Radical Constructivism: A Way of Knowing and Learning

By Ernst Von Glasersfeld | Go to book overview

Chapter 10

To Encourage Students’ Conceptual Constructing

During the last few years, the number of references to radical constructivism in the educational literature has increased in a startling fashion. It has made me very uneasy. If research programmes and schools announce that they have adopted the ‘constructivist paradigm’, innocent people are led to believe that there has been a breakthrough and that the adoption of constructivism will rescue education from whatever crisis it is thought to be in. This, of course, makes no sense—and, from my point of view, it is counter-productive. If such high expectations are raised, the backlash is bound to come before the few serious applications of the constructivist approach that are in progress will constitute a solid test. It takes a good many years to assess whether a novel attitude is actually helpful as an orientation for schools and teachers. Set theory was introduced a few decades ago with genuine hopes and fanfare, but turned out to be a flop as a teaching and learning device. There was, of course, an important difference. The people who recommended it, and those who adopted it, had a fairly clear idea of what it was. In the present vogue of constructivism this does not seem to be the case. Some of its advocates tout it as a panacea but would reject it if they became aware of its epistemological implications. At the other end of the scale, some of the critics jump to the conclusion that it denies reality, and therefore is a heresy they cannot fit into their orthodox metaphysical beliefs.


What Is Our Goal?

Because constructivism is a theory of knowing and cuts loose from traditional epistemology, its application to education requires first of all a clarification of what one intends to achieve. This raises a fundamental problem. Education, after all, is a ‘political’ enterprise. Its purpose, as I see it, is two-fold. On the one hand, students are to be empowered to think for themselves and without contradictions. On the other, the ways of acting and thinking that are at present judged the best, are to be perpetuated in the next generation.

Constructivism has no difficulty in accepting these premises, but it does not accept the usual justification of knowledge. In the traditional view, schools

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