Gale J. (1995) Preface. In: Steffe L. P. & Gale J. E. (eds.) Constructivism in education. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale NJ: xi–xvii. Available at http://cepa.info/3908
We have the seeming paradox of knowing the meanings of the words and sentences, but not knowing their meaning. This would be our normal situation if understanding were merely passive, and speakers and hearers did not respond to our interests. There is, of course, a sense in which books do intone their contents somewhat in the fashion described, but it is we who do the intoning and our reading is not passive, for we query the text and make it respond to our interests, giving it thereby a meaning. – Tyler (1978, p. 385)
As Spivey (chap. 16) notes in her chapter, and Tyler previously, written texts only offer cues selected by the author that suggest configurations of meanings that the reader uses in constructing his or her own meaning. Neither this text nor any text can convey the complexity and richness of the activity invested by each author in preparing his or her manuscript. As the reader gives meaning to the sentences he or she reads, it is implicitly assumed that the words convey an intended meaning with meanings developed out of prior contexts. However, the many interactions and serendipitous events pivotal to the development of these ideas often get marginalized or left out of the text completely. The chapters in this book are but one set of transformations, frozen in time, circa mid-1992, of ideas presented at the Alternative Epistemologies in Education Conference, February 19-23,1992. To provide a context from which to read and query these chapters, a brief history of the conference is presented. Page xii
In late 1989, the Eisenhower Program supported a series of colloquia on constructivism as it related to teacher education in The College of Education at The University of Georgia. Eleven international scholars were selected by various faculty in the School of Teacher Education. The basic goal of the colloquia series was to identify innovative teaching and learning strategies that could be used in graduate education. The driving force behind this project was the belief that traditional Cartesian epistemology continues to misguide education despite available alternatives. In the Cartesian view, knowledge must somehow conform to external reality and mirror that reality. In epistemologies[Note 1] that are alternative to Cartesian epistemology, it no longer makes sense to talk of knowledge of an absolute reality. Knowledge is regarded as being constructed by the individual, such that the individual creates meaning of the world, rather than discovers meaning from the world.
Each invited person had 2 days in which to present his or her paper and meet with interested faculty and students in small, intensely interactive seminars. Over 40 graduate students signed up for this colloquia series. These students primarily came from mathematics education, science education, and language education. Over 30 campus faculty participated to some degree in the colloquia series. The 11 scholars came to The University of Georgia (UGA) about every 2 weeks from January 17, 1990, to April 13, 1990.
In the fall of 1989, when I arrived at UGA as a new faculty member in the Department of Child and Family Development, I saw a flyer announcing the colloquia series in constructivism. I was quite surprised to see it sponsored by a professor in mathematics education. Constructivism was a hot topic in the family therapy field, and several of the colloquia speakers (von Glasersfeld, Gergen, and Steier) were familiar names in that discipline. However, the use of constructivism in mathematics education was a relationship that I had not previously entertained.
When Steffe and I met, the use of constructivism in family therapy was equally foreign to him. Through many meetings and discussions, we shared a common interest in viewing constructivism from various perspectives. While I was attending the colloquia series, Steffe began digesting family therapy literature, and he even gave a talk in a marital therapy class that I was teaching on how his own constructivist epistemology developed. The students found his personal and lively presentation extremely beneficial. They reported that Steffe’s talk cleared up many of their misconceptions about constructivism, as well as helped them to better appreciate the relevance of constructivism in family therapy. Page xiii
Six alternative paradigms emerged out of the colloquia series. These seemingly core paradigms were social constructivism, radical constructivism, social constructionism, information-processing constructivism, cybernetic systems, and sociocultural approaches to mediated action. All six emergent paradigms differed from the Cartesian model in viewing knowledge in a nondualistic manner so as to avoid the mind – body split of endogenic (mind-centered) and exogenic (reality-centered) knowledge. Additionally, each of the six paradigms valued the importance of considering how knowledge emerged out of an interactional dynamic.
However, it was also clear that there were crucial points where the six paradigms differed. The following questions still remained unanswered: What is the impact of culture on knowledge? What is the relationship between the individual and the social? Does the location of meaning reside in the individual or in language? What are appropriate methodologies for teaching and studying these ideas? Effective action in education remained an elusive term, and the paper authors left with a sense of incompleteness and openness concerning what they had tried to accomplish in the colloquia series. They also wanted to continue the dialogues. We still felt unclear about what teacher education might look like from any of the alternative epistemological perspectives.
Following the completion of the colloquia series, Steffe sought and received additional funding from the Eisenhower Program to bring back the 11 speakers from the series for an extended conference with everyone present. The purpose for this meeting was to create a forum where differences and similarities of the various views could be discussed, and a consensus among this community of scholars concerning these differences and similarities could be achieved. Steffe also invited about 30 college and university educators from throughout the state of Georgia to participate in the conference to begin the process of discussing the relevance of constructivist epistemology in teacher education.
At this time (mid-1990), I joined Steffe in securing additional funding for the conference. Together we wrote a grant and received funding from the vice president’s office for academic affairs at The University of Georgia, through a state-of-the-art conference fund. Through the success of receiving both grants, the conference Alternative Epistemologies in Education was able to be held. Additional presenters and respondents were invited, and more disciplines were included. A conference was envisioned that would encompass a broad view of constructivism and its interdisciplinary utilization.
Because no action occurs in isolation, during the same time that these plans were being developed, Steffe was communicating with each of the original 11 presenters. He wrote detailed commentaries on each of the original 11 papers, offering possible suggestions, challenges, encourage‑Page xivments, and revisions. It is important to note that, although not all of his suggestions were adopted, the correspondence between Steffe and each author did play a part in contributing to the evolution of thought and manuscript.
As Steffe and I spent many hours designing and planning the conference format, the underlying theme was to conduct the conference in a way that might be consistent with constructivist epistemology. That is, we wanted the conference to have a dynamic and vital process of its own – a conference that would lead to further development of ideas through the interaction of many. We wanted to bring forth a structure that offered both directionality and openness, and that would encourage dialogues both specific and general. We wanted the conference to be alive and open to all voices. Through out funding sources we were able to invite about 75 conferees. The conference was also open to the faculty of The University of Georgia, and there were no conference fees.
A conference structure emerged out of our meetings that combined presentation with dialogue. We created a format that combined panels (with varying perspectives offered), synthesis sessions, and focus groups. To avoid staid readings, the five panels were structured to allow time for each presenter to introduce only key ideas of his or her paper. There was a time for the authors and critics to dialogue with each other. So that everyone participating in the conference could be familiar with the authors’ themes, every conference paper was sent to all the conferees and was made available for those people interested in attending the conference.
The first three panels paired two of each of the different paradigm proponents with critics of those positions. The fourth panel presented three papers on constructivistic views of language, mathematics, and science education, and the fifth panel presented three papers on clinical, mathematics, and science education. Both of these panels also included three critics. Two additional sessions were also held: the first being an analysis and synthesis of the first three panels, and the second being an analysis and synthesis of the last two panels. The purpose of these two sessions was to further open the dialogues of comparing the six varying paradigms, as well as to expand on the use of these paradigms to education. After all the sessions, further discussion sessions were held.
Each panel pairing comprises the section headings of this book, and each chapter is a paper or critique presented in that session. The opening panel of the conference paired social constructionism (Kenneth Gergen) with radical constructivism (Ernst von Glasersfeld). John Shotter and John Richards were the respondents. In the afternoon, information-processing constructivism (Rand Spiro) was paired with cybernetic systems (Frederick Steier). The respondents were Patrick Thompson and Karl Page xv Tomm. The second day began with the panel of sociocultural approaches to education (James Wertsch) paired with social constructivism (Heinrich Bauersfeld). The respondents were Jere Confrey and Clifford Konold. Mark Bickhard presented the analysis and synthesis session that afternoon, as his chapter reviews chaps. 1-12.
Later that same afternoon, the first panel on language, mathematics, and science education was held. The presenters were Nancy Spivey, Geoffrey Saxe, and Reinders Duit, and the critics were Edith Ackermann, Terry Wood, and Donald Rubin. The following day, the second panel on clinical, mathematics, and science education was held. The presenters were Rosalind Driver, Paul Cobb and Terry Wood, and Ernst von Glasersfeld, and the critics were Philip Lewin, Joe Becker, Maria Varelas, and E. H. Auerswald. That afternoon, Paul Ernest presented his analysis and synthesis of the two panels, as his chapter reviews chaps. 14-25.
Further, each day there were focus groups so that the conference participants could dialogue about constructivism within the domain of their own discipline. The three focus groups included mathematics and science education, language and literacy, and family therapy.
In opening the conference, Steffe pointed out the importance of self- reflexivity, as exemplified by Steier (see chap. 5, this volume). He reminded everyone that our understanding of another’s idea can never be more than what we make of it, and is always a function of our own actions, goals, and intentions. Steffe put forth the challenge for the conference participants to consider essential similarities and differences of the six alternative paradigms. He further challenged the conferees to examine their own intensive interactive communication in order to specify the relationships among the elements of the composite unity that goes by the name of alternative epistemologies, and, through that process, reestablish the elements of the composite unity at a higher organization with new internal structure and with clear relations of similarity and difference. Steffe stated,
It is critical to move ahead and somehow include the social in the individual and vice versa without losing either. Can we understand the individual mind and the social mind so as to uphold the integrity of individual rights while maintaining the right of the individual to be transformed through interacting with society, and, on the other side, uphold the right of society to be transformed by the individual while maintaining the right to be protected from the individual?
Steffe’s opening challenge did set the stage for a highly charged and interactive conference. Ideas and positions were challenged throughout the conference. New friendships were made between scholars of different disciplines and varying epistemological positions. As happens so often Page xvi in most conferences, many of the ideas and shifts that emerged also developed out of interactions in the hallways, lounges, and restaurants. While friendships were established, there were also heated differences of opinions. Speakers were not separate from their ideas, and affect was not disjoined from cognition. Emotions, history, and previously shared interactions were relevant in the dialogues.
There were times early in the conference when mathematics and science educators wondered what family therapists were doing at this conference, as well as times when family therapists wondered what they were doing there, too. However, by the end of the conference, this question was answered. Through the course of presentation and interaction, it became clear how the conference participants were both actors and observers. The unique human qualities of individuals impacted the exchange of ideas in a reflexive manner. Ideas were not disembodied concepts, separate from the speaker and listener. Rather, relationships impacted the development of ideas, and ideas impacted relationships.
This was highlighted during the first day in the family therapy focus group. Following the radical constructivist and social constructionist panel, Tomm invited von Glasersfeld and Gergen to engage in an internalized interview together. The internalized interview, as developed by Tomm, engaged von Glasersfeld to speak from his internalized understanding of Gergen, and Gergen to speak from his internalized understanding of von Glasersfeld. This was different than a role reversal; rather than imagining oneself as the other, each was asked to respond from a knowingness of how he understood the other. Gergen was to speak from von Glasersfeld’s position as he (Gergen) created his understanding of von Glasersfeld, and vice versa. Tomm then interviewed both Gergen (as von Glasersfeld) and von Glasersfeld (as Gergen). During these interviews, questions such as how each viewed the other’s conceptual position and how each viewed the other personally were asked. This exercise seemed to lead to each having a better understanding of the other’s views, as well as expanding awareness for the focus group participants.
The internalized interview seemed to contribute to a subtle shift in the conference ambiance. There was talk in the hallways of the importance of considering the relationship between the actor and his or her ideas. There was greater appreciation of how constructivism necessarily entails personal and experiential qualities.
These ideas are very much a part of a family therapist’s practice. Family therapists in clinical practice are involved with the reflexive relationship between people and their understandings. The clinical process can express in a live and experiential manner constructivistic effective action. Each client coming to therapy creates his or her own meaning of the world, often understandings rife with problems. Through the therapeutic en‑Page xviicounter between the therapist and the client(s), new meanings are (with hope) constructed and experienced. Although constructivism is embedded in the very nature and activity of conducting family therapy, there are still many questions in the discipline. The function of language and the location of meaning, issues between the individual and the social, the role of the expert, ethics, educating family therapists, and conducting research relevant to practitioners were all issues brought up in the family therapy focus group. The experiential interaction between Tomm, von Glasersfeld, and Gergen helped bridge the various disciplines in the conference together, and helped many appreciate how each could benefit from the others’ inquiries and practices.
After the conference and a suitable amount of recovery time, correspondence with the authors was reinitiated. Again, Steffe, with his typical energized and direct precision, wrote comments, suggestions, encouragements, and challenges to each author. Based on the responses from the authors, not only did the many encounters at the conference help them to revise their thinking, but Steffe’s comments were also beneficial. Although not every author found use in Steffe’s comments, it is important to appreciate how his ideas weave their way through many of the chapters. The final chapter of this book represents how Steffe’s ideas developed as he struggled to write a useful analysis and synthesis of all the chapters.
Therefore, as you read each chapter, perhaps challenging some positions while accepting others, and perhaps creating your own conceptualization of ideas, appreciate the amount of activity that went into each chapter. As you read each text, know, too, that much of the conference and authors’ interactions remain unsaid.
This conference brought together many interested people to build and develop on the theme of constructivism as it applies to many fields. As you read this book, we hope you continue the conversation and find ways to make constructivism a lived experience.
In this preface, I use the term constructivism to serve as the descriptor for the various alternative epistemologies.
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