CEPA eprint 4002

The views and influence of Ernst von Glasersfeld: An introduction

Cardellini L. (2008) The views and influence of Ernst von Glasersfeld: An introduction. Foundations of Chemistry 10: 129–134. Available at http://cepa.info/4002
Research into learners’ ideas about science suggests that students often have alternative conceptions about important science concepts. Because of this dissatisfaction, constructivism has been adopted as a theoretical framework by many teachers and researchers, and it has had a curricular influence in many countries. Constructivism is much more than an educational doctrine and we are aware that a ‘science war’ about the possibility of objectivity is in progress. ‘Constructivism’ cannot necessary be a package deal: it must be possible to accept educational suggestions deemed useful without buying all the epistemology or the metaphysical implications. The claim that cognitive agents understand the world by constructing mental representations of it can be a shared suggestion for changing science instruction. Many teachers are much more concerned in finding productive teaching methods than about philosophical questions as if knowledge must be considered an objective representation of the real world or not. We have to ponder if some ideas from the constructivist theory of instruction can help instructors to become better teachers. The pragmatic suggestions that come from the constructivist theory of instruction developed by von Glasersfeld, the leading proponent of radical constructivism, could be a good start in this search.
Key words: Ernst von Glasersfeld, forms of constructivism, objectivity, constructivist theory of instruction.
Constructivism is one of the most debated theories in contemporary philosophical discussions and has a great influence in science education.[Note 1] Some positions, whether theoretical or practical, of some chemical educators connected with constructivist epistemology are recently being questioned and criticized (Scerri, 2003). Scholars distinguish between many forms of constructivism (Good, 1993; Bodner et al., 2001).[Note 2]
Ernst von Glasersfeld is a leading constructivist and the leading proponent of Radical Constructivism (RC). Upon being asked about the difference between RC and trivial constructivism he said: “A few years ago when the term ‘constructivism’ began to become fashionable and was adopted by people who had no intention of changing their epistemological orientation, I introduced the term ‘trivial constructivism’ to distinguish this fashion from the ‘radical’ movement that broke with the tradition of cognitive representationism.” (1992: 170). It “is radical because it breaks with convention and develops a theory of knowledge in which knowledge does not reflect an ‘objective’ ontological reality, but exclusively an ordering and organization of a world constitued by our experience.” (1984: 24). “Radical” is not intended in the sense of “extreme,” but rather of “thoroughly consistent” (Riegler, 2001: 27) or “taking the theory of knowing seriously.”
The controversial issue is the possibility to establish the “truth” of any particular piece of knowledge; the correspondence between knowledge and reality, because only “God knows his creation.” The “epistemic agents can know nothing but the cognitive structures they themselves have put together. … God alone can know the real world, because He knows how and of what He has created it. In contrast, the human knower can know only what the human knower has constructed.” (1989: 123). This is the inaccesibility of reality argument; von Glasersfeld specifies that “I have never denied an absolute reality, I only claim, as the skeptics do, that we have no way of knowing it.” (1995: 7)
RC considers the objectivity as an illusion: “The way science is written about, and popularized, does much to reinforce this illusion, because it reiterates that the scientific method and its results are ‘objective’.” (von Glasersfeld, 2001: 36) and “those who merely speak of the construction of knowledge, but do not explicitly give up the notion that our conceptual constructions can or should in some way represent an independent, ‘objective’ reality, are still caught up in the traditional theory of knowledge” (von Glasersfeld, 1991: 16).
RC is a position based on “the practice of psycholinguistics, cognitive psychology, and … the works of Jean Piaget” (1990: 1). In that, von Glasersfeld sees himself in a constructivist tradition that begun in the “18th century by Giambattista Vico, the first true constructivist” and continued by “Silvio Ceccato and Jean Piaget in the more recent past” (1987: 193; 1989). It may be useful to remember a point von Glasersfeld has made in many papers: “Constructivism, as far as I am concerned, is one possible way of thinking. It is a model, and models, no matter how useful they might prove, must never be claimed to be ‘true’.” (1992: 169).
Ernst von Glasersfeld has had great influence on the development of constructivist theory in mathematics and science education in the past two decades and his influence is witnessed by the consensus he gets from other prominent scholars.[Note 3] He has published well over one hundred papers, book chapters and books in fields such as mathematics and science education, cybernetics, semantics and epistemology. Several of his major papers are gathered together in his The Construction of Knowledge (1987).
In “Questions and Answers about Radical Constructivim” (1992, pp. 177-178), von Glasersfeld outlines a constructivist theory of instruction: “(1) If we assume that students have to build up their own knowledge, we have to consider that they are not ‘blank slates.’ … The knowledge they have is the only basis on which they can build more. … (2) Whatever a student says in answer to a question (or ‘problem’) is what makes sense to the student at that moment. It has to be taken seriously as such, regardless of how odd or ‘wrong’ it might seem to the teacher. … (3) If a teacher wants to modify a student’s concepts and conceptual structures, he or she has to try to build up a model of the particular student’s own thinking. … (4) Asking students how they got to the answer they gave is a good way of discovering something about their thinking and opens the way to explaining why a particular answer may not be useful under different circumstances. (5) If you want to foster students’ motivation to delve further into questions that at first are of no particular interest from the students’ point of view, you will have to create situations where the students have an opportunity to experience the pleasure inherent in solving a problem. … (6) Successful thinking is far more important than ‘correct’ answers. … (7) To understand and appreciate students’ thinking, the teacher must have an almost infinitely flexible mind (because students sometimes start from premises that seems inconceivable to teachers). (8) Constructivist teachers can never justify what they teach by claiming that it is ‘true.’ … You activate students’ minds to construct knowledge by letting them struggle with problems of their own choice, helping them only when they ask for help. At best, the teacher can orient a students’ constructing in a fruitful direction, she or he can never force it.”
For anyone who wants to foster understanding, “(1) There is no understanding without reflection, and reflection is an activity students have to carry out themselves. … (2) Although reflective abstraction always begins on the basis of some form of sensorimotor experience, it is not caused by it. Therefore, there is no program of specific actions or manipulations of concrete materials that could guarantee students’ abstracting.” (1995: 382). A student can reach the deepest level of understanding (“operative awareness” or “consapevolezza operativa”) only if she or he is personally involved and that can happen only if she or he finds some pleasure in doing it.
As a personal observation, I add that in chemistry we have the responsability to teach according to the best scientific theory because, as Hawkes (1996: 2) warns us, “if erroneous results are published as a result of our incorrect teaching, will we be sued for malpractice? If somebody dies, will the heirs sue us?”
Michael Matthews (2002: 132) enumerates the services that constructivism has done to science education and goes on: “liberal educationalists can rightly say that these are pedagogical commonplaces, … It is clear that the best of constructivist pedagogy can be had without constructivist epistemology.” And von Glasersfeld agrees with that, because: “Good teachers … have practised much of what is suggested here, without the benefit of an explicit theory of knowing. Their approach was intuitive and successful, and this exposition will not present anything to change their ways.” (1989: 138).
Possibly the greatest service of constructivism is in being able to motivate many teachers, giving them high hopes and enthusiasm, that leads to an improvement of students’ learning. And for doing this, no matter what epistemology we use as referent, we have to be prepared to work more, not less.
Bodner G. M., Klobuchar M. & Geelan D. (2001) The Many Forms of Constructivism. Journal of Chemical Education 78: 1107.
Glasersfeld E. von (1984) An Introduction to Radical Constructivism. In: P. Watzlawick (ed.) The Invented Reality. How Do We Know What We Believe We Know? Contributions to Constructivism: 17–40. New York: Norton & Co. Inc. http://cepa.info/1279
Glasersfeld E. von (1987) Construction of Knowledge CA: Intersystems Publications: Salinas.
Glasersfeld E. von (1989) Cognition, construction of knowledge, and teaching. Synthese 80: 121–140. http://cepa.info/1408
Glasersfeld E. von (1990) Environment and Communication. In: L. P. Steffe and T. Wood (eds.) Transforming Children’s Mathematics Education: International Perspectives. Erlbaum, Hillsdale NJ: 30–38. As reported in: M. R. Matthews (1994) Science Teaching. The Role of History and Philosophy of Science. Routledge, New York: 148. http://cepa.info/1290
Glasersfeld E. von (1991) Knowing without Metaphysics: Aspects of the Radical Constructivist Position. In: F. Steier (ed.) Research and Reflexivity (Inquiries into Social Construction): 12–29. London: Sage Publications. http://cepa.info/1420
Glasersfeld E. von (1992) Questions and Answers about Radical Constructivism. In: M. K. Pearsall (ed.) Scope, Sequence and Coordination of Secondary School Science. Volume II. Relevant Research: 169–182. Washington DC: The National Science Teachers Association. http://cepa.info/1439
Glasersfeld E. von (1995) A Constructivist Approach to Teaching. In: L. P. Steffe (ed.) Constructivism in Education: 3–15. Hillsdale: NJ: Erlbaum. http://cepa.info/1460
Glasersfeld E. von (1995) Sensory Experience, Abstraction, and Teaching. In: L. P. Steffe and J. Gale (eds.) Constructivism in Education: 369–383. Hillsdale: NJ: Erlbaum.
Glasersfeld E. von (2001) The radical constructivist view of science. Foundations of Science 6: 31–43. http://cepa.info/1536
Good R. (1993) The many forms of Constructivism. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 30(9): 1015. http://cepa.info/2988
Hawkes S. J. (1996) Buffer Calculations Deceive and Obscure. The Chemical Educator 6: S1430–4171.
Matthews M. (2002) Constructivism and science education: A further appraisal. Journal of Science Education and Technology 11(2): 121-134.
Niaz M., Abd-El-Khalick F., Benarroch A., Cardellini L., Laburú C. E., Marín N., Montes L. A., Nola R., Orlik Y., Scharmann L. C. & Tsai C. C. (2003) Constructivism: Defense or a continual critical appraisal. A response to Gil-Perez et al., Science & Education 12: 787–797.
Riegler A. (2001) Toward a radical constructivist understanding of science. Foundations of Science 6: 1–30.
Scerri E. R. (2003) Philosophical Confusion in Chemical Education Research. Journal of Chemical Education 80: 468–477.
Recently, the journal Foundations of Science (2001) published two special issues of contributions on “The Impact of Radical Constructivism on Science.”
In the Bodner et al. (2001) paper a detailed introduction to the Kelly’s Theory of Personal Constructs is included.
“in the decade (1988-1998) the following journals had a total of only seven citations to his work (Journal of Research in Science Teaching, JRST = 3, Science Education, SE = 2, International Journal of Science of Education, IJSE = 2, Studies in Science Education, SSE = 0; 5 of these 7 citations were made by the same author, Ken Tobin). … we surveyed the above mentioned journals for the three year period (1999-2001) and found the following citations to the work of von Glasersfeld: JRST = 18, SE = 6, IJSE = 14, and SSE = 4. This gives a total of 42 citations in three years – a six-fold increase with respect to the previous 10 years, and of these only one citation was due to Ken Tobin. Interestingly, von Glasersfeld (1989) received the most (9 out of 42) citations.” (Niaz, 2003).
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