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Are you just a sponge absorbing information? Or are you actively constructing your own reality even as you read this? This lesson looks at the constructivist point of view for how we come to acquire knowledge.

Active Participants

Do you consider pets to be family members? Or do you cringe if someone refers to their pet as they would a child?Whatever your feelings on this subject, this approach to treating pets like they are a part of the family is a cultural practice for many people in our society. It’s an example of a belief that has been constructed by our experiences in the world with other humans and with our animals.Our beliefs about pets are one example of how people actively participate in the process of constructing knowledge. In this lesson, we’ll look at how an approach known as constructivism is used in various fields of study. We’ll also look at a major contributor to this theory, Jean Piaget.

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Constructivism

Constructivism is the view that people construct knowledge through their experiences and interactions with the world. The belief that pets are like family, for example, has been constructed over time. The belief is not what you might think of as an observable scientific fact. Yet many people feel as though their pet can be described as a family member and have constructed the idea that pets are similar to children or grandchildren.

Several academic disciplines use constructivist theories to explain how people come to know what they know. Sociologists and anthropologists, for instance, might explore the topic of how we have come to consider pets to be a part of the family.They also look at other central ideas in our culture. For example, they might explore what we believe to be true about men and women.

They might research how blue has become associated with boys and pink with girls or question why people believe that men have certain qualities while women have other qualities. They would consider how we have formed shared beliefs and ideas as a culture about topics like these. This approach is sometimes referred to as social constructionism.

Learning by Interacting

In the field of psychology, constructivism says that we are more than passive recipients of the world around us, more than just sponges. We are not merely observers of what we encounter. As students, we do not simply make a photocopy in our brain of what the teacher tells us is the truth.Even as you watch this lesson, you are engaging in a learning process that is more than just you absorbing the words I’m saying. You are weighing what is being said with what you already believe to be true and with your own experience.If we were in a classroom, using a constructivist approach, you might have the opportunity to discuss with other students what you think about these topics.

Or you might be assigned a problem to tackle with a group of other students, learning from one another as you go.From a constructivist perspective, engaging with others and continually learning from our experiences is how we learn. As a result of constructivist theories, different approaches to education have been implemented.

Jean Piaget

One important thinker in constructivist research is Jean Piaget. Originally a zoologist, Piaget was ultimately best known for his work as a Swiss psychologist who theorized about cognitive development.

He was a pioneer of genetic epistemology. Genetic epistemology is a theory for explaining how human beings learn and proposes that we are active participants in the construction of reality.While some philosophers have theorized that we are born with the ability to reason in a particular way, Piaget proposed that our abilities develop over time. Consider how babies begin to form knowledge about their environment as they grow. First, babies get opportunities to encounter new objects, like the building blocks in their play area. Over time, a child may start to learn how to think about objects like blocks more abstractly, learning how adding one block to two blocks gives them a total of three.

They may then also develop cultural understanding, such as the idea that blocks are not to be thrown at people, or how one’s pet dog is welcome in the house, but a wild squirrel is not.Piaget also explained what he saw as the stages of development in children to explain how learning occurs and knowledge develops. This research helped those working in education consider how to structure learning environments to support this development.

Lesson Summary

Constructivism is the view that people construct knowledge through their experiences and interactions with the world. Rather than mere observers of the world around us, constructivist theorists propose that we are actively engaged in constructing reality.Many fields have been influenced by constructivist thought, including sociology, anthropology, psychology and education.

A Swiss psychologist who theorized about cognitive development, Jean Piaget proposed that there are types of knowledge that children acquire as they grow. His work, and that of others, has influenced how we understand the development of beliefs from simple mathematical concepts, like 1 + 2 = 3, to shared cultural ideas, like how we view pets and what we think about gender.

Learning Outcomes

Once you’ve finished the lesson, make a goal to:

  • Define the view of constructivism
  • Consider what the approach of social constructionism refers to
  • Discuss how constructivism considers interacting to be how we learn
  • Summarize the theory of genetic epistemology
  • Explain who Jean Piaget is and his work on how we gain the ability to reason and the stages of development

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