Radical Constructivism: A Way of Knowing and Learning

By Ernst Von Glasersfeld | Go to book overview

Preface

Twenty years ago, when Charles Smock and I put together our research report on epistemology and education, we chose as subtitle: The implications of radical constructivism for knowledge acquisition’ (1974). It was the first time that the word ‘radical’ was associated with Piaget’s genetic epistemology. Charles, who had worked with Piaget at Geneva, sent a copy of the report to the master, who had introduced the constructivist approach to cognition in the 1930s. A few weeks later, Charles received a most encouraging acknowledgment: I always appreciate what you write,’ Piaget said, ‘you are one of the few Americans who have understood me’ (April, 1975).

Since then I have learned that Piaget was a most reluctant reader of other people’s writings. In the case of our report, I obviously prefer to think that he looked at it.

About that time I began to work with Les Steffe on the constructivist approach to the learning and teaching of arithmetic. Without him, radical constructivism would have remained a private enterprise. His flair for producing plausible operational analyses of what elementary-school children seem to be doing when they try to handle numbers, led to practical applications in school rooms. Wherever the experiment was continued for at least two years, the results far exceeded our expectations. More than anything else, this encouraged me to continue with the elaboration of the constructivist theory of knowing.

What we did not expect at all, was that ‘radical constructivism’ would become a catch word—with all the advantages and disadvantages popularization brings. Reactions have varied a great deal, and on both the positive and the negative side, they have at times been somewhat passionate. The purpose of this book, therefore, is to lay out the main constructivist ideas as I see them.

It will surprise some readers that I occasionally pit my ideas against behaviourism. They may feel that I am flogging a dead horse. I would agree that behaviourism is passé as a movement, but some of its central notions are still very much alive, both in psychology and education. Those who cling to them are likely to get a distorted view of constructivism.

Most of this text is new, but the ideas it expounds have been central to my work for many years. Some are expanded here, others compressed. Wherever there are actual overlaps with earlier papers, I have indicated them.

-xiii-

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