Constructivism in Education: Interpretations and Criticisms from Science Education

Constructivism in Education: Interpretations and Criticisms from Science Education

Keith S. Taber (University of Cambridge, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-9634-1.ch006
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Constructivism has been widely adopted as a referent for research, curriculum development and recommended pedagogy in education. This chapter considers key issues relating to the adoption of constructivist thinking in education which have arisen within the field of science education. Constructivism has been mooted as a dominant paradigm in science education, where it has informed a major research programme over some decades. However, the application of constructivist ideas in science education has also been subject to a range of critiques. This chapter gives an outline of the developing influence of constructivism in science education, and the common understandings of the term in relation to science teaching and learning; it reports on the main areas where the influence of constructivist thinking has been heavily criticised, and discusses how these criticisms are countered within the research programme; it considers some major directions for research within the research programme; and it evaluates the level of influence of constructivism in contemporary science education practice.
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Constructivism is a term that is commonly met in educational and wider social science discourse, although it is used with a range of different meanings and associations relating variously to educational philosophy, research epistemology, cognitive development, learning theory, and approaches to pedagogy (see Figure 1). Constructivism has - or, perhaps more accurately, ‘constructivisms’ have - been especially influential in science and mathematics education, although the mantra ‘we are all constructivists now’ (Wheeler, 1987, p. 57) has been propagated (Brubaker, 2009; Donmoyer, 2012) - and challenged (Bader, 2001; Lesh & Sriraman, 2010) - much more widely. Constructivism is sometimes associated with philosophical and sociological stances that have questioned traditional views of the nature of public knowledge and its ‘production’. So a naive notion of the nature and production of scientific knowledge has not only been challenged through scholarship in the philosophy of science (e.g., see Taber, 2009a), but through the increasing importance of the sociology of knowledge with its focus on the social construction of (what is taken in particular cultural contexts as) reality (Berger & Luckmann, 1991), and which has drawn attention to the social and institutional aspects of knowledge production (Gilbert & Mulkay, 1984; Latour & Woolgar, 1986).

Figure 1.

Constructivism in education

Whilst these debates about the nature of canonical knowledge and how it is acquired are potentially important for fundamental educational questions relating to the purposes of schooling and the structuring and selection of curriculum, the form of constructivism which has arguably had the most impact on classrooms around the world is constructivism as a perspective on learning that has consequences for how to teach canonical knowledge. Constructivist learning theory is certainly not divorced from wider epistemological considerations, but can inform teaching practice without requiring commitment to the more contentious forms of constructivism. This chapter will argue that this is already a common situation in science classes around the world where constructivist thinking on pedagogy has been widely influential. Although the chapter draws upon the specifics of science education - where constructivist influence has been both widespread and often vigorously debated - the ‘hard core’ premises of the constructivist research programme in science education (as detailed below) would seem to be equally applicable to any area of the curriculum that is concerned with teaching a body of canonical public knowledge (Sjøberg, 2010).

The chapter discusses then how constructivism has been understood and adopted as a referent in science education. Constructivism has been a key idea underpinning much research, curriculum innovation, and teacher development in science education since the 1970s. However, constructivism has been understood in different ways, and the ‘flavour’ of constructivism widely adopted within science education has been of a kind sometimes called pedagogic constructivism or psychological constructivism (see Figure 1), which is not completely aligned with some forms of constructivism that have been influential in other areas of scholarship (for example the use of the term constructivism as a label associated with a particular epistemological stance adopted in some educational research and evaluation). This is discussed further later in this chapter.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Radical Constructivism: An epistemological stance that accepts the ontological reality of the external world but considers that all a person ever directly knows is his or her own internally constructed mental representation of that external world.

Constructivism in Science Education: The adoption of constructivist ideas about how people learn to inform research, curriculum development and pedagogy in the teaching and learning of science.

Learning: Learning is taken as a change in the potential for behaviour, such as a change in the potential to verbally respond to a teacher’s question.

Personal Constructivism: A perspective that considers each individual actively constructs his or her own ways of understanding the world and so identifies the locus of knowledge as the individual mind.

Contingency in Learning: The idea, inherent in personal constructivism, that what a person learns in a particular situation will be highly contingent (in particular upon their existing knowledge and understanding, but also upon the learning context).

Alternative Conceptions: Conceptions formed by learners that are judged to be inconsistent with the canonical concepts presented in science curriculum.

Scientific Research Programme: An ongoing programme of enquiries undertaken by a community of researchers adopting a common set of ‘hard core’ assumptions and guided by common heuristics.

Constructivism: A blanket term used to describe a set of diverse ideas related to how people come to knowledge.

Teaching: Teaching is considered as deliberate actions undertaken with the intention of facilitating learning.

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