How do we come to know what we know? What is knowledge? What is truth? What is reality? These are important questions not only for epistemologists or philosophers who study knowledge, but, as well for those interested in science,
language, values, educational psychology, and even for computer programmers developing artificial intelligence systems. Whether we see knowledge as absolute, separate from the knower and corresponding to a knowable, external reality or whether we see it as part of the knower and relative to the individual's experiences with his environment has far-reaching implications.
Wilson (1997) in his description of the evolution of world views notes that, in ancient times, people believed that only God could provide glimpses of the 'real' world. Mathematics and logic had an important role to play in making this knowledge manifest. During the Renaissance, the scientific method evolved as the perceived method of uncovering 'the truth'. The German philosopher Kant later denied this possibility of arriving at a precise grasp of absolute knowledge. Still, the modern view trusted in the ability of science to reveal 'the world'. Postmodernists, argues Wilson, preferred to reject "the idealized view of truth inherited from the ancients and replace it with a dynamic, changing truth bounded by time, space and perspective" (p.2 of online version).
Thus, in the history of epistemology, the trend has been to move from a static, passive view of knowledge towards a more adaptive and active view (Heylighen, 1993). Early theories emphasized knowledge as being the awareness of objects that exist independent of any subject. According to this objectivist view, objects have intrinsic meaning, and knowledge is a reflection of a correspondence to reality. In this tradition, knowledge should represent a real world that is thought of as existing, separate and independent of the knower; and this knowledge should be considered true only if it correctly reflects that independent world. Jonassen (1991) provides a summary of objectivism:
Knowledge is stable because the essential properties of objects are knowable and relatively unchanging. The important metaphysical assumption of objectivism is that the world is real, it is structured, and that structure can be modelled for the learner. Objectivism holds that the purpose of the mind is to "mirror" that reality and its structure through thought processes that are analyzable and decomposable. The meaning that is produced by these thought processes is external to the understander, and it is determined by the structure of the real world. (p.28)
In contrast, the constructivist view argues that knowledge and reality do not have an objective or absolute value or, at the least, that we have no way of knowing this reality. Von Glasersfeld (1995) indicates in relation to the concept of reality: "It is made up of the network of things and relationships that we rely on in our living, and on which, we believe, others rely on, too" (p.7). The knower interprets and constructs a reality based on his experiences and interactions with his environment. Rather than thinking of truth in terms of a match to reality, von Glasersfeld focuses instead on the notion of viability: "To the constructivist, concepts, models, theories, and so on are viable if they prove adequate in the contexts in which they were created" (p.7).
On an epistemological continuum, objectivisim and constructivism would represent opposite extremes. Various types of constructivism have emerged. We can distinguish between radical, social, physical, evolutionary, postmodern constructivism, social constructionism, information-processing constructivism and cybernetic systems to name but some types more commonly referred to (Steffe & Gale, 1995; Prawat, 1996; Heylighen, 1993). Ernest (1995) points out that "there are as many varieties of constructivism as there are researchers" (p.459) . Psychologist Ernst von Glasersfeld whose thinking has been profoundly influenced by the theories of Piaget, is typically associated with radical constructivism - radical "because it breaks with convention and develops a theory of knowledge in which knowledge does not reflect an objective, ontological reality but exclusively an ordering and organization of a world constituted by our experience" (von Glasersfeld, 1984, p.24). Von Glasersfeld defines radical constructivism according to the conceptions of knowledge. He sees
knowledge as being actively received either through the senses or by way of
communication. It is actively constructed by the cognizing subject. Cognition is adaptive and allows one to organize the
experiential world, not to discover an objective reality (von Glasersfeld, 1989).
In contrast to von Glaserfled's position of radical constructivism, for many, social constructivism has emerged as a more palatable form of the philosophy. Heylighen (1993) explains that social constructivism "sees consensus between different subjects as the ultimate criterion to judge knowledge. 'Truth' or 'reality' will be accorded only to those constructions on which most people of a social group agree" (p.2). So, while the differences between objectivism and constructivism can be clearly delineated, such is not the case for the differences between the varying perspectives on constructivism. Derry (1992) points out that constructivism has been claimed by "various epistemological camps" that do not consider each another "theoretical comrades". There is considerable debate amongst philosophers, researchers and psychologists about which brand of constructivism is....what should we say? About which brand...is true? right? viable? corresponds to reality?
Constructivist epistemology is obviously difficult to label. Depending on who you are reading, you may get a somewhat different interpretation. Nonetheless, many writers, educators and researchers appear to have come to an agreement about how this constructivist epistemology should affect educational practice and learning. The following section of this site considers what constructivism means for learning. It is an important consideration if we take into account the large and increasing volume of literature and numerous discussions about this new theory of learning. For many, constructivism holds the promise of a remedy for an ailing school system and provides a robust, coherent and convincing alternative to existing paradigms. Can constructivism effectively translate into a learning theory from an epistemology, and from a learning theory to practice? Such is the question that this inquiry considers.