The Philosophical Tenents of Constructivism


The Philosophical Basis of


Jane Fowler Morse

Ella Cline Shear School of Education

Retreat, Fall 2006

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Two Competing Philosophies

• Ideas are Real

– Plato’s forms

– Aristotle’s logic

– Ptolemy’s mathematical system of the universe

– The Greek skeptics and cynics

– Descartes’ cogito

– Kant’s categories

• Things are Real

– The Greek atomists

– Aristotle’s empiricism

– Kepler’s mathematical system of the universe

– John Locke’s empiricism

– Hume’s skepticism

– Kant’s perceptions

A Modern Debate

• The mind of the observer determines how the world appears

– Dewey’s Pragmatism

– Piaget’s schemata

– Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development

– Sartre’s existentialism

• The world determines what (and how) the mind perceives things

– Thorndike’s testing

– Skinner’s conditioning

– The current emphasis on testing

– Mandated curriculum

• Knowledge is relative • Knowledge is fixed

Can we have our cake and eat it too?

• Kant unites these two competing philosophies

– The mind constructs categories by which human beings construe how to make sense of the appearances in the world (ie “things”).

– The appearances (empirical intuitions) give the mind materials to work with in applying these categories to create explanations and understandings (ie “ideas)

“Concepts without precepts are empty; precepts without concepts are blind.”


Kant’s Categories (Concepts)


• Unity

• Plurality

• Totality






• Inherence and subsistence, accidence and substance

• Causality and dependence

• Community and

Reciprocity, between the active and the passive


•Possibility — Impossibility

•Existence — Nonexistence

•Necessity — Contingency

Kant’s Precepts

• Kant’s “pure” intuitions

– Space

– Time

• Kant’s empirical intuitions

– All sense perceptions

What Does This Matter?

• Human beings have a logical capacity that allows them to construct reality

• Human beings have sense perceptions of things in the world

• Human beings also have an innate sense of space and time that allows them to distinguish between individual perceptions

• Human beings can only see things from their own perspective, but can communicate using a common logic

• Voila: constructivism!

Later Additions

• Phenomenology: All we can know is how things appear to us (Kant’s “phenomena”), not how things are in themselves (Kant’s “noumena”)

(Knowledge is not absolute, but relative)

• Existentialism:Human beings can make up concepts, too

• Piaget: Furthermore, the acquisition of concepts is developmental

• Vygotsky: In addition, the acquisition of concepts is social and cultural

(Plus the 20th century’s philosophical focus on action…)

• “Ideas” seemed real to classical philosophers. Plato’s “Forms” almost have the ontological status of things.

• By Descartes’ time, philosophers talked about ideas as representations of things.

• In the 20th century, the focus changed to actions: Pragmatism, Existentialism,

Behaviorism, all focus on what people do.

•Start here

(It is essential that the student feels the difficulty)

Dewey’s Feedback Loop

**End here

(It is essential that the student

How We Think (1910) grasps the solution)

Formulate hypotheses

Articulate the problem



Test hypotheses

Confirm or disconfirm

Felt difficulty*


Repeat as needed

(Use solution in solving another problem…)


• Cognitive Constructivism: from Piaget

• Social Constructivism: from Vygotsky

• Situated Learning: from Bruner

• Holistic

• Interactive

• Interdisciplinary

What is Crucial to the Theory and

Practice of Constructivism?

• Developmentally appropriate practice, zone of proximal development

• The organism actively produces adaptive behavior

• Knowledge is actively constructed by the knower

• Interaction between stimuli, cognition, situation occur

• Materials are available and arranged for this to happen

• Cultural and social context is taken into account

• Authentic assessment

• Purpose of education — to create conditions under which students can become creators of knowledge

Bruner’s principles of constructivist learning

• Readiness: instruction addresses the learner’s experiences and context

• Spiral Curriculum: instruction organized so the learner can grasp it easily

• Extrapolation: instruction designed to facilitate the learner going beyond it

Ernst von Glasersfeld:

Definition of Radical Constructivism

• Radical Constructivism is an unconventional approach to the problem of knowledge and knowing. It starts from the assumption that knowledge, no matter how it is defined, is in the heads of persons, and that the thinking subject has no alternative but to construct what he or she knows on the basis of his or her own experience.


• What we make of experience constitutes the only world we consciously live in. It can be sorted into many kinds, such as things, self, others, and so on. But all kinds of experience are essentially subjective, and though I may find reasons to believe that my experience may not be unlike yours, I have no way of knowing that it is the same. The experience and interpretation of language are no exception.’

For example: String Theory on

Science Friday

(August 18, 2006)



• (28:00 to 29:20/35:18)

• So what concepts can humans formulate? Kant’s categories? The underlying physics of space and time? Extra dimensions?

• What is new ones are required by a new theory?

• Well, why not?

• Knowledge is transformative, not merely reproductive

Exemplifying Constructivism in Our

Teaching: Our ideas from Discussion

• Caution: We need to acknowledge that the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and dispositions by new teachers is itself developmental, social, and situational.

• Nevertheless, teacher educators can give new teachers the tools to develop a constructivist pedagogy.

• Ample opportunities for reflection can be offered in each course.

More: Our Ideas

• Even where “book knowledge” is applicable, candidates can “make it their own” through applications and discussions.

• Open-ended assignments allow candidates to respond in constructivist ways, using their own critical thinking to solve problems.

• The grading of such assignments must also be flexible to acknowledge diversity of responses, different “ways of knowing.”

More: Our Ideas

• Assignments, readings, examinations, class procedures should facilitate going beyond established ways of thinking.

• Asking candidates to think about the differences in ways of talking about “knowledge” in the different disciplines they encounter in their other coursework can be instructive.

• Encourage candidates to think about diversity as kinds of knowing; enable them to see that teachers should not only value certain kinds.

• Discourage “able-ism.”

Paper posted at

A few good websites:

•Radical Constructivism

•Maryland Collaborative for Teacher Preparation:

•Society for Constructivism in the Human Sciences: