CEPA eprint 2965

Constructivism, socioculturalism, and Popper’s World 3

Bereiter C. (1994) Constructivism, socioculturalism, and Popper’s World 3. Educational Researcher 23(7): 21–23. Available at http://cepa.info/2965
Table of Contents
Knowledge as Objects in World 3
Education as Learning to Function in World 3
In comparing constructivist and sociocultural perspectives, it is worth considering at the outset whether any empirical or scientific claims are involved – claims that could be vulnerable to evidence – or whether the differences are entirely perspectival. The slogan “students construct their own knowledge” is not by itself a falsifiable claim It is simply a concomitant of any cognitive stance – including the stance of folk psychology. As long as one views the mind as a container whose contents are beliefs, schemata, cognitive structures, or other cognitive objects, then any plausible explanation of how those objects get into the mind has to assume that they are created there. What alternative is there, short of thought transference? The only way to reject it is by rejecting the whole structure of cognitive psychological ideas built upon the mind-ascontainer metaphor.[Note 1]
Vygotsky’s oft-quoted lines about all higher mental functions originating on the social plane (1934/1962, pp. 197-198) do, however, make an empirical claim, and one that is almost certainly too strong. There is ample evidence from Piagetian and neoPiagetian studies that young children work out a substantial knowledge of the physical world, well before they could have gained much of it from the surrounding culture (Carey & Gelman, 1991). There is also reason to believe that they come into the world preprogrammed to conceptualize number and physical reality in certain ways (Spelke, 1982), so that even if social learning also plays a major role, it cannot be said that all of conceptualization originates on the social plane.
Stripped to their essentials, constructivism tells us to pay close attention to the mental activities of the learner, and socioculturalism tells us to pay close attention to cultural practices in the learner’s milieu. Except for the practical difficulty of doing both at once, there is nothing incompatible in these proposals. Neither one implies rejection of the other. So what is the point of drawing distinctions between these approaches and attempting to reconcile them, as the preceding authors have done?
Cobb has offered a pragmatic answer to this question. The point is “to consider what various perspectives might have to offer relative to the problems or issues at hand” (p. 18). There is no basis for claiming that one view or another gives us a better account of how things really are, and so we are free to choose or to mix-and-match in whatever way gains us an advantage in solving problems. The pragmatically best choice for an educator would not necessarily be the best choice for a neuroscientist. Indeed, the choice for a science educator might not be the same as for an educator concerned with the study of literature.
I strongly endorse this pragmatic stance, and would urge readers who find it flabby and evasive to expose themselves to more of Richard Rorty’s arguments (e.g., Rorty, 1991). However, if we are going to be pragmatic, then we should consider various approaches as they have actually developed and not as they might have developed ideally. The contemporary heirs to Vygotsky are not the first to have studied learning in its cultural milieu. Educational anthropology has done this from its beginning (see, e.g., Spindler & Spindler, 1955). The distinctive contribution of contemporary research in the Vygotskian mode has been to illuminate learning and cognition in nonacademic settings – especially traditional crafts, everyday activities, and low-status occupations (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Rogoff & Lave, 1984). This research has made possible a real perspective shift, so that academic learning is seen as a rather odd phenomenon against a background of other kinds of learning that emerge naturally in the course of cultural practice. From this perspective, academic learning as a whole becomes problematic. Ideas such as “cognitive apprenticeship” (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989) represent attempts to understand it within the same conceptual framework as seems appropriate for the rest of learning.
The constructivist program, as well represented in the work of authors of the preceding articles, has evolved from its Piagetian origins in a way that more and more addresses problems of academic learning. The Piagetian concern with underlying cognitive structures has not been abandoned. However, whereas earlier Piagetian educators saw the acquisition of such structures and the learning of cultural conventions as discrete, perhaps even representing different cognitive processes (Kohlberg, 1968), there is now a fine appreciation of how profoundly the taken-asgiven concepts, symbols, and conventions of scientific and mathematical communities shape the cognitive structures that develop (a very Vygotskian idea). They are not simply ways of expressing understanding but, as Driver, Asoko, Leach, Mortimer, & Scott (1994, p. 6) say, “they are constructs that have been invented and imposed on phenom‑ena in attempts to interpret and explain them, often as results of considerable intellectual struggles.”
The modern constructivist program, thus, has already assimilated the sociocultural perspective, in so far as it applies to mathematics and science as disciplines. What additional value, then, is to be sought in the sociocultural program? Not, I think, as Cobb (p. 15) suggests, “to account for the production and reproduction of the practices of schooling and the social order.” Most of the work on that account comes from social analysts who never mention Vygotsky or activity theory (see, e.g., almost any issue of Curriculum Inquiry). The more likely contribution of the sociocultural program lies in helping us to view the scholarly and scientific disciplines as social institutions – groups of people functioning together by virtue of shared cultural practices. In doing so, sociocultural research raises serious questions about the relation between what goes on in schools and the cultural practices in which the living disciplines are constituted. Apprenticeship, as many critics have pointed out, does not characterize the relationship adequately. But sociocultural analysis does not seem to offer anything better. There is a third, somewhat older and considerably less fashionable, way of regarding knowledge, which I believe must be brought into the mix to deal with issues that neither constructivism nor sociocultural- ism can deal with adequately.
Knowledge as Objects in World 3
Cobb considers two possible answers to his question, “Where is the mind?” The constructivist locates it in the head, the socioculturalist locates it in the individual-insocial-action. A third kind of answer can be brought to light by asking a different but deeply related question, such as, “Where is the square root of 2?” Constructivists and socioculturalists would presumably answer this question the same way they answer the first – that it exists in the heads of people who know the square root of 2 or that it exists in the cultural practices of certain groups. But these answers do not exhaust the possibilities. A third response is that the square root of 2 exists as an immaterial object and that, accordingly, it has no location.
Those who were familiar with the New Math of the 1960s will be reminded of the continual insistence on this third position: Numbers are not the numerals or Popsicle sticks or anything else used to represent them, nor are they the operations, such as counting, that arrive at them. There is only one number 3, and it is not any of the millions of representations of it that might be found. The same could be said of Newton’s second law, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, and any particular proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. Yet all of these have most of the characteristics of real objects, except for being immaterial. They have origins, histories; they can be described and criticized, compared with others of their kind. They can be found to have properties that their creators or previous generations were unaware of. Sir Karl Popper (1972) did, however, give these immaterial knowledge objects a location. He called it World 3, to distinguish it from World 2, the in-the-head world of the constructivist. (World 1 is the physical world, which need not concern us here.) Popper’s three worlds provide a useful schema for clarifying various issues having to do with knowledge, including the issue of relations between schooling and the scholarly disciplines.
The scholarly disciplines are distinguished from most other occupations by their concentration on World 3. They are concerned with producing and improving World 3 objects, such as theories, explanations, historical accounts, problem formulations and solutions, proofs and disproofs. They also produce many derivative World 3 objects, such as catalogs, critiques, syntheses, and textbooks. World 2 enters scholarly activity in the form of hunches, prejudices, and matters of taste, but even these are usually focused on World 3.
Schooling, on the other hand, has traditionally concentrated on World 2 – on the contents of individual students’ minds. That is where teaching strategies are focused. That is what achievement tests are intended to reveal. World 3, principally as represented in textbooks, enters the educational process as a repository of objects to be copied or reconstructed in individual students’ minds or as objects to be worked with for skill building and other learning purposes. Whereas the success of a discipline is measured by the World 3 objects it has produced, the success of schooling is measured by the changes it has effected in the individual student’s World 2.
Viewed in this way, the two enterprises could scarcely be more different. Even when schools have tried to imitate the scholarly disciplines, it has been with a World 2 focus. It is students “learning by discovery” or acquiring the skills and mental habits attributed to researchers.
Education as Learning to Function in World 3
Do the educational approaches coming out of present-day constructivism and socioculturalism represent a significant change from the polarization described in the preceding section? There seems to be a growing awareness, exemplified in both the accompanying articles, that there is more to learning science, mathematics, or history than mastering an organized body of content and a set of procedural skills – more even than grasping the “structure of the discipline” (Bruner, 1964) or a particular way of thinking. There is a kind of enculturation that must go on if a student is eventually to become an insider, a participant in a discipline, rather than someone viewing the disciplines entirely from the outside.
But is such enculturation actually going on? Is it even what schools should be trying for? The available evidence is almost entirely in the form of transcripts of selected episodes of classroom discourse. The episodes reported in the accompanying article by Driver et al. may be taken as representative of a host of episodes reported by neoconstructivists working mainly in science and mathematics education. What these examples show are (a) teachers skillful in managing dialogue in which the students take a highly active role, (b) students seriously concerned with understanding, and (c) evidence, over the span of the episode, of some progress in understanding. Each of these is significant, and together they seem to add up to something possibly revolutionary. But these examples do not in any compelling way suggest a shift away from purposes of schooling that have been with us since ancient times, only a better way of pursuing them.
Possibilities of a more radical shift in the purposes of schooling begin to emerge from an application of Popper’s three-worlds framework. Schools cannot abandon their fundamental concern with World 2. Regardless of what goes on in schools, their value to society lies in the changes they are able to produce in individual minds. So, as far as schooling is concerned, the mind is where the constructivists say it is – in individual nervous systems. Sociocultural research on nonacademic learning, however, lends substance to a judgment that the Panel on Youth of the President’s Science Advisory Committee made years ago: that schools are simply not the right kind of place for initiating students into adult roles (Coleman, 1972). Apprenticeship is not a promising model for schools. What schools are potentially good for, and have been since ancient times, is enabling students to work in World 3 – to become familiar with the important World 3 objects that have already been produced and to learn to create new ones, to evaluate, interrelate, suggest improvements in, and produce representations of them. It may not make people better tailors or dairy truck loaders, but it will give people the kinds of empowerment that formal education has always been expected to provide.
To understand what is at issue here, we need to make a subtle distinction. It is a distinction not recognized in educational practice and that I do not see either constructivism or socioculturalism helping to make. World 2 provides the reason why students are being required to study science and other school subjects in the first place. As far as schooling is concerned, World 2 is the world of learning. But in the most promising of new approaches, the focus of activity is on World 3. To distinguish it from learning activity we refer to it as knowledge building (Scardamalia, Bereiter, & Lamon, 1994) Its objective is not to influence the contents of students’ minds but to produce immaterial objects – explanations, theories, solutions, algorithms. Students are expected to learn something in the process, and this may well be evaluated at some time. But the actual work is not directed toward improving their minds but toward improving the knowledge that is being collectively created. The fact that this knowledge is not original, that it may end up only restating something found in a book, does not alter the situation.
European languages force us to reify in ways that make us talk like Popperians, whether we believe in World 3 or not. That is, we talk as if concepts, theories, numbers, and the like are things. Popper, however, asks us to take their thing-like character seriously. I do not see either constructivists or socioculturalists doing that. They are concerned either with constructing internal mental representations of the World 3 objects, which then become the real things, or they are concerned with the social life that incorporates talk of concepts, theories, and such. But we have found students taking World 3 objects seriously in a way that is distinctly Popperian and not adequately represented by the other views. To be sure, the World 3 objects they are especially keen on are ones they have created themselves. The important point, however, is that their focus is outward, on the objects themselves and the world they relate to, rather than on their own mental states or social roles. They feel a kinship with scholars and scientists, but it is a kinship based on shared goals, not on similarities of practice. To be of maximum help to students in this kind of endeavor, teachers need an epistemology that helps them distinguish between efforts directed toward the construction of knowledge and efforts directed toward changes in students’ minds. Constructivist and sociocultural approaches are both of value, but neither one quite provides the tool to do that job.
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Such a rejection is not unthinkable, and it does not necessarily mean adopting behaviorism as an alternative. There are alternatives, made imaginable by connectionist models, that retain the concept of mind but reject the container metaphor (Bereiter, 1991; Dennett, 1987; Margolis, 1987).
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