Rethinking science education: A defense of Piagetian constructivism
Fosnot C. T. (1993) Rethinking science education: A defense of Piagetian constructivism. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 30(9): 1189–1201. Available at http://cepa.info/2947
Table of Contents
Developmentally Appropriate Practice
Cognitive Developmental Research
Critique of the Sociocultural Model
O’Loughlin critiqued Piagetian constructivism and urged that science educators adopt a sociocultural constructivism in its place. The central thesis of this response is that Piaget’s revisions of his theory in the 10 years prior to his death offer a new model of equilibration that is contemporary and helpful as we rethink science education. Further, it is argued that decentering is an important human attribute – a necessary aspect of the scientific process. The sociocultural model is critiqued as nihilistic, culturally relative, and dangerous when placed in the context of real science classrooms.
Recently a debate has begun to surface between cognitive developmental constructivists and social constructivists. The article by Michael O’Loughlin (1992) is a case in point. O’Loughlin’s central thesis is that “constructivism is flawed because of its inability to come to grips with the essential issues of culture, power, and discourse in the classroom” (p. 791). Categorizing constructivists into two groups, Piagetians and more general developmentalists who argue for developmentally appropriate practice, he critiques what he believes to be underlying assumptions of both groups and then offers in their place a sociocultural constructivist model that he claims is more emancipatory, transformative, and learner centered. It is my contention that O’Loughlin’s understanding of Piaget’s theory is meager at best, in fact erroneous at times – his primary reference is Broughton’s (1981) critique – and that the sociocultural model he offers is itself flawed and perhaps even dangerous when placed in the context of science education in real classrooms.
O’Loughlin’s main argument with Piaget’s theory is the emphasis placed on decentering. He quotes Piaget (O’Loughlin, 1992):
the gradually emerging equilibration between assimilation and accommodation is the result of successive decentrations, which make it possible for the subject to take the points of view of other subjects or objects themselves. We formerly described this process merely in terms of egocentrism and socialization. But it is far more general and more fundamental to knowledge in all its forms. For cognitive progress is not only assimilation of information; it entails a systematic decentration process which is a necessary condition of objectivity itself (p. 794, quoting from Piaget, 1970, p. 710).
Arguing that knowledge is socially constructed, and that it takes place in economic, social, cultural, and historical contexts, O’Loughlin (1992) concludes that decentering disempowers learners to act or to “envisage and enact social transformation” (p. 799). He critiques Piaget’s theory as embodying “a progressive decentration, in which the person successively detaches from his or her own subjective perception so that an abstract representation of reality may be constructed” (p. 799) and he quotes Sampson who argues forcefully that representation is detrimental (O’Loughlin, 1992):
It is my contention that the cognitive perspective offers a portrait of people who are free to engage in internal mental activity – to plan, decide, wish, think, organize, reconcile, and transform conflicts and contradictions within their heads – and yet who remain relatively impotent or apparently unconcerned (in psychology’s world view) about producing actual changes in their objective social world. In substituting thought for action, mental transformations for real-world transformations, cognitivism veils the objective sources and bases of social life and relegates individual potency to the inner world of mental gymnastics (p. 801, quoting from Sampson, 1981, p. 735).
I conclude the opposite. In my mind, the act of representation is what makes us human. The reptilian brain, for example, is reactive and associative in nature; perceptual stimuli cause reflexive action. In humans, myelination of the visual cortex, coupled with the development of the cerebral cortex, allows us to have mental images of objects and actions on them (Malerstein, 1986; Oakley, 1985; Anderson, 1992) and this ability to represent allows us to reflect on our actions, consider multiple perspectives simultaneously, and to even think about our thinking.
All cultures represent the meaning of experience in some way: through symbol, music, myth, storytelling, art, language, film, explanatory “scientific” models, and/or mathematical forms. Oatley (1985) argues that “whether one uses the term theory, metaphor, or schema depends on the context, so that scientists talk more about theories, literary critics about metaphors, psychologists about schemata” (p. 45). Although these symbolic representations must be understood within the historical and cultural contexts in which they occur, on their own they form a “semiotic space – a place where a student can generate a multiplicity of meanings” (Wertsch, 1991, cited in O’Loughlin, 1992, p. 813). In other words, reflection on these representations – themselves decentered constructions – may bring new insights, new constructions, new possibilities when one subsequently returns to reflecting on the experience. Rather than divorcing thought from action, and thus causing inaction, representations may indeed enable new actions.
In fact, the Reggio Emilia school in Italy uses this approach to pedagogy with much success by having children draw their understanding of a phenomenon or experience they are studying, such as a city in snow, a waterwheel, or the physics involved in a long jump (Forman, 1992). Group discussion on the drawings is facilitated by the teacher, and the children then once again return to investigating the natural phenomena, with new questions, new insights that arose from the discussion on the drawings. The intent here is not just to understand, but to act – to build a waterwheel and/or to sponsor a long jump event for the community.
The very act of representing objects, interactions, or meaning embedded in experience, within a medium such as language, paint and canvas, or mathematical model creates a dialectical tension beneficial to thought. Each medium has its own attributes and limits and elicits new connections, new variations on the contextually embedded meaning (McLuhan, 1964). For example, Sherman (1978) has demonstrated how the choice of art medium (styrofoam vs. clay) affects what children represent; Golomb’s (1974) work shows how the art medium (clay vs. paper and pencil) affects even the subject’s knowledge base of the object that gets represented; and Ives (1980) has argued convincingly that the use of photographs versus language produces different perspective-taking ability. In fact, it was this very point – the effect of the act of representing on thought – that led Henry Moore to comment, “I always draw something to learn more about it,” and Donald Murray to write, “I write to surprise myself.”
Should the reader begin to think here that I am only discussing concrete representation in an art medium, let me provide an example from science. During the 1800s light was believed to be composed of waves. Thomas Young had shown convincingly that when a beam of light was projected through a razorlike slit (smaller in diameter than the wavelength of the light), interference (diffraction) occurred. This diffraction could only be explained by a wave model (an abstraction that explained the experience). Planck and later Einstein proved, in contradiction to Young’s model, that light was composed of small particles travelling in a similar fashion to billiard balls. When they hit an object they knocked a particle out of the mass of that object, just as a billiard ball hitting another would send it travelling at the same speed as the original ball. This proposal explained refraction and the photoelectric effect, whereas the wave interpretation had been insufficient, but a paradox remained. How could light be particles and yet be waves at the same time? It is important to note here that the paradox existed between the abstractions, light as waves versus light as particles. The experimental results were contradictory only insofar as they fit or contradicted the given abstraction. Thus the abstractions formed a “semiotic space” about which scientists could argue and debate. Bohr resolved the contradiction by suggesting that light was both. He proposed that light is a rapidly alternating electromagnetic field travelling through space in the form of waves. Whether we perceive light as particles or as waves depends on the observer, the question asked, and the measurement system used. This new abstraction enabled scientists at a later date to develop laser technology now used in surgery.
Decentering from experience allows the creation of semiotic spaces where we can negotiate meaning. I cannot understand in the same way as another human who has had different experiences, but with language, stories, metaphors, and models we can listen to and probe each other’s understanding, thereby negotiating meaning. Decentering empowers us to go beyond the immediacy of the concrete, to cross cultural barriers, to encounter multiple perspectives that generate new possibilities, to become conscious of our actions on the world to gain new knowledge with which to act.
Indeed, some evolutionary biologists and neuropsychologists have argued that the encephalization of the brain and the resulting ability for mental imagery and highly developed language forms was an adaptation that enabled Homo sapiens to make major social changes (Oatley, 1985). The ability to envision and construct tools for cultivation of food led to civilization – the development of fixed communities, of towns. Today, mass communication and transportation systems provide the potential for inhabitants of this planet to see themselves as a multidiverse unity. In contrast to O’Loughlin’s argument that decentering removes us from the source of knowledge and thereby disempowers social change, these scientists see decentering and social change as inherently connected. I quote Oatley (1985):
A major function of the human brain is indeed to sustain complex structures of knowledge of the physical world, and also of plans and purposes in the social world. It is the ability to create these structures which I will call schemata, to make inferences within them, and to reuse them symbolically for new purposes in metaphors, that provides the foundation for our peculiar human adaptation. (p. 32)
O’Loughlin’s (1992) second criticism of Piaget’s theory relates to what he terms a mechanistic model that does not allow for human subjectivity in the process of construction. He describes the model as
premised on the biological assumption of self-regulation, namely, that the organism constantly strives toward the reduction of conflict in order to gain equilibrium. Equilibrium is established through the dialectical interplay of assimilation and accommodation. The end result of this process of adaptation is an increasing ability to view knowledge objectively, a process Piaget refers to as decentering (p. 794).
This is the common interpretation of Piaget’s theory found most often in the literature, and yet his theory went through radical reformulation in the 10 years prior to his death. In those years he moved away from a simplistic discussion of assimilation, accommodation, and a static equilibrium offering instead a model of dynamic equilibrium characterized by successive coordinations and progressive equilibrations. He moved away from a static stage theory (preoperational, concrete, formal) towards a delineation of the successive possibilities and logical necessities generated by subjects as they attempted to explore and understand various problems.
Piaget (1977) explains that his “… earlier model had proved insufficient… The central new idea is that knowledge proceeds neither solely from the experience of objects nor from an innate programming performed in the subject but from successive constructions” (preface, p. v) He offers three models of equilibration. The first is between the assimilation of schemes of action and the accommodation of these to the objects – the form described by O’Loughlin. The second results from the interactions between two subsystems that the subject finds contradictory. For example, in the earlier discussion regarding light as waves versus particles, these subsystems caused an internal contradiction for many scientists. The third form describes the differentiation and the integration of the whole, relations uniting subsystems to the totality that includes them. When Heisenberg studied the placement of particles in an atom and their momentum, he realized the two were inherently connected. The more he attempted to isolate the particle’s placement, the less exact the momentum became. The differentiation of these parts caused him to reintegrate them into the whole structure of the atom thereby constructing the idea that even the act of asking a question about either variable was producing the resulting answer. The accommodation involved a new understanding of the whole, even with his actions – the questioning itself – a part of it.
Many other examples could be given, both in the history of science and in the development of ideas in young children. The main point to be made, however, is that content is embedded in these forms. The result of the equilibration is not just a new form of logic, that is, concrete or formal operational, as O’Loughlin seems to think, but a deeper, more encompassing, understanding of the content being investigated.
Because O’Loughlin assumes only formal operational logic to be the goal of development as described by Piaget, he concludes erroneously that the outcome of development is deterministic. Piaget (1977), in describing his new models, declared otherwise:
Cognitive equilibriums are quite different from mechanical equilibriums which conserve themselves without modifications or, in the case of ‘displacement, ’ give rise merely to ‘moderations’ of the disturbance and not to whole compensations. They differ even more from thermodynamic equilibrium which is a state of rest after destruction of structures.. Cognitive equilibriums are closer to those stationary but dynamic states, mentioned by Prigogine, with exchanges capable of ‘building and maintaining a functional and structural order in an open system.’ (p. 4)
Both structure and content are a part of this open system. Both are being developed from a dialectical interaction between the subject and the world around him/her (this includes the social world). Thus learning is indeed development. Oatley (1985) explains this interaction:
What kind of adaptation to the world is the human one? It is an adaptation that succeeds in transforming the environment. It involves social cultures which shape social selves by their rules; cultures which are themselves shaped by changes in the rules that people create… Our constructions of the physical and social world are not static. They continue to change. Part of our mental ontogeny might even be affected by the study we make of it. As an analogy one might imagine a computer program whose function is to rewrite itself in the light of its discovery of how it is working. This recursiveness is, I will argue also, an important aspect of conscious mind. In order to do justice to the brain and its mechanisms we need to have an account of such schemata which can turn round upon themselves – which consider their own constitution and transform themselves (pp. 3233).
This notion of the interplay between content and structure is closely akin to Piaget’s description (in Biology and Knowledge) of the relationship between phenotype and genotype. He asserts that the development of new behavior by a species exerts a pressure on the genome (the regulatory system of the genetic structure), creating an imbalance – a disequilibrium. The result is the generation of various possibilities, genetic variations, by the genome. What succeeds as an adaptation is the structure that most closely fits the organism’s goal to survive. In essence, any change in a part of the system results in other changes as behavior balances the structure of the organism against the characteristics of the environment. His theory is not lamarckian; Piaget did not see the structural change as an automatic result of behavior. His theory is much more neo-darwinian in that he attempted to explain random mutation as the result of a species growing and interacting in a world, a Baia, that itself is growing and striving for balance.
Because in this model both structure and content are constructed, it seems erroneous to me to conclude as O’Loughlin does that Piaget does not consider human subjectivity or the social context. In my mind, that is at the heart of his theory – and at the heart of constructivism. There is no such thing as objective thought, because thought is the result of the act of a subjective knower within a social context transforming, organizing, and interpreting with structures previously constructed, but open to accommodation – a dialectical interaction.
O’Loughlin (1992) presents Lave’s description of meaning making “neither a product of the person acting, nor of the activity, nor of the setting, but a dialectical interaction [among] all three in a given context” (p. 810) as an alternative model to equilibration. This is equilibration!
Developmentally Appropriate Practice
The third point raised by O’Loughlin (1992) in his critique is in relation to the use of developmental stage theories by constructivists as delimiters in curricular and instructional decision making. “The assumption is,” he writes, “that children construct their understanding within the parameters and constraints provided by developmental theory [and] anybody familiar with developmental psychology will recognize that this means acceptance of a universalist, hierarchical stage theory” (p. 803). As proof of his position he quotes from the NAEYC’s position paper on developmentally appropriate practice (O’Loughlin, 1992):
Between 6 and 9 years of age, children begin to acquire the mental ability to think about and solve problems in their heads because they can then manipulate objects symbolically – no longer always having to touch or move them. This is a major cognitive achievement for children that extends their ability to solve problems. While they can symbolically or mentally manipulate, it will be some time before they can mentally manipulate symbols to, for example, solve mathematical problems such as missing addends or to grasp algebra. For this reason, primary age children still need real things to think about … in addition, appropriate schools recognize that some thinking skills, such as understanding mathematical place value and borrowing in subtraction, are beyond the cognitive capacity of children who are developing concrete operational thinking and so do not introduce these skills to most children until they are 8 or 9 years of age (p. 803, quoting from NAEYC, 1988, pp. 65-66).
O’Loughlin then makes the leap to critiquing Piagetian constructivists involved in teacher education by arguing that some make this connection of stages to teaching explicit in their work. Here O’Loughlin (1992) specifically cites Fosnot:
I spent approximately half the semester lecturing about Piaget’s theory, believing that students couldn’t begin to apply it in the classrooms until they understood it. I placed special emphasis on Piaget’s notion of equilibration, explaining assimilation as an active process of making meaning out of experience, and accommodation as the changing of one’s own thinking in order to strive toward equilibrium. Next, I moved on to explain developmental differences in the way children assimilate by describing the typical Piagetian tasks and the way in which logical reasoning changes from preoperational thinking to eventual formal operational structures. Finally, I defined constructivist teaching as a model that emphasizes that learners need to be actively involved, to reflect on their learning and make inferences, and to experience cognitive conflict (p. 795, quoting from Fosnot, 1989, p. 3).
This quote was taken completely out of the context in which it occurred in my text. In fact, had O’Loughlin read more closely he would have realized that with this description I was explaining how I taught 10 years ago and why I now believe this to be an erroneous approach. The remainder of the book sketches a very different approach than an adherence to a stage theory. Indeed, I have argued there (1989) and elsewhere (1988, 1992) that adherence to a global stage theory presents the teacher with the pedagogical dilemma so aptly described by Duckworth (1987) in her title, “Either they know it already and I’m too late, or I’m too early and they can’t learn it anyway.” It begs the question of how we as teachers can help learners get ready, but even more seriously it makes the assumption that there is only one goal – that of the teacher’s as specified by an a priori stage sequence.
Adherence to a global stage theory (as seen in the NAEYC statement), where each stage is seen as monolithic and descriptive of the capacity of learning and teaching, is due to a reliance on Piaget’s older work, resulting in an eventual misunderstanding of both the bulk of his work and constructivism. Because both structure and content are constructed (as described in the earlier section of this paper), each experience (as learners investigate and grapple with new problems) brings with it the potential for both structural and conceptual change. Any stage sequence is not the result of an innately patterned maturation process, but instead is the result of construction by active humans in a social context as they negotiate meaning. In other writing (1988, 1992) I have termed this process the dance.
The interactions of learners and teacher, learners with each other, and learners and objects form a melody like notes playing off each other: sometimes in harmony, sometimes with a beethovian discordance of creative tension. Communication itself even shows evidence of this interactive dance. A polarity appears to exist between listener and speaker. Film analyses (Leonard, 1981) show that every conversation involves a subtle and largely unseen dance in which the detailed sequence of speech patterns is precisely synchronized not only with minute movements of the speaker’s body but also with corresponding movements by the listener. Both partners are locked into an intricate sequence of rhythmic movements (Goffman, 1983). The work of Brazelton, Kozlowski, and Main (1974), Tronick et al. (1975), and Stern (1977), among others, demonstrates this same rhythmic dance between baby and caregiver.
When a dance is evaluated it is viewed as a whole. Dancers are not assessed on how well they can pirouette, they are given scores on each skill and then a total. They are evaluated interacting with the music, with each other, and the audience. So too, perhaps the only way to assess the child learning is to assess the moment; to look at the processes such as assimilation and accommodation; to study the compensations as they occur in the interactions among teacher, object, and learners; to value their rhythms and melodies. Assessing skills out of context of the learning situation is like evaluating a dancer after the performance, but not during it. In the words of the physicist, Capra (1983):
There is motion but there are, ultimately, no moving objects; there is activity but there are no actors; there are no dancers, there is only the dance (p. 92).
Cognitive Developmental Research
Having just made a case – in agreement with O’Loughlin – for not using global developmental stages as delimiters of learning, let me now argue for the benefits of cognitive developmental research. On the surface this may appear as a contradiction to my prior argument, but I think not.
Many of the concepts taught in our schools require of learners, not just a reformulation of their understanding of specific content, but a structural shift in cognition as well. For example, the construction of place value requires young learners to negate a unitary, one-to-one correspondence counting system, and to count groups as a unit instead. They need to consider 10 units as 10, and as one, two different systems simultaneously. Understanding multiplication of fractions, an operation where the whole changes, requires the learner to deal with a relation on a relation. Number, itself, involves structure in that understanding “eightness” involves understanding the compensation involved as the parts are transformed into 7 + 1, 6 + 2, etc. – what you gain on one side, you lose on the other, thus quantity is maintained. In contrast, learning to represent the quantity eight with the numeral 8 does not entail a structural change. It is simply a socially agreed upon, arbitrary label for a concept already developed (unless of course the learner is constructing symbolization for the first time).
As a teacher I will not use cognitive developmental research to dictate what I teach and when – in that sense it would be a delimiter. In fact, cognitive developmental models such as Piaget’s early model, where stages were viewed as monolithic and descriptive of behavior, provide little insight for me during the teaching act. His later work (Piaget, 1977, 1987a, 1987b), as well as the wealth of recently accumulated more microgenetic work, that is, the work in emergent literacy (Ferriero, 1990; Goodman, 1990), conceptions in science (Driver, Guesne, & Tiberghien, 1985; Fosnot, Forman, Edwards, & Goldhaber, 1988), and conceptions in mathematics (Kamii, 1985, 1989; Steffe, Cobb & Glasersfeld, 1988; Streefland, 1991; Fosnot, 1990) do help me anticipate what my students will have to grapple with, what conceptions they may have at the start, what their reconceptions might involve – not as a blueprint but as possibilities. As I listen to their explanations and monitor discussion, I attempt to highlight discrepancies – contradictory subsystems – that might facilitate structural as well as content changes, thereby developing a deeper conceptual understanding in contrast to a superficial one.
Cognitive developmental research is, of course, itself a construction – a model postulated by psychologists and teachers as they investigate and attempt to understand patterns they observe in children constructing knowledge. Although such models may not be truth – in the objective sense – they are the result of much experimentation, discussion, and agreement, and are accepted as temporary explanations until contradictory evidence proves otherwise. Rather than serving as delimiters in curriculum decision-making, cognitive developmental research is helpful insofar as it provides a description and analysis of typical progressions in concept development that might be observed as learners grapple to construct new understandings.
Critique of the Sociocultural Model
After critiquing cognitive constructivism, O’Loughlin (1992) offers a sociocultural constructivism in its place as an alternative that he believes is truly emancipatory, transformative, and learner centered. He cites Wertsch:
The basic goal of a sociocultural approach to mind is to create an account of human mental processes that recognizes the essential relationship between these processes and their cultural, historical, and institutional settings (p. 811, quoting from Wertsch, 1991, p. 6).
Arguing that “the central link between the thinking of the person and the influence of the social, cultural, historical, and institutional setting in which the person lives is the mediational means the person uses to engage in the construction of meaning” (p. 811), he concludes that “text – and classroom talk – be treated as dialogic text” and that “the reading of text be treated as an interactive and dialogic process of engaging the author in conversation in order to develop one’s critical understanding” (p. 813).
It is difficult to understand from O’Loughlin’s article exactly what he means by a sociocultural approach to pedagogy because, as with most critical theorists, he provides no examples of real classroom interactions but instead spends the majority of his time critiquing others’ solutions. On the surface however, he appears to be advocating a version of hermeneutics (Gadamer, 1976) emphasizing meaning as embedded in and affected by discourse. He urges teachers to put their own voices, schemes, and ideas to the side and really listen to learners’ conversations, engaging in what he terms “dialogicality” and allowing for the “sociocultural situatedness of speech types” (p. 812).
On the point that we need to engage learners in conversation and that meaning is negotiated in a dialogical fashion, I am in agreement with O’Loughlin. I believe that thought originates in action but is further negotiated within a social community. In fact (although O’Loughlin chose to ignore totally my discussion of phronesis and critique only my reliance on Piagetian construetivism), I have argued previously (Fosnot, 1989) and often that classrooms be perceived as “communities of discourse committed equally to reflection, conversation, and action” (p. 17).
On the second point, that all cognitive developmental research and science models be rejected on the basis that they are not objective truths, as O’Loughlin seems to be suggesting, I have strong disagreement. Such action results in a nihilism and/or cultural relativity that I believe is dangerous when placed in the context of science education in real classrooms. Because we accept that all answers are human constructions, does not necessarily mean that no answer should be preferred over another. Some answers hold up in more cases and stand the test of more experimentation and discourse. It is the responsibility of the teacher to establish a community of learners engaged in questioning, proving, and debating their scientific inquiries and models; just as it is the responsibility of teachers and cognitive developmental researchers as a community to engage in continuous inquiry regarding the development of learner-generated models.
O’Loughlin argues that rational thinking itself is a construction, that it arose out of a technical–rational society and must be understood as culturally defined and contextually specific rather than global and universal. He concludes, therefore, that to hold rational inquiry as an ideal or goal of science instruction is tantamount to colonialist anthropology. Although I agree that rational inquiry (i.e., hypothetical-deductive reasoning) is a construction, I believe it is important for young learners to construct because it is a primary tool used by scientists as they argue their ideas. It is a mediational means that scientists use to frame investigations and arguments, just as narrative is one mediational means used by writers. The biologist Jay Wilson (1982) concurs:
The famed scientific method is often misunderstood. It does not describe so much how scientists think and how they get new ideas as it is a description of what they must do to support their ideas and how they write them up for peer review. Only when they have done so, have they some right to say ‘you must believe my results.’ People may disagree with the interpretation of the results, but they can’t ignore them. This leads to a very different style of writing by scientists than by creative writers. In fiction a writer uses artistry to create the world he wishes to convey. A scientific writer only achieves his goal when a sceptical reader finishes and says, “Of course, how else could it be!” (p. 72).
Ironically, it was just this form of reasoning, rational inquiry, that O’Loughlin chose to use in his critique of constructivism. He categorized constructivists into two discrete groups, defined each, then used if/then reasoning to probe assumptions and applications, eventually leading the reader to conclude in accepting a sociocultural model as a viable alternative. Although within the article he was refuting rational inquiry as a goal of science education, he found its use necessary to argue his point!
I am not arguing here that the only mediational means scientists use is rational inquiry. Indeed this approach has been critiqued in both the feminist and afrocentric literature – and I believe very justifiably so. What is important is that we make explicit the means we use and that we analyze the benefits and drawbacks of each – that we deconstruct our own arguments. By using a rational inquiry approach in framing his argument, O’Loughlin could delineate the principles of piagetian theory he wished to critique, cite passages only in relation to his argument thereby providing tight evidence for his position, and procedurally lead us, the readers, step-by-step to his desired conclusion. Categorizing constructivists into two groups, piagetians and more general developmentalists, made his point clearer but it obscured the real work of the cognitive constructivists he was critiquing. For example, in reality, these scholars do not fit very neatly into the packages he described – this is probably the reason he chose to ignore my discussion on phronesis.
New mediational means, structures, and conceptions arise from new problems, dilemmas, and contradictions posed by the community. Again to quote Wilson (1982):
We can ask a new question only within the framework of our old model. This somewhat limits the imagination and our range of questions. But there is no other way. The human mind always organizes new observations in terms of old systems of thought. Darwin may not have been the first when he pointed out that we always make observations to prove or disprove old theories. Value-free observations would imply a mind with no organization, but an unorganized mind can’t even observe (p. 72).
If ideas emerge from a community, then it is crucial that learners understand the traditional models and modes of reasoning about them that the community holds. This is particularly important for students of color or the poor whose cultures often have little power. Delpit argues the same point:
To summarize, I suggest that students must be taught the codes needed to participate fully in the mainstream of American life, not by being forced to attend to hollow, inane, decontextualized subskills but rather within the context of meaningful communicative endeavors; that they must be allowed the resources of the teacher’s expert knowledge, while being helped to acknowledge their own “expertness” as well; and that even while students are assisted in learning the culture of power they must also be helped to learn about the arbitrariness of those codes and about the power relationships they represent (Delpit, 1986, p. 296, cited in O’Loughlin, p. 808).
As learners investigate problems, propose, and argue solutions as a community of scientists, their reasoning also becomes explicit and becomes itself an object of analysis by the community. Disequilibrium will be engendered having ramifications for both structural and content change – both new forms of reasoning as well as new models to explain observable phenomena will be constructed.
As humans we need to emerge from a community. Only by reflecting on, discussing, and making conscious the very structure of our thought can we become truly empowered and reflexive. As we make explicit the logical structures that frame our investigations, we become conscious of the way in which our thought influences our thought. This act is the decentering that O’Loughlin so radically opposed – in Piaget’s terms, “the grasp of consciousness.”
Von Glasersfeld (1988) has pointed out that constructivism has been an explicit epistemology for centuries.
Socrates gives an exemplary demonstration of how such a build-up can be guided by an experienced practitioner. Thus, there is nothing new about the notion that students (or other cognitively developing organisms) have to construct such knowledge as they can by some form of reflection upon experiences provided by a teacher’s discourse, a textbook, or their own living. In his Latin treatise on epistemology of 1710, the Neopolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico formulated this notion of cognitive construction as explicitly as one might wish… If academic psychologists and educational researchers have now come round to adopting this notion and call themselves ‘constructivists’ it may be a sign of individual enlightenment, but as far as their awareness of the epistomological underpinnings is concerned, it may also be misleading (p. 1)
Arguing that contemporary psychologists and educational researchers need to define what they mean, von Glasersfeld (1988) describes knowledge as not necessarily matching the world as it might be in itself, but “whether or not it fits the pursuit of our goals within the confines of our experiential world” (p. 2).
The dialogue between cognitive constructivists and social constructivists is a dialogue that will help us continue to illuminate our meanings. We must go beyond just describing knowledge as construction and instead begin to tease out the developing structural changes in thought and the effect of culture. Harding (1986) describes two competing approaches to explain the rise of modern science that may provide an interesting analogy as we stand back and look at the current debate on constructivism.
The internalist program analyzed the development of modern science as a cognitive transformation in the history of the endogenous development of intellectual structures; the externalist program sought the reasons for this transformation in the technical, economic and cultural conditions of society… The new syntheses attempt to show how cognitive transformations made specific technical, economic, and cultural changes appear more desirable, and also how historically identifiable social changes led to cognitive changes. The new syntheses have clarified the present practices of science as well, examining the interplay of culture and cognition in contemporary scientific laboratories (p. 210).
Perhaps the work of the cognitive constructivists is analogous to the internalist program; whereas, the social constructivist perspective is externalist. I suggest instead that we work toward a synthesis of the two – that we explore the connection between structure, content, and culture (and I do think Piaget’s later work is helpful here). In this journey we must value the window, the story that each side tells. Social constructivists need to be not so quick to scoff at cognitive developmental constructivists who search to understand developing cognitive structures; and cognitive constructivists need to open their eyes to the effect of culture. Together, we must search for the interplay.
The author wishes to acknowledge Trish Stoddart, Sue Holloway, Betty Johnston, and June Gould for their helpful comments and feedback on various portions of this manuscript.
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