Constructivism in cognitive psychology
Gerstenmaier J. & Mandl H. (2001) Constructivism in cognitive psychology. In: Smelser N. J. & Baltes P. B. (eds.) International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. Pergamon Press, Oxford: 2654–2659. Available at http://cepa.info/4042
Table of Contents
1. What does Constructivism Mean?
2. Principles for the Construction of Knowledge
3. Fields of Application for Constructivist Approaches in Psychology
Constructivistic approaches – except the radical constructivism – are prevalent in psychology, especially if approaches are included which apply core characteristics of constructivistic theories and employ constructivistic concepts and principles, for example concept-metaphors, congnitive schemes, or self-organization. Some of these approaches do not regard themselves explicitly as constructivistic. But these concepts are especially significant for the analysis of knowledge acquisition and knowledge construction as well as for text comprehension, cognitive development, and social attitude. Constructivism has been influential specifically for the clarification of the construction and instruction relationship concerning knowledge acquisition. The moderate constructivism offers an opportunity to get to an important methodological orientation of psychological research in this field.
Constructivist thinking and reasoning have played a major role in psychology for several years; for example, in William James’ ‘pragmatic method’ as well as in Barlett’s ‘construction of remembering.’ In modern cognitive psychology constructivist principles and concepts are the basic elements of research, especially in the fields of learning, language and memory. Rumelhart (1980) analyses cognition as an interpretation process controlled by cognitive schemes. Johnson et al. (1999) examines the construction of mental models for ‘extensional reasoning’ of ‘naive individuals.’ Constructivist principles and concepts are also relevant for scientific knowledge because ‘knowledge of all kinds, including scientific knowledge, is a construction of the human mind’ (Scarr 1985, p. 499). The concept that all knowledge and thinking is a result of construction is certainly the core assumption of all versions of scientific constructivism.
1. What does Constructivism Mean?
Constructivist approaches refer to an epistemological position in which knowledge is regarded as constructed. These approaches concentrate on the analysis of single processes or functions. Constructivist approaches present themselves through a remarkable spectrum in psychology. Therefore, our understanding of constructivism as a unifying principle is questionable. Instead we prefer to distinguish varieties of constructivist reasoning in psychology (and philosophy), which share at least the first two of the following characteristics: they analyse the ability of individuals to act and to demonstrate self-control, partly with the consequence of taking distal variables like genetic variation into special consideration (Scarr 1985, p. 510). They are based on the assumption that knowledge is the result of constructive processes; and the consequence of this for the analysis of person-situation-interaction is that these are constructed on the basis of experiences, i.e., the same context is seen and applied differently.
Finally, interventions and instructions will be viewed here in relation to individually-constructed experiences and their applicability and fit. These three characteristics are core features of constructivist reasoning. The following representation of constructivist perspectives in psychology refers to the consideration of these features and not only to the fact that the author calls himself a constructivist. This manner of thinking is legitimate because on the one hand there are numerous authors who do not call themselves constructivists but are closely associated with this perspective. On the other hand, there are considerable differences between various constructivist approaches, especially between radical constructivism and social constructivism as well as between constructivist approaches to learning and knowledge acquisition.
Radical constructivism – which views realism in science as inadequate and assumes an informational closeness of cognitive systems (Maturana & Varela 1987) – plays a subsidiary role in psychology, even though it is postulated as the prototype of constructivist perspectives. Radical constructivists like Maturana or Varela always question the possibility of objectivity and truth because only information which is viable and serves to support the system is, according to them, processed. Truth, objectivity and knowledge are thus constructed. Radical constructivism focuses on epistemology and studies the relationship between knowledge and the world, rejecting realism and any form of ontology.
A second version of constructivism is named ‘constructionism’ or ‘social constructionism’. This version follows the tradition of the social psychology of Cooley and Mead. It analyses the processes ‘in which the individuals describe and explain the world in which they live or how they see it’ (Gergen 1985, p. 3f). Social constructionism, in contrast to radical constructivism, focuses on the acting and thinking individual and describes the construction of knowledge as the result of social interaction in contexts which form the foundation of shared knowledge. This view has proven itself remarkably fruitful for numerous psychological fields, for example, in the analysis of cognitive development or the development of prejudice and self-impression.
A third version of constructivism is engaged in exploring the correlation of learning and instruction, especially in the area of mathematic knowledge (Cobb et al. 1997, Resnick 1994). Knowledge acquisition is discussed here in close connection with situated learning and related instructional approaches. In this review, only the two last-presented versions of constructivism will be discussed, due to the fact that these have been the most influential in cognitive psychology. First of all, approaches which define themselves as constructivist will be presented. Second, studies will be discussed which contain the core features of constructivist reasoning. Constructivism emphasizes the active experience-based knowledge construction and its embedding in social contexts. From this point of view intervention and instruction are chosen with regard to their individual fit. In this article cognitive tools which are typical for constructivistic approaches will be discussed first: conceptual metaphors, cognitive schemes, and subjective theories. In the second part they will be described in different psychological application areas. Therein the potential of constructivistic approaches for the research on text comprehension and the development of domain-specific knowledge can be shown. Moreover a better understanding of the relationship between construction and instruction can be gained.
2. Principles for the Construction of Knowledge
‘The business of cognitive science is to give empirically grounded explanations of the phenomena of mind, in the broadest sense of that term’ (Fernandez-Duque and Johnson 1999). Thus the goal of cognitive psychological studies is the pursuit of principles and concepts which describe and explain the construction of knowledge. Piaget compares a child’s development of intelligence to the development of scientific theories. Bruner (1990) suggests the use of concepts which are useful to the analysis of narrative structures for the analysis of mind. Personal constructs (Kelly 1955), cognitive schemes (Rumelhart 1980), metaphors (Ortony 1980), folk theories of mind and behavior (Bruner 1990, Lillard 1998) and theory-theories (Gopnik & Wellman 1994) have proved important for the construction of everyday knowledge and scientific knowledge. Through these concepts, active experience-based processes of knowledge construction, rooted in different contexts, are analyzed.
Kelly points out in his personal construct theory in 1955 that individuals basically behave like scientists: they too develop theories about their environment and use personal constructs of prediction and interpretation to control their environment. Kelly postulates these predictions by forming and using personal constructs as active psychological processes which lead to different choices. Individuals cannot always change their environment, but they can always construct it differently. Kelly (1970) described this as constructive alternativism. Psychological research is especially useful to facilitate effective psychotherapy. Personal constructs represent the experiences of individuals and form the precondition for active, sometimes alternative construction of knowledge. Rumelhart uses the concept of cognitive schemes in a constructivist manner to analyse knowledge representation and how that representation facilitates the use of knowledge in particular ways (Rumelhart 1980, p. 34). Cognitive schemes are understood as data structures. They are active computational devices which represent meaning and procedural knowledge. Following Barlett with his ‘gist story, ’ Rumelhart describes the effects as interpretation and as a reconstruction of the original interpretation. Rumelhart later (1999) uses the concept of metaphor in a more complex way, as a theoretical model by employing the computer of the computer as a model of mind. Such metaphors of mind (Ortony 1980) are currently used for describing different research approaches, i.e., attention and metaphors for learning.
Fernandez-Duque and Johnson (1999, p. 84) understand the conceptual metaphor ‘as conceptual mapping of entities, properties, relations and structures from a domain of one kind (the source domain) onto a domain of a different kind (the target domain).’ They understand it as a tool for the construction of scientific theories. Here you can also find typical arguments for constructivist approaches, even though the researchers do not regard themselves as constructivists. Fernandez-Duque and Johnson show ‘that a highly constrained set of conceptual metaphors is constitutive and definitive of the theoretical perspectives taken toward attention and toward the search programs based on these theories’ (Fernandez-Duque and Johnson 1999, p. 84). Conceptual metaphors like the ones described above not only structure folk models but also ‘our most sophisticated scientific theories.’ Fernandez-Duque and Johnson show this by using metaphors such as the filter metaphor, the spotlight metaphor, the spotlight-in-the-brain metaphor and the attention-as-vision metaphor. These metaphors guide research questions and influence the search for data and its interpretation.
Metaphorical reasoning is clearly central to the construction of ordinary and scientific knowledge, for mathematic as well as for cognitive psychology (Moreno & Mayer 1999). Ortony (1980) as well as Sternberg (1990) emphasize the function of metaphors in the creation of new knowledge and promote viewing incidents in a new light, because ‘without an understanding of the metaphors that generate or at least guide various theories’ (Sternberg 1990 18), psychological theories of intelligence can not adequately be related to each other. Mayer (1992) describes the theoretical development of learning as a development of three metaphors; the metaphor of response acquisition, knowledge acquisition and knowledge construction.
The construction of new knowledge by cognitive schemes and metaphors can as well be found in approaches in which knowledge construction in everyday life is basically viewed as equivalent to the development of scientific knowledge. This equivalence of folk psychology and scientific psychology (Bruner 1990) means that new knowledge is constructed as meaningful knowledge and that narrative formats are regarded as key tools for the construction of meaning. In his representation of the theory of mind, Bruner emphasizes the assumption that ordinary knowledge is equivalent to theoretical knowledge and is generated domain-specific and in the range of cognitive development. Children develop concrete theories of everyday psychology or about mathematics, which they constantly change.
Those naive theories, as well as metaphors and cognitive schemes, encompass different but related coherent concepts which are used as tools for the construction of knowledge. Thus these concepts are ‘building blocks of cognition’ (Rumelhart 1980), which describe and explain the phenomena of mind (Fernandez-Duque & Johnson 1999). The views related to these concepts describe remarkably closely the core features of constructivism, specified at the beginning of this article.
3. Fields of Application for Constructivist Approaches in Psychology
In the following part, some of the most important fields of application for constructivist approaches in psychology will be analyzed. These include remembering and knowledge representation, language and text comprehension, learning and instruction, and cognitive development as well as social cognition, social biases and social stigmata. Cognitive processes are still the most important aspects of research using constructivist approaches. In developmental and social psychology a considerable amount of social constructivist research can be found which expand on the theories of Piaget, Vygotsky, and Mead (Berger and Luckmann 1966).
In 1932 Bartlett stated that remembering ‘is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organised past reactions or experience’ (Bartlett 1932, p. 213). Bartlett used the concept of cognitive schemes but did not think it as important as Rumelhart did (1980). Remembering is, according to Bartlett, less the recall of knowledge memorized in cognitive schemes and more of a transactional process which zigzags between the perception of past and new experiences and which leads to revised construction of knowing and acting. Psychologists arguing in a constructivist way often refer to Bartlett, however, they come to very different assumptions about the functional meaning of cognitive schemes and their evaluation of ‘stored schema view’ (Clancey 1997).
Clancey (1997) regards the ‘stored schema view’ as inadequate and undynamic. Thomas (1999, p. 224) argues in a similar way, claiming ‘it is not the schema but the activity it supports that carries intentionality and embodies our perceptual and imaginal awareness’. In contrast to activity-oriented approaches, the mental model theory states that ‘what we perceive depends on both what is in the world and what is in our heads – on what evolution has wired in our nervous system and what we know as a result of experience. The limits of our models are the limits of our world’ (Johnson-Laird 1989, p. 471). Johnson-Laird et al. (1999) understand mental models as cognitive representations of relevant situations, which have a structure and content. At present these types of moderate constructivist approaches represent the mainstream of cognitive psychology. This is also demonstrated by the fact that the situated approaches have problems with certain phenomenon, especially with the phenomenon which Landauer and Dumais (1997) call ‘Plato’s problem’ or ‘the poverty of the stimulus, ’ i.e., ‘how people acquire as much knowledge as they do on the basis of as little information as they get.’
This problem is the basis of Chomsky’s nativist-constructivist theory of language (Chomsky 1991). Chomsky emphasized the creative aspect of language, because a person always hears for the first time the combination of sentences which another speaker verbalizes. Thus Chomsky and his school propose ‘a language acquisition device, an innate mechanism which prepares linguistic competences like a language instinct.’ The theories for text comprehension emphasize both language production and the active construction of knowledge. Kintsch and his associates (1988) developed a theoretical model of text comprehension which discriminates between a text basis, i.e., the relations deduced from semantics, and a situational model. They have also evaluated the model in various studies.
Deep understanding is not possible until a situational is constructed, which integrates a textual basis and the reader’s knowledge. To this end Kintsch (1988) presented a theoretical approach which he calls ‘construction-integration model.’ In the above-described sense, this model of text comprehension is a constructivist model which describes in detail knowledge-construction and the activation of knowledge. In addition, there are studies which consider the third core feature of constructivist reasoning, which involves instruction in the ideal proportion of individually-constructed experiences and their individual usability and fit. McNamara et al. (1996) showed that ‘high-knowledge readers could be stimulated by difficult, less coherent texts to active processing.’ Studies like the one described above show that language reception and text comprehension for the purpose of generating situational models can be adequately supported by constructivist instruction. It is at this point that constructivist-oriented theories of learning and instruction begin. These theories analyse which learning environment supports the construction of knowledge without affecting active processing. These approaches, which view themselves as constructivist, are subsumed under the notation ‘situated learning.’ The particular characteristics of situated learning are:
(a) learning is an active and constructive process (the situational perspective shares this assumption with the cognitive perspective);
(b) the process focuses on the sharing of distributed knowledge in social groups;
(c) learning is analyzed in the framework of learning environments and described as an adaptation to the constraints and opportunities of the context;
(d) such adjustments are based on the participation of the members of the learning group. Their participation is at first characterized as peripheral and then as central as experience is gained.
Analyses of situated learning prefer to focus on the analysis of effective learning environments and their characteristics. Some of these characteristics have been realized in the following approaches: ‘cognitive apprenticeship’ (Collins et al. 1989), ‘collaborative learning culture’ (Brown 1997) and ‘authentic learning’ (Bruner 1990).
The theory of situated learning is first of all constructed as a theory of instruction and of the mode of operation of learning environments. This theory shares with the cognitive view the assumption that learning is a constructive and knowledge-based process. A further basic assumption is that the use of new media for the development of constructivist learning environments is taken into consideration (Moreno & Mayer 1999).
The development of learning and knowledge acquisition is another subject of constructivist-oriented approaches in long-term studies. This is particularly important for the constructivist theory of mind (Schwanenflugel et al. 1998), which is generated by children for different knowledge domains: about nature (physics, biology) or about memory, comprehension and the intentionality of interpersonal relationships (psychology).The theory of mind is at its core a constructivist approach, which is based on the following assumptions:
(a) knowledge is organized in a similar manner to theory and refers to a core set of beliefs;
(b) the theory of mind is relatively coherent, uses constructs and serves as a basis for predictions and explanations for the behavior of other persons;
(c) the theory of mind is at least partly innate or innately predisposed;
(d) Parts of the theory of mind clearly underlie cultural variations, for example the fundamental ideas of what causes action (Lillard 1998).
Theories of mind are often equated by researchers to scientific theories and conceptual change as a change of paradigm in the sense of Thomas Kuhn. Such analogies can be found in Piaget, Kelly, Bruner and representatives of the theory-theory. Equating the theory of naïve actors and scientific theories is highly problematic if questions of validity, falsification or operationalization are regarded. This position also underestimates the efficacy of social biases (for details see Nickerson 1999) and how they are analyzed by the research of social judgement.
The effect of social cognition in the construction of individual reality has a long tradition, especially in social psychology. For Gergen, a basic assumption for social construction is that ‘the terms in which the world is understood are social artifacts, products of historically situated interchanges among people’ (Gergen (1985, p. 4). These artifacts are of various types. They range from quality attribution to implicit personality theories to social processes of stigmatizing. One of the most robust findings of individual perception research is the ‘lay dispositionism’ (Choi et al. 1999). It is upon this finding that typical judgement failures like the correspondence bias, i.e., the belief that behavior of other persons can be explained by personality traits or other internal attributes, are based. Modern social judgment research shows clearly the manner in which individuals construct their knowledge about other persons. This research also demonstrates how individuals impute their own knowledge to others (Nickerson 1999) and retain conflicting attitudes which coexist in the different evaluations of the same attitude object. Wilson et al. (2000) convincingly describe in their model of dual attitudes how old, stored attitudes interact in different ways with new constructed attitudes and thus remain stable while affecting behavior.
Stereotype correspondence biases, dual attitudes and implicit personality theories are, like the above-mentioned metaphors and cognitive schemes, important tools for the construction of the individual reality. This construction is faulty and these errors are subject to revision in the framework of ‘bargaining processes’ in cooperative groups, especially ‘if anchor and adjustment heuristics are used’ (Nickerson 1999). These constructions of reality become problematic if they lead to social stigma. Stigmatizing is commonly understood as a process by which the members of a group mark a stigmatized individual as a consequence of the internalized judgments (Crocker et al. 1998). Research on the construction of coherent knowledge about one’s own personality by judgments of others, stereotypes and lay dispositionism (Choi et al. 1999) show remarkably clearly how moderate constructivist psychological approaches give rise to empirically-based explanations of the phenomena of mind (Fernandez-Duque and Johnson 1999).
There are considerable differences within this research domain, especially with regard to the meaning of cognitive representation and the question of the extent to which plans control actions. The question regarding the degree to which individual action is influenced by universal principles is also contentious. For Chomsky and his school, language acquisition is controlled by a powerful innate mechanism. Resnick (1994) speaks in this regard of ‘biological constraints and prepared schemes and skeletal and hardwired structures which influence learning by protomathematic dispositions.’ In contrast, Scarr emphasizes the importance of ‘genetic variation and genotype-environment effects for the development of intelligence’ (Scarr 1985). In addition, ideas can be found regarding the effect of the social stereotype and the blindness of individuals due to correspondence bias and lay dispositionism (Choi et al. 1999). Bargh’s pessimism becomes apparent when he speaks about a cognitive monster – an enormous amount of once-constructed stereotypes, which are resistant to change and once activated, produce automatic stereotypes (Bargh 1999).
These two poles characterize the wide range of constructivist thinking in psychology and show once again the importance of constructivist-oriented instructional support. By the promotion of instruction – which offers room for the construction of knowledge, self-control, self-organization and shared knowledge in collaborative groups – the gulf between nativism and the cognitive monster can be bridged. This is the position of a moderate constructivism, which is particularly accepted by modern psychology in connection with multimedia. This position bears little relation to the radical constructivism and its refusal to recognize reality and objectivity.
On the other hand, the moderate constructivism, which we represent, opens new doors to understanding the phenomenon of mind. The moderate constructivism emphasizes processes like knowledge acquisition, the individual activity potential and the importance of reality construction without claiming the equivalence of naive and scientific knowledge.
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