Contextual Constructivism: The Impact of Culture on the Learning and Teaching of Science
William W. Cobern
Though rooted in neo-Piagetian research, constructivism is an avenue of research that departed from the neo-Piagetian mainstream 20 years ago and has continued on a distinct path of development. The departure was evident by the late seventies, clearly outlined in two publications by Novak ( 1977) and Driver and Easley ( 1978). For constructivists, learning is not knowledge written on or transplanted to a person's mind as if the mind were a blank slate waiting to be written on or an empty gallery waiting to be filled. Constructivists use the metaphor of construction because it aptly summarizes the epistemological view that knowledge is built by individuals. Since Ausubel et al. ( 1978), theorists have argued that the construction of new knowledge in science is strongly influenced by prior knowledge, that is, conceptions gained prior to the point of new learning. Learning by construction thus implies a change in prior knowledge, where change can mean replacement, addition, or modification of extant knowledge. Learning, by construction, involving change is the basis of the Posner et al. ( 1982) conceptual change model. In essence, constructivism is an epistemological model of learning, and constructivist teaching is mediation. A constructivist teacher works as the interface between curriculum and student to bring the two together in a way that is meaningful for the learner. Furthermore, if one carries the construction metaphor to its logical conclusion, construction implies a foundation, in addition to the studs and beams of prior knowledge. The construction of new knowledge takes place at a construction site consisting of existing structures standing on a foundation. In other words, construction takes place in a context. The purpose of this chapter is, first, to trace the developments in constructivist theory that lead to contextual constructivism, including the types of questions suggested by contextual constructivism. Second, it places those questions in the context of an anthropological world view theory.