannot be discovered without explicit help from someone who already has those concepts. However, this difficulty can be tackled partly by taking recourse to social constructivism5 and partly by relaxing the radical stand.

social-construction One simple aspect of constructivist theory of knowledge
The real insurmountable problems emerge in the CTK. Here, constructivism as an epistemology and as a pedagogy collides with two solid walls of human sense-data (sense-impressions) and forms of thought or structure of mind and gets almost shattered in this collision.

Let’s look at this problem more closely. As a methodology and communication strategy to make this point I will examine various possible interpretations of an often heard statement, “All knowledge is socially constructed”, and try to see which interpretations can be plausibly defended and which cannot be. Let’s denote this principle, “All knowledge is socially constructed” by the letter P. We will denote its various interpretations by IP1, IP2, etc.

Thus P: All knowledge is socially constructed.

IP1: In an educational context all curricular knowledge is selected socially, that is selected in a social context, collectively by those in dominant position, the selection is influenced by power equations in the society.

This is an unproblematic truism. So the claim that what a society selects to pass on to the next generation is socially decided can hardly be contested if it is seen as a descriptive statement, that is, if what is claimed is supposed to be a description of situations as they occur in societies.

But, if it is meant either as biologically determined or as a claim that this selection is devoid of any other criteria than social agreement under the dominant political position, then it could be contested. We will see later that there could be ways of countering dominant political positions which derive their strength for resistance from other quarters.

IP1 is actually neither an issue of TL nor of TK; it is a claim about socio-politics of knowledge; and is unproblematic unless it is meant to express that ‘socio-politics is all that is there to knowledge’ and that ‘acceptance of knowledge requires no criteria beyond socio-politics’.

IP2: The problems and areas of knowledge that get investigated are determined by the socio-political (including cultural and economic) needs of a society, therefore, what knowledge gets constructed and what areas are left out of investigation is socio-politically determined.

Again the issue is neither concerned with TL nor with TK; it is about economic-social decisions as to where the society decided to invest its resources. No problem if it is meant descriptively; but indefensible if it is meant normatively, claiming that’s how it should be.

Also one has to keep some room for the wayward individuals who may pursue their own inclinations and logic contrary to social pressures. If one argues that this is also totally determined by the society and social living, then the thesis becomes infallible and one can hardly imagine ways of testing it or arguing against it; and thus becomes useless.

IP3: Concepts and knowledge that can be constructed are absolutely determined by the kind of social life one lives, psychologically speaking. Thus, claiming that human psychology is totally determined by social living.

Of course, social living influences the kinds of concepts and knowledge construction we may be capable of; but making this principle absolute runs counter to experience. The human capability of receiving sense-impressions, abhorrence to pain, attraction to pleasure, dependence of empirical concepts on sense-impressions, etc., all run counter to such a claim. It cannot be accepted, and if that is what P means it is plainly false.

IP4: Epistemic criteria for validity of knowledge are totally determined by the socio-political conditions; and there are no grounds beyond legitimacy constructed through socio-political forces alone; therefore, all human knowledge is socially constructed.

This is the strongest interpretation of P, is centrally concerned with our theme in this article, has profound implications for pedagogy right from primary to university; and is totally indefensible.

Let’s try to see why this is indefensible. IP4 faces two insurmountable difficulties to my mind. They are tentatively referred to above as: human sense-impressions and structure of mind.

First let’s consider human sense-impressions: all humans, in all societies, receive only five kinds of sense impressions; and no socio-political forces can change that. Thus, the limits of empirical knowledge are absolutely and universally determined; one can play within this arena but can hardly transcend it.

Knowledge has purpose, mainly of helping one live a satisfactory life. Humans imagine various versions of satisfactory life and their sense-impressions determine how successful they are in achieving that end. For example, I might imagine the capability to go through stonewalls necessary for a satisfactory life, and want to possess this; however, my sense impressions tell me that I may break my head but can not pass through. This is not a trivial example, it tells us that there are physical conditions which may not be changed or violated by influence of socio-political play (as a radical constructivist might claim). They are absolute and universal.

human-mind
We happen to communicate. Otherwise we can have neither dialogue nor debates about knowledge or seminars. The possibility of communication cannot be explained unless we assume:

  1. The existence of something independent of our minds
  2. A substantial core of identical or at the least similar sense-impressions that something produces in our minds, and
  3. Similarity in our forming and grasping of symbols through which we communicate.

Discard any one of these assumptions and communication will be an unexplainable mystery.

These, and we can discover many more, conclusions provide epistemic criteria for the possibility of construction of knowledge and grounds for its validity that cannot be ignored by socio-political forces. Though, the socio-political forces can play with them within limits. But that does not save IP4.

And this is only half the story; let’s consider the other half: the contested structure of human mind.

Let’s encounter a few absolute truths:

  • Human mind is incapable of annihilating space. That is, you may be able to imagine largely empty space but you cannot imagine your own existence and not have space at all. This leads to all human experience, and therefore knowledge, as space bound.
  • Human mind is incapable of accepting p and not-p simultaneously. You cannot accept simultaneously that “the earth is round” (call it p) and that “the earth is not round”. That little fact demands coherence from all human knowledge. Incoherent belief system does not count as knowledge.
  • Human mind is incapable of denying [if a=b, and b=c then a=c], if it grasps its meaning. That provides at the least one very important basis for objective inference. Therefore, construction of more knowledge from existing knowledge becomes possible.
  • Human mind is incapable of unthinking self once the self-consciousness arises, and that arises in all societies. That gives us at least one universal principle about human nature.
  • Human mind recognizes undeniable conceptual connections once it starts using language, any language, in any society. Example: “All husbands are married men”; “A triangle has three sides” [triangle being a closed figure with three angles and all sides straight]; “the whole is greater than any of its parts, given there are more than one part.”

The list could be made almost endless.

Coupled with the grounds provided by sense-impressions this gives us shared grounds for validation of knowledge and criteria for its acceptability. Also makes it necessary to recognize the difference between beliefs and knowledge. Thus, these two facts together provide powerful grounds to resist the juggernaut of unbridled socio-political forces.

Therefore, the epistemology-annihilating interpretation of P is not tenable. However, some milder interpretations of it (IP1 to IP3) may be partially or entirely acceptable.

Pedagogical implications
This situation, that psychological constructivism of the milder variety is acceptable but epistemic is not, has some pedagogical implications.

  1. Psychological constructivism is rationally tenable and pedagogically desirable, perhaps it is the most powerful pedagogy.
  2. Epistemic radical social constructivism is not tenable and does no good to the endeavour of either knowledge construction or of education.
  3. Children need to engage in their own knowledge construction, but they need guidance and even telling by knowledgeable adults. Intentional education without that is impossible.
  4. All conceptualizations and beliefs are not equally good or worthwhile; thus children need to be brought to epistemically sound conceptualizations and beliefs. Their own construction of knowledge actually may be wrong, and often is.
  5. The only tools to resist inherent injustice in socio-political dominance can be found in epistemology and ethics, and presumes an epistemology that is not based on arbitrary power. Thus inculcating the habit of demanding grounds for acceptance and working out the criteria for acceptance has to be a necessary part of pedagogy, if education has anything to do with social justice, equality, and democracy.

NCF 2005 often seems to go beyond acceptable limits of constructivist pedagogy in classroom teaching. But when one looks at the overall understanding it expresses, it accepts the need for objective criteria for knowledge. The section on knowledge and understanding in the chapter on pedagogy and epistemological criteria included in sections on subject teaching like science, mathematics and social sciences guard against radical constructivism of individual variety as well as the social variety.

One strongly arguable interpretation of constructivism in NCF 2005 could be ‘a position taken to argue against the rigid and stifling pedagogy used in our schools’. Therefore, it is not so much a document to jump wholeheartedly on to the constructivist bandwagon, rather is a long argument to bring the child’s capabilities and learning process in the centre to help him/her grow into a self-confident learner who progresses towards acceptable human knowledge in an active and engaged manner.

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  1. This position is acceptable to many philosophers of education who are not constructivists. But their reasons are different. (Scheffler’s reasons)
  2. Clarence Joldersma, “Ernst von Glasersfeld’s Radical Constructivism and Truth Discourse”, Educational Theory, vol. 6, No. 3 (2011): 275-293.
  3. Dhankar R., “Curriculum framework in search of a coherentepistemology: A case study of Indian National CurriculumFrameworks”, Presented in PESGB Conference, 2012, (p. 8)
  4. RF Dearden, Introduction to Philosophy of primary education, Routledge and Kegal Paul, London
  5. Social constructivism is a theory of learning and meaning making that emphasises the critical importance of culture and the importance of the social context for cognitive development. Therefore, help from others who already have the theoretical concepts in question becomes available.

The author is the founder of Digantar, an organization working in alternative education for rural children. He is also associated with the Azim Premji University, Bangalore. He can be reached at dhankar@apu.edu.in.

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