Everything you always wanted to know about constructivism in lifelong learning… …but you were too ashamed to ask.

Dr Katarina Popovic

Because the term „constructivism“ became so fashionable, and you had the feeling that one should know about constructivism! Indeed, it is one of the most important philosophical approaches to adult education and one of the most used nowadays. It has been recognized as both paradigm and theory. You might have used it already without knowing (when you are talking about importance of experience of participants in adult education, whenever you say “It depends on the context“, and name teachers as “mentors and facilitators“) you are referring to some of the main characteristics of constructivism. It emerged as the leading theory of human learning by the 1980s and 1990s as interest declined in behaviourist and information-processing perspectives. Since then it has been the buzzword in education. The idea that knowledge is not transmitted, but actively constructed within the learning environment, was commonly regarded as a shift in paradigm in education. Constructivism initiated discussions about epistemological issues in learning and education and created space for critical reflection on teachers’ and learners’ positions. At the heart of constructivism is the epistemological assumption that reality is subjectively constructed, but it has great implications on understanding of teaching as well.

The basic foundation of constructivism in lifelong learning

The origins of this approach can be found deep in the history. Socrates with his method was probably one of the first constructivists: in 1st phase (irony) he was “deconstructing“ the old, wrong knowledge and cleaning the misconceptions and in the 2nd phase (meneutics) he helped adult learners to „construct“ new knowledge. Socrates would say that he only helped a person to give birth to true knowledge, but we cannot give up the idea that he probably had a hidden agenda. Socrates believed in “the Truth”. Anyhow, the idea of knowledge being subjective is not the new idea, although it flourishes in the postmodern era. During the second half of the 20th century, we finally gave up the idea that knowledge is nothing but the pure, exact reflection of the real world.

In modern terms, constructivism implies that a learner constructs his own knowledge, and does not adopt it from an outside authority, which plays the crucial role in modern approaches to adult education, especially in non-vocational education. The almost revolutionary character of constructivism is obvious when contrasting it to the traditional understanding of learning as the pure transmission of information and knowledge, with the passive role of the learner. One of the examples of this approach in the modern history was enlightenment. Those who “posses“ knowledge give it by mercy to those who don‘t have it. This kind of learning was, according to constructivists, mimetic activity, or more simple a relationship between “giver” and “taker” of knowledge. Constructivism offers the idea of an active learner, full of experience, actively engaged in ways and dynamics of knowledge creation. It is a revolutionary idea since it opposes the traditional view of teaching and places a learner in the centre of the educational process.

Individual versus social constructivism

There are two main directions in constructivism: individual and social constructivism and the difference can be found in their approach to the construction of knowledge. Within individual constructivism (sometimes called cognitive or radical constructivism) emphasis is on intrapsychic cognitive processes that are considered to be the source of the structure of reality and learning is perceived as a construction of the subject’s cognitive structures. The father of this approach to learning is considered to be Jean Piaget with followers such as Bruner, Ausubel, and von Glasersfeld. They argue that knowledge is individually constructed, and, as a consequence they emphasized learner-centred approach to education.

Social constructivism is most often associated with Vygotskian socio-cultural theory and it focuses on interpsychic processes and on the role of social processes in knowledge creation. Other important authors that are considered to be social-constructivists are Kuhn, Greeno, Lave, Simon, and Brown. The basic premise of social constructivism is that culture and social communities shape the ways in which individuals perceive, interpret and ascribe meaning to their experience and therefore the role of social interaction in the learning process is emphasized.

The process of critical thinking

To develop critical thinking, which is one of the most important needed competence of a democratic European citizen, lies in something that is presented as a truth and common sense. If we accept that the social phenomena are socially constructed, to be critical means to deconstruct what is perceived as truth and to look for the origin and consequences of construct. Implication for education is the need to be aware of our own practice, especially when we have an idea of what is a “good” and successful participant. We hear a mother on the street criticising her child: „Nobody likes children who talk much in the school!“ Well, how strange is that! We support silent students / citizens in formal education and expect from them to be reflective, critical and talkative in adult education. Constructivism paradigm can reveal the meaning of our own practices in education: What identities are supported and what we perceive to be the Truth? Being constructivist can be very liberating. We can question social roles and positions that are presented as “natural” and true. We can be revolutionists in our life and work and choose our identities and truth. Even further, we can be courageous and playful in order to start the adventure of creating ourselves.

Criticism concerning constructivism

But, of course, we should not be as enthusiastic about constructivism as learning theory accepting it as the ideal and only approach to education. The main critique refers to its “quasi-religious or ideological aspect”, which is considered to be the “ugly face” of constructivism. As most of the “isms” it could not but fell in its own trap: there are firm assumptions that are considered to be the Truth – assumption about human nature, nature of learning, epistemology. We might call this the paradox of constructivism that has roots in positivist thinking. Another kind of constructivist absurdity is illustrated in a response of a professor of physics who said that if you believed that gravitation is a construct, try to jump from the third floor.

Another critique the constructivist learning theory is often faced with, is that it ends up in cognitive and rational domain. The big question is what counts as knowledge. Yes, it is constructed, but what is it consisting of? We can try to overcome this drawback by analyze knowledge from feminist perspective. The main authors in feminist epistemology believe that the assumptions about knowledge were developed by white European man and therefore being rational is considered to be one of the most important virtues of democratic European citizens. Therefore, we welcome learning theories that also embrace body, emotion and feminine in learning, for instance transformative learning conceptions.

Constructivism in lifelong learning

The importance of constructivism should not be undermined, and in adult education we praise it since it “rehabilitated” the learner, but it is still necessary to be careful when we create our educational practice by supporting only one approach to learning. Some authors believe that constructivism does not overcome dualist thinking and that in order to improve skills or an attitude we need a deeper level of correction. Therefore, the best suggestion to adult education from the constructivist point of view would be: try to dance your ideas, invent new words and stories, be curious, and experience new situations. We do not know where it could lead us, but why should others know? We can at least open up space for new learnings.

Katarina Popović and Maja Maksimović

Photo: speednik / photocase.de

European InfoNet Adult Education, 13.05.2014