A Constructivist Approach to Teaching
Ernst von Glasersfeld Scientific Reasoning Research Institute University of Massachusetts and Institute of Behavioral Research University of Georgia
The development of a constructivist theory of knowing has been the focus of my interest for several decades. It was a philosophical interest that arose originally out of work concerning first the structure and semantics of several languages and later cognitive psychology. Therefore, the title of this chapter may need an explanation. Rosalind Driver, Reinders Duit, Heinrich Bauersfeld, and Paul Cobb can speak about teaching from their own immediate experiences, whereas I have never taught any of the subjects in which readers are experts. When I focus on the theory of constructivism, one may wonder why a proponent of such a peculiar theory of knowing should have anything to say about education in mathematics or science. It is a question I have often asked myself. If all goes well, some justification will be seen at the end of my essay.
One general observation has encouraged me to move in this direction. Education may never have been considered good enough, but whatever its methods and effectiveness were, it seems to have suffered a decline during the last 20 or 30 years. Today, there is a general consensus that something is wrong because children come out of school unable to read and write, unable to operate with numbers sufficiently well for their jobs, and with so little knowledge of the contemporary scientific view of the world that a large section still believes that the phases of the moon are caused by the shadow of the earth.
This has been said not only in official reports, but also by a particularly keen observer of society, the comedian Mark Russell. In one of his recent