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Learn what constructivism is in the context of psychology. Find out about the different constructivism theories and applications. Read the lesson, then take a quiz to test your new knowledge.

Definition

Constructivism in psychology is a method of therapy that focuses on both the internal and external systems of meaning-making. Constructivism is an approach that also combines other forms of psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy, an action-oriented form of therapy that encourages clients to change maladaptive thinking patterns that lead to maladaptive behaviors and negative emotions, and psychoanalysis, a branch of psychotherapy based on theories about the relationship between the conscious and unconscious minds.

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Constructivism Theory and Applications

Constructivism theory is based on the idea that everyone’s sense of knowing is more than a passive expression of the world around us, but instead is a result of our constructions, or our beliefs and emotions about experiences in our lives. In this context, ‘construction’ simply refers to the ways we build our own understanding of the world around us and how we fit into it.

Jean Piaget is considered one of the first constructivism theorists. Constructivism theory is a broad concept that encompasses many disciplines, including sociology and education. It’s generally based on Piaget’s notion that we are active participants in the construction of our reality.Clinical psychologist George Kelly was the first to develop a theory of psychotherapy along constructivist lines while working with farmers who were suffering from the effects of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl during the 1920s and ’30s.

Kelly designed a procedure where clients were coached to enact fictional identities they created themselves. Clients acted out the roles with a therapist, allowing the two to discuss the ways the client has built his or her understanding of the world and how that understanding can change. By acting as a different part of themselves, the client sees how they can live differently by acting differently. This procedure of Kelly’s came to be known as fixed-role therapy.In another application, a client might report life experiences and the therapist will pay close attention to how these experiences are being used to create meaning in the present. The therapist then might create an ‘action-thought-reaction’ scenario, to reveal the impacts of the reactions on the client’s life that could continue to have an impact in the future.

Narrative therapy, based on the work of Michael White, is a newer application of constructivism, where clients tell stories about their lives and examine those stories for a clearer understanding of how they’ve assigned meaning to their experiences.

Example

An example of how a client helps to construct his or her own reality can be seen in adolescents with major depression. Compared to their peers without depression, these young people are more likely to think pessimistic thoughts and believe people have very little control over their lives. A therapy approach using constructivism might include the therapist encouraging one of these depressed adolescents to make a list of some of their pessimistic views, examine them critically, and try to imagine and act as if these beliefs were not true.

Let’s imagine a 17-year-old high school student, Sarah, is seeing a therapist, Ellen. Ellen takes a constructivist approach to therapy; she believes some of Sarah’s depressive symptoms could be lessened if Sarah learned to view the world according to more positive beliefs. One day, Sarah tells Ellen, ‘My friend Janelle said she would text me on Monday night, but I never got a text from her. I don’t know why I actually expected her to do what she said. No one ever keeps their promises to me. They pretend to like me, but I’m not lovable, so I’m not surprised that Janelle doesn’t really like me.’Ellen encourages Sarah to write down her negative beliefs: she is unlovable, that Janelle doesn’t really like her, that people never keep their promises to her.

Ellen then prompts Sarah to remember times when these things weren’t true, like the time Janelle missed a soccer game she was supposed to play in to comfort Sarah when Sarah was having a bad day. This reminds Sarah that Janelle often does keep her promises and shows friendship and affection. Ellen asks Sarah to consider other reasons why Janelle didn’t send Sarah a text message. For example, Janelle’s phone may have died, or she may have been busy. In other words, Ellen asks Sarah to examine the beliefs Sarah has constructed about her relationship with her friend.Pretending that Ellen is Janelle, Sarah tells Ellen, ‘I was disappointed when I didn’t get a text message from you, but you’ve been a good friend to me, so I’m not upset about it anymore.

‘ Sarah leaves Ellen’s office looking at her situation in a slightly different way. Ellen hopes that, over time, if Sarah can learn to view the world and herself in more positive ways, her depression symptoms may lessen.

Lesson Summary

Constructivism is a kind of therapy that focuses on both the internal and external systems of meaning-making. It helps people confront the constructions, or self-made perceptions, about their life and the way they relate to people.Jean Piaget and George Kelly are two of the major figures in constructivist therapy. This type of therapy may use a variety of techniques, including cognitive behavioral therapy, an action-oriented form of therapy that encourages clients to change maladaptive thinking patterns, and psychoanalysis, a branch of psychotherapy based on theories about the relationship between the conscious and unconscious minds.A therapist who uses constructivism may have their clients tell stories about what has happened in their lives and use role-playing to examine their perceptions about those events.

For example, when Ellen asked her client Sarah to talk about why she was upset, Ellen used role-playing to get Sarah to reconstruct her perceptions around a social event.

Constructivism in Psychology Overview

Cognitive behavioral therapy
constructivism
People ; Terms Explanations
Constructivism in psychology is a method of therapy that focuses on both the internal and external systems of meaning-making
Cognitive behavioral therapy an action-oriented form of therapy that encourages clients to change maladaptive thinking patterns that lead to maladaptive behaviors and negative emotions
Psychoanalysis a branch of psychotherapy based on theories about the relationship between the conscious and unconscious minds
Jean Piaget considered one of the first constructivism theorists
George Kelly clinical psychologist who was the first to develop a theory of psychotherapy along constructivist lines
Fixed-role therapy by acting as a different part of themselves, the client sees how they can live differently by acting differently
Narrative therapy a newer application of constructivism, where clients tell stories about their lives and examine those stories for a clearer understanding

Learning Outcomes

After completing this lesson, students should be ready to:

  • Define constructivism in psychology
  • Describe how various psychotherapists utilize constructivism
  • Give an example of how constructivism may be used with a real client

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