Early childhood educators generally agree that constructivism is a theory of how children learn by building or constructing knowledge from the inside rather than by internalizing it directly from the environment. As stated by Bredo (2000, p. 128), however, “constructivism is both diverse and moving. The fact that the term has become so popular and used in such differing and changing ways makes its meaning uncertain.” For some people, constructivism is an epistemological theory; for others it is a philosophy of education, or a psychological theory about how children learn. Still others incorporate constructivism into a theory called “social constructivism” that states that knowledge is socially created.
In the field of early childhood education, constructivism can be divided into two broad categories—(a) as a philosophy of education about how best to teach children and (b) as a psychological and/or epistemological theory explaining how children learn (with some also attending to teaching as well as learning). Each of the two categories has something to offer teachers of young children.
The idea that students build knowledge from within is as old as Socrates. An example of contemporary constructivism as a particular pedagogical approach is outlined in the text, In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms (Brooks and Brooks, 1999). The authors identify what they describe as constructivist principles of teaching, such as teaching by posing problems of emerging relevance to students, by seeking and valuing students’ points of view, and by adapting curriculum to address students’ suppositions (p. ix). In support of these principles, many of which are in opposition to traditional transmission models of teaching, the authors cite scholars and philosophers of education such as Bruner, Dewey, Eisner, Gardner, Goodlad, Goodman, Graves, David Hawkins, Katz and Chard, Loevinger, Piaget, Inhelder, Slavin, Vygotsky, and others. These authors’ philosophies of education differ from the traditional belief in transmitting knowledge to students in ready-made, well-organized form in which good teaching is believed to consist of presenting facts and interpretations, giving exercises, reinforcing correct answers, and correcting incorrect responses.
Constructivism as a philosophy of education appears in the work of many scholars in literacy education, several of whom were constructivists before constructivism became popular. Bissex (1980), Chomsky (1979), Goodman and Goodman (1979), and Smith (1978) are all examples of constructivists who view children’s acquisition of knowledge as a process from the inside. Constructivism as a philosophy of education has especially influenced reforms in mathematics education as can be seen in Cognitively Guided Instruction (Carpenter et al., 1999), Developing Number Concepts (Richardson, 1999), and Developing Mathematical Ideas (Schifter, Bastable, and Russell, 1999). These educators advocate encouraging children to do their own thinking and to invent their own procedures for solving problems rather than mimicking the algorithms of “carrying” and “borrowing.”
For most scholars, constructivism is an epistemological and/or psychological theory explaining the nature of knowledge and how human beings acquire it. Epistemologists and psychologists’ task is only to describe and explain knowledge, and the application of their theories to education is beyond the scope of their field. An example of a descriptive epistemological theory is radical constructivism.
Radical constructivism (von Glasersfeld, 1995) states, in essence, that human beings cannot know reality itself because all we can know is what we construct on the basis of our experience, which is limited. Radical constructivists believe that we will therefore never be able to attain truth and that we can attain only knowledge that is “viable.” An idea is viable as long as it is useful in accomplishing a task or in achieving a goal. Instead of claiming that knowledge represents a world outside of our experience, radical constructivists thus say that knowledge is a tool that serves the purposes of adaptation. As a philosopher, von Glasersfeld wrote about the implications of radical constructivism for mathematics education, but his interest was mainly in describing and explaining the nature and limits of human knowledge.
The constructivist scholar whose work is best known to early childhood educators in the United States is Jean Piaget. Piaget was interested in describing and explaining the nature of human knowledge. His theory is different from philosophical theories in that it is a scientific theory based on sixty years of systematically collected evidence. He especially studied the centuries-old epistemological debates between empiricists and rationalists and concluded that both camps were correct in some ways and incorrect in other ways. As a scientist trained in biology, he decided that the only way to resolve the centuries-old debates between empiricism and rationalism was to study the origin and development of knowledge scientifically. His study of children was a means to answer such questions as “How do we know what we think we know?”; “How do human beings acquire logic?”; and “What is the nature of number?”
Piaget made a fundamental distinction among three kinds of knowledge according to their ultimate sources—physical knowledge, logico-mathematical knowledge, and social-conventional knowledge (Piaget, 1967). Physical knowledge is knowledge of objects such as liquids, solids, and the noise a rattle makes when a baby shakes it. Examples of social-conventional knowledge are knowledge of languages and etiquette. As the ultimate source of physical knowledge is objects, and the ultimate source of social-conventional knowledge is conventions made by people, these two kinds of knowledge can be said to have sources outside the individual. By contrast, logico-mathematical knowledge consists of mental relationships each individual creates from within.
Our knowledge of number is an example of logico-mathematical knowledge as can be seen in the conservation-of-number task. When children have not constructed a certain level of logic from within, they say that a long line of eight counters has more than a short line of eight counters that they put out before with one-to-one correspondence. Children can see the counters (physical knowledge), but number is logico-mathematical knowledge, which is not empirically observable. When children have constructed a higher level of logic, however, they begin to deduce that the two rows have the same number “because you only moved them.”
The distinction among the three kinds of knowledge has far-reaching implications for curriculum for young children. For example, it informs us that learning to speak, read, and write belongs to social knowledge that requires input from people. This need for social transmission, however, does not mean that social knowledge does not have to be constructed from the inside. When babies begin to talk, they begin with one-word utterances like “ball!” and go on to two-word utterances like “ball gone.” In kindergarten, children speak in complete sentences but often say, “I thinked it in my head.” These are examples of the constructive process from within.
The physical sciences are the logico-mathematization of physical knowledge. An example of a good science activity based on Piaget’s theory is play involving the domino effect. By varying the distance and angle between dominoes, children find out about how force can be transmitted from domino to domino under certain conditions. This is a much better science activity than exploration with a magnet, which is often recommended as a science activity. A magnet attracts certain metals but not others that look exactly the same, and many believe that young children cannot understand magnetism beyond these seemingly random behaviors.
For centuries, education has been based on opinions called “philosophies.” But education began to be influenced by science when it embraced associationism and behaviorism. Behaviorism essentially explains learning as a function of rewards and conditioning and is a scientific theory that has been confirmed all over the world.
Piaget’s constructivism is another scientific theory that has been evaluated, debated, and examined through cross-cultural research. While variations in the ages of children’s acquisition of key mental constructs have been found, the theoretical tenet that knowledge is constructed from within has never been disproved. There is little question but that constructivist theory has had a profound effect on the field of early childhood education. To date, however, educators endlessly argue about the superiority of “this method of teaching” or “that method of teaching.” Continued research and applied investigations of constructivism as it explains children’s knowledge construction (e.g., Kamii, 2000) will enhance understandings of how human beings acquire knowledge.
Curriculum, Science; Pedagogy
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